A STEM Degree Does NOT Guarantee a Higher Salary—Here’s Why

Engineer in the factory

Today, it’s not just common sense that degrees within the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) earn you a higher degree — there’s loads of data to back it up. Recent Glassdoor research revealed that the majority of the top 10 highest-paying college majors are in STEM fields, while other studies have found that STEM majors’ starting salaries are about $15,500 higher on average than their non-STEM peers, have higher employment rates, and earn about $300,000 more than non-STEM majors over their entire careers.

Given this, it might seem like a STEM degree is a golden ticket to a higher salary, nearly guaranteed to earn you more than your non-STEM counterparts — right? Not so fast.

While the Glassdoor study found that many of these highly technical, specialized degrees did have a higher payoff overall, there were also many degrees in which salaries varied significantly, even within the same major — especially for women. For example, within Mathematics, Glassdoor’s study found an 18 percent pay gap, with men earning a median base pay of $60,000 in the first five years after college and women with $49,182. Similarly, men who studied Biology had a median base pay of $46,000 in the first five years after college, while women brought in about $40,000.

Same Majors, Different Career Paths

This is largely a matter of occupational sorting, the tendency of men and women to sort themselves into different positions. “For female Mathematics majors, the three most common jobs after college (ignoring grad-school jobs like teaching and research assistants) are data analyst, analyst, and business analyst. For men, the three most common jobs are (ignoring grad-school jobs) analyst, data analyst, and data scientist,” the study reads. “The larger share of male math majors working as highly-paid data scientists is the primary factor driving this male-female pay gap after college.”

Similarly, “among women who major in Biology, the most common three jobs after college are lab technician, pharmacy technician, and sales associate. By contrast, the three most common jobs for male Biology majors are lab technician, data analyst, and manager. The fact that men are more likely to work as higher-paying data analysts or managers, while women are more likely to work in lower-paying roles as pharmacy technicians and sales associates creates a gender pay gap, even for students with the same college major,” the study continues.

What we don’t yet quite know for certain, though, is why this happens. Some studies suggest that marriage and motherhood factor into compensation, while others hypothesize that personal passion plays a large role, and still others note that when women begin to take over a certain career path, pay as a whole drops.

Time to Take Action

As you can see, when it comes to guaranteeing that you earn top dollar, much of the impetus largely falls on you. Here are a few actions you can take:

  • Educate Yourself About Career Opportunities: Within your college major, there are a range of different career paths that you can choose to pursue. Before you settle on yours, make sure to research them thoroughly. You shouldn’t necessarily just take a job because it offers a higher salary, but it should certainly be a factor to consider along with things like work-life balance, career growth, and of course how much you enjoy the daily work of the role itself.
  • Know Your Worth: A good salary is highly subjective dependent on things like your job title, years of experience, location, and more. So to make sure that you’re earning the most that you possibly can, use Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth™ personalized salary estimator to understand what you deserve to be making, then bring this data point to the table when it comes to negotiations.
  • Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate: As the old saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease — if you advocate for yourself rather than waiting for your good work to be rewarded, you’re much more likely to see a pay increase. Want to learn how to effectively make your case? Try these resources:

While receiving a STEM degree is a great first step towards ensuring that you receive a good salary, that alone is not enough — but coupled with some knowledge and proactivity, you’ll be set up for success.

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