“Do what you love, and the money will follow.” Well-meaning friends and family members may utter those words as you head off to college. And they’re right—to a point. After graduation, money almost certainly will follow. On average, a worker with a bachelor’s degree earns nearly double the pay of someone with just a high school diploma. But the college major you choose can have a significant impact on exactly how much your passion pays off.
We took an in-depth look at 129 popular college majors, seeking courses of study that typically lead to big paychecks at both the entry level and midway through a career. We also looked for majors that are highly sought-after in the workforce, as evidenced by high numbers of online job postings seeking applicants with specific majors. Finally, we screened for career fields related to these majors that offer strong growth prospects for years to come.
Check out our 2014–2015 rankings of the 10 best college majors for a lucrative career.
For each of the 129 college majors, compensation research firm PayScale provided median annual salaries for recent grads (five years or less of work experience) and median annual salaries for mid-career employees (at least ten years of work experience). Total online job postings during 2013 seeking applicants with each of the 129 college majors were supplied by workforce research firm Burning Glass Technologies. Projected ten-year growth rates from 2012 to 2022 for selected occupations related to each college major came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as did median annual incomes for related occupations.
Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career
Starting salary: $55,400 (median for all 129 majors: $40,400)
Mid-career salary: $71,700 (median for all 129 majors: $69,800)
Annual online job postings: 1,114,489
Best related job: Registered Nurse
Projected 10-year job growth: 19.4% (all occupations: 10.8%)
Registered nurses earn a median pay of $65,470, which includes those with an associate’s degree or nursing-program diploma. Bachelor’s degrees are strongly preferred in major cities, particularly in hospitals, which are more selective in hiring. The profession will expand at almost twice the national average rate by 2022, largely as a result of changing demographics. “More elderly people will lead to a greater demand for health care,” says Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies. A master’s degree can qualify you to become a nurse practitioner, which pays a median salary of $89,960.
Prospective majors have to meet a variety of prerequisites, mostly science-related, before being accepted into a nursing program. The heart of the major involves health assessment and anatomy courses, among others, which are paired with extensive supervised clinical experience. You’ll need to pass an exam in order to get licensed. Office-based nurses work typical weekday hours, but nurses at hospitals should be prepared for work at all hours any day of the week.10. Nursing
Starting salary: $58,700
Mid-career salary: $120,000
Annual online job postings: 24,978
Best related job: Actuary
Projected 10-year job growth: 26.1%
Actuaries work in the insurance and finance industries to analyze the financial costs of risk and uncertainty. With a strong mathematical background that includes an in-depth understanding of statistics, probability and finance, they are sought after by firms looking to minimize the costs of risky business strategies. Actuaries enjoy the best of both worlds—high pay and manageable hours—with a median salary of $93,680 and only 3 out of 10 professionals working more than 40 hours per week.
While math majors often head to graduate school after college, actuarial mathematics majors generally dive right into the job market, as a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for those not pursuing a career as an academic in the field. In order to break into the industry, you will have to pass a series of exams, a couple of which most students try to complete while they’re still enrolled in college.9. Actuarial Mathematics
Starting salary: $49,200
Mid-career salary: $87,100
Annual online job postings: 1,181,973
Best related job: Financial Analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 15.5%
Business is booming for finance majors, as long days (and nights) at the office are being rewarded with big bucks. With a median salary of $76,950 and about one-third of professionals working over 40 hours each week, financial analyst is one of the popular entry-level positions for recent grads. Those in search of a big payday can become personal financial advisors. While the median salary is $67,520, the top 10% of advisors earn more than $187,200. “There will always be demand for people who know finance,” says Sigelman, “but the emergence of big data has also made finance majors sought-after for a wide range of jobs involving analytics.”
Courses within the major will teach students how to make investment decisions using complex computer models. The highest achievers often come into the major with a strong mathematical background and a good amount of common sense, both of which are vital attributes as professionals in the field.8. Finance
Starting salary: $52,500
Mid-career salary: $98,900
Annual online job postings: 171,707
Best related job: Statistician
Projected 10-year job growth: 26.7%
The future looks bright for a major in the business of predicting it. Statistics majors specialize in regression analysis and probability, using computer programs to build complex models that predict anything from the winner of the next presidential election to the effectiveness of a new health care initiative. With the field rapidly expanding, graduates will be in high demand for the foreseeable future, as the need for statistical analysis grows in business, health care and public policy.
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for many entry-level positions, but a graduate degree will advance your career as a statistician, with most academics and researchers needing a Ph.D. Given the close relationship between statistical modeling and technology, a minor in computer science or a related field would be beneficial.7. Statistics
Starting salary: $54,300
Mid-career salary: $91,100
Annual online job postings: 259,495
Best related job: Civil Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 19.7%
Civil engineers design and supervise large construction projects, including airports, sewer systems and tunnels, ensuring that each new architectural creation is structurally sound. With a median pay of $79,340 that jumps to $89,440 for civil engineers employed by the federal government, this is a rewarding field for those with a knack for math and science. Extensive experience, licensure and a graduate degree line you up for higher-paying management positions.
