Academic betterment is an enriching pursuit in its own right, but for many students contemplating higher education, increased earning potential is also a key motivation. So which subjects are likely to yield the most money, longer term? Wealth management meets luxury lifestyle magazine Spear’s, together with wealth consultancy WealthInsight, recently compiled data on 70,000 millionaires across the globe to ascertain what degrees they studied and at which universities. “The top subjects,” said Josh Spero, editor of Spear’s, “are those which encourage new and smart thinking, whether technical or financial. But it’s also no surprise to find that the brightest people… often leave their degrees behind and go into high finance to seek their fortune.” Here we take a look at the 30 disciplines that have produced the most members of the millionaires’ club.
Driven to try to identify a cure for his twin brother’s cardiomyopathy – a degenerative disease that affects the heart muscle – actor Ashton Kutcher signed up for school at the University of Iowa in 1996 and hoped to major in biochemical engineering. Kutcher’s academic days were short-lived, however, and after coming out on top in a local modeling competition, he dropped out to kick-start a modeling career, strutting his stuff in New York, Paris and Milan. Soon afterwards, Kutcher turned to acting, and looking back, it was probably the correct decision. Biochemistry students who did manage to graduate include singer Milo Aukerman from punk band the Descendents – who holds a Ph.D. in the subject from the University of Wisconsin–Madison – and business executive Christine Poon. The former worldwide chairman of Johnson & Johnson’s Pharmaceuticals Group, Poon was compensated over $10 million in 2008 alone before stepping down from her position the following year.
Arguably the trickiest part about making money as an artist, as Vincent Van Gogh would probably attest, is to do it while still alive. The Dutch master is rumored to have only ever managed to sell one solitary painting – for the sum of 400 francs, equivalent to roughly $1,600 in 2011 – throughout his life. However, Van Gogh’s posthumous fame has seen at least three of his works sell for more than $100 million each, at today’s equivalent costs, and various other pieces of his work have been snapped up at multi-million-dollar prices. Heeding all this are Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, who have put their fine art degrees to sensible monetized use and in 2013 both ranked in the top five of the world’s wealthiest artists, with net worths of $350 million and $100 million respectively.
28. Agribusiness/Agricultural Studies
In order to fulfill the demands of a rapidly growing population, the food industry will need to find ways to boost its productivity by some 70 percent over the next four decades; that’s according to a 2013 article from Britain’s The Guardian. Agriculture and agribusiness graduates are therefore in increasing demand to meet some of the challenges that this large step-up in output presents. Fortunately, there is also money to be made in the world of agriculture – as the reasonable number of millionaires the subject area produces perhaps suggests, going from WealthInsight’s Spear’s magazine’s data. In any case, even graduates in these or related subjects who don’t ultimately go into the field can still be well remunerated. Chevron CEO and chairman John S. Watson – who left the University of California, Davis with a bachelor’s in agricultural economics in 1978 – draws a salary of over $32 million.
The most obvious and natural progression from obtaining a degree in architecture is to become an architect. That said, if your first name was “Weird,” you might be forgiven for looking at other options. Grammy-winning comedy musician “Weird Al” Yankovic, real name Alfred Yankovic, got his architecture degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1980 but chose a more satirical path to attaining millionaire status. Still, architecture’s loss is musical parody’s gain. On the other hand, Norman Foster – described in 2008 as “the richest architect in the world by a very big margin” by website Skyscraper News – took the direct route after earning his master’s in the subject from the Yale School of Architecture in 1962. Foster has a current fortune in the region of $250 million.
In a 2012 New York Times graphic entitled “The Top 1 Percent: What Jobs Do They Have?” it was said that 7,282 journalists in America are in that disproportionately wealthy category. Hence, despite journalism’s extremely competitive nature and saturated industry, there is evidently money to be made in the field. That’s not to say that alternative paths for journalism degree holders can’t also reap rewards, however. A noteworthy graduate who has chosen another vocation is actor and millionaire Denzel Washington, who completed his studies at Fordham University with a bachelor’s in drama and journalism in 1977. Another notable figure is Survivor: Micronesia winner Parvati Shallow, who majored in journalism, getting her degree from the University of Georgia in 2004. Shallow gained instant entry into the millionaires’ club after winning the reality TV show’s $1 million prize in 2008.
With a degree as broad in scope as communication, graduates can find themselves on pretty divergent employment paths. Notable communication degree holders who also managed to achieve considerable wealth include late actor James Gandolfini, who graduated from Rutgers University in 1982 with a bachelor’s in communication studies; film director Spike Lee, who attained his B.A. in mass communications from Morehouse College in 1979; and The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, who earned his undergraduate communications degree from Washington State University in 1972. However, top of this particular pile in the wealth stakes is radio and TV personality Howard Stern, who completed his studies at Boston University’s College of Public Communication in 1976 and now has an annual salary approaching $100 million and can boast a net worth of $500 million.
