Have you ever googled this question? “What degree makes the most money?:
Each year, new lists come out of the highest-paying degree fields for that year. Sometimes, we see the list for the lowest-paid too. These types of lists create one of the dumbest phenomena in education: people choose degree paths based on what they can get paid with them rather than what they actually enjoy doing.
Now, electrical engineers are better-paid than history majors (my *ahem* chosen undergrad). The numbers aren’t wrong. But do they tell the whole story?
So, if you’re not interested in studying petroleum engineering — the highest-paying degree of the past two years — maybe we need to dig a little deeper (pun intended) into what actually creates a lucrative career. And we need to expand our narrow-minded ideas about how we are valued in the marketplace. Here’s why.
1. Your degree is not all that makes you valuable
Do you know what’s a really high-paying career? Sales.
You don’t need a degree for it. If you come out of high school and can master sales, you can do very well in this world. It’s a high-value skill.
If you were to go to school, which degree prepares you better for sales: history or engineering? The answer? It depends on the person and the role. Communications might make you better at speaking or empathizing. Or an engineering degree might help you better understand the technical aspects of a product.
It depends on you and the creativity you bring to applying your degree.
A degree is part of the value package you bring to the world. And yes, as straight credentials, some degrees are more valued in the marketplace.
But if you suck at math and sciences, maybe forcing yourself to do an engineering degree that you hate is not the best way to make yourself valuable in the marketplace.
Instead, expand other parts of your personal value proposition. Can you add some in-demand skills on the side? Can you build your brand online? Can you get a prestigious internship or placement at a recognized company? These things might be more effective than choosing a high-value degree in a field that you hate. For inspiration, consider this list of CEOs who each came from a liberal arts background.
2. That in-demand field might collapse
When I was a kid, I almost went into a field called tool and die. I liked welding, and somebody told me that it was a really high-paying field. Today, the field is stagnant if not shrinking, largely because of changing industrial practices and globalized production.
Herein lies the problem with chasing the latest in-demand degree. By the time you’re done things my have changed. Even tech fields are not a guarantee, since the tech landscape is changing rapidly because of AI and machine learning. Ten years ago, nobody would have expected computer programming to be a declining field. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs is dropping by 7% every year.
3. You can always increase your value in the marketplace
So as a thought experiment, let’s take an English Literature degree, with a starting salary of $44,500. Instead of dropping out to study Petroleum Engineering, what if you could just be an English major who’s highly valued in the marketplace?
How could you do this? Well, here are a couple of ideas:
- Learn a complementary skill with a clear market application. This could be a related field like copywriting or content writing. Or, it could be something that rounds you out as an employee like project management, finance, or sales.
- Start building a personal brand. You don’t just want to be a copywriter; you want to be the best-known and most in-demand copywriter. Develop your craft to be the best and become well-known in the marketplace.
- Build a website. Start a blog to share your knowledge. Create a knowledge-based asset that both scales your impact on the world, millions of people can see what you put online, it sells your expertise, and then you can use to sell products.
- Turn your knowledge into a product and sell it. Create something that you can sell again and again.
These are just a few suggestions for how you could take a degree that is not high-paying by itself and transform yourself into a very highly paid and in-demand expert. Here are some examples of what copywriters can earn.
Even if you had the coveted engineering degree, you might add a specialization. Or maybe you start your own company and hire other Engineers to work underneath you to maximize your output. There are a million different factors that determine your income, and a degree is only a part of it.
4. General degrees produce a lot of managers.
I always thought that my religious studies degree was useless. Humanities degrees are, aren’t they?
To my surprise, when I started building my career in Ottawa, I found out that a lot of people who were in charge of stuff had a Humanities degree.
I worked for the federal government and saw a lot there. There were many leaders of associations, lobby groups, non-profits, and even business with humanities degrees. Even though there were no direct maps from their degree to leadership positions, once these people learned a skill that was valuable in the marketplace they became in-demand leaders. They had a broad range of knowledge and skills. They just had to learn to apply it.
5. Passion does count for something
I don’t care how you slice it, the thing that you spend your life doing should be something that you enjoy.
Every job comes with its share of crap. But there should be more moments of happiness than misery.
I’m so tired of seeing posts and articles about how following your passion is overrated, or stupid.
Passion still counts for something. Sure, you might step into a job you weren’t excited about and realize that you love it. You might grow a passion. But if your entry into the marketplace is just based on salary calculation, you risk missing it. And a life without some semblance of passion is awful.
Best case scenario, you might end up in the FIRE Community trying to retire when you’re 35.
Worst case scenario, you might have a mental breakdown and end up quitting to follow your passion anyways.
Now by “follow your passion,” I’m not saying you need to be a starving artist or living a bachelor apartment with six other people. Actually, I would figure out what you really love doing, and be ruthless about identifying where it connects to the marketplace and how to maximize the income from that thing. I mean, be really ruthless. Chase after it with all you’ve got.
So, if you’re not going to stop Googling “what degree makes the most money.” Instead, jump on LinkedIn or Google and see if you can find people making good money doing things that you love to do. The thing I happen to love to do is write, and believe it or not, there are writers making great money across the world. It’s a great time to be a writer.
Learn to make money doing something you enjoy. Find where your passion meets the marketplace. It’s a heck of a better solution than throwing 2 or 4 or 10 years at an education that makes you miserable.