The Best and Worst Majors (and What to Do if Yours Falls into the Latter Category)

When choosing a college major, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. There are many factors to consider before committing to a specific subject and industry, from money to stability.

To offer some guidance on your decision, we outlined the highest-paying, the best and the worst majors – and what to do if your interests fall in a low-paying industry.

college degree

Highest-paying majors by degree

A study from PayScale* revealed the best-paying jobs for associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. These are 10 majors in each degree that pay you back, ranked by early- and mid-career salary.

Associate’s Degree:

  • Instrumentation Technology: $42,900-$92,500
  • Radiation Therapy: $57,900-$87,500
  • Management Information Systems: $44,200-$78,800
  • Nuclear Medicine Technology: $57,900-$74,600
  • Construction Management: $43,100-$73,400
  • Electrical Engineering: $41,500-$73,200
  • Electrical Engineering Technology: $41,900-$72,600
  • Engineering: $39,700-$72,500
  • Nursing Science: $54,900-$72,400
  • Economics: $35,500-$72,400

Bachelor’s Degree:

  • Petroleum Engineering: $94,600-$175,500
  • Actuarial Mathematics: $56,400-$131,700
  • Actuarial Science: $61,200-$130,800
  • Nuclear Engineering: $69,000-$127,500
  • Chemical Engineering: $70,300-$124,500
  • Marine Engineering: $73,900-$123,200
  • Economics and Mathematics: $60,000-$122,900
  • Geophysics: $54,100-$122,200
  • Cognitive Science: $54,000-$121,900
  • Electrical Power Engineering: $68,600-$119,100

Master’s Degree

  • Nurse Anesthetist: $140,000-$156,000
  • Computer Science and Engineering: $95,900-$134,000
  • Operations Research: $80,800-$130,000
  • Electrical and Electronics Engineering: $79,500-$129,000
  • Taxation: $61,100-$129,000
  • Electrical Engineering: $79,900-$127,000
  • Technology Management: $65,900-$127,000
  • Chemical Engineering: $73,100-$125,000
  • Computer Engineering: $86,700-$125,000
  • Computer Science: $84,800-$125,000

*Information in this section was taken from an older version of PayScale’s study.

Overall worst majors

Money isn’t everything, and there are plenty of other factors to think about when choosing an industry, like hiring demand and job satisfaction. All aspects considered, from pay to projected growth, Kiplinger put together a list of the worst majors:

  • Photography
  • Radio & Television
  • Culinary Arts
  • Graphic Design
  • Theater
  • Art
  • Art History
  • Paralegal Studies
  • Fashion Design
  • Hospitality & Tourism
  • Religious Studies
  • Fashion Merchandising
  • Athletic Training
  • Animal Science
  • Advertising

Advice for low-paying majors

The trends may suggest that the communications and art industries are not thriving, while the sciences and mathematics are. But this doesn’t mean you should quit your passion without giving it a chance.

“Studying a subject you’re passionate about is a good idea, whether it’s expected to pay well or not,” said Stacy Rapacon, online editor at Kiplinger.com. “Just be sure you go into it with reasonable expectations about what the future might hold for you when it comes to job prospects and potential pay.”

It all depends on how much you are willing to risk. If you have ambitions burning within you, you might look past the possibilities of low income and instability while focusing strictly on reaching your goals. Or you can find ways to pursue your passions on the side of a sufficient career.

Just because you are interested in a given job doesn’t mean you need to focus solely on that industry. There are many fields and skills you can study and master that might actually help you in your dream career.

“I’d recommend trying to pick up some classes and experience in the fields that are considered more promising,” said Rapacon. “You might be surprised to find that you do have some interest in a different field or that you can at least learn some useful skills.”


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