AMC crime drama Breaking Bad may have put illegal drug production and dealing front and center in the public consciousness, but those who enroll for pharmacy degrees are likely to be considering a career in dispensing substances of a less questionable nature. Given the investment of time and money it takes to become a pharmacist – a few years of undergraduate learning, as many as four years of doctoral study and sometimes up to two years of residency – it’s to be expected that remuneration packages are correspondingly high. Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the average salary received by pharmacists in the U.S. was $116,670 in 2012. What’s more, according to the bureau, the pharmacist job market is predicted to increase by 14 percent by 2022, meaning that for those who put in the study hours, the prospects of finding work are also reasonably good.
23. Chemical Engineering
Cindy Crawford may not be the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of chemical engineering – if indeed any one particular name does spring to mind – but the former supermodel did in fact take up the subject, at Northwestern University in 1984. After winning an academic scholarship, Crawford dropped out following just one term – though to pursue what turned out to be a stratospheric career in front of the lens. One notable chemical engineer who did manage to complete his studies is Gore-Tex inventor Robert “Bob” Gore. Gore achieved his chemical engineering Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1963 and now, with an estimated net worth of $800 million, has the honor of being the wealthiest individual in the state of Delaware.
Ranking second place on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest U.S. presidents of all time, Herbert Hoover was annually raking in the equivalent of $2.5 million in today’s money almost 20 years before he was sworn in in 1929. Hoover was also a geology degree holder, having obtained his qualifications in 1895 from Stanford University. Incidentally, Hoover additionally laid claim to being the first ever Stanford student – having supposedly been the first to spend a night in the university dormitory after enrolling in the institution’s maiden year of 1891. Hoover’s geological background led him to the mining industry, where he quickly rose through the ranks to find his fortune. He clearly had an affinity with money, though, once famously saying, “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.”
According to Newsweek, English is the seventh most useless major of them all, as determined by factors such as recent graduate employment and earnings. That said, judging from Spear’s magazine and WealthInsight’s research, the subject yields a reasonable share of millionaires, so perhaps there are actually a fair few less worthwhile degrees out there – at least in the high wealth production stakes. In any case, literacy is an invaluable commodity. Graduates who have managed to transfer their English degrees to millions of dollars include Stephen King, who finished his studies at the University of Maine with an English B.A. in 1970 and can now boast a net worth of some $400 million; and 1969 Loyola University English lit graduate and fellow novelist Tom Clancy, whose fortune was valued at $300 million prior to his death. Then there’s businessman-turned-politician Mitt Romney, who left Brigham Young University with a top honors bachelor’s degree in English in 1971 and is today worth around $250 million.
Despite being seen as a largely non-vocational subject, philosophy manages to set its share of graduates on the path to high net worth. As a 2014 Huffington Post article points out, in “both the business and tech worlds… philosophy has proved itself to be not only relevant but often the cornerstone of great innovation.” One notable innovator is Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, who earned a master’s in philosophy from Cambridge University in 1998 before turning his attention to facilitating photo sharing. Another notable figure is investment and business magnate George Soros, who gained a Ph.D. in philosophy from the London School of Economics in 1954 and in 2014 placed 29th on Forbes’ The World’s Billionaires list.
The study of living organisms is an important endeavor in its own right, but it’s perhaps a reasonable assumption that many of the millionaires biology degrees produce go on to make their money in different fields – unless, that is, such graduates are among the fortunate annual recipients of the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Dexter Holland, rhythm guitarist and frontman of pop punk band The Offspring, graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.S. in biology and a master’s in molecular biology but inexplicably opted for a career as a rock millionaire instead. Perhaps even more inexplicably, in 1995 Holland was quoted as saying, “I won’t wanna play music when I’m forty, I’d rather be a professor at a university” – though his musical career is still going strong eight years after that deadline. All the same, recently Holland has gone back to school to pursue a doctorate, co-authoring a paper dealing with microRNA in HIV genomes that was published in March 2013.
Moore’s Law is an influential observation in the realm of computer hardware that asserts, in basic terms, that processing strength increases twofold every two years. Interestingly, though, its author, Gordon Moore, has an academic background not in computer science but in chemistry, having gained his doctorate in the subject from Caltech in 1954. Still, Moore went on to find his fortune in computers and in 1968 co-founded Intel (then known as NM Electronics), where he is now chairman emeritus. Moore’s current net worth of some $6.1 billion places him a respectable 240th on Forbes’ 2014 list of The Richest People on the Planet. Elsewhere, chemistry graduate-turned-actor and millionaire Dolph Lundgren chose to let his biceps do the talking instead, although none of the movie one-liners he’s delivered have been enshrined as computing laws just yet.
