Top 10 College Degrees in 2011 with Massive Demand

by Darwin on July 28, 2009

Based on the results of the latest report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, it’s evident that from a highest starting salary standpoint, the best college degree to have involves math in one way or another, with Engineering degrees taking the lion share of the top paying jobs upon graduation.  Holding prominent slots are energy-related majors as well.  Moving off the list are the perennial Wall Street degrees.  As you’ll see, these trends are rather cyclical and picking your major based on a first out of the gate survey for 1 year is probably not the most prudent selection process to choose the best major for you.  I’ve included several considerations for how to pick the best major based on other data and personal experience.


Top 10 College Degrees by Highest Starting Salary

  1. Petroleum engineering – $83,121
  2. Chemical engineering – $64,902
  3. Mining engineering – $64,404
  4. Computer engineering – $61,738
  5. Computer science – $61,407
  6. Electrical Engineering – $60, 125
  7. Mechanical Engineering – $58,766
  8. Industrial Engineering – $58,358
  9. Systems Engineering – $57,438
  10. Engineering Technology – $56,447




My Take on the Top 10 Degrees

  • This list is a pretty significant divergence from the 2008 Top Ten Degrees list, which was full of Business, Accounting and other non-Engineering related degrees, whereas this year’s list is almost exclusively Engineering based.
  • Almost everything here has a very strong demand on math skills and given the recent market crash, evidently, the lack of demand on Wall Street is suppressing the salaries of Business and Accounting degrees this year.
  • Energy (petroleum and mining) have shot up on the list compared to prior years.  I’ve also read that anyone able to work in a nuclear facility is snagging top dollars as well due to lack on fresh blood and aging facilities/workforces – but I’m not sure if that major made the survey due to scarcity.
  • Don’t focus so heavily on starting salary when selecting a major.  When I was in high school, I didn’t care for the liberal arts like History, English and such (and now I’m a blogger!); I excelled at math and science.  Admittedly, I was a bit high on myself coming out of AP science/math classes and a strong SAT score (and, boy, was I grounded when I hit college) but…When it came time to have the 10 minute discussion with the guidance counselor on what I should do with the rest of my life,

I asked: “What’s the hardest degree there is?” to which he replied, “Chemical Engineering”.  I then asked, “What degree has the highest starting salary?” to which he also replied, “Chemical Engineering”.

So, for me, the choice was clear. I was going to be a Chemical Engineer.

Why Not Focus Solely on Degrees with the Highest Starting Salary?

First off, it’s the end game that counts, which is where I’m at now.  But for starters, let me contrast my college experience with that of my peers.  Yes, I did manage to pledge and maintain membership in a pretty rowdy fraternity and enjoy college life.  But I did it at a very different pace than that of virtually all my friends.

  • I had left high school thinking I was pretty smart and could tackle the science world until I ended up at an enormous state school with thousands of more intelligent, harder working and highly trained (primarily 1st or 2nd generation foreign immigrant) students.  Hard work and studying seemed to be in their blood, whereas it was a necessary evil to me.  Their parents had expected excellence from birth and drilled studying and competitive grade-making into them whereas my parents were, I’d say, supportive, but not terribly involved or overly assertive in my academics.  I achieved decent grades and that was good enough.  See this Review of The Post-American World for a taste of what we’re in for in the new global economy.
  • A typical example of this ultra-competitive nature was that for a particular assignment, the professor gave out an assignment which required research in a book housed in the Engineering library.  We had a week or so to complete the assignment, so as was usual for me, I waited until day 6 to go and take out the book. I had a few hours, so I figured if someone else had it for a bit, I would just get it when they returned or just find them in the library and get what I needed out of it for my piece.

My overly competitive peers used a razorblade to cut the pages out of the book that pertained to our assignment so as to convey an advantage to them by way of a higher grade (lower grade to the procrastinators), thus improving their curve.

