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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| September 2015
College is often considered the surest path to a lucrative career. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a worker with a bachelor's degree or higher typically earns 79% more than someone with just a high school diploma. But not all college degrees are created equal. "There are more opportunities for those with more education, but it's not just for any degree," says Joshua Wright, of Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), a labor market research firm. "It's really what you major in that makes a big difference."
To determine which majors typically come with the best hiring prospects and pay, we analyzed data for 128 popular college majors. We looked for courses of study that tend to lead to fat paychecks—both right out of school and farther along your career path. We also sought out majors that are in high demand based on recent online job postings as well as long-term growth expectations for related occupations.
Our top 10 majors present interested scholars with the best shots at success in the workplace, complete with generous incomes and an abundance of job opportunities. Check out the best college majors for a lucrative career.
For each of the 128 college majors, compensation research firm PayScale provided median annual salaries for entry-level workers (with five years or less of work experience) and mid-career employees (with at least 10 years of experience). Workforce research firm Burning Glass Technologies supplied the number of online job postings listed during 2014 that were seeking applicants with each of the 128 college majors. Related jobs were selected based on major-to-job mappings from Burning Glass and The College Board. Projected 10-year growth rates from 2014 to 2024 and median annual incomes for selected occupations came from Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI). EMSI, owned by CareerBuilder, collects data from more than 90 federal, state and private sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Starting salary: $56,900 (median for all 128 majors: $41,600)
Mid-career salary: $73,600 (median for all 128 majors: $71,650)
Annual online job postings: 911,018
Best related job: Registered Nurse
Projected 10-year job growth: 16.3% (all occupations: 11.1%)
The need for nurses is as persistent as the common cold. Most health care professionals, in general, are benefiting from the aging population and increasing number of insured people. Prospects for registered nurses, as well as nurse practitioners, are particularly promising—both are among our best jobs for the future.
To reach RN ranks, nursing students must 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 (additional requirements vary by state).
Starting salary: $60,800
Mid-career salary: $119,600
Annual online job postings: 21,782
Best related job: Actuary
Projected 10-year job growth: 23.0%
You'll find little risk in pursuing an actuarial career. These professionals—who work in the insurance and finance industries analyzing the costs of risk and uncertainty—are in high demand. New health care laws and financial regulations help drive companies' needs for their services. Their usefulness is well compensated; actuaries enjoy a median salary of more than $94,000 a year. For even better pay, an actuarial sciences degree can also lead you to becoming a financial manager, who typically earns nearly $111,300 a year. In general, actuarial mathematics leads to the second-highest mid-career salaries of all our 128 majors.
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. In college, you can expect to take micro- and macroeconomics, probability and risk theory courses, too.
Starting salary: $55,100
Mid-career salary: $93,400
Annual online job postings: 152,412
Best related job: Civil Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 17.8%
A number of engineering fields are well known for paying well. Petroleum engineering, for example, turns out the top earners of all 128 majors we analyzed. However, the size of the job market—with fewer than 39,000 petroleum engineers in the country—means scant opportunities for those looking to join the field, especially in light of the steep drop in oil prices since 2014. Civil engineering students have better prospects: Civil engineers, who design and supervise large construction projects, including airports, sewer systems and tunnels, are expected to add more than 50,000 positions to their ranks by 2024.
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.
Starting salary: $54,900
Mid-career salary: $103,100
Annual online job postings: 103,270
Best related job: Statistician
Projected 10-year job growth: 24.1%
Big data means big opportunities for statisticians. The proliferation of data collection capabilities made possible by society's intense Internet usage boosts businesses' need for folks who can make sense of all the numbers. About a quarter of all statisticians work with government agencies, mostly federal, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (one such major employer). But these professionals can also be found working with private businesses in other industries, including finance and health care. Their median annual salary is more than $79,000.
The likelihood is high that probability theory will be among your required courses, along with regression analysis and sample survey theory. You can also expect to work on your communication skills to ensure your ability to present your findings and work with a team.
Starting salary: $57,200
Mid-career salary: $105,100
Annual online job postings: 72,732
Best related job: Physicist
Projected 10-year job growth: 11.3%
It won't take much force to accelerate a physics major toward a lucrative career (regardless of his mass). While physicist may be the most obvious related occupation, you typically need to get an advanced degree to go that route. (Physicists do have a promising projected job growth rate and a generous median annual salary of more than $110,000.) Other jobs to consider with a bachelor's in physics include aerospace engineer, computer engineer or civil engineer—all of which offer above-average growth projections and pay.
