It's All About the Benjamins

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 13, 2007 1:53 am

Physics is lovely. Cosmology is profound. Astronomy is a thrill. That’s all well and good, but for those of you who are thinking of pursuing it as a vocation, what you may really want to know is, “What’s in it for me?”.

The answer? Lots and lots of cash.

Courtesy of the always fascinating American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center’s latest report, if you major in physics and land a job in a technical (“STEM”=”Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”) field, you’ll make nearly twice as much as you would have in a non-technical pursuit. Short term you’ll be screwed financially if you go on to grad school (see the “University” entry), but if you hold on for a higher degree, you’ll do even better:

Well that’s interesting, but what’s my point? Namely, that whatever your beliefs about why white straight men are overrepresented in science and engineering, you’d be hard pressed to deny the financial impact. When women and minorities are underrepresented in scientific and technical majors, they are necessarily overrepresented in the “Bachelor’s non-STEM” box in the upper left of the plot above. If more of them drop out while pursuing advanced degrees, they’ll never make it to the high Ph.D. salaries in the lower right. These differences can accumulate into more than a million dollars over a 20 year career, and make tangible differences in people’s quality of housing, childcare, and health insurance.

So, while the social costs matter, it’s the economic costs that worry me most.

  • Andrea

    I’m not necessarily convinced that “holding on for the higher degree” is the right choice if money is the main consideration (a master’s, yes, since lots of interesting non-academic jobs require one; a PhD, not necessarily). You get a bigger starting salary than you would with just a bachelor’s, but consider: you spent six years in grad school making $25K, while your classmate who left for industry started at $55K and has been getting raises every year. They’ll probably be close to your starting-salary-with-PhD by the time you finish, and have been making a lot more than you in the meantime.

    There are lots of good reasons to go to grad school, and I don’t regret my time there, but — speaking as someone who got her PhD and left academia for non-financial reasons, so I know exactly how much more a PhD is worth out of academia than inside it — money isn’t one of them.

  • amanda

    Andrea is correct. Directly comparing starting salaries for 21 year old fresh college grads vs. 28 year old fresh PhDs, is like comparing starting salaries today vs. ten years ago in nominal dollars without correcting for inflation. It’s the kind of hackerific thing you’d expect to find in the WSJ editorial page.

  • Julianne

    I obviously don’t have the economic skills to do the exercise properly (i.e. hackarific is all I’m capable of!), but I think it’s safe to assert that your earning potential is greater with a STEM degree than without it. If you pursue a path in academia, you may not be exercising that potential to its highest, but you’ll still be making more than an english major at a comparable stage. (Unless they went to law or business school, but even then, I’d suspect that STEM training may help the average salaries as well.) At times when I considered leaving grad school, I knew I had the skills to be hired into a wide variety of technical jobs where I’d be financially well compensated. If you drop out of grad school in french literature, you just don’t have the same security.

    I agree that the economic utility of getting the higher degree vs the bachelors is weaker. The lower plot is salaries in private industry, so it’s probably not true that an academic physicist comes out ahead after grad school, compared to someone with a STEM bachelors working in industry — in my own case, my postdoc paid about the same as the job I had after undergrad. If the PhD goes into the private sector, their salary would match a STEM bachelors who got 12% raises every year for 6 years (not counting income lost in graduate school) — not knowing the average rate of raises in industry, I don’t know if 12% of year is a reasonable expectation. Andrea’s right that stopping at a masters (2 years) is the sweet spot.

  • Nate

    Um, I think there may be a bit of selection bias in the results… namely that better performers are more likely to complete PhD and also happen to be more likely to earn more. That whole correlation but not causation thing…

  • Jane R

    We can quibble about the relative salary paths of BS-> industry vs BS-> PhD-> industry, but let’s not lose the main point: folks with ANY degree in STEM make a good living. Thus, when women are discouraged from STEM, they’re discouraged from careers that, on average, earn an above-average living.

    So when girls are pushed away from careers in STEM, relative to boys, that contributes to the “70 cents on the dollar” earning power differential between women and men.

  • Jim Graber

    Excuse me for being a nitpicker, but shouldn’t “an avocation” be “a vocation”?

  • Julianne

    but shouldn’t “an avocation” be “a vocation”

    Whoops. Serves me right for posting after midnight…

    And JaneR nailed it — thanks for making my point so succinctly.

  • Herb

    I’m curious as to why you said white straight men. Is there a demonstrable sexuality gap in the sciences?

  • Julianne

    I’m curious as to why you said white straight men. Is there a demonstrable sexuality gap in the sciences?

