You Can Be an Engineer, But You’ll Make More Money as a Lawyer

17% of college students graduate with a science or engineering degree

There is considerable mythology and half-truths surrounding students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and the careers they pursue, but there is surprisingly little empirical evidence on the topic, according to Rutgers Professor Hal Salzman. So he and his team of researchers are looking to dispel the myths with some hard data and new analysis based on those numbers.

Hal Salzman has been studying the dynamics of employment in STEM for a long time. A professor of public policy at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and senior faculty fellow at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Salzman focuses on science and engineering labor markets, workplace restructuring, skill requirements, and globalization of innovation, engineering, and technology design. An expert witness in several Congressional hearings, he has published opinion pieces in Nature, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, and other major publications; his research has been reported in Science, the New York Times, Washington Post, PBS Newshour, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune among other national media.

Salzman and colleagues recently won a nearly $2.5 million grant for their research project, “Pathways to Science and Engineering Professions: Persistence and Career Choice for Bachelors and Masters Graduates – Research Experiences, Decision Points, and Labor Market Transitions.” This five year initiative is looking at what factors bring students into STEM fields, and what undergraduate experiences are important for those pursuing a STEM career. The project has three major sections: the key decision points and high-impact events that influence students, the impact of undergraduate research on college completion and continuation into STEM careers, and how the structure of work in STEM firms influences career choices and persistence. This research is looking at what attracts students to STEM majors, what keeps them there, and why they leave.

One topic in particular the project will examine is introductory science courses at universities. As a general rule, these are large classes with limited individual attention. Salzman says, “That’s the place we should be paying a lot more attention to, providing the best instructors, making sure they are the best classes. That’s where you’re going to bring a lot of students into the field…There is a huge potential loss of students that might be interested, but are turned off because the experience wasn’t engaging.”

The research is also looking at why science and engineering majors do better in their careers than other majors, on average. Salzman believes it’s because they are already a select group of individuals, the top of their class, dealing with intensive workloads.

Currently there are twice as many students graduating with STEM degrees than there are jobs available in those fields, the data show. One reason many students choose to major in engineering or science, Salzman says, is that they believe, incorrectly to some extent, that they’ll make more money upon graduating than students in other disciplines. 

30% of students who start in STEM majors, leave the major

While data confirm the commonly held belief that many students in science, technology, engineering and math will switch into another major before graduation – it’s about 30 percent – just as many students enter STEM fields after they’ve started college, Salzman notes. That result is that the graduating STEM cohort is about the same size as the cohort of those who begin in a STEM major.

Salzman has been researching STEM fields for a long time, and believes this project will shed new light on how to strengthen the STEM workforce and U.S. innovation.

“If you control for people who are working that hard, in any field, does engineering really help them, or is it just that level of work and performance?” Salzman says, “No one has ever studied that, and I suspect it’s important. When putting in that kind of intensive effort, focus, and concentration, students who are interested in a high-paying career are probably better off not in engineering.”

This research project has a big data analytics component for which the team is working with the University of Michigan, in a program that is part of Rutgers participation in the Big Ten Academic Alliance. The team will be using this program to analyze seventeen Big Ten universities and several other universities to do a large scale analysis of student experiences and post-graduate employment outcomes.

To collect data about the employer, the research team is doing case studies in biopharma and engineering, and will be working with the National Academy of Engineering and industry associations that are interested in participating in the case studies.

Salzman says, “This project allows us to do more in-depth analysis, case studies, and use large and comprehensive datasets that have not been available before, at a size and scope that we, with our collaborators, will be developing as part of this and an ongoing Sloan Foundation-funded project.  So we expect to be developing datasets and case studies that go beyond what has currently been done or was possible.”

To be clear, Salzman does not think it’s wiser for a young student to lean toward becoming a lawyer rather than an engineer. He simply points out that the data show they're likely to make more money in the legal field than in engineering. A key conclusion of Salzman and his colleagues is that pushing students into STEM because of a belief they’ll enjoy greater earnings is a mistake; high performance is rewarded financially and in satisfaction in many careers. And, the researchers say, universities should pay attention to their introductory classes to attract students and help them develop their interests and abilities.