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Top 10 Paying College Majors

Mar 17, 2011

With high tuition and a struggling job market, many college students are concerned about translating their undergraduate education into a successful career. Consider one of the following academic majors to maximize your earning potential after graduation.

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1. Petroleum Engineering

  • Median starting salary: $103,000
  • Median mid-career salary: $160,000

Petroleum engineers build tools for improving oil and gas production. They may also oversee drilling projects or offer technical consulting to oil and gas companies.

2. Actuarial Mathematics

  • Median starting salary: $58,700
  • Median mid-career salary: $120,000

Actuaries estimate risk and predict the likelihood of occurrences, such as disease or death. Unsurprisingly, most are employed in the insurance industry, although actuaries can also find work in the financial services sector.

3. Nuclear Engineering

  • Median starting salary: $67,600
  • Median mid-career salary: $117,000

Nuclear engineers combine theories from engineering and nuclear science to conduct research or design and troubleshoot systems for the control, release and utilization of nuclear energy and waste materials.

4. Chemical Engineering

  • Median starting salary: $68,200
  • Median mid-career salary: $115,000

Chemical engineers focus on the manufacture of chemicals and chemical products, such as plastic, synthetic rubber, detergents, gasoline, cement and paper. They apply interdisciplinary techniques from chemistry, engineering and physics to improve chemical manufacturing processes and chemical plant equipment.


5. Aerospace Engineering

  • Median starting salary: $62,800
  • Median mid-career salary: $109,000

These professionals design, operate and troubleshoot a variety of equipment required for air and space travel. This may include simulators, flight instruments, computer systems, launching and tracking devices and communication systems. Many aerospace engineers also record and analyze data from test flights.

6. Electrical Engineering (tie)

  • Median starting salary: $64,300
  • Median mid-career salary: $106,000

These professionals design, operate and fix electrical equipment and systems. They may work for industrial, government, commercial or scientific organizations. Although many electrical engineers work with digital equipment, this category specifically excludes computer engineering (see below).

6. Computer Engineering (tie)

  • Median starting salary: $65,300
  • Median mid-career salary: $106,000

There are two main career paths for students in computer engineering: software engineering or hardware engineering. Computer software engineers design and test computer applications, whereas computer hardware engineers design and test hardware from processing chips to computer networks. The two options typically require somewhat different paths of study.

8. Computer Science

  • Median starting salary: $59,800
  • Median mid-career salary: $102,000

Computer scientists are problem solvers creating new technology or improving current technology to better our world. These professionals work in a variety of fields, including educational services, computer systems design and scientific research.

9. Physics

  • Median starting salary: $53,100
  • Median mid-career salary: $101,000

Many scientific organizations require physicists to have a doctoral degree, but individuals who hold a bachelor's degree in physics may work as technicians or research assistants. Technicians help design, operate and troubleshoot equipment, such as lasers, electron microscopes or research tools for the manufacturing industry. Some physics graduates find work in inspection, quality control or other production areas.

10. Mechanical Engineering

  • Median starting salary: $60,900
  • Median mid-career salary: $99,700

Mechanical engineers specialize in designing, building and testing items, such as machinery or engines. Most graduates of mechanical engineering programs find work in research and development, government or manufacturing.

Salary information comes from PayScale, and job information comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries reflect annual pay for bachelor's-degree graduates without an advanced degree. Starting graduates typically have two years of experience, and mid-career professionals usually have 15 years of experience.

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