Spotted, a recent college grad wearing this shirt: “I have a degree in Liberal Arts. Do you want fries with that?”
For those graduating with liberal arts degrees, and a lot of other degrees for that matter, complete financial security might feel like a distant dream far into the future.
Last spring, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported the average salary offers to 2010 bachelor's degree candidates were down 1.7 percent from 2009. Each year the cost of college increases – rising over 30 percent for public colleges and 23 percent for private institutions since 1997. No one likes to hear they are paying more money for an education that will eventually provide them with less.
But not every major will force its students to spend the rest of their lives paying back student loans and “in the red.” Some majors have the potential to provide their students with high-paying jobs and long-term financial security. Her Campus breaks down Newsweek’s list of the best majors for big paychecks and what it takes to be a student and professional in each field.
Your mental image of engineers may include thick-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors, but these “nerds” are actually the cool kids sitting on the top of the list. According to Newsweek, engineers are number one when it comes to highest earning jobs. They make a median salary of $61,000 right out of college and $105,000 by midcareer.
“Money is an advantage of engineering, but I chose it because it will allow me the most opportunity,” junior engineering major Kathryn Bergmann from the University of Missouri said.
And there is a lot of opportunity. Engineering is a broad profession that breaks down into more specific areas like chemical, mechanical and civil. An engineer can do everything from build bridges to create new materials for building those bridges.
What are your strengths?
In general you should be good at math and science and actually like math and science if you want to be an engineer. You will spend a lot of time in high-level classes for everything from physics and chemistry to calculus.
“Engineering is a difficult major in general, but overall I believe the hardest part is the schedule demand. In order to graduate on time your schedule has to be very full every semester,” Kathryn said.
Besides earning the highest-ranking salary and covering a broad range of job areas, engineering is a male dominated field. According to the American Society of Engineering Education, in 2009 of all graduates awarded bachelor’s degrees in engineering, only 17.8 percent were women.
“A woman in engineering is in high demand and that allows you to kind of pick and choose where you go and what you do,” Kathryn said.
These uneven numbers can also make finding a study buddy in class more fun.
“Boys greatly outnumber the girls in engineering courses,” says Kathryn.
The next highest-paying major not only makes a lot of money, but also knows a lot about money as well: economics. Newsweek reports economics majors make $50,200 as a median starting salary, and $101,000 as a midcareer median. Like engineers, people studying economics can take their careers down a variety of different paths. Economics majors become consultants, venture capitalists, journalists, stockbrokers, business analysts and a variety of other things too.
What are your strengths?
Economics is not all about math and statistics. It is a social science. That means it combines the objective facts of science and math with the study of human society and of individual relationships in and to society.If you want to be an economics major you should have strong analytical reasoning and quantitative skills, as well as good writing skills. Don’t let your memory of boredom in high school econ scare you away from pursuing it in college. Undergraduates learn about micro and macroeconomics and more than just which way arrows go on a chart.
An article published in The American Economist in Spring 2010, “Economics: Good Choice of Major for Future CEOs,”reports those with undergraduate degrees in economics are shown to have a greater likelihood of being a CEO than any other major. So if you want to be the big boss, starting as an undergraduate in economics may help.
If being a physics major means you get to hang out with the guys from CBS’s Big Bang Theory, then consider yourself lucky. Also consider yourself lucky to have the median salary for physics majors starting, $51,000, and the median midcareer salary, $98,800. Physics deals with everything from subatomic particles to black holes and the overall structure of the universe. Those topics may not seem like they would apply to everyday life, but the principles apply to things like engineering, communications, biology, and electronics. A lot of physics majors work in research and development within government and industry.
What are your strengths?
If you have strong problem-solving skills, mathematical reasoning skills, or enjoy interpreting scientific data, being a physics major could be right for you. Physics majors also spend a lot of time writing and making presentations, so if you have good interpersonal and communications skills, you can succeed as a physics student and professional.
Across the country many colleges encourage physics students to double major or choose a related minor. This allows for enhanced employment possibilities for physics majors upon graduation. Your course load while in school may be challenging, but when you are one of the highest-paid majors, all of those hours in the library will be worth it.
4. Computer Science
Being a computer science major may mean talking about code and html, but the financial reward could be worth the time spent staring at a Mac screen. Newsweek reports that computer science majors make $56,400 as a median starting salary, and $97,400 as a midcareer median. Since our world is now completely wired, this major covers a lot of disciplines. If you want to develop new technology and software or design your own programs, this is the major for you.
What are my strengths?
Computer science relies heavily on math and theoretical thinking. It will also require you to know programming and its programming language. If you have any knowledge of this already then you are on the right track and better off than the average person. Also, since you are dealing with technology and working on computers, patience will be a key skill. Computer bugs may be annoying when they mess with your e-mail, but just imagine how annoying they could be when causing problems with a semester-long computer science project.
If you are a gadgets geek then computer science could be your career. Creating the newest smart phone or video game falls to computer science majors. Computer science majors don’t envy their friend who has the new iphone 4G because they are the ones who designed it. Computer science majors can also credit their job security to their ability to create new technology. Computers aren’t going anywhere and neither are the high-paying careers of the people who design them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says computing has the greatest potential for new jobs through 2014. Understanding different dimensions of computing is part of the necessary skill set for an educated person in the 21st century.
Becoming a mathlete may have been considered “social suicide” in Mean Girls, but maybe that is only because The Plastics didn’t know the salary of their numbers savvy classmates. Mathematics majors have a starting median salary of $48,600 and a midcareer median of $94,500. The big bucks lie in post-grad jobs in digital marketing. Grads can also pursue jobs in finance, consulting and computer software. Not every job mathematics majors pursue will lead to a high salary.
