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Slide Show | September 2013

Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career

"What's your major?" It's not just the question everyone will ask throughout your college years. It's actually an important decision that will influence your future career and the income that will come with it.

We took a deep dive into 95 popular college majors, looking for courses of study that, statistically, lead to higher-than-average employment rates for both recent graduates and experienced workers. We also sought out majors that typically result in fat paychecks right out of school as well as farther along a career path. Finally, we screened for fields that offer strong prospects for job growth.

Our top ten majors present interested scholars with the best shot at success in the workplace, complete with generous incomes and an abundance of related job opportunities. Check out the best college majors for a lucrative career.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce provided the list of 95 majors, as well as the unemployment rates associated with each major for recent college graduates with bachelor’s degrees (ages 22 to 26) and mid-career workers (ages 30 to 54). Median annual salaries for recent grads (five years or less of work experience) and mid-career employees (at least ten years of work experience) for each major were supplied by compensation research firm PayScale. Projected growth rates from 2010 to 2020 for selected occupations are courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as are median incomes for specific jobs and related industries.


Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career

10. Construction

Starting salary: $49,500 (median for all grads with bachelor’s: $44,700)

Mid-career salary: $86,100 (median for all grads with bachelor’s: $77,000)

Mid-career unemployment rate: 5.4% (all grads with bachelor’s: 4.7%)

Best related job: Construction Manager

Projected job growth: 16.6% (all occupations: 14.3%)

Sure, you can skip college to get started in the construction industry. But to break into management — and earn the biggest paychecks — you'll want to have a bachelor's degree in your toolbox. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employers are increasingly looking for college graduates, as well as experienced workers, to manage projects constructing everything from buildings to bridges.

Degree candidates need a solid foundation of math and science courses, according to the College Board, a nonprofit education organization. You need to understand the physics of building a structure, as well as the accounting to build the budget for it. You also have to study blueprint reading, electrical and mechanical systems, labor law and principles of management.

10. Construction

9. Information Science

Starting salary: $54,100

Mid-career salary: $83,800

Mid-career unemployment rate: 5.2%

Best related job: Software Developer

Projected job growth: 24.6%

Computers are everywhere, and people who know how to make, modify and master the machines are in high demand. Overall, computer-related positions are expected to grow 22.1% by 2020, and they currently offer a median annual pay of $76,270. Specifically, developers of both applications and systems software (one of our Best Jobs for the Future) make out even better, with a median pay of $87,100 a year.

Information science majors take a lot of technology-focused classes, such as database management, database applications and programming. This field also fosters an interest in psychology, encouraging the study of human-computer interaction and the relationship between information and society. So if the machines rise up, you'll be primed for another quality career: ambassador to the matrix.

9. Information Science

8. Math

Starting salary: $48,500

Mid-career salary: $85,800

Mid-career unemployment rate: 4.6%

Best related job: Mathematician

Projected job growth: 15.7%

Among the array of mathematical science occupations, mathematicians — who can find work with government, scientific research firms, colleges and elsewhere — earn the greatest median pay: $101,360 a year. Actuaries are in even higher demand, with a projected 26.7% growth rate this decade, and they have a still-generous median annual pay of $93,680. Math majors can also apply their skills in other fields, such as business, finance, education and computer science. And they're more likely to be able to do so right away; while the overall unemployment rate for recent grads is 7.9%, it's just 5.9% for math majors, according to Georgetown.

Expect your graphing-calculator usage to be exponentially higher in college. You likely already warmed it up in high school with advanced-placement calculus or statistics. But your college syllabus will be filled with higher-level courses, such as combinatorics, multi-variable calculus, number theory and real analysis.

8. Math

7. Finance

Starting salary: $47,700

Mid-career salary: $85,400

Mid-career unemployment rate: 4.4%

Best related job: Financial Analyst

Projected job growth: 23.0%

The numbers look good for finance majors. Despite the bad press about Wall Street, recent grads in this field have just a 5.9% unemployment rate, and the industry continues to expand. Financial analysts, specifically, who now earn a median pay of $76,950 a year, will continue to be in high demand for the rest of this decade. Managers receive six-figure paychecks, but only 8.8% growth is expected; personal financial advisers face a projected growth rate of 32.1% and typically earn $67,520 a year.

High school students interested in finance can get a leg up by studying economics, statistics and calculus. On top of those courses, you'll add accounting, financial markets and investing to your class schedule in college.

7. Finance

6. Information Systems

Starting salary: $50,900

Mid-career salary: $86,700

Mid-career unemployment rate: 4.4%

Best related job: Systems Analyst

Projected job growth: 22.1%

For another promising major, head back to the computer lab — or, more likely, your dorm room, where you keep your own PC or Mac. Information systems focuses on the study of implementing technology within a company or organization. To find the best ways to do that, you need an understanding of how the business works. So, along with the typical computer courses, you might expect to take courses such as database management, systems analysis and software engineering. You would benefit from a minor in business, as well.

