Sales is a massive career field, and some – though not all – of these jobs offer the potential for lucrative earnings. If you want to get started in a professional sales career, a college education could be the way to do so. Earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in sales, business, marketing or psychology could be a wise choice. Some sales careers involve selling specialized products for which you may need a degree in that field or industry. If you hope to be promoted to a sales manager position eventually, you should plan to earn at least a bachelor’s degree and may even consider going to graduate school. Although each professional salesperson’s path to the career might look different, there are plenty of degree options available for aspiring sales professionals.
Do You Need a Sales Degree to be a Successful Salesperson?
Sales and related jobs account for more than 13 million jobs as of 2020, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Within this occupational group, you will find many distinct jobs, each with its own responsibilities, required qualifications and salary ranges.
Sales Jobs That Don’t Require a Degree
While many sales jobs don’t require a college education at all, these occupations are also the lowest paying. For example, cashiers earned a nationwide median wage of just $25,020 per year, or $12.03 per hour, in 2020, the BLS reported. Retail sales workers don’t fare much better, with the BLS reporting a median salary of $27,320 per year, or $15.61 per hour. It’s no coincidence that the BLS reports that no formal education is required to perform these jobs that relatively simple on-the-job training can prepare you to work.
These low-wage jobs are abundant – accounting for a combined 7,472,000, or more than half of all sales jobs in America, as of 2020 – and they drag down the overall median annual wage for sales occupations. In 2020, the BLS reported an overall median salary of just $31,500 for all sales roles, putting earning potential in this occupational group well below the $41,950 median wage the BLS reported for all occupations in the same year.
Sales Jobs in Which You Will (Or Might) Need a Degree
Of course, not all sales jobs have such a discouraging salary potential. Median salaries for many of these jobs – including travel agents, real estate sales agents, insurance sales agents and advertising sales agents – are above the median wage for all occupations. These sales professionals are more likely to have either a degree or some other kind of training or education.
For example, the most commonly reported level of education for travel agents is an associate’s degree, according to O*NET, and the BLS reported that real estate agents must complete specialized real estate coursework to acquire a license. Your earning potential in these jobs is often performance-based, so sales professionals in these roles who work hard and are especially successful may earn significant bonuses or commission pay. As such, it makes sense that the 10 percent of travel agents who make the most money earned more than $73,360 per year, and the best-paid real estate sales agents reported earning more than $112,410 annually as of 2020.
The best-paying sales careers are the ones that are most likely to require a college education. A bachelor’s degree is typically an entry-level requirement for securities, commodities and financial services sales agents, for whom the BLS reported a 2020 median wage of $64,770. Sales engineers generally need a college degree to assist them in making business-to-business sales of scientific and technological products and services, and the BLS listed their 2020 median salary as $108,830.
Even if a college degree isn’t mandatory, having an education is likely to help you be more successful in your career. Regardless of what major you choose, your general education coursework will help you advance your communication skills and your knowledge of the life, physical and social sciences. A course in psychology can better help you understand human thinking and behavior, including what drives consumers to make purchases and how you can persuade people to buy your product or service.
Some individuals seem to naturally have strong sales skills, but regardless of your starting level, you can improve your sales skills through hard work, study and practice. Learning to improve your communication skills and to better understand consumer behavior can also help you build confidence, which is a key part of success in sales occupations.
What Level of Education Is the Best Degree for Sales?
If you choose to earn a degree for your career in sales, the next question is what level of degree is best. Most sales professionals who go to college pursue either an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.
Associate Degrees for Sales Jobs
Associate’s degrees can give you an edge over the competition without derailing your attention from your career for an extended time. You can earn these undergraduate degrees from a community college or junior college in two years if you study full-time. While many of the entry-level jobs you can get with an associate’s degree are the same jobs you are eligible for with just a high school diploma, having a college education under your belt increases your opportunities for advancement to roles like assistant manager, store manager, sales supervisor and executive assistant. Even if you’re not eyeing a move to management roles, your studies at a community college can help you develop your skills.
An associate’s degree can stand on its own in many sales jobs, but community college doesn’t have to be the end of your education. Your associate’s degree might be a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, which can expand your career opportunities even more. Starting out your career with an associate’s degree and work experience, rather than a bachelor’s degree but no experience, can be especially valuable when seeking a job with an employer that heavily values real-world knowledge.
One of the benefits of pursuing an associate’s degree is its affordability. Tuition at the community colleges and junior colleges that typically award associate’s degrees is often cheaper than that at four-year universities. Students can also complete an associate’s degree online for a more convenient education option.
The Benefits of a Bachelor’s Degree for Sales Professionals
If you don’t mind investing some more time and effort into your education, earning your bachelor’s degree in a field of study like business is your best option to prepare for a well-paying sales role. Having a bachelor’s degree is unlikely to harm your ability to attain other entry-level business roles and can even boost your income potential in these roles. The degree can also help you move up the ladder into higher-ranking sales roles.