    It’s harder to judge, since it’s easier to hide sexual orientation than gender or race, but it’s enough of an outsider culture that I suspect some of the same issues that affect women and minorities apply. However, I don’t know of hard data so perhaps shouldn’t have added it in. My anecdotal experience is that acceptance is improving — a decade ago most of the gay men and women I knew in astronomy & physics were pretty closeted at work, but most seem to be much more comfortable being out at work now. It could potentially work out that white gay men are overrepresented in academia, given the more generally more tolerant environment. Any of the better informed queer CV readership want to weigh in? It’s not a topic that’s gotten as much discussion as the more obvious women/minorities issues.

  • Urijah

    It would be nice if those graphs were normalized for work hours per year (postdocs I know work about twice as many hours per year as teachers for example), total benefits, job security, flexible hours… Just for kicks, compare total money earned by a high school teacher the first 15 years out of college versus an aspiring academian. Of all the Physics/Math people I know, exactly one mentioned money being a primary factor–and it was a she. There’s also (social) opportunity cost–what is that worth?

  • thm

    I’m a little confused about the labeling and interpretation of the second graph. It says “starting salaries for physics degree recipients…” (emphasis added). Then it lists “Bachelor’s non-STEM” and “Bachelor’s STEM.” This suggests to me that the comparison is betwen physics BA/BS recipients who work in STEM fields versus those who find work in some non-STEM field. I don’t think it addresses at all the salaries of non-physics majors.

    There’s another bias about comparing average salaries between majors. You need some way to compare the high acheivers in non-STEM fields with STEM fields. Many non-STEM fields are diluted with large numbers of slackers in ways that STEM majors just cannot be. You cannot scrape by in physics (or math or chemistry, etc.) by screwing around all year, BSing your way through a final paper, and cramming for a test, the way I saw some political science majors run their lives, for example. Many STEM courses have prerequisites that take years to fufill. By contrast, at my undergrad institution at least, none of the courses required for a psychology major had any prerequisites, and one could do the entire major in the senior year without having taken a single psychology course previously. What I describe is certainly not a recipe for success and further academic study, but non-STEM fields are diluted by people whose work ethic won’t lead to high salaries in a way that STEM fields aren’t.

  • Quasar9

    One hopes that at least some of those white males provide decent housing for their ‘wives’ decent childcare for their ‘children’ and decent health insurance for the whole family.

    Sure everybody should be ‘free’ to pursue a career regardless of sex or gender, but career is not, or rather need not be “the be all and end all” of life.

    PS – I see of course in Society we do still discriminate according to degree and ability, earning potential and ability to pay.
    Alas we have done so well, got rid of soooo many prejudices, and then replaced them with ability to make money or access to high paid careers. How much you earn is who (or what) you are! lol.

    But hey, everyone has to pursue a dream in life. What’s yours?

  • Kevin Runnels

    Money is important, but can you imagine having the interest, education and capacity to be successful in a STEM job, but choose to go into something else because of a wage differential? You might dream of unified field theories or delving into the seriously unknown, but end up spending your days calculating pork belly futures or giving Powerpoint presentations about how you have to cut next years budget. How much is that worth?

  • Stephanie

    This is extremely important if we’re interested in increasing the number of minorities in science. I’ve gone to quite a few recruiting events for minority students, and the tables advertising majors in health, law, and business are crowded while the physical sciences are ignored. One of the main reasons for this, I think, is that many minority students come from backgrounds where you’re considered “successful” if you’re a doctor or lawyer or businessperson and are making a lot of money, and science hasn’t yet been accepted as one of these prestigious fields. If we can somehow point out to students that yes, you will make a lot of money if you major in physics, that might be the incentive they need to convince their parents that pursuing an interest in science is a good idea.

  • Matt

    A simple question – What percentage of holders of physics bachelors degrees get those “high paying” entry level tech jobs?

    If you want a job in STEM work, go study Electrical Engineering.

  • Yvette

    Interesting point. I hadn’t really thought about it before.

    Regarding Amanda’s point though about being behind your peers in earnings by going to get a higher degree, it has been shown that in the long run of things you end up making more money by going to obtain a higher degree (even though it puts you back for the short term). The reason for this is you will be making more money down the line compared to them on average, so those few years you spent getting the advanced degree ends up not mattering as much.

    By the way, a complete tangent here: I do think that one of the greatest reasons you have such a gap between STEM and non-STEM when it comes to minority groups is because we do a pretty bad job trying to explain what sort of opportunities exist in the field. Physics can be particularly bad in this regard: most students assume you should only major in physics if you want to become a physicist even though only about 1/20 physics majors actually become physics majors. Physicists do a terrible job trying to point out what the remaining 95% do, even though these positions can be very lucrative, and I can’t tell you how many students I’ve met who like physics and would love to major in it, but don’t because they think the end degree would be “useless” in the real world.

  • Jason Dick

    I know that back when I was an undergrad, I saw stats that showed that physics was the second highest-paying BS degree out there, just trailing computer science. This was right around the big dot com boom. So yeah, physics bachelors do pay a lot.

    And here’s a US Census Bureau release on income and education:

    It unfortunately does not break down STEM vs. non-STEM, but does show higher lifetime earnings for those with higher educations (see fig. 3).

