The 5 Best College Degrees for Your Career

Congratulations, young (and some older) people! You're going to college!

Springtime is here, and millions of aspiring scholars across the country have by now received their college acceptance letters, beginning the process that will take them through the rest of their lives. Some already have their whole lives planned out, but most will enter the halls of higher education not quite certain which direction to take. Is computer science the way to go? Should you join a fraternity or sorority? What's the etiquette on texting while playing beer pong?

I can't answer the latter two questions -- that's a journey you'll have to take on your own -- but there's a wealth of information available to help you decide what to study if you want to maximize your opportunities after graduation. Getting a degree will undoubtedly help your chances of landing and holding a job in today's economy, but some degrees offer better prospects than others right from the start. The five degree paths (ranked from fifth to first in median salary) you'll see below offer the best salaries out of 130 different options reviewed by PayScale, an analytics company specializing in salary and career data. If your interests align with these majors, you should take a closer look. It could be well worth your while, now and for decades to come.

5: Nuclear Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $66,800
  • Median mid-career salary: $107,000
  • Employment totals: 19,930
  • Unemployment rate: 1.7%

Forget about being another Homer Simpson at this specialized job. The relatively thin ranks of nuclear engineers are tasked with developing and overseeing processes, instruments, and systems used to harness nuclear energy and radiation. You might find them in biohazard suits inspecting radioactive locations, but if nuclear engineers have done their jobs properly, they won't have to don those protective getups. Many are employed at nuclear power plants, but others work in industrial and medical settings to find uses for radioactive materials.

4: Chemical Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $67,500
  • Median mid-career salary: $111,000
  • Employment totals: 32,190
  • Unemployment rate: 2.8%

Chemical engineers have a broader range of functions, and thus suffer a bit in terms of unemployment, if not in salary. These engineers can be found in any industry that produces or uses chemicals to create products, which is quite a number of industries -- from pharmaceuticals to petroleum, and nearly every manufacturing process in between. A number of chemical engineers may go on to get graduate degrees or professional certification, but there aren't that many openings expected in the future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects just 1,800 more chemical engineering jobs to be created by 2020.

3: Actuarial Science/Mathematics

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $56,100
  • Median mid-career salary: $112,000
  • Employment totals: 21,700
  • Unemployment rate: 0% 

The only job on our list with an effectively negligible unemployment rate also happens to be the best job in America, according to job site Actuaries help companies manage their risks by applying complex mathematical and statistical probability models to various hypothetical circumstances, and then help develop strategies to mitigate those risks. If anything, the 2008 financial crisis has made businesses across the spectrum far more risk-averse than they once were, which puts skilled actuaries in even greater demand. This is also the fastest-growing job of the bunch in percentage terms, so if you love working with numbers but can also see the big picture, this might be the degree path to follow.

2: Aerospace Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $62,500
  • Median mid-career salary: $118,000
  • Employment totals: 80,420
  • Unemployment rate: 1.5%

The demand for aerospace engineers is not huge -- only 4,000 more are expected to join the workforce by 2020 -- but pay is high, the field of options is somewhat broader than in the other four careers on this list, and hey, you get to make things fly. If you spent weekends in the backyard with a model airplane, you'll love an opportunity to design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missile systems. The proliferation of drones of all types over the coming years will offer creative aerospace engineers plenty of challenges, but should also provide lots of professional satisfaction and enjoyment.

1: Petroleum Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $98,000
  • Median mid-career salary: $163,000
  • Employment totals: 36,410
  • Unemployment rate: 0.6%

If you're at all interested in America's energy independence, then you might want to consider becoming a petroleum engineer. It's thanks to these well-paid and in-demand scientists that oil and gas companies have managed to extract so much more oil from domestic deposits than was thought possible a few short years ago. Petroleum engineers help find and exploit new deposits of oil and natural gas as efficiently as possible, and are also tasked with recovering more from existing wells. If you like getting your hands dirty, so much the better -- many petroleum engineers have to spend a fair amount of time working at drilling sites.

The best of the rest
There are plenty of reasons to get a degree besides the simple desire to make money. After all, the business world is full of individuals who've reached the highest levels with a degree that ranks in the middle, or even in the lower reaches, of PayScale's scale. Ultimately, the choice of a degree program should be based on a variety of factors, not least of which should be your desire to work with that knowledge for years and years to come.

If you'd like to see the full list of 130 majors by salary potential, click here. Please feel free to share your thoughts on these majors by leaving a comment below.

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2013, at 12:33 PM, miteycasey wrote:

    This is all hogwash.

    It's based on where the economy is now, not where it's going.

    The example I would use would be a petroleum engineer in 1980 after the oil bust. Or a Computer scientist graduate in 2000. It's a nice article, but too bad it takes 4-5 years to get those degrees and who knows what will be in demand in 4-5 years.

  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2013, at 1:40 PM, DufferWD wrote:

    Working as an engineer for the last 40 years I'm biased. However I can truthfully say this: I saw similiar articles when I was in high school ... and they were right.

    Engineering is a great career. And that is only part of the story. The CEO, the President, and most of the Vice Presidents of the manufacturing company I work for all have engineering degrees.

    Combine an engineering undergraduate degree with an advanced degree in business and/or law and you have the educational background of many of the business leaders of this country.

  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2013, at 2:34 PM, miteycasey wrote:

    Then why didn't they have a business degree or law degree on the list?

    I agree hard science degrees will always be in demand. And, for the most part, having a degree is better than not having a degree.

    But I don't like lists like this because they say what is in demand now not the future like healthcare degrees. Lists like this are never forward thinking.

    Also lists like this are almost always difficult to get.

    How many people have the intelligence to get a chemical/aerospace/nuclear engineering degree?

    They should add ER doctor, Orthopedic Surgeon, and Brian surgeon as well to the list as well. They pay as good, if not better, than the ones listed, but those would turn people off.

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 1:52 AM, CraigMiles wrote:

    I can confirm this.

    "Chemical engineers have a broader range of functions, and thus suffer a bit in terms of unemployment, if not in salary"

    I have been unemployed (well underemployed, not working in my field) for over a year.

    I have a Master degree in chemical engineering with easily 4 years engineering experience (spread over 6 different positions mind you).

    So from my perspective, there is not enough demand.

  • Report this Comment On December 25, 2015, at 3:10 AM, LisaGray wrote:

    I guess that being a student is not just for fun, having parties and going crazy, but it is also the responsibility that you take for your future, as it is everything depends on profession you have chosen and from it depends your future life. Here is a good post about it on <a href=" writing company</a>.

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