  • Within the first year, I learned that we were all basically “weed-out” candidates, whereby about 1/3 of our class would be gone by the end of the first year, another 20% of so the next year, and in the end, less than 1/4 of the freshmen with ambitions to graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering would do so.  We had exams where such a significant grading curve was required that a 30 was a C.  A 45 was a B and 60 or over was an A.  On one hand, it sounds pretty easy to get at least a C.  But they used a real curve and several students were getting zeros, 10s and 20s on their exams – and finding the need to declare a new major.
  • My college life was different than that of the people I hung out with – other people like me.  While the history, economics and anthropology majors (and no, the anthropology doesn’t study humans, he works for a hedge fund now making probably quadruple what I do now) were doing the  ‘late-nights’ as we called the drinking binges from midnight onwards, playing intramural sports and goofing off, I was competing with – well, what I’ve learned to be our future competition – very smart and motivated people from the rest of the world.  Each year, probably 10-15 of my house mates went on these insane Spring Break trips to Cancun and South America.  I would have loved to have gone at least once.  But our dreadful Engineering professors had a solution to that notion – a massive take home project/exam that was given out the day before Spring Break and due the day after Spring Break.  These projects, requiring 20-40 hours of work for each class to be performed over Spring Break extinguished any hopes of enjoying the sun and the surf with friends.

The reason I say not to focus solely on starting salary is that if you’re anything like me, you’ll work very hard in both your undergrad (post-grad) and your career only to find that finance and business majors, while starting lower, end up making multiples of your salary within years.  Most of my friends that, let’s say, “enjoyed themselves” a bit more than I did as undergrads are now working for hedge funds, financial advisors, and other careers all centered around what I blog about  – Finance – and they are making hundreds of thousands per year in salary and bonus.

Ironically, a very high percentage of Business majors were starting engineers that didn’t make the cut and switched to a business major.  And 10 years later?  Well, for the majority of them that are all still employed, they make a heck of a lot more money than I do!

So, how’s a job in Chemical Engineering?

I wouldn’t know.  After all that, right out of school, I took a position in a biotech manufacturing facility, moved into Commercial Negotiations for supply chain sourcing and currently do Project Management.  Even though I had no biotech background to speak of, I subsequently learned that the biopharma industry looks favorably upon Chemical Engineers as a sort of “utility player” due to the flexible and analytical nature of the degree and presumably, the difficulty in making through the full curriculum.  I learned everything on the job and never looked back.  I don’t miss designing distillation columns or working with imaginary numbers.

In retrospect, I did miss out on a lot of the “life experiences” that regular people had like enjoying the college experience a bit more, getting sleep, traveling abroad, and getting a bit more “culture” from their degree, but at the same time, the work ethic required to just get me through with a decent GPA paved the way for a successful start in my career that perhaps I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

I don’t mean to convey that students should choose an “easy major” so they can kick back and enjoy the college years (4 good years doesn’t make up for 35 years of regret).  However, just think about what the future trends are and don’t focus only on starting salary – Energy, Internet, Clean Energy, etc., which are somewhat represented on the list, but will likely comprise a more prominent position by the time starting freshmen are looking for jobs in 4-5 years.  Check out the results from 2009’s Best Place to Start a Career Survey.  Also, consider what role Nepotism plays in the workplace when you’re trying to get your foot in the door.

Six-Figure Jobs

Six Figure Jobs are getting to be harder to come by in the current economic environment.  As the supply-demand equation has switched from a shortage of qualified workers and an abundance of firms looking to talent to many talented, experienced employees looking for work, it’s not quite the same as we saw during the boom years.  That being said, there are new services and resources that didn’t exist previously.  A wonderful resource that I enjoy is The Ladders where you can Search Only $100K+ Jobs. If you’re highly qualified and used to earn upwards of six figures, this service can greatly hone your search and it also limits the candidate pool to those with recent six-figure salaries.

The Ladders - Search Jobs by Region

If you enjoyed this article and want to stay on top of others like, make sure to Subscribe for Free to future articles.

And Once you Land that Job, Check out:

How to Avoid a Layoff or Recover Quickly

How to Profit from your Employee Stock Options Regardless of Share Price

How Does Deferred Compensation Work?

US Firms offer the Worst Severance Package: the Data

How to be Annoying at Work and Ruin your Career

Source: Summer 2009 Salary Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers. Data are for bachelor’s degree level candidates and are reported for disciplines in which 30 or more offers have been received.

You're Not Following Darwin's RSS? Check out Why You Have to Subscribe to Darwin's Finance!

