When people ask you what your college major was, they want to know about more than your interests. What they really mean is, "How much money do you make?" Indeed, when it comes to salary, your major can make a big difference. "Certain majors...translate into higher-paying jobs," says Sunny Ackerman, regional director for Manpower Professional.
Engineering, Finance, Math and Science Pay Off the Most
"Anything in engineering, especially in the fields of civil and petroleum, is really hot right now," Ackerman says.
John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, agrees, adding that along with engineering majors, "finance and technology graduates usually get paid more than liberal arts majors. Anybody who has an orientation toward math, science and engineering -- those jobs are in great demand."
What's even more encouraging is that these hot jobs are also pulling in higher entry-level salaries, Ackerman says. "In these fields where employers are having trouble filling positions, it's likely that salaries are on the rise as companies become willing to fill the gaps," she adds.
If you work in certain industries, like healthcare, you'll start out with a lower salary but see an increase after you gain specialized skills and about five-plus years of experience. People who go into sales may start at about $30,000 to $40,000, but they end up earning "well into six-figure salaries" based on commission and experience, says Challenger.
Time Is on Your Side
According to PayScale, an expert on salary issues and data compensation, in 2005, economics majors were offered about $40,000 a year to start. Engineering majors brought home entry-level salaries of about $55,000, while English majors pulled in about $30,000 the first year.
After five to nine years' experience, those who majored in English saw an increase to about $50,000 a year. Economics majors can expect to make about $66,500. Engineering leads the pack, with salaries of about $70,000 five to nine years after graduation.
For any career, 10 or more years after college graduation is peak earning time. At this point, the economics majors have caught up with electrical engineering majors; the difference in average total compensation is not statistically significant.
English majors have also made gains. While the low end of the salary scale is still much lower than it is for engineers, the top 25 percent of English majors earn incomes "just as good or better than half of the engineers," says Joe Giordano, founder and vice president of product development at PayScale.
It's More Than Your Major
But even more than your major, your career choice and how you pursue it will determine your income, Giordano says.
Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation for Salary.com, agrees. "It's not just about the major," he says. "It's about the person, the ability to solve problems, the way you sell yourself and your skills."
To increase your earning power, start by researching the industry and then writing a great resume and customized cover letter. "These recruiters go through piles and piles of resumes," says Coleman. "You need to make sure you use their terms, their keywords and their lingo. Make it easy for them. Tell them what they want to hear."
Get Real-World Experience
Whether it's volunteer projects, internships or even work-study jobs, there is no substitute for real-world experience on your resume. Not only does it give you something to talk about intelligently, Coleman says, but it also gives you a "broad understanding of the workplace at large" and shows that you know "how to manage schedules, how to take direction, how to give input and how to be an employee." And it can ultimately bring you more money.
According to Ackerman, to get experience, you may have to work outside your field of interest. Another tactic is to look for a temporary or contract job. "It gets your foot in the door, offers experience for your resume, and networking and mentoring opportunities," she says.
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