While this degree qualifies you for any number of tech-related occupations, your most direct path to a lucrative future is to become a systems analyst. Along with the strong projected growth in demand for this role, the median pay is $79,680 a year. Your bachelor's degree alone should suffice to land a quality job. But to remain competitive, most analysts need to continue their education throughout their careers to learn about the new technologies that are constantly being released.

6. Information Systems

5. Nursing

Starting salary: $54,100

Mid-career salary: $70,200

Mid-career unemployment rate: 2.3%

Best related job: Registered Nurse

Projected job growth: 26.0%

You can become an RN with an associate's degree or nursing program diploma, which requires just two or three years of schooling. But with a bachelor's degree, you stand to earn $5,500 more each year and up to $106,000 annually, according to PayScale. Nurse practitioners with master's degrees can make as much as $116,000.On top of the generous pay, recent grads enjoy a low unemployment rate of 4.8%. Plus, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 711,900 new registered nurses to join the workforce by 2020.

Nurses-to-be take many science courses, including anatomy, chemistry, microbiology and nutrition. You also get supervised clinical experience in various specialties, such as pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery. And you'll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination to get your license (which has other requirements that vary by state).

5. Nursing

4. Information Systems Management

Starting salary: $51,600

Mid-career salary: $88,600

Mid-career unemployment rate: 4.0%

Best related job: Information Systems Manager

Projected job growth:18.1%

Take the number-six major on this list, information systems, and up the ante on the business side of the field to focus on the management of information systems. In addition to your computer courses, you will study sociology and psychology, Internet ethics and project management. In fact, many colleges offer this degree through their business schools.

Your degree can lead you onto many different computer-related career paths. But it seems best suited to the position of information systems manager. On top of the above-average growth in demand, an information systems manager is the highest paid of all computer specialists, making a median $120,950 a year. But it will take at least a few years of work experience to climb to this management role. And many employers prefer candidates with MBAs.

4. Information Systems Management

3. Civil Engineering

Starting salary: $53,800

Mid-career salary: $88,800

Mid-career unemployment rate: 4.0%

Best related job: Civil Engineer

Projected job growth: 19.4%

Engineers, in general, are expected to have a below-average growth rate of 10.6%. But civil engineers — who design and supervise large construction projects, including airports, sewer systems and tunnels — ought to fare better. They're projected to add 51,100 positions, or 31% of all new engineering jobs, by 2020. The pay isn't too shabby either: a median $79,340 a year.

An inclination toward math and science would make you a good civil engineering candidate. Your course load would include fluid mechanics, statics, structural analysis and design, and thermodynamics. Also be prepared to think through many word problems and work on group projects.

3. Civil Engineering

2. Computer Science

Starting salary: $58,400

Mid-career salary: $100,000

Mid-career unemployment rate: 4.7%

Best related job: Computer Scientist

Projected job growth: 18.7%

Computer science majors focus on the fundamentals of today's technology in order to devise what tomorrow will bring. So they need as much imagination as mathematical logic. Programming courses, including computer languages C++ and Java, will be the core of your schedule. Other classes might include artificial intelligence, computer system organization and digital system design.

Computer scientists create new technology and figure out novel ways to use existing tech. They can choose to focus on hardware, robotics or software and often find work with the federal government, computer systems design firms or scientific research companies. On top of the above-average growth in demand, computer scientists earn a median pay of $102,190 a year. Plus, if the machines rise up, it might have been your fault, but you'll have the know-how to save us all.

2. Computer Science

1. Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences

Starting salary: $42,100

Mid-career salary: $120,000

Mid-career unemployment rate: 2.5%

Best related job: Medical Scientist

Projected job growth: 36.4%

Students in this field graduate into a welcoming job market and have the second-lowest unemployment rate on this list (after nursing). The starting pay may fall a bit short of the national median, but by mid career you stand to earn the highest income of any grads with our best majors.

If you hope to become a pharmacist, you’ll need a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, which you can earn with or without a bachelor's in pharmacy. But if a career behind a CVS counter isn’t in the cards, a bachelor’s in pharmacy can also start grooming you for work as a medical scientist, doing research to design and develop drugs. You'll benefit from a few years of graduate training to go this route, but the median annual pay for medical scientists of $76,980 may help make it worthwhile. Otherwise, with just a bachelor's degree, you might consider going into pharmaceutical sales; a representative makes a median $81,646 a year, according to PayScale. For more information on this field, visit the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

1. Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences

2012-2013 Rankings

1. Pharmacy and Pharmacology
2. Nursing
3. Transportation Sciences and Technology
4. Treatment Therapy Professions
5. Chemical Engineering
6. Electrical Engineering
7. Medical Technologies
8. Construction Services
9. Management Information Systems
10. Medical Assisting Services

Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Here is last year's list of the best college majors for a lucrative career. Keep in mind that ranking methodologies can change from year to year based on the data available at the time, changes to how the data was gathered, switches to new data providers and tweaks to the formulas used to narrow the pool of candidates.

2012-2013 Rankings

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