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Slide Show | August 2014

Worst College Majors for Your Career

A bachelor's degree has become the standard for an increasing number of entry-level positions, but is it really worth the blow to your (or your parents') bank account? It depends on what you study. While a major in finance might very well put you on the path to a lucrative career, a degree in underwater basket weaving won't.

We examined employment and earnings data for 129 popular college majors to identify courses of study that typically lead to small salaries for both recent graduates and experienced workers. We also homed in on majors that aren't in high demand on the online job marketplace. Finally, we looked at professions related to these majors to see which ones have the most discouraging long-term prospects for job growth.

Pursue any one of these majors if that's where your passion lies, because what you study in school is just one component of the overall package you present to prospective employers. Just be prepared for the reality that some majors can limit your career opportunities and earnings potential after graduation. Take a look at the 2014-2015 list of the 10 worst college majors for your career.

For each of the 129 college majors, compensation research firm PayScale provided median annual salaries for recent grads (five years or less of work experience) and median annual salaries for mid-career employees (at least 10 years of work experience). The total number of 2013 online job postings seeking applicants holding each of the 129 college majors was supplied by workforce research firm Burning Glass Technologies. Projected 10-year growth rates from 2012 to 2022 for selected occupations related to each college major came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as did median annual incomes for related occupations.


Worst College Majors for Your Career

10. Art History

Starting salary: $36,900 (median for all 129 majors: $40,400)

Mid-career salary: $59,000 (median for all 129 majors: $69,800)

Annual online job postings: 2,140

Projected 10-year job growth: 7.1% (all occupations: 10.8%)

Alternative major: Art Education

A bachelor's degree in art history alone won't do wonders for your earnings power in the field. Museum technicians and conservators, two positions available to B.A. holders, pull in a lean median salary of $38,220 a year. Even archivist and curator positions, most of which require a master's degree, pay median salaries of just $47,340 and $49,590, respectively.

A better bet: An undergraduate degree in art education, coupled with a master's, would arm you with both art and teaching skills and put you on the fast-track to becoming a postsecondary art teacher. With a median salary of $62,160, by far the highest for a non-administrative job in the art industry, these teachers can continue to critique masterpieces without living the starving-artist lifestyle.

10. Art History

9. Social Work

Starting salary: $33,000

Mid-career salary: $46,600

Annual online job postings: 132,267

Projected 10-year job growth: 9.5%

Alternative major: Public Administration

Social work is a valuable endeavor, but “those who choose it as a major should know that it tends to be an underfunded side of the economy,” says Matt Sigelman, CEO of workforce research firm Burning Glass Technologies. There is certainly demand for the profession, with health care social workers in particular enjoying a projected growth rate of 26.8% between 2012 and 2022. A master's degree in social work can put you in position for administrative jobs that offer greater financial reward for your altruism.

A better bet: Social work can be significantly hindered (or helped) by policy, and a major in public administration provides an opportunity to influence this from the top. The course of study leads to a decent median starting salary of $40,600. And with more than 150,000 online job postings in 2013, you should have an easier time landing a position.

9. Social Work

8. Photography

Starting salary: $36,200

Mid-career salary: $55,500

Annual online job postings: 11,792

Projected 10-year job growth: 4.3%

Alternative major: Film Production

Studying photography can be a valuable pursuit—courses teaching you the intricacies of working a camera and manipulating light will certainly make you a better photographer—but an exhaustive bachelor's program might be overkill. With talented photographers getting hired with only a high school diploma, paying for four years of schooling is an expensive investment. The profession is growing at less than half the rate for all occupations, and with smartphone cameras becoming more sophisticated, amateur photographers are nudging their way into the industry.

A better bet: Still determined to work behind a camera? Try shooting subjects in motion with the skills you gain as a film production major. The median mid-career salary for grads holding this college major is a respectable $70,900. Expect to enroll in digital editing, cinematography and videography courses, among others. And if all goes according to plan, you might find yourself on the set of a TV show or movie after graduation.

8. Photography

7. Culinary Arts

Starting salary: $34,800

Mid-career salary: $51,100

Annual online job postings: 23,541

Projected 10-year job growth: 5.2%

Alternative major: Business Administration

With low pay the norm for entry-level restaurant positions, and chefs and head cooks facing below-average job growth prospects, a bachelor's degree in culinary arts “doesn't come with a promising return on investment,” says Sigelman. There are no explicit qualifications to become a cook, so high school grads often skip the pricey college route and jump right into the fast-paced industry.

A better bet: Learning how to cook is a start, but understanding how to profit from your culinary skills will put you in a better position to succeed, especially if you dream of opening your own restaurant. Business administration majors have the know-how and make a median $71,000 mid-career salary. And if you find you aren't suited for the intensity and long hours of the food industry, business administration skills are transferable. For those set on becoming a cook or eventually a chef, a two-year associate's degree program might be a more cost-efficient route than a bachelor's program.

7. Culinary Arts

6. Child and Family Studies

Starting salary: $30,300

Mid-career salary: $37,200

Annual online job postings: 54,876

Projected 10-year job growth: 9.7%

Alternative major: Sociology

With the lowest starting and mid-career salaries on our list, child and family studies majors might have trouble providing for their own families. Students can expect to take courses covering topics such as contemporary family issues and infant and child development. Observation-based studies will serve as the backbone of most research work, and graduates will have mastered the phases of human development from womb to tomb.

