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Why is it wrong to consider money when choosing a major?

  1. Dec 9, 2008 #1
    Every single time I go in for career counseling they tell me to 'follow my dreams' and all sorts of other overused cliches. When I inquire as to the salaries of certain fields, no one ever tells me WHAT engineers or physicists make and instead focus on telling me that if I pick a career based on money I'll be unhappy and live in a smelly apartment with a million cats (or something of the sort; listening to this speech gets repetitive after the fortieth cliche or so). Why is this a bad thing? If I am going to spend 4 years in college, lose sleep, and possibly pull my hair out doing these degrees, I'd like to at least know that my efforts will be worth it. That is why people go to college after all.

    My questions: why do engineers make comparatively little when contrasted to other similarly difficult degrees (doctors, chemists, etc.)? And besides seniority, how do you earn a larger salary in engineering?
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  3. Dec 9, 2008 #2
    It's because money doesn't bring happiness for very long. You'll be bored of having piles of money after half a year, and then realize you're going to a job you don't like for 8 hours a day to make money that doesn't have the sparkle it did when you didn't have it. A perfect recipe for misery.

    If you want to go into a field that makes good money and you enjoy, then you're in much better shape. You'll go to a job that you like for 8 hours a day, and then come home and be able to live comfortably.

    Your efforts will be worth it if you don't quantify happiness with money. By choosing a major solely based on cash, you're actually doing the opposite of what you intend, in that your efforts won't be worth it because having that money won't be that great after awhile.

    If you are interested, you can look up any number of studies on correlation between happiness and money. I can summarize the results for you: people who just started making more money than they used to are happiest. People who have maintained their present income for awhile are equally happy as other people who have maintained their present income for awhile, regardless of what their income is (beyond a certain threshold, obviously desperately poor homeless people aren't very happy).

    So, what this says is that positive change in income promotes happiness, not the income flow itself. Since your income will steadily raise in most jobs over time, this means you ought to throw eventual income out as a meter for happiness, and look for other criteria.
  4. Dec 9, 2008 #3
    But the sticking point is here: my interests are not so narrow that I can only be happy in a handful of fields. There are terribly interesting things in almost every field you look at. I don't particularly enjoy biology but if I was forced into a job where it was necessary, I could almost guarantee that I would find something interesting in it.

    'Comfortable' is very open to interpretation. Yes, if I was doing say... psychology for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, I would go crazy unless I was making disgusting amounts of money so I could pursue my own interests in my free time. But at the same time, I would be kicking myself if all my friends are taking vacations or buying their second home and I am slowly paying off my mortgage and worried about my retirement fund. This isn't 'keeping up with the Joneses' but it is that I think that it is incredibly unfair that I am being asked to do a difficult degree and then possibly get paid only slightly more than if I had done an English major.

    Money doesn't make happiness but money is important, not just whether it's a reasonable living wage or not. Forgive me if this post sounds shallow or materialistic but I would just like to know what kind of job I am getting myself into before I commit. Yes, I love the field I'm studying in and I can see myself going to work happily but if it won't fit with the sort of lifestyle I want, it won't matter what kind of job it is, I'll be unhappy.
  5. Dec 9, 2008 #4
    Money is certainly an important factor... it's just that focusing on it exclusively is a bad idea. A job that seems "OK" now will drive you completely bonkers after 20-30 years.

    But anyway, you had questions...
    Getting an MD is *far* more difficult than getting an engineering degree, sorry. It takes a lot longer and requires taking a lot more abuse.

    As for chemists... unless you have a reference somewhere, I think you are misinformed about how much they make. Their pay is competitive with engineering and other sciences, but nothing spectacularly different.

    Increases in salary are generally tied to experience and performance... if you want to make more in engineering, be a better engineer and do it for a long time.
  6. Dec 9, 2008 #5


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    Hold on a minute there...you need to compare apples to apples...a PhD in Engineering is no less difficult than an MD and they both require similar amounts of time to complete.

    Additionally, not all Engineers make less than MD's (if all one has is a BS in Engineering then generally speaking an MD will...but not always). I personally know come consultants that make significantly more than an MD (I have friends who are both).

  7. Dec 9, 2008 #6


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    I think you are reading or hearing averages based on the typical type of degree that most Engineers have. Most Engineers only have BS (or possibly an MS). It is very possible for Engineers to make 100K USD or more per year depending on the industry and position they are in. In other words, you would need to compare and Engineer with a PhD or DEng to an MD to see somewhat more similar numbers.

    If you are only comparing an Engineer with a BS to and MD, then of course you will see that the MD makes more on average.