It doesn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to see how an academic understanding of human behavior and mental function might translate into a general competitive edge in the pursuit of money – and the roster of millionaire celebrities with psychology degrees is certainly eclectic. Film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer obtained a B.S. majoring in psychology from the University of Arizona in 1967; Playboy mogul and smoking jacket proponent Hugh Hefner gained a bachelor’s majoring in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1947; and Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman earned her undergraduate psychology stripes from Harvard in 2003.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” According to Fight Club character Tyler Durden, on the other hand, it – or advertising, to be precise – is one of the forces that “has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s*** we don’t need.” Either way, as a degree subject, marketing appears to produce no small quantity of millionaires – and a notable number of actors, too, it would seem. Millionaire stars Kevin Costner, Wanda Sykes and Chris O’Donnell all have degrees in marketing to fall back on should Hollywood give them the permanent cold shoulder.
As with several of the other entries on our list, it’s probable that many of the millionaires produced by history as a degree subject have found their fortune outside of their original field of study. Nonetheless, the knowledge gained during such study could well be an asset in terms of encouraging innovation. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History graduates of particular note include former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Borat creator and millionaire Sacha Baron Cohen, who earned his degree from the University of Cambridge.
Although starting salaries for recent physics graduates are among the best there are, the average annual pay of $46,000 to $58,000 is going to make for a relatively arduous crawl towards millionaire status. One way to fast-track the process is to win a Nobel Prize, which confers on its recipients near infinite prestige – as well as a much more tangible $1.19 million. An even more lucrative option is to scoop the recently inaugurated Fundamental Physics Prize, which hands $3 million to each winner. Alternatively, there’s always the option to write a bestseller. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time remained on Britain’s The Sunday Times bestsellers list for an unprecedented 237 weeks, no doubt making a sizable contribution to its author’s current $20 million net worth. Hawking obtained his undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics from Oxford University in 1962 and went on to earn his Ph.D. at Cambridge.
Described by U.K. newspaper The Telegraph as “a long, grueling but ultimately extremely rewarding course,” medicine is not a degree for the fainthearted. Those who do undertake the training can expect to be compensated well for their troubles, though. In 2013 the salaries of U.S. physicians ranged from $174,000 to $413,000, depending on specialist field. That said, it’s interesting to note that according to a 2014 survey of over 24,000 physicians by health professionals online resource Medscape, only 58 percent of respondents said they would pick the same career path if they had to make the choice all over again – although this figure marks an improvement on the 54 percent that gave the same answer in 2011.
The scope and variety that exists in the application of mathematics is immense, and indeed the subject underpins many of the systems and structures of society in some way. As Galileo famously once said, “The universe cannot be read until we have learned the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language.” Fluency in that language, then, can be a definite advantage in a range of disciplines and fields of employment, which may go some way towards explaining why the subject produces a significant number of millionaires. Among the list of math degree holders, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, is musician and millionaire Art Garfunkel, who graduated from Columbia University with a master’s in mathematics in 1967.
Management is a more straightforwardly vocational subject option – and one with many practical benefits when it comes to resourcefully realizing business aims. Yet it’s also arguable that a degree in the field will, at least to some extent, help its recipients to scale the echelons of the business world. Take Alan Mulally, the recently retired Ford Motor Company president and CEO, for example. Mulally graduated in 1982 with a master’s in management from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and after taking his position at Ford in 2006, he helped the company bring in a profit once more – making it the sole leading American automaker not to need a governmental bailout in the wake of the late-2000s recession. Mulally’s job was not without its incentives, though. His total compensation package from Ford in 2013 alone exceeded $23 million
Politics. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. While a degree in political science doesn’t always lead to a career spent making enemies and influencing people on the way up the political ladder, there is certainly money to be made for those who do choose such a path. The millionaire status of Barack Obama – who graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in political science in 1983 – should come as no big surprise. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, who obtained a B.A. in political science from Wellesley College in 1969. What may raise an eyebrow or two, however, is the fact that over half the members of the U.S. Congress are millionaires as of 2013. As Josh Bivens of Washington research group the Economic Policy Institute pointed out, “Congress not only seems more responsive to policy desires of the very rich, but increasingly they are the very rich.”
As well as equipping graduates with the relevant skills and learning for a career in its field, a degree in finance is a strong indication of a pre-existing enthusiasm for money matters – which may translate into higher earnings. Take hedge fund manager John Paulson, for example. Paulson graduated from New York University with a degree in finance in 1978 and attained his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1980. In 2007 he made “one of the biggest fortunes in Wall Street history,” according to Business Week, and as of 2014 his net worth is roughly $13.5 billion. Entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth – who holds a BBusSci degree in finance and information systems from the University of Cape Town – offers an even more stratospheric example. A man with an estimated fortune of $500 million, Shuttleworth rose to international renown in 2002 as the world’s second self-financed space traveler and the first South African in space.
