Three Things to Keep in Mind about 'Most Lucrative Majors' Stories

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Every so often you see the stories, like this Time magazine list of the schools and majors that produce the most millionaires, or this graph from the NPR website that compares the earnings associated with different majors, or this recent Boston Herald article on majors that lead to high-paying careers. We know you know. Petroleum engineers (and engineers generally) do very well financially. Visual arts majors are more likely to struggle. We've written before about the tension between doing what you love and picking a career based on likely earnings. Money is important, but so is career satisfaction. In navigating the important choices that lie ahead, it's a good idea to make sure your choices are based on real information.

That said, here are three things to keep in mind about the regular appearance of all those "most lucrative majors" stories.

1. "Compared to what?" is a smart question to ask.

In terms of lifetime earnings and risk of unemployment, experts generally agree that a college degree in any major is better than no college degree. On average, college graduates — even those who major in the disciplines not associated with higher pay — are still making a better living than those who pursued no degree at all.

2. College major does not always correlate to career.

In terms of sampling, this sort of research often looks at a particular moment in time. When you read reports like this one, for example, you're seeing earnings reports for people who've finished a college degree and entered the workforce in that field. But not everyone does that. You could major in the humanities and then go to law school. You could major in music because it interests you, but then start your own business. Many people will have more than one career in the course of their working years.

3. It's okay to be unsure — and to chart your own path.

A news report you read in your senior year of high school might not be the last word on your choice of college major. As it turns out, college is a great time to explore ideas and learn new things. Your future major, and your future career, might be things you don't even know about yet! An area that interests you gets categorized as not very lucrative? Maybe you could take that as an invitation to learn more about similar fields that do pay well.