  8. Dec 9, 2008 #7
    TMFKAN64, thank you for your input. I agree that focusing only on money will possibly lead to a job that isn't right for you. I think I was misinformed about the chemists' salaries, it seems that the pay is comparable after all. Experience and performance .

    I thought that engineering PhDs make on average $80,000 in the first few years. MDs make about double that last time I checked. Unless I'm missing something?

    And I agree, a MD is harder than an Engineering Undergrad but I believe that, as a subject, medicine is harder than engineering. More stuff to memorize and more years in school, yes, but I know the difficulties are comparable.
  9. Dec 9, 2008 #8
    I think you are right about the time, but the path to a career in medicine is downright brutal. Didn't they pass a law in NY a decade or so ago to limit the hours that residents work to 100 a week or so? And people *complained*...

    Medical school is a good way to destroy your relationships with other people. Getting a Ph.D. is certainly challenging... but generally speaking, you get to sleep and have friends and family.

    As for money... of course, it's always "on average". If you want to talk about individuals, the best career path is clearly to drop out of Harvard.

    But going back to the original point... it doesn't really matter to me the relative salaries of doctors, engineers, and physicists. I'm an engineer. I'm willing to take the pay cut to become a physicist. I wouldn't want to be a doctor at any price. Money isn't everything... and I'd say it isn't even the most important thing.
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2008
  10. Dec 9, 2008 #9


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    But another problem with recommending an education/career based on income is that there is no such thing as a "set" career path in engineering or physics.
    While it is true that an engineer/physicists actually doing engineering/physics rarely make much money (although we need to remember that we are still talking about salaries that are well above average here, you will still make more than e.g. a teacher or a nurse) there are plenty of people who start out by first doing e.g. R&D for a company before then moving into project management etc and the salaries rise quite rapidly as you move along the "management ladder".

    Or - to use another example- you can get a PhD in physics and then go work for a bank (as a quant,although that is probably not an option today).
    I'd say only about half the people I studied with when I did my MSc are actually doing engineering today; the rest moved into the management side of things after a few years.

    My point is that getting a degree in engineering/physics can actually be a pretty good start if your goal is to get a good salary at some point later in your career.
  11. Dec 9, 2008 #10


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    If I could add a few thoughts...

    (1) I think it's a good idea to consider money when deciding on a major. Naturally it shouldn't be the only factor, but I don't think it's wise to ignore earning potential when you're making a decision like this.

    (2) On the question of salaries in engineering vs. medicine the answer in my opinion boils down to supply and demand. There's simply a higher demand in our society for doctors and a lower supply. This is due to a number of factors such as fewer medical schools, longer schooling time, and more rigorous professional standards, and probably numerous other factors that are nearly impossible to quantify. But the bottom line is that the more demand there is for your skill set, the more you can charge for your services.

    (3) I don't think it's fair to compare engineering and medicine with respect to difficulty. Each requires a different skill set and different thought processes. And not all paths within each disipline are equal either.

    (4) How do you earn a higher salary besides "time in?" Again it comes back to your skill set, how much demand there is for it, and (and a lot of people forget this one) how well you negotiate. Consider one engineer who gets his degree, puts in his required time and goes home at 5:01 every night. Consider another who continues to upgrade her skills, independently spearheads projects, mentors younger workers, and starts a freelance consulting business on the weekends. Who's going to be more successful?

    (5) As a final thought, the future is never certain. What seems like a lucrative career today may not be in twenty years when you're worried about maximizing your retirement savings and putting your children through university. I think this is one reason why guidance councillors often side-step the "money" question.
  12. Dec 9, 2008 #11
    Thank you f95toli and Choppy. I will agree that money isn't everything and the point about any career in engineering and physics being uncertain is something to remember. I suppose that worrying about soemthing that may drastically change within the next 10 or 20 years is useless. I guess the original point that I was more the question 'Is engineering/physics scalable?' That is, if I become a significantly better engineer and constaly learn new things, start a business and so on, will I be rewarded in kind? Certain professions (like, let's say, a steel mill worker) are mostly nonscalable. Sure, he can become a foreman and get some salary increase but not a large extent. I want to know that if I love my job and put in the time and effort to be the best damn engineer around that I will be rewarded for it (job satisfaction and a small to moderate raise are not what I mean).
  13. Dec 9, 2008 #12


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    I understand where you're coming from, Miss Silvy.

    The way I believe it normally works for professions like engineering is that larger companies have negotiated pay scales. You start out in a certain track (usually based on your initial qualifications, such as education) and then every year or so your performance is reviewed and you bump up the scale based on that. In some places, as long as you've been present, you'll get to the next step. In others, you actually have to perform. Personally I think the former type are going the way of the dinosaurs. But either way, it's important when interviewing potential employers that you check out the pay scale and figure out if its something you would be happy with.

