What should a college student do to maximize future earnings for effective altruism?

by D_Malik2 min read27th Aug 201376 comments


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I'd like to solicit advice since I'm starting at Stanford this Fall and I'm interested in optimal philanthropy.

First off, what should I major in? I have experience in programming and math, so I'm thinking of majoring in CS, possibly with a second major or a minor in applied math. But switching costs are still extremely low at the moment, so I should consider other fields.

Some majors that could have higher lifetime earnings than straight CS:

  • Petroleum engineering. Would non-oil energy sources cause pay to drop over the next 40 years?
  • Actuarial math. If I understand correctly, actuaries had high pay because they were basically a cartel, artificially limiting the supply of certifications to a certain number each year. And I've heard that people that used to hire actuaries now hire cheaper equivalents, so pay could be less over the next 40 years.
  • Chemical engineering, nuclear engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering.
  • Pre-med.
  • Quantitative finance.


Stanford actually has salary data for 2011-2012 graduates by major. CS has highest earnings, by quite far. The data is incomplete because few people responded and some groups were omitted for privacy, so we don't know what e.g. petroleum engineers or double majors earned.

Should I double-major? There are some earnings statistics here; to summarize, two majors in the same field doesn't help; a science major plus a humanities major has lower earnings than the science major alone; greatest returns are achieved by pairing a math/science major with an engineering major, which increases earnings "up to 30%" above the math/science major alone. I'd guess these effects are largely not causation, but correlation caused by conscientiousness/ambition causing both double majors and higher earnings.

I could also get minors. I'm planning to very carefully look over the requirements for each major and minor, since there do seem to be some cheap gains. A math minor can be done in one quarter, for instance; a math major takes only a bit more than two quarters.

I have a table with the unit requirements of each combination of majors and minors. Most students take 15 units a quarter. Here are some major/minor combinations I could do:

  • If I take 18.8 units a quarter, I could double-major in CS and econ.
  • If I take 15.8 units a quarter, I could major in CS and minor in math and econ.
  • If I take 15.4 units a quarter, I could double-major in CS and math.

Cal Newport argues that this sort of thing a bad idea because hard schedules do not actually impress employers more.

Would employers care about double majors in undergrad if I also get a graduate degree? I will do a master's degree or a PhD, partly because those make it a lot easier to emigrate to the US. (I'm from South Africa, which doesn't have much of a software industry.)

What other things could increase earnings?

  • Doing an internship every summer.
  • Networking. Stanford's statistics on how 2011-2012 graduates found jobs indicates that around 29% of them got jobs through networking.
  • Better social skills? I'm planning on taking some classes on public speaking, improv, etc.; what else should I do?
  • Some way of signalling leadership skills? Maybe I could try to get into a leadership position at a student club or something.
  • Honors programs, or doing research. Do employers care about this?
  • Following the advice of Stanford's Career Development Center, for instance about how to prepare for career fairs, using their internship network, making appointments with their career counselors, etc.
  • Studying abroad. I'm already studying abroad by going to Stanford, so this is probably less valuable for me than for most students, though it still seems likely to be worthwhile. Stanford has a Washington program involving internships and classes taught by policymakers, which might be worth doing. Both these would make it harder to do multiple majors and minors.

Many thanks for all advice given!


EDIT: I used a scoring rule to rank all combinations of majors and minors in CS, math, economics and MS&E (management science and engineering) according to practicality and estimated effect on earnings. Unit estimates include all breadth requirements etc., assuming I don't take stupid courses. Here's the top 20; the top 10 all look pretty good:

CS Math Econ MS&E   Total Units Units per quarter Hours/day
minor minor MAJOR minor   198 16.5 7.1
MAJOR . minor minor   207 17.3 7.4
minor . MAJOR minor   189 15.8 6.8
minor . MAJOR MAJOR   216 18.0 7.7
MAJOR minor minor minor   216 18.0 7.7
minor MAJOR minor minor   183 15.3 6.5
MAJOR . . MAJOR   199 16.6 7.1
minor MAJOR minor MAJOR   210 17.5 7.5
minor minor minor MAJOR   180 15.0 6.4
minor MAJOR MAJOR .   202 16.8 7.2
MAJOR minor minor .   190 15.8 6.8
MAJOR minor . MAJOR   208 17.3 7.4
MAJOR MAJOR . minor   211 17.6 7.5
. minor MAJOR MAJOR   192 16.0 6.9
minor minor MAJOR MAJOR   225 18.8 8.0
MAJOR . minor MAJOR   234 19.5 8.4
minor . minor MAJOR   171 14.3 6.1
. MAJOR MAJOR minor   195 16.3 7.0
minor MAJOR MAJOR minor   228 19.0 8.1
MAJOR minor . minor   181 15.1 6.5
MAJOR MAJOR minor .   220 18.3 7.9
MAJOR . MAJOR .   226 18.8 8.1
MAJOR . minor .   181 15.1 6.5
minor MAJOR . MAJOR   175 14.6 6.3
MAJOR MAJOR . .   185 15.4 6.6
minor minor MAJOR .   172 14.3 6.1
. . MAJOR MAJOR   183 15.3 6.5
MAJOR minor MAJOR .   235 19.6 8.4
MAJOR . . minor   172 14.3 6.1

Another option is to major or minor in M&CS (mathematical and computational sciences) instead of math or CS separately.


EDIT 2: Here is a graph of graduates' salaries by major. Y-axis is salary of 2011-2012 Stanford graduates. X-axis is degree: 1 is BA/BS, 2 is MA/MS, 3 is PhD; intermediate values are for groups containing two degree-levels. The sample size is tiny because only 30% of students responded, and some groups were omitted for privacy.

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