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Which Degree Programs To Avoid Like The Plague If You Ever Want To Make Money


English, Comp Lit, Theater, Creative Writing, Graphic Design majors, all: I’d wager we’ve each experienced at least one paroxysm of regret about our paths of study while clocking hour number four in front of our laptops in an overly-air-conditioned Starbucks, revamping our resume for the fifth time in one week. It’s enough to make us turn about-face and…go back to school. Make a bid for another degree that might bring you a few steps closer to job security. Take-backs don’t exist in the world of higher education, but do-overs (or do-mores) do.

I’m going to make a second wager. While you’re avoiding eye contact with the millennial sitting at the next rickety table — jockeying with polite desperation for the single outlet plug that sits between your two caffeinated campgrounds — your Scripts of Regret may have advanced to Chapter Seven: “Why Didn’t I Force Myself To Pursue A STEM Or Law Degree, Like Mom & Dad Told Me To.” The Organic Chemistry lab earned every letter of its reputation as the “place where souls go to die.” But if you could offer up some reasonable knowledge of rat genomes or cell cloning technology or the chemical compounds of various industrial toxins, then you would at least be paid a salary for avoiding human eye contact and privately coaching yourself through yet another day of taking your chance against soul-crushing odds. Right?

Not so fast, Chapter Seven. STEM folks don’t have it easy, either. In many fields of science and wides swathes of the legal profession, hiring has plummeted while scores of highly-qualified graduates flood the field each year. The result: job competition has grown exponentially more punishing.

I, personally, was surprised to learn about the pitfalls of academic careers in science; perhaps because my only point of reference for someone pursuing a scientific careers is my friend’s father, who originated the study of a specific sub-field of biology. Unsurprisingly, this dude enjoys a hard-earned, dope-ass career in which invitations to scientific-celebrity-strewn conferences in Beijing and Tel Aviv are commonplace events in his calendar (for the record, he and his family are also some of the most deeply kind, generous people I know, and I get to babysit his cats a lot. HI, MUFFINS AND TOBY!). Apparently, his path — from STEM degree to baller tenured professorship — is an increasingly rare phenomenon. As this New York Times article notes:

The engineering school at M.I.T., for example, often gets 400 applicants for every open assistant professor job, says Richard Larson, an operations research professor there. Many, he adds, are “superstellar.”

Cue upbeat newsflash soundtrack: “This just in: it’s not just the B.A. in English chuckleheads…we’re ALL f*cked!” *xylophone xylophone xylophone*. I don’t think schadenfreude is a sustainable or admirable solution to feeling sorry for your own bleak job prospects, but I do think that perspective is healthy. And by perspective, I mean: some facts to still your bleeding liberal-arts heart and leaden your feet before you go running for the Hills of Graduate Degrees.

One of the scientists featured in the article spent 25 years cycling through nine institutions in five countries before she got the position that her momentous work in infection biology qualified her for. I strongly suggest you give the article a read to understand the market forces at hand that enable such extortion of intellectual labor, but for our TLDR friends at TFD who are giving this article a quick read before plunging into the next job application, I’ll give a short list of the top STEM degrees to avoid (because they are saturated with over-qualified applicants for academic jobs, and the demand for research and professorial is shrinking):

1. Biology

2. Biomedical sciences

3. Chemistry

STEM Degrees that will lead to jobs (not in academia, but the demand in the industry-driven market is high enough that you’ll get a position in “applied skills” instead of research):

1. Environmental engineering

2. Computer sciences

3. Petroleum/thermohydraulic engineering

4. Nuclear engineering

5. Materials science

Side note: the list of STEM degrees that lead to jobs could, alternatively, be summarized under a single category: paths of study that equip you to blow shit up.

