Jobs That Pay Badly And People Who Choose Them

by golbguru on September 10, 2007

Sometimes, I wonder what will happen if everyone chose jobs that gave the best returns on investment - the world would have been filled with disproportionately large numbers of lawyers, doctors, software engineers, people who own popular websites, etc. I am not quite sure if our life would have been happier (because everyone is rich) or more miserable (because everyone is rich) in that case.

I am not talking about people who can’t choose better jobs due to various handicaps: lack of opportunities, poverty, discrimination, etc. and are forced to take up low paying jobs that require a lot of hard work [that's a whole different can of worms]; I am talking about people who probably have all the resources available and yet proceed to choose careers that yield disproportionately low outputs for their inputs (in terms of money and efforts). Here is a list of some of such careers from CNN Money that were piled under the label of “jobs: worst pay for investments” [median salaries are shown].

jobs with bad returns for investment
[Read with emphasis on "Likes" ; original image: CNN Money]

I don’t think the list is complete by any means; there must be hundreds of other such jobs that don’t pay well and yet there are people who choose such jobs out of their own volition. Most of these people are probably doing what they like doing most without worrying much about whether they are going to earn feasible returns on their investment. For them, jobs probably aren’t just about getting money in return for the amount of time they spend working - for them, such jobs are more about following their passions and inspirations.They may not be making big bucks, but they are probably getting paid for doing something they would have loved to do anyways. They may never rub elbows with the wealthiest people in the town, but it is very likely that these people have a clearer vision of what they want out of their life than those who are merely guided by million dollar goals and thoughts of happy retirement (or the strongly money oriented like me :( ).

By the way, I wouldn’t extend these feelings towards *all* the people who are working in the above areas - there will always be some who remain perpetually dissatisfied with everything. But, in general, given that none of the careers in the above list are “glamorous” enough to attract every Tom, Dick, and Harry, it is less likely that some random people will be suckered in to these jobs if they don’t have some kind of a strong liking. Plus, I don’t think people with only money on their minds would consciously choose one of these careers after realizing the enormous resources it will take on their part.

Anyways, once in a while, it is inspiring to know that life is not always just about earning a lot of money… sometimes it’s about doing what you like… doing what you are good at. And, it’s inspiring to know that there are people who walk on this path [at least, it's *inspiring* for me because I often get distracted by the money aspect easily].

And yes, this is not about *neglecting* money totally [there are bills to pay and mouths to feed], it’s about not making money your primary obsession.

[Note: I am conveniently ignoring issues about absurdly huge student loans to avoid complicating the discussion]

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 lw 09.10.07 at 7:29 am

For a little while this year, I thought about changing careers to one that I knew would be lucrative. I thought that I would do a one year masters program and just begin a new, more monied career. It made sense to me because I am 29 and starting to think about kids.
Then I realized that we already have 200K in liquid savings, my husband loves his job and wouldn’t retire early in any circumstance that I can imagine (let’s just say his job might be on the list you wrote) and we are both very frugal. So I am going to keep working in the field I love, and may even go for a Ph.D. Why not do what you enjoy if you don’t have financial problems? Money isn’t everything, and luxuries don’t bring that much happiness.

2 Jeremy 09.10.07 at 8:36 am

Why do you think my architecture degree is collecting dust in my file cabinet? :D

It was brutal right out of college, at the very most I would have been lucky to make 35k a year, and even then, you have to work for a number of years and pass the licensing exam before you can ever consider moving up, all for what, another 20k a year if you’re lucky? On top of that, you spend your first five years or so just sitting on a computer doing construction drawings in CAD, not designing.

Granted, it would be great to design things, but not for what a manager at Burger King makes, and that doesn’t take 5 years of schooling, years of experience and passing more exams.

3 moom 09.10.07 at 11:47 am

Of course the more doctors and lawyers there were the lower their earnings would be… That table is a bit misleading. Scientists salaries are at the post-doc level. Yes an Assistant Prof in Liberal Arts might earn $44k. A full professor in sciences or economics above $100k.

4 Andy2 09.10.07 at 11:53 am

I’m getting close to pursuing a career as an archaeologist. I have one year in a post-bac while I apply to PhD programs. Certainly the money won’t be great (although eventually getting a tenured position will pay a decent wage), but there aren’t many jobs where every summer you get an expense paid trip to Europe for a couple months. I spent this past summer in Greece, living in a bed and breakfast, eating authentic Greek meals provided by said bed and breakfast, while working outside with fun people all day, and then drinking Mythos, a Greek beer, sitting at a bar overlooking the site of ancient Corinth every day. Life is good. Six or seven years of a 12,500 - 15,000 stipend and summers in Europe are worth it.

