Top Majors’ Earning Potential
By Michelle Goodman
Want to get the most bang for your tuition buck? Although not all graduates wind up making top dollar or working in their field of study, some majors — mainly those steeped in math and science — are more likely to lead to a six-figure salary. Sure, these majors will involve more academic rigor, but as Lindsey Pollak, author of “Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World,” points out, “Sticking with them really has the rewards.”
Following are the top majors that can yield an annual income of $100,000 or more once you’ve been on the job a decade. Although a bachelor’s degree is required for each, and some of these fields require additional certification or licensure, graduate degrees are not necessary.
Petroleum engineering. Engineering majors can go in a number of different directions, says Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at PayScale.com, an online salary database. Petroleum engineers, who travel the world mining the earth for energy resources, are at the top of the salary spectrum. “If you can hack the work, it’s the surest bet you’ll make six figures,” Lee says. Petroleum Engineer, median annual salary: $163,000.
Electrical Engineering. If you think majoring in any of the engineering disciplines will pigeonhole you, you’re wrong. “Having that deep level of knowledge doesn’t close off your options,” Pollak says. “It widens them.” Electrical engineers design and test everything from medical equipment to aviation equipment to consumer electronics. “You could even be working on the iPod,” Pollak says. For more details on the field, see the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Senior Electronics Design Engineer, median annual salary: $105,000.
Applied Mathematics. “People with an applied math focus earn substantially more,” Lee says, adding that mathematics can serve as a solid foundation for a number of career paths. Teaching mathematics won’t earn you six figures, he says, but crunching numbers as an actuary for the insurance industry can. So can working as a business analyst for the financial, technology, manufacturing, and numerous other business sectors. Actuary, median annual salary: $139,000.
Biomedical Engineering. “The biomedical field is growing rapidly,” thanks to technological advances like miniaturization and the medical community’s increased understanding of the human body, says Laurence Shatkin, author of “Your $100,000 Career Plan: Match Your Personality to a Six-Figure Job.” Biomedical engineers play a large role in contributing to patient health, developing everything from artificial joints to defibrillators that can be implanted in a person’s chest, Shatkin explains. Biomedical Engineering Director, median annual salary: $160,000.
Computer Engineering. You can’t go wrong with a computing background. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer software engineer will be one of the fastest growing professions this decade. But don’t think this major limits you to working at computer software or hardware company. “Having that knowledge can put you in any industry, from where publishing is going to where finance is going to where government is going,” Pollak says. “There’s a big effort right now to computerize the nation’s healthcare records. That will take a lot of elegant engineering,” Shatkin adds, noting that a significant portion of the 2009 federal stimulus package was designated for this purpose. Information Technology Director, median annual salary: $114,000.
Physics. Pursuing a PhD, and eventually, a research position in physics probably won’t put you over $100,000 a year, Lee says. But, he says, moving into a software development, systems engineering, or electrical engineering job can put you on the six-figure track. “That scientific mind that has a knack for understanding systems is very valuable to employers. People like logic, particularly because we live in a world of machines,” from computers to color copiers to our cars, Pollak says. Software Architect, median annual salary: $120,000.
Aerospace Engineering. Does the thought of designing aircraft and spacecraft fascinate you? Because that’s what aerospace engineers do. In this industry, you could find yourself working with companies from other nations. “There’s a lot more international collaboration going on. It’s become a very global pursuit,” Shatkin says, pointing out that some of the production of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner was outsourced to multiple European and Asian countries. For this reason, Shatkin says a proficiency in a second language could help give you an edge in the field. Aviation/Aerospace Program Manager, median annual salary: $113,000.
Chemical Engineering. It takes a chemist to discover a new substance in a test tube, says Shatkin, but it takes an engineer to work out the production process and develop the product for the commercial marketplace. Chemical engineering is a huge industry, he adds, spanning everything from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to paints, solvents, and coatings. “The key word here is optimizing,” Shatkin says. “Engineers specialize in optimizing a product so it works consistently, economically, and safely.” Senior Chemical Engineer, median annual salary: $114,000.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance business writer and author of “The Anti 9-to-5 Guide” and “My So-Called Freelance Life.”
Source: Salary data from PayScale.com. The salaries listed are median annual salaries for full-time workers with only a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience. All salary data circa 2010. For up-to-date information, click the job titles and majors.
More from PayScale:
Sr. Director, Software Engineer at PayScale. Been here since 2005.