While we’re at it, I’d like to dispel the myth of the Lucrative Legal Career. Turns out, for our generation, it’s not a safe bet. (Unless you go to Harvard Law. Then you can go sit in a corner, jack off to your gold-framed degree, and enjoy making six figures in your entry-level position at the corporate firm. See you in thirty years, when you look like the dad from Clueless. And NO, I didn’t lose a friend to the money-hungry, happy-hour-addled world of corporate law; that’s not what I’m referring to AT ALL.) A second New York Times article sheds light on the legal job market as it really stands today:

Nationally, the proportion of recent graduates who find work as a lawyer is down 10 percentage points since its peak of the last decade, according to the most recent data. And though the upper end of the profession finally shows some signs of recovering, the middle and lower ranks remain depressed, especially in slower-growth regions…

I highly recommend this article as a long read — It reports on these bleak trends in the legal world through the lens of Valparaiso University Law School in northwestern Indiana. Why does it focus on this school? Because, from an administrative and graduate employment rate perspective, Valparaiso Law is a frightening but accurate (and therefore even more frightening) indication of how the deescalating trends of legal employment and national epidemic of legal job market saturation are impacting students who volunteer to take on six figures of debt.

Most important to note: though the government will forgive some massive student loans that aren’t paid off within a few decades, there’s a financially-staggering catch:

The government will eventually forgive the [$200,000] loan — in 20 years — if [the student] unable to repay it, as is likely on his small-town lawyer’s salary. But the Internal Revenue Service will probably treat the forgiven amount as income, leaving him what could easily be a $70,000 tax bill on the eve of retirement, and possibly much higher.

For any of you readers who are considering applying to law school, I’m going to outright urge you to read this article, and follow up by reading about how much it costs to even apply to law schools in the first place.

Sure, your English degree may not be doing you any favors in your search for a marketing job. But before you make any rash moves and take on student loans under the advisement of inherited wisdom about the demand for STEM professionals and lawyers, think twice. If it helps, imagine Cher’s dad from Clueless yelling at you: “It cost HOW MUCH?!?!”

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  • Tara

    I’ve commented on TFD before about this, but what is with the need to piss all over English majors? Yes, people who get the degree and graduate thinking they’re magically going to be a writer are in for a rude awakening, but an English degree’s versatility is what you make of it. A strong writer and analytical thinker is useful in countless fields. Marketing, public relations, education, non-profit work, it goes on and on. You may not be making the big bucks right out of college like an econ major, but you sure as hell can get a job. No matter the degree you get, it’s useless if you fail to apply yourself. Why is the English major so synonymous with failure in conversations like these?

    • Lex

      I completely agree. I majored in English and while I obviously can’t make the jump from English to, say, chemical engineering, I found a job right out of college. Actually, I was offered two jobs in two entirely different fields! Gasp!!!!!

      Majoring in English taught my critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills that have made me a valuable employee in every job I’ve had. In fact, I’d say that strong communication skills are ESSENTIAL in almost every career field. I get that everybody loves an easy target, but I tend to discredit articles that takes the easy English-degrees-are-useless route.

      In fact, I’d love to read articles that list out the different career paths you can pursue with a degree in English.

      • Lex

        Of course I made typos in my impassioned English-major rant haha. I meant “me” not “my” and “take” not “takes” 🙂

    • Angie

      As a fellow English major, I completely agree! Through my degree I developed strong communication and project management skills. On top of that, I interned at different companies, volunteered and joined campus clubs. I found a job right after graduation and these days I’m working as a Marketing Manager at a company that I love. My major was never a hindrance and instead added to my value as an employee.

      A degree is not a meal ticket and picking the “right” major doesn’t guarantee a high-paying job.

      • Tara

        Same, same, and same. Our only difference is current career paths. I feel like people don’t realize that there are careers other than lawyer/doctor/engineer out there, and most of them are perfectly accessible to English majors.

  • Lauren

    As a biology and biomedical sciences degree holder, I agree completely. I’m currently in a low-pay, dead-end job since it was the only job I could find after months and months of searching. I was always told that a STEM degree would guarantee success, however, that is only true if you pursue medical/dental/pharmacy/etc. school following your B.S.