If you enjoyed this post, you can get free updates through RSS Feed or via Email whenever a new post is published. Rest assured that you can unsubscribe at any time via the automated system and your information will not be sold, archived or utilized for any other "nefarious" purposes.

{ 7 trackbacks }

Job Interview & Career Guide
July 31, 2009 at 9:42 am
Economy and your Finances Carnival – August 2, 2009
August 2, 2009 at 4:03 am
Best of Money Carnival: Bento Food Art Edition
August 3, 2009 at 2:31 am
* Money Hacks Carnival #76 – The Fun Money Facts Edition
August 5, 2009 at 12:14 am
“Last Weekend As A Bachelor” Edition of Weekend Roundup
August 7, 2009 at 10:45 am
Carnival of Pecuniary Delights Edition #20! « Counting My Pennies
August 20, 2009 at 6:03 am
USA Best Paying Degrees 2010 : Americas Highest Paying Degrees | Daily Investment Tips
July 2, 2010 at 2:37 am


1 A1student July 29, 2009 at 8:55 am

That’s an interesting piece 🙂
I sure feel that students should really consider petroleum engineering considering the global insatiable demand. The industry’s gonna spread red carpets for anyone who can help even the tiniest bit with petro resources!

2 CollegeKid July 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm

This has been very interesting to watch as the recession has taken it’s toll, especially in these industries. I wonder if companies are really starting pay at these or taking advantage of the current economic situation and low balling potential new employees.

3 Funny about Money July 30, 2009 at 9:27 pm

That’s quite a story. In a way you didn’t miss out on the college experience: you shared the experience with those other nose-to-the-grindstone, highly motivated students…and it sounds like it gave you a great deal of insight into some important issues facing Americans.

Horrors. I can’t imagine spending one’s entire adult life as a chemical engineer. Very fun, I’m sure…but…uhm…. Money ain’t everything.
.-= Funny about Money´s last blog ..Choir! =-.

jhrrrr Reply:

such are sterotypes, a chemical engineering, or any other technical degree…does not mean you have to do typical engineering work. They can go into many jobs, people actually value someone with a degree that is difficult to get, shows personal motivation, and provides a skill set others lack.

Plus, so many careers that sound good and interesting, just turn out to be the same old grind, and at lower (much lower in some cases) pay.

Life is a compromise between work and play, make it work and get the benefits from both sides

4 Amy August 4, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I had to laugh about the uber-competitiveness you described. You and I must have gone to the same school as I did. Our students were renowned for taking down flyers for study sessions right before finals and other such behaviors.

5 Sara August 8, 2009 at 5:22 pm

The real message in this article should be that you should find out what you want to do and go for it. I enjoy being a chemical engineer and yes, these are good numbers for starting salaries ON AVERAGE, CollegeKid. So some industries pay less than that, some pay more. Not every ChE gets 70K on their first job. Especially if you don’t have a GPA over 3.0.

Again, you really need to figure out what you enjoy doing – and do that regardless of the money you make. If I didn’t enjoy what I was doing there is no way I would spend 50 hours a week at work. To me, it flies by. And I am glad I am well compensated for it. But there are dozens of kids who enroll in engineering who don’t like it and are only doing it because of the money. I don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t like their job. When I helped out in the recruiting for my engineering school, I would pull aside the kids from their pushy parents when I saw they were being dragged around and remind them that yes, mom and dad are most likely paying for school, but they need to find out what they want to do. Sure, start in engineering, but there is no shame in changing majors if they decide engineering is not for them.

6 eric August 30, 2009 at 12:11 pm

how mush can a petroleumengineer be paid for a mounth

7 eric August 30, 2009 at 12:11 pm

how mush can a petroleum engineer be paid for a month

8 Matt October 17, 2009 at 12:52 am

Hah, I’m a Electrical engineering major (junior) year. It’s not as hard or nearly as miserable as this blog puts it to be an engineer. It’s easy if you love it. If you’re doing it because a magazine said it was good money you’re absolutely screwed.

