STEM: doing what you don’t love for a short career and minimal extra $$

On STEM boosterism… “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure” (nytimes):

The [annual salary] advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.

Men majoring in computer science or engineering roughly doubled their starting salaries by age 40, to an average of $124,458. Yet earnings growth is even faster in other majors, and some catch up completely. By age 40, the average salary of all male college graduates was $111,870, and social science and history majors earned $131,154 — an average that is lifted, in part, by high-paying jobs in management, business and law.

The story was similar for women. Those with applied STEM majors earned nearly 50 percent more than social science and history majors at ages 23 to 25, but only 10 percent more by ages 38 to 40.

The article doesn’t get into the brevity of the typical STEM career. I know plenty of sales guys who are still working and valued at age 70. Although I know more programmers than sales guys, I don’t know of any programmers who are still working (as programmers) and valued by employers at age 70.

So the lifetime earnings of a STEM graduate might be substantially lower than those of a history major!


11 thoughts on “STEM: doing what you don’t love for a short career and minimal extra $$

  1. But lack of 70yo programmers is partially related to the fact that 45 years ago there was a lot of 25 yo sales guys, but very little programmers.

    • Techies know how to manipulate things whereas the others are better at manipulating people. Who would you rather work for?

  2. Intuitively this does not sound right — that if you want to make more money you should study history in college rather than CS. Besides working as a high school teacher there are no jobs that require a degree in history and it seems dubious that lots of those people with degrees in history end up with lucrative jobs in management and law. “Social science” is a broad category that would include partially bogus disciplines like economics and completely bogus disciplines like sociology and criminology. Would be nice to know a little more about the methodology of this study because the conclusion does not sound right. Also, if it is such a stupid career choice from a financial point of view to go into CS why are people doing it? Because they cannot get into a history program? Sociology programs? Criminology programs? I doubt it.

  3. I remember this article. I left this comment at the time. Got some thumbs but no real answers. Maybe I’ll have more luck here. (FWIW, I’m not enthusiastic about recommending a career as a programmer or engineer, though I do think majoring in a STEM field before getting an MBA, Law, or Medical degree can work out nicely).


    As a personal project, I’ve started digging into data when I read articles on the NYTimes and other publications. Here, I’ve tried to reproduce and verify the salary claims.

    I followed the link to the the census survey provided, but it’s unclear how and where the data comparing mid career with early career salary was determined by major. The link provided goes to the general “American Community Survey”, but it’s unclear which specific data set was used to generate the numbers. More info here would have helped.

    I went to another source, Payscale’s salary survey:

    STEM majors dominate the list of highest paying starting and mid career salary. The other high mid career salary majors tend to be concentrated in Finance, which, like STEM, is often math-intensive.

    The payscale data does not generally support the contention that history pays as well as CS, nor do mid-career salaries in the humanities match STEM fields, overall. This is interesting as it appears to be in direct conflict with the claims made here, though I was unable to locate the specific data set used from the link.

    Payscale does addresses the question of including BA/BS holders who have a grad degree, something addressed in this article. I believe it is included in “all degree levels”.

    It has been eye opening how difficult it is to get at the data cited in editorials.

  4. Geoff – in cargo-cult journalism, you just have to have “data”, no need for it to relate to anything you write about.

    Phil – I have definitely worked with programmers who were over 70 years old and still highly valued.

  5. I followed philg’s advice and got out of STEM. Went from graphics driver developer to RN. I saw all my coworkers over 50 laid off and decided I needed a career that doesn’t end at 50.

    • Why? Right now there is so much money to be made as a mediocre software developer who cares if it’s over before age 50. Nobodies are getting $350K+ at facebook.

      Just stack the cash and then go farm goats when it’s over.

    • There are a few reasons you don’t see many programmers much past their mid 50s.

      Some stay in the private sector as relatively uninspired w-2 hired programmers, they often do get laid off in their 50s or 40s and never return to employment as programmers

      Some find W-2 style employment at a small number of extremely well paid companies like google or Facebook, and these people often can bank enough to retire in their mid 50s even though they never rise to any position of any prominence whatsoever. . Keep in mind, though that this very high pay for the standard “senior software engineer” may be a recent phenomenon that came about only after the giant collusion to suppress pay was broken up – when I left grad school in the early 2000s, the big Silicon Valley tech companies didn’t pay all that much more than university research labs and government positions.

      Which brings us to our next category of 50-something programmers – some become career programmers in fields where you are allowed to be old and don’t typically go through layoffs – generally universities and government jobs. Even these people tend to dissipate starting their 50s, though as they often have retirement health and pension plans that make working much past this age unnecessary.

      There are a few people who still sling code as their primary job activity in their 60s and 70s, though these people are generally researchers in labs or professors (ie., they aren’t “programmer” or similar technical role as a job title, so their job security and motivation comes from some other source).

  6. Is it possible that median would be a more useful metric than average, when looking at salaries? Just a thought.

    The idea that Facebook/Apple/Google engineers make tons of money doesn’t take into account the extreme cost of living in the Bay Area. Sure, in Denver, you could bank most of this and retire early. In the Bay Area, it’s not so easy.

    If you want to have a family in the Bay Area, with a reasonable commute and decent schools (or private), the costs are just astronomical.

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