  • Ryan H

    I think there is a distinction to be drawn between being employable and making a lot of money. I fall into the former category, though the latter is something that I’m creeping up on. I’m a masochist who works three jobs (full time as a college program assistant, bouncer a few nights a week, and now I’m a part time professor at the college as well). I suppose if I were smarter, I could put in the effort to find higher paying jobs now that I’ve got some career momentum built up, but I like my side hustles and begrudgingly do my day job and make the best of it. I fantasize about the day when I am done paying off student loans and have $700-800 extra per month to play around with.

  • Andrea Frailey

    I’m currently at a top-10 law school and am all but guaranteed a job upon graduation. Law is a hard field, but if you can get into a top school, you’ll be fine. If not, it’s definitely not worth it because a lot of the high paying firms only higher from top-10 schools, yet most law schools cost around the same.

    • First, congrats on being at a top 10 law school! I agree that their are diminishing returns on law school based on rank, but I wouldn’t say anything below the top 10 isn’t “worth it”. 1) not everyone goes to law school exclusively with the goal of making six figures upon graduation 2) I know multiple people with offer in the six-figure range with law degrees from places like Boston College or Vanderbilt, both not in the top ten. 3) and this is not directed at you, but the ny times article referenced here is refering to a law school that is literally not even in the top 100, so I think we can all be a little less black and white that it’s either top 10 law school or no law school at all.

      • As someone who went to a t20 school I agree that it’s only worth paying sticker price to go to a t10. I attended one of the schools yiu mentioned and most people I went to school with did not make six figures after graduating (I still am not there, 2 yrs and 3 jobs later) and many of them took out over 6 figures to go. It would have been a waste of my money to pay full price for my school. The top schools are worth it because they have better employment statistics, more scholarships (NYU is a good example) and offer loan repayment assistance. It drops off alot once you get below top10. I really don’t see a point in paying sticker outside t10 unless it’s the leading law school in your market (e.g. university of Minnesota for Minnesota or UT in Austin.

      • Andrea Melissa

        “Not worth it” probably wasn’t the best choice of words, and by “top school” I meant like top 25 or so. There are also definitely other factors besides your school’s rank (scholarships for example), but if your plan is to make a lot of money (which is who this article seems to be aimed at) at a big corporate firm in NYC or DC, I would not suggest paying full price to go to a lower ranked school. But I completely agree that it’s not black and white, and everyone should do their own research. Also, law isn’t really a field you should go into if you don’t enjoy it. Too many people go in simply to make money and end up miserable. As with anything, your happiness is more important than money (assuming you are making enough to live).

  • Scout

    I have a PhD in the biomedical field. I was not competitive enough to make it in academia. But I, like many others in my field, got a job doing R&D (research&development) in a company. The pay is better than most entry-level academic job and everything I’ve ever made saved people’s lives (which really can’t be said about my PhD work). My point is – even though a PhD in a biomedical field does not lead to an academic job, you are still employable and the pay in industry is really good.

  • meghan

    As a future law student, I’d add a caveat about that NYT article– Valparaiso is one of the lowest-ranked schools out there, with abysmal bar passage rates. I wouldn’t use it, or its students as an accurate measure of the legal field. That being said, there are many, many schools out there like it- barely meeting the standards for ABA accreditation, charging insanely high tuition fees, and failing to get their graduates employed. While I don’t think it’s Harvard or bust, I do think you should do a ton of research before deciding on a law school. As Andrea said below, you’re likely still going to walk away with a big firm job if you go to one of the top-20 law schools out there, and those pay well– in the range of $140-$180k in big cities like NYC. Regional schools can be a safe bet if you’re dead set on a certain city– UT Austin if you want to practice in TX, Northeastern or BC if you want to stay in Boston, Fordham or Cardozo if you’re an NYC person– and lower-ranked schools will often offer candidates with solid LSAT scores/GPAs higher scholarships. For instance, a good friend chose Fordham (with a full ride) over NYU (#6, but would have meant 140K in debt); and is now an associate at Kirkland, making $180K a year.