  • Andrea

    Yvette, I wasn’t talking about lost earnings in grad school, but about where they both are when the PhD finishes. Whether BS + 6 years of raises beats a PhD depends a great deal on the details of the size of the raises the non-advanced-degree person gets, which I’m not remotely qualified to evaluate — I’m just saying it is non-obvious.

    Look, there are lots of great reasons to get a PhD. I’m just saying that money isn’t one of them — if you know you don’t want to stay in academia, leaving at the master’s is the smart move.

  • Jack

    “Any of the better informed queer CV readership want to weigh in?”

    Equally, it would be good to hear from all those oppressed physicists who, like this gentleman, enjoy sexual intercourse with cars:

  • assman

    “if you major in physics and land a job in a technical field”

    That is a pretty big ‘and’. What about the people who don’t land a job in a technical field?

  • astro

    Yes, people with jobs in STEM fields may be paid better than average in the US. But that’s not a fair comparison group. And yes, there are huge opportunity costs to pursueing a PhD, postdocs, etc.

    I am very much convinced that becoming a physicist (at least in academia) is not a wise choise from a purely financial perspecive. I did a brief stint in a computer science related internship and then consulting (back in the early 90s before the internet boom) before I had any degrees. Thireteen years later (including prestigous PhD and postdocs), I still am not compensated as well as I was back then. If your primary goal is to do well financially, then I would not becoming a physist in academia.

    If you want to help females/minorities/WASP males to make lots of money, I think that there are much better suggestions you can give than studying physics!

    I’d be interested to see a proper economic analysis (that considers costs, opportunity costs, inflation, income taxes, overtime, realistic vacation time, etc) of two career paths: 1) teaching high school straight out of undergrad (assume that you get a masters within a few years of teaching and do some paid work during most summers you’re not working towards a masters) versus 2) spending 6 or 7 year to get a physics/astronomy PhD, doing one or two postdocs, and then going into either a) academia or b) industry. Which career path comes out ahead (financially) by retirement age? Has anyone done such an exercise?

  • Barry

    As a math major, I’d like to point out a big point in that data – it lumps math, physics, CS and engineering degree holders in the same pool.

  • The AstroDyke

    … given the more generally more tolerant environment. Any of the better informed queer CV readership want to weigh in? It’s not a topic that’s gotten as much discussion as the more obvious women/minorities issues.

    Is academia really more tolerant than corporatia?

    A figure of merit for “tolerance” is policy, e.g: Is the same health coverage offered to domestic partners as to spouses? For the top institutions, the answer’s yes: 80% of the Fortune 50 companies have DP coverage, and 92% of the US News top 25 colleges. More broadly, only 51% of the Fortune 500, and only 64% of the US News 100 colleges offer DP benefits. Larger lists drop the percentages more. In addition, US government labs and observatories do not offer DP benefits. So from this measure, academia doesn’t clearly lead the corporate world.

    (People often assume their institution has more progressive policies than it actually does. Readers can check & compare their institution’s equality policies here:

    DP benefits are just equal-pay-for-equal-work. If my straight colleague gets health coverage for his wife, and I can’t for my wife, then I’m getting paid less for the same work. Not to mention the financial & health insecurity of not having coverage. The lack of DP coverage makes it significantly harder for queer scientists to balance work & family.

    Aside from policy, there’s “environment”. Personally, I’ve had a very positive experience as an out astrophysicist. Most of my colleagues have been swell. We talk about our families at morning coffee. They’ve written letters to city & university leaders, arguing for DP benefits. Aside from some faggot jokes, the environment has been great. What’s been difficult has been institutional policy.

    (Numbers from the 2005 HRC State of the Workplace.)

  • Ryan

    As a freshly minted physics Ph.D. working in the private sector for a large company I can say that in the short term my degree has not helped me from a financial perspective but in the long term it most definitely will, based on the experience of my colleagues. At my company, individuals who have a Ph.D. are typically promoted at a faster rate and to a higher level than workers who have a M.S. or B.S. as their ultimate degree. Therefore, if you average over the course of an entire career, the Ph.D. does net non-trivial financial gain. That being said, the main reason I took this job was because of the notorious two-body problem (Scientist Husband + Scientist Wife) and would gladly have gone to a post-doc if there was a university or research center in the vicinity that had adequate facilities and was compatible with my research interests.

  • mollishka

    I’m sure you’ve seen it, Julianne, but this graph reminds me of this recent article on CNN.

  • Autoversicherung

    I’m curious as to why you said white straight men. Is there a demonstrable sexuality gap in the sciences?

  • Geb√ɬ§udereinigung

    Excuse me for being a nitpicker, but shouldn’t “an avocation” be “a vocation”?

  • Maca

    I’m curious as to why you said white straight men. Is there a demonstrable sexuality gap in the sciences?


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