Your course load would include fluid mechanics, statics, structural analysis and design, and thermodynamics, with sessions in lecture halls, labs and in the field. This isn’t the major for students more comfortable locking themselves in a dorm room and working through math problems alone all semester. Civil engineers collaborate with other professionals in the industry such as architects and construction workers, so be prepared to hone your communication skills in group projects and presentations.6. Civil Engineering
Starting salary: $50,100
Mid-career salary: $96,700
Annual online job postings: 916,424
Best related job: Economist
Projected 10-year job growth: 13.9%
These students emerge from college as such well-rounded job candidates that their biggest worry is often narrowing down their interests and picking a specific field. Economics majors sharpen their analytical, quantitative, research and writing abilities in a variety of courses throughout school, making them desirable for their diverse skill sets upon graduation.
With economics majors scattered around the professional world in research, finance and consulting positions, there is no single clear path for graduates to take. Summer internships are particularly helpful for majors to explore specific fields and develop technical skills. Many choose to pursue a graduate degree, which sets them up to become an economist, a job with a median salary of $91,860 and an above-average growth rate.5. Economics
Starting salary: $49,900
Mid-career salary: $84,100
Annual online job postings: 2,078,624
Best related job: Computer Systems Analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 24.5%
Information technology graduates are tasked with implementing technology within a company or organization. The major includes courses that merge technology with business, and many students choose to tailor their schedule toward a single specialty, such as digital communications or Web development. Expect to spend time as an intern in a company’s IT department during the summer learning the trade.
A bachelor’s degree in information technology puts you in a good position to become a computer systems analyst, which has a lofty median salary of $79,680. With job growth projected to be well above average, largely due to the boom in cybersecurity and mobile networks, employers will be hiring graduates in droves for this position. Some students pursue graduate school, which is preferred for some high-paying positions such as computer and information research scientists.4. Information Technology
Starting salary: $60,500
Mid-career salary: $99,300
Annual online job postings: 709,626
Best related job: Software Applications Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 22.8%
Software-engineering majors prepare to specialize in the planning, formulating, testing and implementation of computer software, creating program designs for anything from space shuttles to mobile phones. Courses within the major include software architecture and design, software testing and quality assurance, and systems analysis, and will continue to evolve in tandem with the rapidly progressing field that they explore.
As the demand for software continues to expand across all industries, trained software engineers will be increasingly coveted for their expertise. If you decide that a career as a software engineer isn’t your calling after graduation, your technological savvy will qualify you for a variety of positions in the computer science and programming spheres.3. Software Engineering
Starting salary: $53,800
Mid-career salary: $92,200
Annual online job postings: 2,506,300
Best related job: Computer and Information Systems Manager
Projected 10-year job growth: 15.3%
Successful management information systems majors combine an in-depth understanding of technology with strong business acumen to complete their diverse curriculums. The coursework is an eclectic mix of traditional programming, business, sociology, psychology, Internet ethics and project management, just to name a few.
Like many of the other technology-related degrees in these rankings, MIS doesn’t fast-track you to any single profession. But graduates’ skill sets make them ideal candidates for computer and information systems managers after a few years of experience in an entry-level position in the broader information systems industry. Earning a median salary of $120,950 per year, computer and information systems managers essentially serve as translators—ensuring that the more technical, IT side of the firm is on the same page as the business side, putting it in a good position to succeed.2. Management Information Systems
Starting salary: $59,800
Mid-career salary: $102,000
Annual online job postings: 2,078,624
Best related job: Information security analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 36.5%
Computer science majors are highly coveted technology gurus who join some of the world’s fastest-growing industries upon graduation. Expect long nights in the computer lab thinking up creative new ways to attack tricky programming puzzles. The coursework will focus on computer programming in coding languages such as C++ and Java, but can range from systems analytics to robotics.
Graduates will have little trouble finding work in a welcoming job market, with occupations such as computer and information research scientists and software developers in high demand. Information security analysts, specifically, who now earn a median pay of $86,170 a year, will continue to be sought after for years to come. “It’s not just about working for Google anymore,” says Sigelman, noting that an understanding of software makes computer science majors appealing to virtually every industry.1. Computer Science
1. Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences 2. Computer Science 3. Civil Engineering 4. Information Systems Management 5. Nursing 6. Information Systems 7. Finance 8. Math 9. Information Science 10. Construction
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Here is the 2013–2014 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.2013–2014 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 the 2012-2013 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
All contents © 2015 The Kiplinger Washington Editors