    The real issues as I see are too many people with substandard grades/LSAT scores attending lower-ranked schools at sticker price, which means a crap-ton of debt without the job prospects that let you pay them off. Realistically, going to somewhere like Columbia at sticker may make sense, because with a biglaw job at 180K to start out, you could aggressively pay off that debt in 3-5 years and move on (with a great degree to boot). Attending Valparaiso? Not so much.

    My advice– At any school you’re applying to, look at bar passage rates. Look at long-term, full-time employment stats for “JD-required jobs.” Consider solid regional schools if you’re really tied to living in one place long term. Invest time and money into getting the top LSAT score you can because that will open the door for SO MANY SCHOLARSHIPS later on. But at the end of the day, don’t dig yourself into a hole by taking on $$$$ in debt to attend a sub-par school because there are NOT enough legal jobs to accommodate you.

    • Andrea Melissa

      Yes, yes. 100 times yes.

  • Roselyne

    I have a B.A. in English, and make an excellent salary in a non-academic field. If you can bullshit it into relevance, it’s not a dead end. It’s ‘experience in communication that will make you a valuable asset in being a program coordinator on some of the biggest marketing campaigns in the country’. *shrugs* It worked.

  • Lela Dixon

    Graphic Design!? Who do you think is designing all your stupid websites/apps!??

  • Tobi

    I double majored in Applied Statistics & Economics and have not really struggled to find work since I graduated in 2011. I work in business (specifically risk management) and it seems to me that Economics, Accounting, and Finance are the best degrees to have of you want to be employable in the ~business world~. I know plenty of biology majors who had to go to grad school to really increase earning potential, and I might get my MBA someday, but it’s not really necessary.

  • Irisgeist

    I just wanted to point out that we need to be careful when talking about a “biology” major. Biology is a huge field, and there are numerous types of B.Sc. that involve biology that you can choose from (similarly as with other STEM fields like chemistry, but since my experience is only on biology, I will comment only about the first one).

    The job market for different biology-related majors shows great variability, i.e. there are not so many jobs posted for marine biologists as for biotech engineers. Even just focusing on biotech engineering, there are several career paths that you can pursue, from environmental biotechnology, to food science biotechnology, agrobiotech, and biopharma, each one with their own unique demand for different types of jobs (not only for R&D). The issue of too many qualified candidates for too little new positions (as researchers) available is not only dependent on the field, but also on whether we are talking about positions as an academic researcher or as an industry researcher. The scientist featured in the article, Emanuelle Charpentier, had enough skills in molecular biology to easily get a job in the industry right after her PhD (i.e. at a biotech company, for which expertise in those techniques and methods is currently in great demand), but she chose to pursue an academic career track, which offers just a handful of positions per year, for which hundreds (if not thousands ) of capable people apply for.

    From my experience in biotech engineering, rather than recommending anyone not to pursue a degree in biology/biomedical sciences/biochemistry, I would encourage to have a look on the different subfields and how the transferrable are the skills that you would learn from different programs into the job market.

  • Stef

    So sick of all of these articles about what to major in or what not to major in. So sick of hearing it. I know people who went to Valparaiso-like law schools (i.e., not Harvard where one goes to “jack off to their degree”) who hustled their way and earned scholarships and prestigious internships without a lawyer Dad backing them up or giving them the “in.” I know people who went to Harvard for public health school who came out with no job and I know people who went to state school who had tons of job offers. What matters is how much you hustle and if you expect a well-paying job to be handed to you on a silver platter you’re absolutely delusional. YES, some industries are harder to break into and YES, some industries are naturally more high-paying than the rest but what TFD constantly fails to do is deliver a perspective on someone who appreciates their degree in a “non-money making” path.