    On the other hand, smaller companies will hire on an individual basis and thus there's often more wiggle room - especially if your performance directly affects the company's bottom line.

    Ultimately though, as long as you work for someone else, you'll be limited by what they are willing to pay.
  14. Dec 9, 2008 #13
    Hmm, it might be because many students only want a job for t3h moniez. I bet many, many students go through your counselor with $$ in their eyes. I take the bus to my university, back and forth every day, and more than a few times I hear some super arrogant biology or chemistry student who thinks he'll be a doctor.

    Now, I've seen what kind of things you need to do, how much you have to suffer, and even once you finish your MD, you're not making six figures right out of the gate. Not even close. I'd say I agree with the people above that medicine requires much more abuse than Physics or Engineering. The stuff you have to go through to get there (and finish) has led me to believe that medicine is really a calling.

    Anyway, back to the arrogant premed student: it is apparent that he only wants to be a doctor because he will have great job security (well he will), will have lots of prestige, money, blah blah blah. Most likely he will, but I never hear that he wants to help people or anything like that, and I think ultimately he will fail (in his bragging to his friends, his marks aren't even that great!).

    But really, if you're interested in a variety of fields roughly equally, then hell, go for the one with the most money! Because come on...interesting and low pay vs. interesting and high pay...don't need to be a doctor (MD or Ph.D) to figure that one out!
  15. Dec 9, 2008 #14
    Also true that being employed by someone else is not the quickest way to freedom but what sort of self-employment do engineers actually have? Consulting is popular but is it a potential income or just a hobby supplement?

    tanker, I agree completely that many people who want to be doctors have no idea what it entails or how they'll suffer. Arrogance never pays unless you have the skills to back it up. At the same time, as long as he's competent, who gives what his motives are? I'd rather be handled by a super competent doctor who's in it for the money and job security than an 'okay' doctor who just loves helping people. Just a thought.
  16. Dec 10, 2008 #15
    Oh, certainly if he was competent, I wouldn't care. What I meant was that someone in it for the money would be more likely to fail to become a doctor in the first place - most likely after finding out that the abuse most likely isn't worth it, and that to get all that 200K salary they dream of you need two things A) be really good and B) it takes a while. But then again, the same can be said for any career path, it's just that MD's have a higher ceiling in that sort of thing.

    It's also that I know some people in med school and they aren't the loud "oh I'm so freaking awesome, I'll be successful now!" types - they are the more quiet and humble types.

    It's just this whole med school thing is talked about by almost every bio and chem student I come across - consider this: my physics prof told me last year (it was over a meal with a few other students so the rest of the class didn't hear it) that 70% of students in the Faculty of Science at my school aspire for Medicine. 5% get in. As a result, I do a small scoff in my head whenever someone talks about medicine like it's a slam dunk.

    My parents would LOVE if I did it. Maybe if I REALLY wanted to, I could do it. Thing is, I don't think doing something (and spending SO much time doing) that I do not totally love...well, isn't for me. To me, the job security, prestige, etc. isn't worth it for me. As a result I'm taking Physics and Math, because I really like that stuff despite that notable absence of 200K salaries. So there's the reason why I have to say a few words about med school and believe that it's for those who have their heart in it (to use another cliche :tongue2:)

    That leads me to something else: very smart but forced into it by one's parents. My dad had a (brilliant) friend who was really interested in Philosophy (was in correspondence with some famous philosopher at Oxford)...but his parents didn't think that was suitable career path and made him go to med school. He hated it and eventually killed himself. Something to think about when counselors tell you "follow your dreams" (ugh, yes I hate that saying too). It might so happen that this kind of story is not uncommon.
  17. Dec 10, 2008 #16
    The problem with consulting is that it's definitely a feast-or-famine existence. I have a friend who is an engineering consultant, and when things are good, he makes a bloody fortune and never sees his family. When things are bad, he worries about paying the mortgage.

    Despite the 90's being over, starting your own company is still a popular option. But again, you need to be both very good and very experienced to really make that happen. (And have a good idea, of course!)
  18. Dec 10, 2008 #17


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    I think you'll find that a degree such as engineering or physics provides you with a wealth of tools to pursue many avenues that are not confined to the role of "engineer" or "physicist" as you probably know.

    Many people can start off in this track, have a knack for business and/or management and move on to corporate responsibilities later down the line. If you do have an interest for that later on then a degree in engineering/physics can be a great start as graduates often possess a lot of the "smarts" to do many other high forms of learning and are known to work hard.

    If you want to start up a company you may even consider taking some time off after some work experience and get an MBA.