5 guinness416 09.10.07 at 12:27 pm

I was on track to get an architecture degree, but somewhere in the middle of my second year at college had a crisis of faith and became a Quantity Surveyor (a construction cost and management expert) instead. Every day on the job I thank my lucky stars. You can write about “liking design” and the nebulous doing what you love, but I work alongside smart young architects who are overworked, buried in contract administration and project management, and are replaceable any time by the eleventy billion other architecture grads, and know it. Fact is, if you do something lucrative you’re ambivalent about, you can get out earlier and do something you love for a whole lot longer.

6 Patrick 09.10.07 at 2:16 pm

I think you said it best - the jobs listed are jobs that people do because they love them, not because they pay well (although there are some exceptions in each category). I think most people aim for a happy medium between doing what they really enjoy and what pays well.

7 Steve 09.10.07 at 3:04 pm

The economic payoffs can vary widely. Some schools offer substantial stipends, others a pittance compelling grad students to take out substantial student loans to earn their degrees. Recently, I read of an Italian major who won a $300,000 grant to get a master’s in international studies. In every field there will be a handful of superstars whose work is identified early on as superior. And of course, many of the jobs available to people with undergraduate degrees are mind-deadeningly dull.

8 frugal zeitgeist 09.10.07 at 5:05 pm

You’ve been called out for being a Frugal Subversive. (That’s a good thing!)

9 jrochest 09.11.07 at 12:40 am

The salaries listed aren’t accurate, at least for my job: I’m an Assistant Prof in the humanities, and I make twice the stated salary.

Now, when I was working as a sessional when I first finished grad school things were tight — much as it is for doctors and lawyers at the start of their degrees.

And yes, you could pay me half what I make and I’d still do this for a living. Although that’s not a flaw, IMHO.

10 dong 09.11.07 at 6:29 am

I would also argue that many but probably not a majority choose these professions because they come from family money that affords them more choice (i.e. not consider money as much).

11 golbguru 09.11.07 at 7:13 am

Moom, jrochest: I am hoping what you guys say about higher salary is true - otherwise there won’t be much hope left for me in continuing my PhD. :) Or may be there is - more than the money, it’s about the degree (even though, I do care about the money part - a lot).

Btw, I spoke to a few engineering assitant professor friends after posting this article, and they sure make a lot more than the liberal arts folks.

jrochest: Also, salaries in the report are “median” salaries; so, there must be a whole lot of people who earn more than that [but probably a whole lot more who earn less than that].

12 moom 09.11.07 at 7:29 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education website has lots of data on salaries in academia (excluding medical which is off the scale) - both nationally and university by university. They don’t differentiate by field though. Though, for example, at my former employer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the averages are relatively high due to all the science and engineering faculty. Academic societies often collect data on salaries. At least economists and geographers do among others. You should check that data out too. Private universities pay more than public ones on the whole. Doctoral/research universities pay higher than lower level colleges. On the whole though the extra pay in expensive metro areas does not compensate for the higher cost of living relative to cheap locations. Also salaries for professors are 9 month salaries. In the sciences and engineering there is a lot of potential to get extra summer salary.

13 plonkee 09.11.07 at 7:58 am

Those jobs don’t really pay badly. I understand that they may represent a poor ROI, but in absolute terms they are not too bad. I think in the UK, architects are paid at a similar level to engineers. I wouldn’t exactly recommend either if you really want to make money, but architecture has a much better public perception.

14 Sunny 09.11.07 at 8:12 am

The richest people in the world are the ones who can do what they love and love what they do. It makes your career/vocation more than a J-O-B. I’ve had too many J-O-B’s. And rich isn’t measured in wealth.

15 Kitty 09.11.07 at 8:41 am

In some of these jobs like microbiologist, for example, there is a choice of working for a university or for the industry. The latter probably pays a lot more - a microbiologist with a PhD researching new drugs for a pharmaceutical company probably makes a lot. Many scientists choose university career for greater freedom to do basic research. If you consider the advantages of working at a university - flexible hours, vacation, etc., one can see the attraction.

