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28/01/2011 - Degree Debate: Liberal Arts Vs. Math and Science

While there’s a starting salary gap between an English and a math degree right from the start, deciding which degree is ultimately more valuable for you and your career is more difficult. As a matter of fact, experts point out that while a degree in a more quantitative field may seem like a better bet, choosing to learn something you really love (like humanities) can help you in the long run.

Here’s how the salaries stack up throughout your career:

Starting Out

Liberal Arts: Salaries for many liberal arts graduates tend to hover between $31,000 to $35,000 according to the National Association of College and Employers. Many of the skills learned including communication skills can be extremely valuable when it comes to landing a job in a tough environment like today’s, says Heather Huhman, founder of Come Recommended and a career coach for recent college grads. Graduates “with a high level of creativity and strong communication skills [grads] will have the best job opportunities, and there is a potential for high earnings,” she says.

Math and Science: For many, getting a degree in a science field equals a more clear-cut career path with higher starting salaries. For example, this year’s computer science majors earned an average of $61,407 while math majors going into actuarial science earned $56,320, according to the 2009 NACE survey. The top earning degrees are still in engineering, where a recent graduate can earn an average of $83,121 for going to work as a petroleum engineer.


Liberal Arts: Many of the people who majored in humanities say that they value their degree 10 years out of college, according to a recent NACE survey. Essentially, they consider the skills taught during their education to be of long-term value for their career. With so much diversity, many liberal arts majors can also enter the business landscape and compete with the salaries of their former math or science classmates. For example, a real estate broker earns an average of $77,420, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. With a degree in humanities there is more room for a career switch in mid-career, which can equal higher pay in the long run.

Math and Science: Using your math and science degree can become even more profitable long after you’ve graduated since there continues to be high-demand for related professions. “Accountants and auditors are needed in virtually every industry,” says Huhman where average salary is between $80,000 and $90,000.

Long-term Investment

Liberal Arts: After 20 years out of college, an English degree — or any degree for that matter — can feel like a distant memory. A liberal arts degree can be a gateway to a variety of professions that can also have a rewarding salary. Alicia, for example, used her degree in literature to enter the human resources field and is now an executive at a multi-national company. “I learned most of what I needed on the job, but it was a good platform,” she says.

Math and Science: Statistically those who majored in quantitative fields fare better in the long run with many being in the $150,000 to $200,000 range. The salaries also vary greatly with geographic locations and costs of living. For example, while a real estate appraiser earns $44,460 on average, the person can earn $96,370 in San Francisco where cost of living is higher, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.
No matter what you pick, career experts say it’s important that salary be just one factor when picking your major. So if you’ve never been a numbers whiz, investing in a career as an actuary may not get you very far. Bottom line: Make sure the degree you get relates to what you’re eager to do in your career. Also, if you’re deciding between two separate careers, it can be worth it to look up specific salary for your level and geographic location to see how each compares.