Why does STEM pay more?

September 22nd, 2021. By Hadrian Barki '23

Why does STEM pay more? Why do the humanities pay less in general? What really makes medicine so lucrative? And many more questions to be answered.

It has been long preached by parents, educators, and even politicians that the youth of today’s society should go into STEM fields such as medicine or engineering and that humanities, arts, and social science (HASS) majors are regarded as useless unless you intend on going to law school or if it’s business-related. Is this really true? And if so, why is this the case?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of the top 20 highest paying jobs by median income, only 3 weren’t STEM fields, although 14 of them were related to medicine. Doctors in the United States are paid double compared to doctors in other countries despite going through similar trials and struggles for the same jobs. This is the case as A) 2/3s of our doctors are specialists so they get paid more. This is the case, as teaching hospitals(hospitals that offer education/training to current and future health professionals) want to get as much revenue as possible from their resident doctors, and would much rather train a specialist instead of a general practitioner. The second reason is that the supply of doctors is controlled by insanely selective medical schools, and to be a medical doctor in the US, you’ll need to complete a US residency program. Residency slots are mainly funded by Medicare, and the number of slots supported by Medicare has remained stagnant since 1997 at the request of medical organizations such as the American Medical Association. The number of doctors being churned out every year remains the same, but the demand for them has been increasing.

While Chief Executives and jurisdictional jobs aren’t exactly STEM, they are within the fields of business and law, which are considered the “useful” fields outside of STEM; by useful, they mean lucrative.

But does STEM in general really beat the humanities outside of medicine? Yes, yes it does. STEM bachelor's holders do start off at an advantage, but many humanities majors tend to go for graduate or professional school instead of jumping into the field immediately. Despite arguments saying humanities majors with graduate degrees will catch up to other fields(including STEM), this isn’t actually true, according to a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. To quote Inside Higher Ed, who reported on the study, “for those with advanced degrees in the humanities, median annual earnings were $78,000, compared to $86,000 for advanced degree holders generally.”

Many also claim humanities degrees are useful because they teach you “soft skills” such as critical thinking, empathy, creativity, and persuasion. But most universities often have liberal arts requirements intended for this exact purpose. You don’t need to be a humanities major to learn those skills, although they can help enhance them.

As far as the data shows, STEM jobs pay more simply because there is more demand for STEM graduates. According to the US Department of Commerce, the number of STEM jobs was projected to grow 17% compared to non-STEM jobs growing 9.8%. So the reason behind why STEM pays more is a question of supply and demand, but supply is quickly catching up to demand, with roughly a fifth of degrees awarded being in STEM fields, or roughly 331,000 STEM degrees a year and growing. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the growth of STEM jobs for the next decade will continue to outpace non-STEM jobs by 3%(STEM 10.5%, non-STEM 7.5%), that equates to only 1.1 million extra jobs in that field by the end of this decade. With STEM majors gaining significant traction across the world, it is unknown what salaries could look like by the end of this decade, and whether or not STEM will be able to maintain the salary lead over other fields is unknown. At least with residency and medical school slots as tight and unmoving as ever, MD prospects will be certain to enjoy the highest(and continuously increasing) median salaries in the nation.

Work Cited:

“Employment in STEM Occupations.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/emp/tables/stem-employment.htm.

Indicator 26: STEM Degrees, nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_reg.asp#:~:text=See%20Digest%20of%20Education%20Statistics,fields%20varied%20by%20race%2Fethnicity. Langdon, David, et al. Ed.gov, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED522129.pdf.

“Employment Projections for STEM Occupations.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-10/why-computer-occupations-are-behind-strong-stem-employment-growth.htm#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20Bureau%20of%20Labor,3.7%20percent%20for%20all%20occupations.

“Highest Paying Occupations: Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 Sept. 2021, www.bls.gov/ooh/highest-paying.htm.

Baker, Dean. “The Problem of Doctors' Salaries.” The Agenda, 7 Nov. 2017, www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/10/25/doctors-salaries-pay-disparities-000557/.

“Humanities Majors Don't 'Catch up' to Peers, Report Says.” Inside Higher Ed, www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/02/22/humanities-majors-don%E2%80%99t-%E2%80%98catch-%E2%80%99-peers-report-says.