Want a Rewarding Career? Don't Major in Business

college professor lecturing...

"The germ of an idea for a breakthrough in technology doesn't come out of a business school curriculum. It comes out of a laboratory or a math lecture or a physics tutorial."

So said British billionaire, venture capitalist and former Google (GOOG) board member Michael Moritz in an interview with Charlie Rose last year -- and Moritz is probably right. For every example you can find of a young Fred Smith -- who famously came up with the idea for founding FedEx (FDX) in the course of studying economics at Yale in 1965 -- having a eureka moment in a college business course, there are two or three just as famous examples of entrepreneurs who only struck gold after dropping out of college (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg) or who never studied business at all (Whole Foods Market (WFM) founder John Mackey, also a college dropout).

As a general rule, business school seems to be a bad place to look for game-changing technologies. Contrary to what you might expect, business school might not be the best place to go if you're looking to embark on a fulfilling career.

Survey Says ... Think Twice About Going to B-School

That last revelation, at least, appears to be the conclusion of a Gallup poll, which earlier this year found that "U.S. college graduates who majored in business are the least likely of those who majored in the four large major categories -- social sciences/education, sciences/engineering, arts and humanities, and business -- to express strong interest in the work they now do, regardless of what career path they may have followed after graduation."

Surveying 29,560 college graduates of all ages across the country, Gallup found that only about 37 percent of business school graduates polled describe themselves as "deeply interested" in their work today. That's 10 percentage points fewer than graduates who majored in the social sciences or in education. It's 6 points below the results tallied for college graduates who majored in the "hard" sciences, or in the arts and humanities.

Job satisfaction also appears to be a sore point among former business majors, with surveys by Gallup, in conjunction with "health and well-being" company Healthways (HWAY), finding that fewer business majors than graduates in other fields "lik[e] what they do each day" and are "motivated to achieve their goals" after graduation. Of business majors, 48 percent of business majors were "thriving" in this area, compared to 56 percent who majored in social sciences/education, 54 percent in sciences/engineering, and 53 percent in arts and humanities.

And yet, as Gallup reports, across the U.S., nearly one American college student in five has chosen to major in business.

But Money Can Still Buy Happiness, Right?

Why do so many college kids study business? Well, in case you haven't noticed, the U.S. economy is still in a bit of a funk.

Troubled economic times tend to focus students' attention on their ability to land a job out of college. And Gallup notes that "the perceived marketability of business fields that should help boost a person's earning potential" may be a big factor behind the continued popularity of business majors.

And yet, at the same time, polling data collected by Gallup and Healthways show that when it comes to getting paid, business school majors fall short once again.

Asked whether they are "thriving" financially, only 43 percent of college business school graduates agreed with the statement. That was somewhat better than the numbers tallied for graduates with social sciences/education degrees (42 percent) or for arts and humanities graduates (39 percent). But once again -- and as Moritz might have told you -- the folks who have the most fulfilling careers and make the most money working in those careers are students who earned science and engineering degrees. Forty-eight percent of such students say they're "thriving" financially today.

Careers That Matter -- and That Pay

Little wonder, then, that among college majors found to have the best salary potential in a recent survey conducted by PayScale.com, the top three were:

  • Petroleum engineering (with a median starting salary of $103,000 and a mid-career median of $160,000).

  • Actuarial mathematics (with salaries of $58,700 and $120,000, respectively)

  • Nuclear engineering ($67,600 and $117,000).

Finance landed in 27th place, at $49,200 to start; international business not much better at 34th place. And plain-vanilla business administration tied for 60th place, with a mid-career salary roughly 31 percent below the median starting salary for a petroleum engineer.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned, and he doesn't have an MBA, either. The Motley Fool recommends FedEx, Google (A and C shares) and Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google (A and C shares) and Whole Foods Market, and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market John Mackey is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors -- despite his lack of a business degree. Find out the easy way for investors to ride the new mega-trend in the automotive industry in our free report.