When I was an undergrad, I had a major in math/cs and minor in Italian. For a while I entertained the idea of getting a PhD in Italian literature and trying to become a professor, I even took a small subsidized, state-guaranteed student loan to spend a couple of months studying in Italy. But then at some point during my senior year I saw an ad on our Italian department’s board advertising a position for an assistant professor with a PhD in Italian for the salary roughly equivalent to what a BS in CS would get. This, as well as the failure of one of our really good Italian professors and a native speaker at that to get a tenure track position was a wake-up call. I asked myself - do I really want to go from a university to a university trying to find a tenure track position, compete with native speakers, and then make a lot less than I could make with a CS degree. So, I went to grad school in CS instead. Never regretted it.

I think dong is right. I think those of us who come from poor or first generation immigrant families (from poor countries) are more materialistic. I had some refugee friends who studied humanities, but the majority choose fields like medicine or engineering.

16 Matt 09.11.07 at 10:44 am

I recently graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Arts. When I was 16 I thought this was a fabulous career, I was working in a restaurant with other cooks that I idolized. They were always partying getting laid and having tons of fun. Why wouldn’t anyone want to do this? I thought.

I thought wrong. Now, I spend 80 hours a week in a hot kitchen working my ass off getting yelled at for what amounts to about $6 an hour, and no benefits, vacation, or days off except for the one day a week the restaurant is closed. Sure we produce great food, have gotten great reviews and the customers are happy. But why am I sacrificing so much? So some reviewer will give this restaurant one more star? So what. I may be proud of what I do and it’s enjoyable sometimes but the quality of life is horrible and not something I can see myself doing for much longer. I could make more money and work less at a fast food restaurant. Degree? Skill? Experience? Who cares.

I’ve been finding myself spending the little free time I have reading and learning about money and finance, a topic I enjoy that actually pays well. I envy people I see in office jobs that work half as much as I do with vacations, benefits, etc. But people say you have a craft, a skill that other people don’t have. You have the pride of doing something great. Yea, well my kids can’t eat my dignity.

Does anyone have any suggestions or advice on changing careers after graduating from college? Or what jobs are available to people with Bachelor’s degrees? I’ve about had it with this one.

17 moom 09.11.07 at 11:01 am

Matt - the obvious suggestion is to try to do something along the lines of restaurant/food service management. Or maybe the job you have is a particularly bad one.

18 Mulan 09.11.07 at 2:24 pm

My cousin just graduated from school with a major in architecture and she just got her first job making 50,000. I am an interpreter with a aa degree and make 75,000 not including my eve and weekend job. Its about finding something there is a high demand for.

19 Make-Money-Advisor 09.11.07 at 5:38 pm

Sometimes people get stuck in jobs that do not pay them very much. They hope for the best that things will improve and more money will come their way. Usually this does not happen and realistically the best course of action is to start applying for higher paying jobs with opportunities for growth.
It is not what you do that is important. It is who you work for that has the greatest impact on your earnings. There are always employers in the marketplace that appreciated and remunerate their employees better than average. These are the companies you should be working for.

20 Limewater 09.12.07 at 4:47 am

These are MEDIAN incomes, folks.

This means that half of all people starting in that field make the posted salary or more and half of all people starting in that field make the posted salary or less.

For example, here is a list of salaries for nine fictitious people:

(15K 21K 21K 31K 31K 39K 42K 60K 120K)

Notice that a few make the same amount. That’s OK– people can have the same salary.

The Median income on this list is 31K because half of the incomes are larger and half are smaller. Despite the fact that someone on the list is making 120K, the median is still 31K.

21 Jenners 09.12.07 at 5:37 am

Thanks for including clergy in the list. There may be some rich televangelists out there, but the majority of us aren’t in it for the money! My husband and I are indeed passionate about what we do.

And we don’t come from families with money — I actually think that’s why we are able to live more simply than those in other careers with a comparable education to ours. Perhaps the same is true of many others in our profession (opposite to dong’s speculation), since preacher’s kids often become preachers themselves. (Not in our case, but we are the children of blue-collar parents).

22 Kitty 09.12.07 at 8:14 am

Matt, I second whoever said about restaurant management. What are the requirements for MBA? I think they accept people from different fields. Not sure how difficult it is to get assistantships in MBA programs, especially with culinary arts background.

