We often think of our careers as a tradeoff between doing something we love, and doing something that pays the bills. But new survey data released by salary firm PayScale.com shows that some college majors lead to careers where you really can have it all - while others might land you a job providing neither good pay nor a sense of purpose.
Careers in healthcare and engineering ranked high in both meaningfulness and average pay. At the other end of the spectrum, people who had majored in art and design or humanities fields reported low pay, little sense of purpose, and they were relatively unlikely to say that they'd recommend their major to others. Somewhere in between, the bulk of college degrees resulted in some degree of tradeoff between working to live, and living to work.
For a sense of the relationship between meaningfulness and salary, click the link below to view an interactive graphic. I've plotted PayScale's 207 bachelor's degree categories by respondents' mid-career salaries, the percent of respondents saying their job is meaningful, and the percent who say they'd recommend their major to others.
The dark lines mark the median mid-career salary and the median share of respondents saying their job is meaningful. This divides the chart into four quadrants - majors that lead to high pay and high meaning, high pay and low meaning, low pay and high meaning, and, worst of all, little pay and little sense of meaning. There's a degree of arbitrariness at play here - there's probably little practical difference between a reading that's a few points above or a few points below the median. But the divisions provide a useful framework for exploring the relationship between salary and sense of purpose.
As you might expect, there's a slight negative relationship - college majors that lead to more meaningful jobs generally don't pay as well by your mid-career. But the relationship isn't particularly tight.
PayScale surveyed 1.4 million college graduates who provided information on the school they attended, their choice of major, and their current job and salary. It asked respondents whether their job makes the world a better place, and whether they'd recommend their undergraduate major to others. While the survey respondents are all PayScale users, and hence a somewhat self-selective sample, it's worth nothing that PayScale's earnings figures comport closely with separate research released by the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project this week, which is reassuring.
93 percent of pastoral ministry graduates said their work was meaningful - even if, on average, they only make about $46,000 by the middle of their careers. Nurses, on the other hand, report a mid-career salary of $73,600 - slightly above the median. 83 percent of them say their job is meaningful, and 85 percent would recommend the degree to others.
"Finding a career path at the intersection of high pay and high meaning is kind of the holy grail, and we’ve generally seen that often you have to give up one to get the other," PayScale's Lydia Frank told me. "Of course, there are always exceptions, and healthcare seems to be a big one. Careers in healthcare can be very lucrative and workers in the field also tend to have a strong sense of purpose."
Another notable exception? Engineering. The upper-right quadrant of the chart is dominated by engineering fields - nuclear, chemical, aerospace and the like. These jobs pay exceedingly well, and people are generally happy with them. One of them - petroleum engineering - pays so well ($176,000 by mid-career, on average) that I had to omit it from the chart. 70 percent of petroleum engineers say their work is meaningful, and 85 percent would recommend it to others.
On the other hand, there are a fair number of jobs that pay well, but that may not give you a great sense of purpose. Statisticians and computer scientists, for instance, report 6-figure paychecks, but less than 40 percent of them say their work is meaningful. Only half of government majors say their work is meaningful, even though they tend to make well above average.
The least meaningful major, according to PayScale? Film production. Only 23 percent said their work made the world a better place. Artists and graphic designers also reported a surprisingly low sense of purpose.
Finally, in the lower-left quadrant we come to majors that provide the worst of both worlds: low pay, and little sense of purpose. Art, design and media majors dominate this section. Liberal arts and humanities majors also make a strong showing. Accounting and business majors also show up in this quadrant, but just barely.
But by and large, the lowest-paying majors don't show up in this quadrant. Majors at the absolute bottom of the payscale are at least somewhat compensated by the sense of purpose they bring. As Danielle Paquette reported in Storyline this week, many people who've chosen these career paths say they're well worth-it, and that the financial sacrifice is a privilege.
It's also important to put these numbers in context - for the vast majority of people who graduate college, regardless of degree, the financial returns are well worth it. Recent research from the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project concludes that "a college degree - in any major - is important for advancing one's earnings potential."
But the PayScale data comports with the Hamilton Project's other main finding, which is that earnings potential varies wildly by degree. And they shed some light on an aspect of college education that often gets overlooked in abstract discussion about earnings and returns-on-investment: the sense of fulfillment that some careers provide relative to others.