9 Darwin October 17, 2009 at 9:57 am

Hi Matt,
I wouldn’t say I was miserable at all – a little bit envious I guess, of the complete lack of time/effort required for many of my friends in non-engineering curriculum, but I’d highlighted that this degree has set me up for success for life. It’s very versatile and carries a premium in both salary and reputation for the rest of your life. I’ve had some process roles where I relied on my background, but for the most part, I learned it all on the job.

I agree that you shouldn’t just pick a degree that you know nothing about; in my case I did and it happened to turn out OK – but I consider myself fortunate. In today’s environment with the internet, and blogs like this, high school seniors and non-declared college students should have plenty of resources to see where their degree may take them.

10 Mike November 5, 2009 at 3:38 am

Lol, this article is great it brings back a lot of good and also very depressing memories. I just graduated with my b.s. in chemical engineering and I must say it was the worst 4 years of my life. When I first started in the program I really enjoyed it, the material was very interesting and not too hard, things sure change in a hurry though. When I entered into my junior year life started to suck. I was taking like 20 credits in both fall and spring semesters just to stay on track to graduate in time, and these were all very very difficult classes here is my fall of 07 class schedule: Fluid mechanics, Heat transfer, Advanced Thermodynamics, Quantum mechanics, Intro to Nuclear engineering, Partial differential equations and intro to music – to maintain a small shred of sanity. Spring semester was even worse, I won’t write it out cuz it will probably make me cry a little. Anywho, once I entered into my senior year I started to miss my junior year because of how easy it was compared to my senior year. Let me say that I went into engineering primarily because I didn’t think that I would have to write many papers, as you can tell by reading this I suck hard at writing, lol. Anywho, during my senior year we had to write well over 300 pages worth lab/project reports on top of all the other class work we were expected to keep up on. One thing that was kinda depressing is that we had an writing helper in our department who was a phd english candidate and she said that chemical engineering students have to write more than any other major, had I known that I would not have gone into it. So yeah, my senior year sucked hard, I honestly would wake up every day and the first thing I would think was f**k my life, every single day. The senior year culminated with a nice little project of a 100 page minimin paper on converting corn to biobutanol. I know that that may sound like fun but it kinda wasn’t. Had I not been a slacker I might have not hated my major quite so much, but I was so I did. I basically put everything off until the last minute. I didn’t even start my 100 pager until about 2 weeks before it was do, even though we had like 6 months to work on it.

When graduation came it was a kinda bitter sweet experience. I was very very glad to be done but at the same time the economy had tanked and over half of my graduating class was left unemployed, and many still are. I recently found a job with a starting salary of about 70k, in the petroleum industry, with the opportunity to almost double that within about 3 years, as long as I don’t screw it up So overall my college experience kinda sucked, I was very jealous of all of my buddies, who were not in hard majores, who always were partying and hookin up with chicks and doing awesome things and enjoying life, while I was sitting in the f***ing engineering building at 3 a.m. wondering why I had picked suck a crappy major. But I suppose all is well that ends well, I’m very happy with my decision to stick with it now that I have recieved a really awesome, really well paying job.

11 Darwin November 5, 2009 at 8:52 am

Wow Mike,
Thanks for sharing your experience. Everything you said resonates with me. I actually lived in a fraternity house where the guys would romp in at 4 in the morning, kick in my door and call me a wuss for now being out with them. They’d blast music and fall asleep to it drunk and I’d be sitting there having studied all night, then not sleeping, then trying to stay awake in class. It was bittersweet all the way through for me as well, not just at the end. It was kind of perversely beautiful how it all comes together senior year – the various disciplines all culminating into a discipline that makes sense in the end, but all the way through, it was like a greek tragedy mixed with a horrific riddle.

Looking back, I’m glad I have the major and I too doubled my salary rather quickly which was nice; but it sure was hell going through it!