Various physics classes—such as computational, modern and nuclear physics—obviously will fill your schedule. According to Payscale, other skills employees with bachelor's degrees in physics report using in their work include material science, strategic planning and C++ programming expertise.
Starting salary: $50,900
Mid-career salary: $89,300
Annual online job postings: 1,029,020
Best related job: Financial Analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 16.0%
Millennials may have a notorious distrust of financial professionals, but they might consider occupying Wall Street in a more collaborative capacity. Demand for such workers is driven by new regulations, more products and increasingly complex investment portfolios covering the global market—giving you plenty of opportunities to join 'em (in lieu of beating 'em). Plus, the pay is generous. Financial analysts earn a median salary of $78,000 a year. Managers do even better, typically taking home about $111,300 a year. Faster growth should occur for personal financial advisers, who typically earn nearly $74,000 a year and are expected to add 19.2% more positions by 2024.
High school students interested in finance can prepare for this major 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.
Starting salary: $51,400
Mid-career salary: $97,700
Annual online job postings: 799,117
Best related job: Economist
Projected 10-year job growth: 15.3%
Majoring in economics is another way to benefit from growing opportunities linked to the big data boom. Like statisticians, economists are mostly employed by the federal government, which may be a limiting factor. But you can also find work with employers specializing in consulting services, scientific research and finance—though you’ll likely need an advanced degree to move beyond entry-level positions. Economists can expect a median salary of about $93,000 a year. Employers also look for people with economics degrees to fill positions as financial managers, purchasing agents and data analysts.
You can of course expect to take a variety of economics classes in college, including micro- and macroeconomics as well as business economics and economic theory. If you pursue a bachelor of science, your focus will be on math, statistics and other quantitative studies. A bachelor of arts likely requires liberal arts and foreign language classes, too.
Starting salary: $61,700
Mid-career salary: $99,800
Annual online job postings: 735,513
Best related job: App Developer
Projected 10-year job growth: 23.4%
It should be no surprise that computer-related fields dominate our list. Computers are everywhere, and people who know how to make, modify and master the machines are in high demand. Overall, computer positions are expected to grow 18.4% by 2024, and they currently offer a median annual pay of about $80,725. Developers of both applications and systems software (among our Best Jobs for the Future) typically earn about $92,000 and $100,700 a year, respectively.
Another nonshocker: Software engineering majors take a lot of technology-focused classes, such as computer science and programming courses. Plus, many employers prefer high-tech workers with business skills and communication capabilities on top of standard tech savvy. "IT has moved out of the backroom and now it's in front of the boardroom talking about how to integrate tech into the business plan," says John Reed, senior executive director of specialized staffing firm Robert Half Technology.
Starting salary: $56,300
Mid-career salary: $95,500
Annual online job postings: 2,306,724
Best related job: Computer and Information Systems Manager
Projected 10-year job growth: 16.7%
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. The management portion of your studies homes in on the business side of the field. In addition to your computer courses, you will study sociology and psychology, Internet ethics and project management. In fact, many universities offer this degree through their business schools.
Your MIS degree can lead you to 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 $122,824 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. With a bachelor's, you can break into the field as a computer systems analyst, who can expect to earn median pay of more than $80,000 a year and a projected long-term growth rate of 23.3%.
Starting salary: $61,600
Mid-career salary: $103,600
Annual online job postings: 1,874,509
Best related job: Computer and Information Research Scientist
Projected 10-year job growth: 15.9%
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.
A computer science degree makes you a viable candidate for a torrent of tech jobs, including software developer, systems analyst and network administrator. Computer scientist may be your most lucrative option; at nearly $106,300 a year, the job pays the second-highest median income of all computer-related jobs after information systems manager. Computer scientists work to 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 and scientific research companies.
1. Computer Science
2. Management Information Systems
3. Software Engineering
4. Information Technology
6. Civil Engineering
9. Actuarial Mathematics
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is our 2014–2015 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.
1. Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science
2. Computer Science
3. Civil Engineering
4. Information Systems Management
6. Information Systems
9. Information Science
10. Construction Services
1. Pharmacy and Pharmacology
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
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