The Economic Value of Petroleum Products and (Possibly) Critical Thinking

Written by: Corey Washington

Primary Source: Zero Ideology

Payscale just released a study of the starting and mid-career salaries for 129 college majors. (The full list appears here.)

I was struck by four findings.

1. The rather astonishing $40k gap between the $160,000 mid-career salary of those who studied Petroleum Engineering, the most highly compensated major, and the next highest, Actuarial Mathematics, at $120,000. The gap is even larger at the start of a person’s career: $103,000 for Petroleum Engineering and $58,700 for Actuarial Math.

2. 11 of the top 12 majors are in Engineering. The only interloper is Physics.

3. The top Social Science major is Government at #14, $97,100, just beating out Economics #15, $96,700

3. The top Humanities major, #45 on the list, is Philosophy at $78,300 mid-career.

It is interesting how these numbers interact with trends. The stigma that many young people attach to working in the fossil fuel industry may be leading to a shortage of Petroleum Engineers and driving up their salaries. Government is shrinking as a percentage of GDP and public sector unions are weaker than they have been in the past, but the jobs that exist still pay relatively well. Philosophy is supposed to be dead, but I suspect that critical thinking in which philosophers tend to excel has held its value (previous post on the value of Philosophy).

It is impossible to know from this data how much value any given major adds to the earning power of an individual graduate (post on whether college degrees indicate learning or just signal). It is quite likely that Philosophy majors who score near the top of majors on LSATs and IQs tests would do well regardless of what they had majored in. However, given the way it dominates all the top spots, there can be little doubt that Engineering adds very significantly to a person’s ability to earn money after graduation.

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