In particular, if you would like to work as a securities, commodities and financial services sales agent – the occupation that includes brokers and investment bankers – you will likely need a bachelor’s degree and may even wish to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree eventually. Finance isn’t the only area of sales in which a bachelor’s degree is beneficial or essential. Generally, the more advanced your scientific, technical or industry-specific knowledge needs to be to knowledgeably sell a product or service, the more value a bachelor’s degree can add.
When Do You Need a Master’s Degree to Work in Sales?
Most sales professionals don’t need to go to graduate school – at least, not if they’re happy in sales roles as opposed to managerial roles. That said, there is some demand for a master’s degree in certain sales occupations. While a bachelor’s degree is more popular among securities, commodities and financial services sales agents than a master’s degree, going to graduate school has historically offered workers in this occupation a massive wage premium of 89 percent, the BLS reported.
A master’s degree isn’t required for sales engineers, who more commonly have a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree. However, O*NET reported that 20 percent of sales engineers have earned their master’s degrees. Having a master’s degree can help you advance to roles selling more complex and technical products and services, which may pay higher wages, as well.
If you do aspire to work in management, this goal may prompt you to go to graduate school. A master’s degree, such as an MBA or a Master of Science in Sales Management degree, may prove beneficial to those seeking promotion to a sales manager role. The more competitive the position you’re trying to attain, the more you will need to stand out from the competition.
In addition to a degree, employers will look at factors like your amount of sales work experience, any metrics that illustrate your success as a salesperson and sales certifications such as the Certified Professional Sales Person credential offered by the National Association of Sales Professionals.
What Is the Best Major for Sales?
Effective salespeople can come from any background and any major, but if you already know that you want to pursue a sales career, it makes sense to choose a major that is relevant to the art and science of making sales. In addition to majors devoted specifically to sales and professional selling, students might consider degree programs in business administration, marketing or specialized content areas like science and engineering.
Pursuing a Sales Major in College
Can you earn a bachelor degree in sales? While sales-specific bachelor’s degrees aren’t particularly common, they do exist. Students who choose to pursue a sales bachelor degree will complete coursework in areas like professional selling, market research and analysis, sales strategy, sales management, consumer behavior, supply chain management and sales technology application.
Sales and business are interconnected, so students should expect to take some coursework in business more generally. Common business core classes include accounting, finance, business analytics and statistics, business law, economics, marketing, management, business information systems and business communications.
Business-Focused Sales Majors
Business administration is a versatile option that offers great potential for sales workers. These degrees are general in nature, consisting of core coursework that draws from a variety of business subjects, but they often allow students to pursue an area of emphasis. Business administration degrees exist at the associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s levels of study, and the difficulty of your coursework depends upon the level of the degree you’re pursuing.
Students in an associate’s degree in business management or business administration may take classes like Introduction to Business, Principles of Management and Introduction to Project Management. They also complete core business coursework in subjects like accounting, finance, human resources and business analytics.
Likewise, a bachelor’s degree in business administration draws from all areas of business to provide students with a well-rounded education. The curriculum is likely to include more advanced studies in business law, the foundations of marketing, organizational and strategic management, business analytics, finance and accounting, as well as a sequence of coursework in the student’s chosen area of concentration.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in business is especially valuable if you want to become a sales manager, a career with a six-figure median salary, according to the BLS. As many as 65 percent of sales managers have a bachelor’s degree, according to O*NET, and some sales managers have a post-baccalaureate certificate or a graduate education.
Marketing Programs as Sales Degrees
Marketing is another program of study that fits well into work in sales. With an associate’s degree in marketing, a number of sales and marketing jobs will be open to you, including retail sales manager and market research assistant. The curriculum of an associate’s degree in marketing program may include classes like Introduction to Marketing, Social Media Marketing and Integrated Marketing Communications, along with core business courses. Marketing degrees can be pursued at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, as well.
Specialized Industry Degrees for Sales Professionals
When you’re asking what degree you need to work in sales, it helps to think about what products or services you want to sell. While sales skills are important for all professional selling roles, specialized knowledge is also integral to certain jobs. Sales engineer, the most lucrative non-managerial role in sales, involves the selling of highly technical products and services.
To become a sales engineer, you may need a bachelor’s degree in a subject related to the industry – if not engineering, then chemistry or another relevant field of science, the BLS reported. You may also need specialized knowledge for some roles in the sale of medical or pharmaceutical products. Majoring in any of the natural or physical sciences will involve a considerable amount of laboratory science coursework, while studies in engineering include plenty of math and science coursework along with coursework in engineering design.
Although your major coursework for a science or engineering degree may not require business classes, it may be a good idea to pursue a business minor or other sequence of business courses if you want to work in a specialized sales role after graduation.