“I didn't choose math for the money. Actually, I want to become a math teacher,” senior mathematics major Andie Lanoue from the University of Missouri said.
So make sure if you are in it for the money, you are headed down the right career path.
What are my strengths?
You should be good at problem solving and logic and also have a lot of patience and persistence.
“The best part of being a math major is the feeling you get after working hours to prove something and you get it right. It's like solving a really hard puzzle,” Andie said.
If being happy at work is one of your goals, math may be your solution. Newsweek says math majors report having the highest career satisfaction of any major.
Some people who major in biochemistry use it as a path into medical school and to pursue their Grey’s Anatomy dream. Others use it to get careers with big companies and big investors that are in the fields of genetics, cell biology and biotechnology. According to Newsweek, majors on this path have a median starting salary of $41,700 and a median midcareer salary of $94,200.
What are my strengths?
You have to like all aspects of science including biology, chemistry, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics and biology. Being interested in doing research and willing to work in the lab is also a key part of preparing for a post-grad career. Patience and perseverance are also important.
As far as classroom work goes, the courses will be challenging.
“You have to have a good work ethic and a genuine interest in the science or else it would be way too hard to learn. You have to like it to be able to spend the time working it out,” senior biochemistry major Maggie Winkler from the University of Missouri said.
You could be conducting research that helps make an important medical discovery. How cool would it be to say you cured cancer or invented a new treatment for AIDS? Everyone is allowed to dream big, so why not pursue a major that lets you try to accomplish those dreams?
7. Construction management
Being in charge of a huge construction project can have equally huge pay-offs. According to Newsweek the median starting salary for construction management majors is $53,400 and the median midcareer salary is $89,600. These majors are getting paid for doing two different jobs, engineering and managing. The engineering side of the job means you must know about materials science and construction design while the management side of the job means you need to know how to efficiently organize large teams and balance a huge budget.
What are my strengths?
You have to be a multi-talented person. Having a strong understanding of the science and math of engineering is key, but being able to communicate and organize effectively is important as well. Smart people with strong leadership skills succeed within this major.
It is the type of job “big picture” people love. You will be in charge of a project from concept to the final ribbon cutting. If you have ever wanted a chance to take a picture with the big scissors and red ribbon, then this is your future career.
The money is in the name. People going into finance know they will be dealing with money. Earning $48,500 as a median starting salary and $89,400 as a midcareer median finance majors will conveniently know how to handle their own money as well.
“I somewhat chose it for the money, it’s true, but I also wanted to be a financial advisor and help people manage money for their future so being a finance major was the way to do that,” senior finance major Caty Yehling from the University of Missouri said.
Besides being a financial advisor, finance majors also become analysts, stockbrokers, fund managers and bankers. The major will prepare you for pretty much any job in the financial spectrum. Even with the country’s weak financial economy, people who know how to handle money are still in demand.
What are my strengths?
If you want to be a finance major you should be detail-oriented, think analytically, and be good with working with numbers and formulas on the spot as well as on the computer. Finance majors should also be good communicators and enjoy working with others.
A degree in finance gives you an advantage over other business school students because it is a narrower focus. Financial accounting is separate from general accounting, as it serves the decision-makers outside of the organization. Financial accountants deal with the banks, government agencies, stockholders and suppliers who work with companies. The narrower a field is, the fewer people who can do it and the better your chances are at getting the job you want.
9. Information systems
Information systems majors study aspects of management and organizational behavior necessary to understand how computing systems are built and play a vital role in the implementation and administration of technology within their organizations. Essentially they oversee all technical aspects of an organization, such as software development, network security and Internet operations. It is a big technical job with a big financial reward. The starting median salary for information system is $51,900 and the midcareer median comes is $87,200.
Information system majors pursue careers like network administrators, business intelligence analysts, computer engineering, website design and administration, and in electronic commerce.
What are my strengths?
This major combines business and information technology so if you have an interest in both it is a great way to combine them. The major is similar to computer science but with a more administrative and organizational outlook.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in information systems is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations. If you want to secure a job that will only keep providing more opportunities in the future, this may be the major for you.
While money may not be the most important thing in life, there’s nothing wrong with taking it into account while creating your career plan.
“For some students salary is the number one thing that is a priority to them. If that is part of your motivation then that is fine,” says Amanda Nell, Coordinator for Online Career Service and Student Employment at the University of Missouri. “[In career services] we want to make sure students recognize the other values that are out there and they know they need to weigh them too. Some students are interested in family time, a passion for helping others or the prestige of a job. All of those things are values just like a salary amount is.”
If money is a priority to you, it is important to understand that even if your major is one of these fields, there is no 100 percent guarantee you will earn your desired salary. The most successful people in these career fields are also the most passionate about their job and hardest working.
“Ultimately [as a career counselor] I want to make sure students are choosing majors that a good fits for them, that match their interests, values and talents,” Nell said. “The number of career options out there is so high and students really need to consider a lot of things when making a decision.”
Nell recommends doing career assessments and occupational online research to help target majors that may fit your strengths and interests. LinkedIn now even offers career exploration tools, including information about job specifics like salary.
Nell also recommends understanding how the career field changes over time.
“There are jobs we don’t even have titles for yet. We don’t even know what that job looks like or is even called. You should focus on building lifelong skills because you’re not necessarily going to have one set job for your whole life,” Nell said. “Students need to stay adaptable and savvy so they can remain employable and do the new and exciting things out there.”
Newsweek, Best Majors for the Big Paychecks
CNN, College Graduates Starting Salary
American Society of Engineering Education
The Association of Computing Machinery
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Amanda Nell, Coordinator for Online Career Service and Student Employment at the University of Missouri
LinkedIn Career Explorer