What is Your Career Objective?

Assessing the “best careers” is an exercise in subjective priority; what is important to you and to me varies tremendously. Many people I coach state that they are highly fulfilled by “having an impact.” But about 2 seconds after they say that they also reject opportunities that “pay less money.” In other words, having an impact is great, but not if it pays less.

There are exceptions, of course, but I am always impressed by how often people are divorced from the truth of their motives; they subscribe to impact but they are actually highly attuned to how much money they make compared to others. My advice to people is not whether salary is important or not, but rather that we should not fool ourselves about what we care about. Put another way, if income and wealth generation are paramount, then one should not fret over whether or not the work is fulfilling or interesting (those are nice bonuses if it works out that way). Conversely, if organizational and/or intellectual challenge are the most important driver, then money is a collateral outcome.

With that as an introduction, here are the best and worst careers for salaries, according to Forbes magazine. My crude summary of the list is that the 10 worst jobs for salary are the 10 most intriguing careers, while the 10 best jobs for salary are interesting but rather narrow technical fields. The good news is that we have a word called “and.” In that spirit I advise that people consider the conjoining of these lists, that is, to find or to create careers that benefit from skills and mindsets from both lists in hybrid roles.

The 10 Worst

Not all college degrees are created equal. According to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University, your choice of college major substantially affects your employment prospects and earnings.

“What you make depends a lot on what you take,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, Ph.D., director of Georgetown’s CEW. “Most young people in college take whatever interests them, without thinking what it can really do for them.”

So which college majors are the least valuable in terms of career prospects and expected salary? Using data provided by the CEW from the 2009 and 2010 American Community Survey, Forbes discovered the 10 worst college majors based on high initial unemployment rates and low initial median earnings of full-time, full-year workers. The findings? While the arts may be good for the soul, artistic majors are terrible for the bank account.

Topping the list at No. 1, anthropology and archeology represent the worst choice of college major in economic terms. Recent college graduates of the major, those ages 22 to 26, can expect an unemployment rate of 10.5%, well above the national average. When they do land a job, the median salary is just $28,000, compared to a mechanical engineer’s initial earnings of $58,000.

With low demand and low earnings, the arts and humanities are well-represented on this list. Film, video and photographic arts (No. 2) features a 12.9% unemployment rate for recent grads; fine arts (No. 3) has a rate of 12.6%; and philosophy and religious studies is a high 10.8%. All earn a median of just $30,000.

“What society rewards in economic terms has moved away from the softer majors,” says Carnevale. “It’s become about how much math you do.”

Non-technical majors–the arts (11.1%), humanities and liberal arts (9.4%), social sciences (8.9%) and law and public policy (8.1%)–generally have higher unemployment rates. Conversely, health care, business, and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) have been more stable and higher paying for recent college graduates. A nursing grad, for instance, faces a below-average unemployment rate of 4% and a median starting salary of $48,000.

Arts and social sciences are also harder hit in recessions. “When the economy is robust, the demand for the arts goes up,” says Carnevale, “but in a recession, they are the first victims.” The collapse of the housing market means architecture majors now face an unemployment rate of 13.9%, the highest of all the majors tracked. However, once employed, experienced workers earn an above-average median salary of $64,000.

The value of specific degree types has transformed dramatically since the early 1980s, says Carnevale. While a bachelor’s degree was once a general qualification that could land recipients in a number of different jobs, the last three decades have shown increasing specialization and differentiation of earnings across majors. He believes the change has largely been driven by technology, which increased the demand for knowledge-based workers and technical training.

Is a four-year college degree still worth it? Carnevale offers an emphatic “yes,” saying the earnings advantage of a bachelor’s degree over a 45-year career is $1.2 million on average. The advantage of an engineering bachelor’s is a whopping $3 million. However, he warns that if you want to pursue the arts and social sciences, you should either combine the study with a more practical major or go for a graduate degree.

“There’s an escalation in requirements,” says Carnevale. “For degrees like teaching, psychology and the arts, if you don’t get a graduate degree, you don’t make much money.”

