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Home  > Article

Does Your Major Limit Your Earning Power?

By Rachel Zupek

Think back to when you started college and faced the predicament of what to study. Chances are you chose a major based on one of these things: you loved the subject, it's what your parents wanted, or you thought it would help you get a job (a.k.a. you thought you would make a lot of money). Fast-forward to now: Is your salary something to brag about or is the major you chose hindering your earning capacity?

Some majors have high initial salaries, like chemical engineering, but not everyone wants to be a chemical engineer. Do English majors have to resign themselves to a life of earning half as much? According to data from, the answer is no.

"Different jobs pay different amounts and the differences are not explained by education," says Al Lee, Ph.D. and director of quantitative analysis for For example, most experienced national sales representatives (a position with no strong educational requirement) closing deals between $200,000 and $2,000,000, are paid more than $110,000 in salary, bonus and commission, Lee says. That salary is higher than 95 percent of tenured professors of English (a job that requires a Ph.D.), with similar years of experience. Lee adds that people with more experience in a field are paid more, with the biggest salary increases coming in the first 10 years.

Here's a breakdown of a few distinct majors and how their average earnings differ with experience.

Entry-level Jobs

English Top three jobs include editors, teachers and writers. Average: $31,976 10th percentile: $22,000 90th percentile: $47,000

Top three job areas include finance, banking and accounting. Average: $41,704 10th percentile: $30,000 90th percentile: $60,000

Electrical Engineering Typical jobs include engineering, software development or IT. Average: $48,883 10th percentile: $35,000 90th percentile: $60,050 What this means: Even for entry level jobs, salaries can vary by two times even within a major between the top and bottom paying jobs.

5-9 years of experience

English Average: $51,972 10th percentile: $31,000 90th percentile: $86,150

Economics Average: $68,924 10th percentile: $40,000 90th percentile: $120,000

Electrical Engineering Average: $71,824 10th percentile: $52,000 90th percentile: $100,000 What this means: Those with English and economics degrees have closed the average gap with electrical engineering. For the top earners in the 90th percentile, English majors are within 15 percent of and economics majors actually make more than electrical engineering majors. Everyone is making good money.

10-19 years of experience

English Average: $63,304 10th percentile: $35,000 90th percentile: $120,000

Economics Average: $92,573 10th percentile: $46,000 90th percentile: $185,000

Electrical Engineering Average: $90,350 10th percentile: $60,000 90th percentile: $140,000

What this means: At this point in your career, economics majors have caught up with electrical engineering folks and the difference in average compensation isn't very significant. English majors also made serious headway. For the top earners (90th percentile), while a noteworthy difference exists, the pay is good for all. For the bottom earners (10th percentile), over the course of a career, English has a 60 percent increase, economics gets a 53 percent increase and electrical engineering compensation has increased 77 percent.

"The lowest earning English majors continue to have more tolerance for careers that just do not pay well, while an electrical engineering major is a guarantee of at least a good, if not great, salary," Lee says.

Salary data provided by for Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Copyright 2008 All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without prior written authority.

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