What is the best (undergraduate) college major in the United States?

By Cuthbert Chow

(Note: If the visualisation doesn't fit your screen, try zooming out with ctrl + - / Cmd + -.)

Most people want a degree which will enable them to make a lot of money upon graduation. Here are (almost) all the available degrees, sorted by the median salary received by students upon graduation. This graph gives us the ranking of each university major, based on the median salary of graduates. It gives us a rough sense of which majors have the highest pay, but it's somewhat hard to read. Let's take a more detailed journey through this data. Scroll down when you are ready!

If you ever want to find out more about a bubble, just hover over it and a tooltip should appear.

(Data was provided by FiveThirtyEight, and originally sourced from the American Community Survey 2010-2012 Public Use Microdata Series)

Here, we have clustered the majors based on the broader category, of which there are 16 in total. The size of the bubbles represent the median salary of graduates from the major. When sorted like this, it's quite clear that engineering majors of all kinds have generally above-average median salaries.

On the other end, it appears that majors in the field of psychology on average have the lowest graduate salaries.

Bear in mind that some of these figures may suffer from small sample sizes. If you hover over a bubble, you can see additional information, including the number of students enrolled in a given major. Salary figures from degrees with lower enrolment may be less accurate due to the smaller pool of student respondents

If we rearrange all the data points into a histogram format, the salary potential of engineering majors becomes even more stark, as almost all the points on the right of the graph are colored yellow, for engineering. As for all the other majors, they follow a fairly diverse yet tightly spaced distribution, with the modal class being salaries between $34,000 and $36,000.

Does Gender Influence Chosen Majors?

Now what if we took those same categories, but coloured them based on the proportion of the students which are male or female? In this chart, blue represents majors with > 60% male, and red represents > 60% female, and the grey bubbles represent the more gender balanced courses.

(Hover over the labels if you've forgotten the category)

What is striking about this graphic is that almost every category grouping of majors are either decidedly more female-weighted or male-weighted, with the exception of perhaps the business and physical sciences majors.

When we plot the % of students in a major being female against the median salary of students in the major, a fairly clear trend emerges. It appears that majors with a higher proportion of male students also produce students with higher median wages.

In fact, a linear model would predict that for every added percentage of female students in a given major, the median annual salary drops by $306 USD.
So we've seen the most 'profitable' majors, as well as the ones with the most uneven gender distributions. But what are students actually enrolling in the most frequently? What can enrolment numbers tell us about actual interest in each major? This chart has the bubbles sized based on the number of students enrolled in each major, and coloured by category. Psychology is the clear leader in this regard, with over 390,000 students enrolled. Business related topics such as general business, business management, accounting and finance are all also heavily enrolled.

The End

Hopefully, this has helped you in deciding what major you hope to study. If you want to take a deeper look into the data for yourself, you can download all the csv files here.

Special thanks to Jim Vallandingham for his article on creating scrolling visualisations using D3.js. All of the code associated with this project can be found on its Github page.

I've also produced a full write-up of how I made this over at my blog.