A couple of universities used to have (and may still have - UIUC and Princeton are two that I know) a separate Masters in Computer Science program for people with Bachelor’s in not-related fields (sligthly different from the usual MS/CS programs, but nobody outside the school knows the difference), but unless you’ve always been very good in math, it’s a bit of a stretch from culinary arts. I worked with a guy, though, who got his BA in Philosophy and Master’s in CS from Princeton and who is now a leading CS researcher working for one of world’s best known corporate research labs, but he is exceptional.

23 golbguru 09.12.07 at 9:27 am

Matt: “They were always partying getting laid and having tons of fun. Why wouldn’t anyone want to do this? I thought.” - I think you are feeling the burden because you got into the field for all the wrong reasons. :) I was expecting to see this somewhere in your comment: “I love cooking”. In this case, it will be difficult for you to strike a balance between quality of life and job *satisfaction*. Like Sunny said above, you are pursuing a J-O-B rather than a career.

That’s exactly what the CNN Money article was about - you can’t take up these jobs if you don’t have enough passion for the work.

Having said that, my next suggestion would be to see if you could have better conditions at a different restaurant - perhaps the place you are working at right now is especially bad.

If that doesn’t work, then think in terms of what Moom and Kitty have mentioned above - restaurant management - but only if you love to be in and around restaurants … otherwise even that’s going to feel like stressful very soon. Plus you have to consider the cost of management programs - which sometimes tends to be very steep.

If things work in your favor - then, with sufficient analytical skills, after you get started with MBA, you could probably diversify in to any other MBA program - you don’t need to be restricted to restaurant management.

There might be a whole lot of other options you can pursue depending on your skill sets - and I am not sure how we can discuss all of them here. The only hot tip I can give you here is to take some time to peacefully think about this question: “What else is there, other than this cooking job, that I would really love to do?” Once you find the answer to that, go ahead and try to figure out how you can maximize your monetary returns for that particular activity.

Hit a few job forums, and check out what other people are saying about it. I am sure many cooks find themselves in your shoes, so there must be a tried-and-tested formula for this problem.

24 lw 09.14.07 at 12:49 am

Matt, network with people elsewhere in the food industry. You might be a good food buyer at a (gourmet?) grocery store for example. But you may have to think a little bit about what you like to do, and look for related jobs with more payoff that also give you other perks important to you. Like as a buyer you might still have crazy hours. Are you looking for 9-5? Do you love food? Do you want to stay in the food industry? Do you just need a vacation? Good luck.

25 mapgirl 09.14.07 at 4:24 am

Hey Matt, have you ever thought of working at a different restaurant operation? Something that has a catering branch or private chef services?

I met a chef who flies all over the place cooking for celebrities and stuff. She seems to like it and have a lot of fun. It’s kind of hard to line up gigs, but as her reputation grows, the work is steady.

26 Lisa B. in OK 09.16.07 at 9:12 am

Kudos to all of the advice givers above. :) You have received some excellent information and have obviously touched a nerve with several of us. I would venture to say that all of us have been in jobs that we thought would be great at first, only to find that our expectations were way off.

As an undergrad, I started out as an accounting major, partly because I had seen accountants living what seemed to me to be “the good life.” Once I began my core curriculum work, I thought “What the hell am I doing? I hate math!” I took a test on an old computer program called “Discovery” in my campus career advisor’s office, which is a basic personality inventory test. It compared my likes and dislikes to professionals in various careers. This is how I came to change my mind about making big bucks, and instead opt for a career in education. I have taught public school for 18 years, and though the pay can seem lousy, (especially compared to other states), I have never regretted changing my mind.

If you are really searching for a new avenue, perhaps your alma mater could offer you a similar service. Even if you live far away from where you went to college, a nearer institution should be able to provide you with something similar, or recommend an online alternative.

Sometimes I think we are suited to a particular field for a certain season of our life. But as we change, our needs change, and we find ourselves searching for new fulfillment, be it financial, personal, professional, or spiritual. There are tons of things you can do other than slave away in a hot kitchen. Someone else may love to have your position, for their season is suited for that. But, if your’s has passed, move on to your new calling before you find yourself hating everyone and everything around you.
Lifw is too short! :)

27 Michael Bell 11.28.07 at 5:28 pm

It’s interesting to hear other peoples stories and how they find the balance. For me, teaching has always been the best option. I know there are a lot of stereotypes surrounding the profession, and it comes with it’s difficulties, but there are so many benefits. Inspiring kids at a crucial time in their life is incredible. So are summers off so I can pursue my interests or work on alternate income sources. It’s really nice having a break every year from your job so you don’t burn out too quickly.

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