No. 1: Anthropology And Archeology

Unemployment rate for *recent grads: 10.5%

Median earnings for recent grads: $28,000

Unemployment rate for *experienced grads: 6.2%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $47,000

*Recent college graduates are ages 22 to 26, and experienced workers are ages 30 to 54

No. 2: Film, Video And Photographic Arts

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 12.9%

Median earnings for recent grads: $30,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 6.7%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $50,000

No. 3: Fine Arts

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 12.6%

Median earnings for recent grads: $30,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 7.3%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $45,000

No. 4: Philosophy And Religious Studies

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 10.8%

Median earnings for recent grads: $30,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 6.8%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $48,000

No. 5: Liberal Arts

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 9.2%

Median earnings for recent grads: $30,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 6.2%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $50,000

No. 6: Music

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 9.2%

Median earnings for recent grads: $30,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 4.5%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $45,000

No. 7: Physical Fitness And Parks Recreation

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 8.3%

Median earnings for recent grads: $30,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 4.5%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $50,000

No. 8: Commercial Art And Graphic Design

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 11.8%

Median earnings for recent grads: $32,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 7.5%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $49,000

No. 9: History

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 10.2%

Median earnings for recent grads: $32,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 5.8%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $54,000

No. 10: English Language And Literature

Unemployment rate for recent grads: 9.2%

Median earnings for recent grads: $32,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 6.2%

Median earnings for experienced grads: $52,000

The Ten Best

At No. 1, biomedical engineering is the major that is most worth your tuition, time and effort. Biomedical engineers earn a median starting salary of $53,800, which grows an average of 82% to $97,800 by mid-career. Moreover, the BLS projects a whopping 61.7% growth of job opportunities in the field—the most of any other major on the list.

Engineering concentrations comprise one-third of the most valuable majors. Software engineering majors (No. 4) earn a median of $87,800 after 10 years on the job; environmental engineering majors (No. 5) earn a median of $88,600; civil engineering majors (No. 6) earn a median of $90,200; and petroleum engineering majors (No. 9) earn a median of $155,000—the highest paycheck on the list.

“These aren’t majors that anyone could do. They’re hard, and these programs weed people out,” says Bardaro. “However, there is high demand for them and a low supply of people with the skills, so it drives up the labor market price.”

In the Millennial Branding survey, employers reported engineering and computer information systems majors as their top recruits. Also, nearly half of these employers (47%) said the competition for new science, technology, engineering and math talent is steep. That means while other recent grads fight for jobs, these students will likely field multiple offers.

Math and science concentrations are also well-represented on this list. Biochemistry (No. 2), computer science (No. 3), applied mathematics (No. 10), mathematics (No. 11), physics (No. 14) and statistics (No. 15) majors are increasingly in demand and well-paid.

Bardaro believes that the new data-driven market makes math skills, particularly statistics, more and more valuable to employers. Many companies now collect large datasets on consumer behavior, be it online search patterns or user demographics. Statisticians who understand data and can use it to forecast trends and behavior will do especially well, she says.

Conversely, the worst-paying college majors are child and family studies, elementary education, social work, culinary arts, special education, recreation and leisure studies, religious studies, and athletic training.

No. 1: Biomedical Engineering

Starting Median Pay: $53,800

Mid-Career Median Pay: $97,800

Growth In Pay: 82%

Projected Job Growth: 61.7%

No. 2: Biochemistry

Starting Median Pay: $41,700

Mid-Career Median Pay: $84,700

Growth In Pay: 103%

Projected Job Growth: 30.8%

No. 3: Computer Science

Starting Median Pay: $56,600

Mid-Career Median Pay: $97,900

Growth In Pay: 73%

Projected Job Growth: 24.6%

No. 4: Software Engineering

Starting Median Pay: $54,900

Mid-Career Median Pay: $87,800

Growth In Pay: 60%

Projected Job Growth: 24.6%

No. 5: Environmental Engineering

Starting Median Pay: $51,700

Mid-Career Median Pay: $88,600

Growth In Pay: 71%

Projected Job Growth: 21.9%

No. 6: Civil Engineering

Starting Median Pay: $53,100

Mid-Career Median Pay: $90,200

Growth In Pay: 70%

Projected Job Growth: 19.4%

No. 7: Geology

Starting Median Pay: $45,300

Mid-Career Median Pay: $83,300

Growth In Pay: 84%

Projected Job Growth: 19.3%

No. 8: Management Information Systems

Starting Median Pay: $51,000

Mid-Career Median Pay: $88,200

Growth In Pay: 73%

Projected Job Growth: 18.1%

No. 9: Petroleum Engineering

Starting Median Pay: $97,900

Mid-Career Median Pay: $155,000

Growth In Pay: 58%

Projected Job Growth: 17%

No. 10: Applied Mathematics

Starting Median Pay: $52,600

Mid-Career Median Pay: $98,600

Growth In Pay: 88% Projected

Job Growth: 16.7%



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