A better bet: Why limit your focus when you could study something more large-scale, such as sociology? Majors learn about human interaction in society, with a focus on analyzing the intricacies of relationships within groups. Sociology graduates are more attractive job candidates in a wide range of fields, even those seemingly unrelated to sociology, because of their understanding of human interaction and strong research skills. By mid-career, the median salary of a sociology major is 58% higher than that of a child and family studies major.

6. Child and Family Studies

5. Biblical Studies

Starting salary: $35,400

Mid-career salary: $50,800

Annual online job postings: 12,384

Projected 10-year job growth: 8.4%

Alternative major: Philosophy

Biblical studies majors can expect to spend time learning a biblical language, doing service work and studying abroad. Many students go on to graduate school, which can lead to a position as a philosophy or religious studies teacher, earning a solid median salary of $64,990. But a bachelor's degree alone in biblical studies won't net you as much.

A better bet: A more general concentration in philosophy could work miracles for students' career prospects. This major doesn't necessarily shut the door on a religious profession; Pope John Paul II was a philosophy major, after all. A median mid-career salary of $78,300 for philosophy majors doesn't hurt, either.

5. Biblical Studies

4. Music

Starting salary: $35,700

Mid-career salary: $51,400

Annual online job postings: 6,477

Projected 10-year job growth: 5.2%

Alternative major: History

Only a select few are able to make good money because of their artistic talents, and musicians are no exception. Not everyone can win a Grammy. But an undergraduate degree in music doesn't necessarily lead to a life on the road trying to make it big with your band. There are opportunities as music teachers in schools and as private instructors, albeit not a ton. Expect to spend a lot of time practicing your craft and performing in front of professors.

A better bet: If you are intent on pursuing a career in music, consider adding a second major as insurance in case the harsh music biz isn't kind to you. Any area of interest will work, but history is a good option because it will give perspective to the music history classes you will take as part of your primary major. As an added bonus, history majors have a median mid-career salary of $71,000, which will help offset the costs of your band's tour around the country.

4. Music

3. Animal Science

Starting salary: $33,600

Mid-career salary: $55,200

Annual online job postings: 10,539

Projected 10-year job growth: 8.8%

Alternative major: Food Science

Animal scientists work closely with farmers and ranchers to implement new technology in maintaining quality livestock. Be prepared to study animal anatomy and perform dissections. Many animal science majors pursue advanced degrees in specialties such as nutrition and dietetics, but animal scientists—who usually hold a professional or doctorate degree—only bring in a median salary of $61,680, making graduate school a costly investment with limited reward.

A better bet: Graduates looking to bring home more bacon can turn to food science as a viable alternative. With a median mid-career salary of $80,500, professionals can enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle. Students take courses in food chemistry, food quality control and management, and food microbiology, among other subjects, to ensure that they are well prepared to keep the food supply safe and healthy.

3. Animal Science

2. Horticulture

Starting salary: $35,200

Mid-career salary: $50,900

Annual online job postings: 387

Projected 10-year job growth: -19.3%

Alternative major: Landscape Architecture

Horticulture majors emerge from school as experts on greenery but not in the form of cash. With fewer than 400 online job postings in all of 2013, graduates who aren't going into the family business have slim prospects for finding a job. Courses in greenhouse management and plant genetics can set up students for jobs as plant and soil scientists upon graduation, but those employed by colleges and universities will only earn a median salary of $46,710, and the occupation has a below-average job growth rate of 7.5%.

A better bet: How about instead majoring in landscape architecture, which puts you in charge of planning the layout of the plants, not pruning them? With a median salary of $64,180 and an above-average job growth rate of 14.3%, the future is brighter for landscape architects, who can design anything from backyards to golf courses.

2. Horticulture

1. Exercise Science

Starting salary: $32,600

Mid-career salary: $51,000

Annual online job postings: 797

Projected 10-year job growth: 9.2%

Alternative major: Health Sciences

Helping people reach their fitness goals is a noble pursuit, but it's one that comes without great financial reward or job opportunities. With scant online job postings and the third-lowest median starting salary of the 129 majors we looked at, the chances of finding work as a recent grad aren't very promising. Some graduates head back to school and train to become chiropractors or physical therapists, which offer higher salaries and more welcoming job markets.

A better bet:Fitness junkies could go further with a degree in health sciences. This broader major still touches on science, biology and health, but it has higher earnings potential. With a median starting salary of $38,400 and a median mid-career salary of $70,500, you'll find it easier to make ends meet after graduation.

1. Exercise Science

2013-2014 Rankings

1. Human Services and Community Organization
2. Fine Arts
3. Social Work
4. Early Childhood Education
5. Art History
6. Interdisciplinary Studies
7. Studio Arts
8. Mass Media
9. Humanities
10. Family Consumer Sciences

Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Here is the 2013-2014 list of the worst college majors for your career. Keep in mind that ranking methodologies can change from year to year based on the data available at the time, changes to how the data was gathered, switches to new data providers and tweaks to the formulas used to narrow the pool of candidates.

2013-2014 Rankings

2012-2013 Rankings

1. Anthropology
2. Fine Arts
3. Film and Photography
4. Philosophy and Religious Studies
5. Graphic Design
6. Studio Arts
7. Liberal Arts
8. Drama and Theater Arts
9. Sociology
10. English

Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Here is the 2012-2013 list of the worst college majors for your career. Keep in mind that ranking methodologies can change from year to year based on the data available at the time, changes to how the data was gathered, switches to new data providers and tweaks to the formulas used to narrow the pool of candidates.

2012-2013 Rankings

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