12 mg126 November 15, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Hey guys thanks for sharing your past experiences. Im living in the UK currently doing my Alevels last year before i go to university. i have always said i was to pursue a degree in medicine but things changed 3 months ago when i decided medicine wastne for me and because i love chemistry i thought why not apply for chemical engineering which opens up so many paths and is said to be the best degree out their.
but over the past month or so ive been reading students experiences and i dont find many who can actually say that was the best years of my life.
I ask you : 1) is it really that hard but can it be complete if you put all hard work into it or can it only bee done if your super talented in chemistry
2) did u guys have to a massive powerplant assignment producing your own power plant
3) whats it like working in the petroluim industry

13 james November 19, 2009 at 5:54 pm

today i failed 2 midterms for ChemEng courses offered only once a year. complete and utter failure on my part, which resulted in a lack of motivation for anything. I ran across this page while searching for a major to switch to. After reading this article and the subsequent posts I feel rejuvenated to pursue my studies and persevere through it. I too live in a frat house, but still have to learn to master the discipline these graduates have demonstrated. Thank you so much for this article, it has truly shed new light on my situation to show me that it can be done, and i am walking through the shoes of others. In any case now i know i can always fall back on a finance career =)

14 mg126 November 19, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Hey james i hope you can succeed in your studies. i guess your diong a ChemEng degree right ? whats it like ?

15 james November 26, 2009 at 1:50 am

it got pretty difficult this year, starting my core ChemEng classes. This is a make or break quarter, whether or not i pass those classes this quarter determines if i need to change my major altogether

16 Adittya Joshi December 24, 2009 at 3:17 am

I am studying Diploma in Engineering in Nepal . I am studying with my great effort, but i am more interested in chemical Engineering .Due to the lack economy i cant pay for it. Please would u tall me about its solution

17 Christina December 27, 2009 at 10:05 pm

I wasn’t aware of petroleum engineering…this is really a good list for students who wished to land on a high paying job…nice article.

18 Sara May 5, 2010 at 5:41 pm

I, too, majored in chemical engineering, in large part because of the promise of a great starting salary. I had always been strong in math and science, and chemical engineering seemed interesting to me, but my experience was, in many ways, similar to Mike’s. My college years sucked (although not just because of my major), and when I graduated, there were no jobs for entry-level chemical engineers! There was lots of demand for chemical engineers with 10+ years of experience, but no $65k jobs for a recent graduate no experience except a couple of internships. It took me over a year to find a full-time job that started at $42k. It’s not all bad news, because I’ve gotten several raises and promotions over the past few years, and I made over $100k last year, but then again, I could have gotten the same job with an easier degree.

19 mohsin May 15, 2010 at 3:14 am

sir i just want to know that what is the relation of material sciences and engineering with all the above engineering disciplines. . . . . . . . . . . i will wait for your reply .i have to give a presentation on the topic. . .”role of material sciences and engineering in other disciplines of engineering”

20 Earn Cash Now May 17, 2010 at 7:03 pm

That was a great list. If I was still in high school I would maybe change my degree, but for now my finance degree is working well. I know why there are so many degrees and you just have to pick the right one for the job you want.

21 Financial bondage June 28, 2010 at 4:19 pm

I would advise to not pick a job on how much money it makes. This is a mistake many job hunters make and regret later.

22 Multiple Egg Baskets June 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

It is an interesting and tempting thought to solely focus on the intended income from the degree. To some degree if you can’t work for yourself and have to do some poopy job then why not go for the cash.

23 Will August 12, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Its interesting to read about other peoples experiences. Im a senior in EE about to graduate in december of 2010. I have to friends who are set up with jobs right now after graduation. One starting at 60K and another at 55K. So the above numbers for EE’s are accurate. Now, about the business majors, I dont think that MOST end up getting more than 80K since I know a number of them in the field right now with TONS of years in experience. My brother in law has about 15 years and he is barely touching 80K a year. However, I do know some EE’s with 10 years of experience making about 120K a year. I guess it just depends on where you work at. If money is your goal then i believe engineering is a good start. You start off with a high salary giving you an opportunity to invest in something or start a small business (within a few years). Doctors, lawyers end up paying thousands of dollars of loans just to make about 80K start salary (my friend is about to graduate with his law degree) yes they do grow but not enough to get rich. If you want to have money you need to have your own business and thats the bottom line. I think engineering will discipline you in the manner that you start thinking of the future and not just the present. Atleast thats how I think right now.

24 BJosh August 20, 2010 at 11:57 am

Hi, I’m in high school and I’m taking 10 subjects this year just so that I can graduate this year and go to college. I’ve found myself to be really good at chemistry with a perfect score throughout last year and I’m planning to go to for chemical engineering. Just wondering how much difference does the college you go to make in terms of education quality, jobs, etc. I’m thinking of applying at Cooper Union, Manhattan college, Penn State, MIT and the local college nearby where I live. Any other colleges I should look at before making my final decision ??

