The Effect of Academic Major and Occupation on Lifetime Earnings

This blog post serves as the third entry in our series reviewing estimated lifetime earnings by educational attainment level. Previous posts have reviewed general trends in terms of educational attainment levels, as well as variance across race/ethnicity categories. In this post, we shift our focus to how earnings differ based on the combination of educational attainment levels and academic major and occupation. Data shown below are from the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University and use the broad categories provided within the CEW analysis. Note: The CEW data include “professional” degrees as an educational attainment level. However, this category is not included in the visualizations below due to a lack of clarity in how these degrees are defined.


  • The first visualization below shows the range in median lifetime earnings by university-level academic major, sorted by earnings for a bachelor’s degree.
  • Median earnings for bachelor’s graduates range from architecture and engineering majors at $3.8M to education majors at $2M. Majors in computers, statistics, and mathematics have the second-highest earnings at $3.6M, while the other 13 major categories are below $3M in median lifetime earnings.
  • Earning a master’s degree has the greatest financial benefit for graduates in business ($800K increase from $3M for bachelor’s degree to $3.8M for a master’s degree), physical sciences ($800K increase from $2.9M to $3.7M), and architecture and engineering ($700K increase from $3.9M to $4.6M). 
  • Education majors experience the greatest percentage financial gain for earning a master’s degree above a bachelor’s degree with a 26.7% increase in lifetime earnings ($600K increase from $2M to $2.6M).
Notes: Hovering over data points shows tooltips with additional information. Click the tab headings to move between visualizations. 


  • The second tab shows the CEW data disaggregated by educational achievement level and occupation. Unsurprisingly the academic majors with the highest earnings correlate with occupational fields that are highest paying.
  • The occupations where earning a bachelor’s degree provides the most financial benefit when compared to a high school diploma are management ($1.52M increase from $2.2M for a HS diploma to $3.72M for a bachelor’s degree), architecture and engineering ($1.48M from $2.38M to $3.86M), and sales ($1.45M from $1.56M to $3.01M).
  • Adding a master’s degree above a bachelor’s degree increases lifetime earnings the most in the following occupation groups: business and financial operations ($740K increase from $3.05M for a bachelor’s degree to $3.79M for a master’s degree), sales ($690K from $3.01M to $3.7M), and production ($530K from $2.16M to $2.69M). 
  • Earning a master’s degree in education has the third-highest percentage increase for occupation categories, raising lifetime earnings by 23% above a bachelor’s degree ($470K increase from $2.01M to $2.48M). 

So What?

The data shown in the visualizations above support the general trend from previous blog posts, namely that increased educational attainment provides greater lifetime earnings. However, lifetime earnings and increases are not uniform across academic majors and occupation categories. If we interpret these findings in light of our previous post that showed variance across race/ethnicity groups, an additional line-of-inquiry emerges: what is the correlation between race/ethnicity and academic major/occupation? We will seek to better understand this combination of variables in terms of estimated lifetime earnings in our next blog post in this series.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *