How Your College Major Can Help (or Hurt) You In a Salary Negotiation

by Aubrey Bach

Your major can make a difference

Your choice of college major obviously has a big impact on your future earning potential – somebody who studies computer science is probably going to end up in a different career path than an English major. But does your choice of major impact the way you approach salary negotiation? And if it does, are there traps you can overcome to increase your chances of getting a raise?

PayScale recently asked people who took our Salary Survey questions about salary negotiation, and then broke down the results by their college majors. Some results surprised us, but others… well, not so much. Either way, we can learn some interesting lessons from several of the following trends.

  • English majors are most likely to have asked for a raise. Did you hear that English majors? We aren't criticizing you for once. In fact, this is a big vote in favor of the much-maligned English major, and proof that communication skills, both written and verbal, really do pay off. Fifty-one percent of English Literature and Language majors have asked for a raise, and 49 percent have received the raise they've asked for.

  • Meanwhile those who study Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related Protective Services are least likely to ask for a raise. This probably isn't because of any fear of confrontation, but rather that people who study theses subjects tend to go on to work for the government, where pay is less negotiable than in the private sector. (They were also the least likely to get the raises they did ask for – only 18 percent said they received the pay bump they requested.)

  • Mathematics and Statistics majors were most likely to receive a raise when they asked. Sixty-three percent of math majors said they got the raise they asked for, and the remaining 37 percent said they got at least a portion of the amount they requested. We do always tell you to approach a salary negotiation with plenty of data, so is it any surprise that math majors excel at this practice?

  • Engineers are least likely to have to ask for raises. When asked why they hadn't negotiated, engineering majors were most likely to say it was because they had always been happy with the salary they earned. We've said it before and we'll say it again, STEM majors pay off in a serious way.

  • Public Administration and Social Service Professions majors were most likely to say they didn't negotiate because they didn't want to be seen as pushy. Again, we weren't surprised that a group of people who choose to dedicate their lives to public service were so tentative to stand up for themselves and ask for a raise. But a decent salary and a high sense of job meaning aren't mutually exclusive – so never be afraid to ask for what you deserve.

Whether or not your major was included in this round-up, if you have shied away from asking for a raise, it's important to take a hard look at the reasons why and see if they are legitimate (like being in a field where salaries are strictly and publicly defined) or not (like just being afraid to speak up for yourself). Identify what is holding you back and then act on it. PayScale's Salary Report and Salary Negotiation Guide have all the other tips and tricks you'll need to help you build your case once you decide to go for it.

Aubrey Bach

About the Author
Aubrey Bach is the Marketing Manager at and writes for PayScale about salary, higher education and career strategy. She is a recovering Diet Coke addict who grew up on the mean streets of Orange County, CA, but since coming to Seattle in 2007 has embraced everything the city has to offer (except, of course, the weather).