A Difference in Degree

Getting a college degree matters. But what you major in matters more.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) that looked at salaries and job prospects for 171 college degrees. The CEW study, What’s it Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors, found the difference between one field of study and another can be as much as 300%.

Best College Majors

Holy hallowed halls of learning! According to the report, that’s a difference of $849,000 in lifetime earnings between a degree in a low-paying field and one in a high-paying profession.

Some things in the report aren’t as startling. For example, engineering majors can expect a high rate of return on their pigskin but women in engineering make about $20,000 less per year than men.

But when it comes to employability – how likely you are to land a job in a given field during tough economic times – all engineering degrees are not created equal. Nuclear engineers face an 11% unemployment rate in a recession—the same as Educational Administration and Supervision graduates.

So, if you want a degree that will make you some dough and increase your odds of staying employed in a tough economy, take a look at our “Top Five” lists.

Top Five Degrees that Bring Higher-than-Average Paychecks:

1. Petroleum Engineering– This is a case of high risk/high reward. Although petro engineers make a median annual salary of $120,000, they often work on dangerous offshore oil rigs, and job security is dependent upon swings in the oil market: when prices fall, workers get laid off.

2. Pharmacy– Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration. Pharmaceuticals are big business. According to a report by consulting firm IMS, last year Americans spent 307.4 billion on prescription medications—and that was in the industry’s second-slowest year in more than five decades! With so many people getting prescriptions, it’s no wonder pharmacists are among the highest paid professionals—raking in a median annual income of $105,000. But pharmacists do more than dole out drugs; they give important dosing and side-effect information to patients and physicians.

3. Mathematics and Computer Science– Computer geeks rejoice! You’ll make an annual average salary of $98,000 per year—and be able to laugh all the way to the bank at the jocks who made fun of you in high school.

4. Aerospace Engineering– No space cadets here; aerospace engineers are the brains behind the construction and science of aircraft and spacecraft. Even as the U.S. dismantles its space program, these rocket scientists are still expected to make about $87,000 per year.

5. Chemical Engineers– These folks have a lot of options when it comes to putting their degree to work. Chemical engineers have helped develop polymers, paper, dyes, drugs, plastics, fertilizers, foods, petrochemicals—almost every product we touch. They can also make products more environmentally friendly or more efficient. A chemical engineer can find a niche in any scientific or engineering field and make a decent income—about $86,000 per year. (Except for women, who make about $20,000 less.)

So we know the degrees that bring in the dough. What about the ones that offer the most job security in a down economy? According to the Georgetown CEW report, even in today’s challenging economy, some industries have virtually no unemployment.

Five Degrees That Have the Highest Job Security

1. Geological and Geophysical Engineering– Every year you hear about an earthquake somewhere in the world, and of the damage sustained by the people living where it hit. Structures sometimes need to be built on parts of the earth’s surface that aren’t completely solid or stable, and builders need to know if they are going to tap into a water vein as they begin construction. That’s why there’s a need for geological and geophysical engineers. Starting salaries are near $75,000 per year.

2. Military Technology– This program prepares individuals to undertake advanced and specialized leadership and technical responsibilities for the armed services and related national security organizations. It includes instruction in such areas as weapons systems and technology, communications, intelligence, management, logistics, and strategy. Salaries for military technologists start at about $54,300 per year.

3. Pharmacy/Pharmacology– Not only are graduates with this degree among the highest paid, they also enjoy the greatest job security—even in a bad economy.

4. School Student Counseling– Although the starting salary is near $44,000, if you continue on to get a master’s degree in this field, you can make closer to $50,000. Add on several years’ experience and you can reach the $100,000 level. Not only is helping students with their career choices a noble profession, it’s also a stable one.

5. Software Engineer– These folks design, develop, test, and evaluate various software programs and applications. With the explosion of mobile devices and technology, it’s no wonder these tech-savvy wonders enjoy immense job security. Their annual income isn’t too shabby, either: the national average is $72,000 per year, according to Glassdoor.com.

The CEW study based its findings on new Census Bureau information which, for the first time, linked undergraduate majors with an individual’s full lifecycle earnings.

One final word on choosing a college major: Although it may seem as if it’s a left-brained world with science, math, and engineering degrees offering the highest payoff, you just never know what the hot jobs will be 10 or 20 years from now. Take some advice from Nobel-laureate Gary Becker, a pioneer in the field of human capital. In an interview with MoneyWatch he said flexibility is one of the most important job skills for navigating the 21st century economy and job market. What’s his advice for acquiring that flexibility? A liberal arts education. Why? Becker maintains that in an uncertain world, an education based on general principles, rather than specific skills, is best.

* Sources: Payscale.com, Salary.com, and Time.com

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