    There's no real boundaries for where you can end up. If money is something is on your mind, then you will probably be led somewhere where you can focus on your first set of skills such as that of an engineer and work your way up to a manager or if you're willing to a more corporate role of a company. Jack Welch got his degree and PhD in chemical engineering and became the CEO of General Electric. There are lots of similar stories in this boat.

    Also people don't need to degrees to get great results. I think the one thing between a lot of people that do get the results is that they take risks that payoff, and that they also believe in what they're doing. Thats what I believe seperate a lot of people in the pay department. Some people are fortunate to be given a head start if they are in such a situation but a lot of people are not: they do what they believe in and they work really really hard to get there.

    Basically if you want to go to the lengths of having a corporate style pay packet chances are you already know a lot of factors involved or have started to research them.

    Whatever you want you can get, but just be true to yourself and ask yourself is it really what you want, or whether its just something that you've comtemplated.
  19. Dec 10, 2008 #18
    Now this is interesting. It's reassuring that engineering is more than being a company grunt like I feared. Consulting sounds promising and I understand that it's unpredictable. What if it's a weekend and free-time activity? I assume then it would be more of a supplement rather than a make-it or break-it thing.

    Thank you chiro. Your post is incredibly insightful. I don't think that I want to do management at this point. I would still like to work and design things and get paid because of it. It's heartening to know that eng/physics degrees are that flexible and you're right, it gives you the sort of mental tools to go far in many tracks. I appreciate your response and thank you. next time I should do more research before I start bemoaning.

    Thanks for all your answers TMFKAN64. It looks like engineering might not be all so bleak after all. These are the kind of questions that I can't get answered at my college because salary questions are off-limits apparently. Thanks everyone!
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2008
  20. Dec 10, 2008 #19
    Er, no. Most companies frown on outside consulting. If you are on their payroll, they usually want you all to their own. If you are a consultant, that's what you do for your living. Things are different, of course, in academic jobs, where consulting is much more tolerated.

    Going back to the original point... engineering isn't bleak at all... IF YOU ENJOY BEING AN ENGINEER! If you don't, no amount of money will make it worthwhile.
  21. Dec 10, 2008 #20
    i think the teachers and counselors wh otell you to do physics &engr if u are interested is because they have relatively comfy jobs and a secure future. They could be insulated from the realities of the economy.

    You have to keep in mind that good enjoyable jobs aren't easy to find. You might settle for a boring job w/ ur engineering degree because there isnt anythign available.

    It's good that you're askign about how much ppl make. You always ahave to look at how employable your skillset will be. You don't want to study hard and find out you can't get a job or its outsourced. Or your company decided to lay you off to hire a H1B visa worker for less money. Are you willing to spend a lot of time and endure stress over job finding in this kind of economy?

    Don't have too much faith on the flexibility of physics/engr degree. You might end up only finding a job just to program computers for low-wages. You might end up findiing a job that won't use your talents.

    And theres absolutely nothing wrong about considering money! It's your future. Choose how you want to live it.

    Just some things to think aboot.

    (BTW what yr in college are you? What are you majoring in??)
  22. Dec 10, 2008 #21
    and since this is a text discussion, things mght get borign and wont sink in. Maybe you coudl listen to these news stories from Lou Dubbz on job prospects w/ these science degrees. This is just from my perspective, so take it as u will.

    These vids were actually posted on an older thread like 8 months ago on PF by someone else.

    its in my opinion that one should not spend so much time and dinero in college to face a bad economic and emloyment situation. You're payign money to go to skool to have a bad life. thats like being pwned twice.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  23. Dec 10, 2008 #22
    RasslinGod: True, obviously but the only job that seems to be secure is medical-degree based stuff and grunt-work labor. Not to be arrogant, but I'm too smart to try to do 'okay' in life; I want to work as hard as I can to succeed but your points are valid.

    I'm an undecided engineering/physics major with a math minor. Your points are making me incredibly worried about my future. I want to study subjects I love but sorry, I won't do it for pitiful wages. Does anyone else know anything about these claims? Are we facing a recession in work for math and sci majors?
  24. Dec 10, 2008 #23
    sorry for being so dense but, have u taken upper division physics yet??

    If not, there is a great chance you'll find it boring. Which is good because it'll solve your dillema: i want to study somethign fun and interesting but there is no money, no jobs, no future, no nothing.
  25. Dec 10, 2008 #24
    I have taken medium to upper physics and I do like it. I understand that physics has limited jobs (since most are research or academic-based) but if engineering isn't a good career, what the heck is?
  26. Dec 10, 2008 #25

    if the damn engineering+physics double majors from yale and NYU can't get jobs....
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