8. Computer Science
The inclusion of computer science on this list is a clear indication of the juggernaut that is the technology industry. And as WealthInsight analyst Oliver Williams pointed out, “In future years, as more and more tech entrepreneurs make it big, we should expect it to move further up the list.” Google is one of the world’s biggest and most influential tech companies, and founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin both hold master of science in computer science degrees from Stanford University. Page and Brin have also each amassed net fortunes in excess of $30 billion. Enough said.
What do former mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighting Champion Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell and adult contemporary jazz saxophone king Kenny G have in common? You guessed it: degrees in accounting – not to mention several million dollars in the bank. Liddell graduated from California Polytechnic State University in 1995, earning a B.A. specializing in business and accounting. Meanwhile, Kenny G graduated magna cum laude from the University of Washington in 1978, also with a B.A. in business and accounting. Clearly both former accounting students have deviated from their original academic paths, but as Spear’s magazine and WealthInsight have pointed out, “‘Vocational’ subjects like law and accounting also breed millionaires, though not necessarily in their [chosen] fields.”
Commerce is a central pillar of the global economy, so it’s no great shock to learn that a degree in the subject yields a high number of millionaires. One noteworthy commerce graduate is BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie, who was awarded a bachelor’s degree in the subject from the University of Toronto’s Trinity College in 1984 and has a current net worth of around $800 million. Another notable is finance, property and investment magnate Ernest Rady, who obtained a degree in commerce from the University of Manitoba and placed 365th on Forbes’ 2006 World’s Richest People list. Cold, hard cash is not the final frontier, though. Actor and millionaire William Shatner boldly took his McGill University bachelor’s degree where no commerce graduate has gone before, playing fearless Captain Kirk in the Star Trek franchise.
5. Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
With a focus on giving students a general understanding of the functional aspects of a firm and how they interrelate, a bachelor of business administration (BBA) degree has a direct application for those wishing to make waves in the corporate world. This is particularly so when it comes to the development of managerial, communication and decision-making aptitude. Procter & Gamble’s North America and Global Hyper Super Mass Channel group president Melanie Healey seems to have put her 1983 degree in the subject from the University of Richmond to good use; indeed, she ranked 11th on Fortune’s 2012 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list. Another high-flier with a bachelor’s in business administration – this time received from The American University in Cairo in 1991 – is Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, whose estimated $35 million net worth is pretty good going for a self-described “mum and a wife with a really cool day job.”
According to a report publicized by NBC News in 2012, to be a lawyer is to be in the fifth most highly paid profession in the U.S., with practitioners – of which there were an estimated 570,950 that year – earning average salaries exceeding $130,000. Still, while many lawyers may be members of the millionaires’ club, one former law student chose an alternative route to his fortune. Author John Grisham graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1983 and went on to practice as a criminal lawyer for around ten years before drawing on his legal experience to pen the hugely popular 1989 thriller A Time to Kill. Grisham has gone on to sell upwards of 275 million books, netting himself some $200 million in the process.
Study in economics produces a lot of millionaires, although as the Spear’s and WealthInsight study pointed out, such high-net-worth graduates “have often left their degree behind in professional life.” Illustrious economics degree holders include former U.S. presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Hollywood legend Gene Kelly, and business super-heavyweights Warren Buffett and Donald Trump. Even Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger dabbled in the subject, studying at the London School of Economics in the early ‘60s. Jagger left without graduating in 1963, citing a distinct lack of satisfaction.
2. Master of Business Administration (MBA)
As highlighted in the previous entry, holding an economics degree is not a unique identifier among U.S. presidents. Holding an MBA, however, certainly is; and you might be surprised to learn that the only president to have attained an MBA is none other than George W. Bush. Bush graduated in 1975 from Harvard Business School – which incidentally, according to WealthInsight’s data, yields the second-highest number of millionaires worldwide, bested only by Harvard University itself. Furthermore, Bush is in good company when it concerns his chosen field of study. Retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal also holds an MBA, having achieved the qualification online in 2005 from the University of Phoenix. O’Neal afterwards described it as “just something to have on my résumé for when I go back into reality.”
While it’s possibly not one of the most predictable entry placements on our list, engineering takes the top spot, yielding a greater number of millionaires than any other degree subject, according to Spear’s and WealthInsight. Perhaps one contributing factor is the sheer range of disciplines the field encompasses – from civil and electrical to biological and software engineering. One noteworthy millionaire engineering graduate is computing pioneer Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple in 1976 and later returned to school, graduating with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and computer sciences from the University of California, Berkeley in 1986. Another notable is TV personality Montel Williams, who earned a general engineering degree from the United States Naval Academy in 1980. However, in terms of leaving a mark on history, Williams and even Wozniak are wildly eclipsed by aeronautical engineering graduate and deceased millionaire Neil Armstrong, who will always be remembered as the first person to set foot on the Moon.