Salary vs. Passion: Choosing an "Employable Major"

by Charlie Ciporin | 10/2/19 2:10am

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by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth

Whether or not you’d like to admit it, money is a factor that’s hard not to think about when choosing a major. In a perfect world, each student would simply choose the subject matter that they are most passionate about when considering their options, thinking only about the time and commitment it takes to fulfill all of the necessary requirements. However, for some, the amount of money they’ll make after leaving Hanover and entering the “real world” is a significant factor when deciding what they would like to focus on during their time at Dartmouth.

As an undecided ’23 myself, I’d be lying if I said I have never considered job prospects and entering salary as a means of choosing my major. But when it comes to the material that I’m most passionate about, I often find myself leaning toward the humanities — a subject matter that is often less associated with high starting salaries and a “proper” investment in an Ivy League education. To understand how different Dartmouth students consider money when choosing their major, I spoke to C.C. Lucas ’21, who is majoring in English and has compared herself to those in majors that are more traditionally perceived as “employable,” such as economics or engineering. 

“[Economics and engineering majors] do make me a little scared about the future because I look at them and I think they have a lot of track laid down in front of them,” Lucas said. “And then I look at myself and I think that I have a lot of really shaky, crumbling, sh—y railroad tracks laid down in front of me.”

It is possible that other students share Lucas’s fears about majoring in English. According to the College’s Office of Institutional Research, Dartmouth’s English major had 61 graduating students in 2014, but only 39 in 2018. In contrast, the same study showed that the three most popular majors are ones that are deemed by many to be more employable: economics, government and computer science.

Despite this, Lucas said she has no regrets about choosing English as her major, citing her passion for the subject matter as her primary motivation. 

“Professional considerations definitely do come into play, but they don’t make me not want to do the major,” she pointed out.

Daisy Stuart ’23 said she is thinking about majoring in psychology and had similar fears about the amount of money she’ll make after graduating. 

“As of right now, I’m genuinely just trying to enjoy psychology … I’m looking at it in a positive light — of this is what I want to do,” Stuart said. “I have to understand that it’s not necessarily an instant reward job, or high-paying in the beginning or maybe even at any point ... But it’s something that really seems worth it to me.”

Dartmouth’s Office of Institutional Research reported that from the Class of 2014 to the Class of 2018, there was a roughly 25 percent decrease in the number of psychology and neuroscience majors. 

So should students simply ignore the aspects of employability and starting salary when considering a major? Most students seem to agree that it varies based on the individual. 

“I think that yes, [employability] does matter. But I think that it’s not as conscious or calculated a decision for some people,” Lucas said. 

Lucas believes that each student should take various factors into account, such as their socioeconomic status, their own experiences growing up and the subjects they are passionate about. In the end, she did not believe in a blanket decision making process for all students. Stuart seemed to agree.  

“People should keep in mind the need to support themselves, and if they want to have a family, the ability to support a family,” Stuart said.

She continued speaking about the all-too-common disconnect between passion and financial gain when electing a major, saying that students have to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of having a lavish lifestyle with doing a job that they really want to do that might not necessarily pay as much.

While the consideration of money in choosing a major is surely important, some studies show it may not be as drastic as it is perceived. Douglas Webber, a Temple University professor of economics, ran a study showing the average earnings of various academic fields. While some majors expectedly earned more on average, he found that the margins were relatively small. For example, many English majors made just as much in their lifetimes as those in so-called higher earning majors, such as chemical engineering or economics.

Economics department chair Nina Pavcnik emphasized that an economics major may not be as lucrative as many students perceive it to be. 

“I do think that some students might think that if they major in economics, they will be more employable. However, I think there are many students at Dartmouth who don’t major in economics that get pretty great jobs after they graduate,” Pavcnik said. 

Moreover, Pavcnik pointed out the College’s emphasis on the liberal arts makes it easy for almost everyone to be employable. 

“The set of skills that Dartmouth gives you, in terms of writing skills, critical thinking, problem solving — those are skills that are rewarded by the labor market regardless of what your major is,” Pavcnik said. “This broader set of skills doesn’t depreciate that much over time and enables people to adjust to changing labor markets.” 

So, while money might be a factor for some in electing a field of study, it still makes sense for it to be one of many.