Breanna Reply:

@BJosh, Hi, just wanted to add in my two sense. I’m a senior ChemE at UCLA. The schools you have chosen are great. I don’t know your current acedemic standing, but Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, Berkeley/UCLA have fantastic chemE programs in California; check out Purdue as well. My best advice, go to a large school where the career fairs are literally huge companies recruiting the student body for internships/full-time offers. In general,the major is extremely difficult, “I’ve pulled the all-nighter”, but totally doable. I do have a social life, get decent sleep etc. It’s all about time management. I do have to study rigorously for my grades though.
~From my observation, the major pays upper middle class. You’ll never make the 100s of thousands of what business professionals make (unless you make that transition); for me, I love the industry and I don’t need that. Chemical engineering is a secure profession! I interned for a petroleum company in refining this summer, and just got a full-time offer for after graduation (salary ~75 K).

25 ChemENG Senior September 30, 2010 at 7:24 pm

This article is great! I have an AspenPlus (design class is kicking my ass) assignment due tomorrow, and of course I waited til the last minute. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder why I chose my major. In high school I thought “Hey, I like chemistry and math, why not ChemEng?” I soon realized that chemical engineering has very little to do with balancing chemical equations and general chemistry. It’s A LOT OF MATH. I opted out of the library life in order to enjoy my college experience. Yeah, my gpa has suffered tremendously, but I just attribute that to the fact that I have a hard major and I am definitely lazy. In chemical engineering, the professors definitely won’t hold your hand through the years. It’s a lot of figuring out things for yourself. Not to be bitter, but sometimes I think it’s a huge waste of time, as we will be learning most stuff on the job anyways, and will have computer programs do stuff for us. As a senior about to graduate in May, this article gives me a lot of hope for the future. Thanks much!

26 dawit tessema December 4, 2010 at 2:08 am

i must say that was a very inspiring piece of experiance for me as an undergrat. student. This coming spring i will be entering chemical engineering program and i am doing a research on past experiances from people who are already in the field.

27 Linda December 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Why not medicine or law? Or pharmacy

BJosh Reply:

@Linda, Medicine, Law or pharmacy all require a professional/post-graduate degree whereas these are undergraduate degrees. I guess engineers can also be premed or even go to pharmaceuticals later on if they wish( especially chemical engineers).

28 ODD 123 April 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm


The real point is, I think, a major you would enjoy working in. I you hate it , you won’t be very good at it. That will show.

I spent one semester in ChE, and then switched a number of times before I eventually graduated in Engineering Physics. Got a Ph.D in Physics, and went on to being in Physics as a prof. Eventually switched back to engineering and ended up as a prof in ME.

I’d also add that I’m female, and my BS is from 1960. And that I was a sororitymwember.

Sure – it was tough. (My incoming class in 1956 was 575, and the graduating class in 1960 was 111. )

I’ll add that it was also not easy being female .

Nonethe less, I don’t regret it in the least. And I believe that over the years I’ve helped a lot of students to find what they really wanted.

Starting salaries aren’t everything.

29 شات April 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm
30 sophie August 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience. I went through something similar like that in college. Out of highschool I thought I was so smart going to a state university while most other people just went to community college. At the university I was surrounded with 2/3rds of people that were in my opinion smarter than me. Quite depressing.. Even more depressing is i went for a BA in Philosophy which wont get you very far unless you go the route of law after.

31 Moe September 25, 2011 at 3:42 am

Thank you for the nice article and sharing your experience with us.I wonder why people would major in CE rather than PE with much higher starting salary and also mid-career salary.Don’t get me wrong I majored in CE myself (senior) but I’m just wondering why?I know this is a very personal question but may I ask how much you make (maybe a range) DARWIN??

32 GERALD MAHINDA December 2, 2011 at 9:02 am

I am an undergraduate studying Industrial Chemistry with Management.Is it similar to chemical engineering as I noticed several of the units are similar(except the Business units)

Comments on this entry are closed.