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
- Petroleum engineering – $83,121
- Chemical engineering – $64,902
- Mining engineering – $64,404
- Computer engineering – $61,738
- Computer science – $61,407
- Electrical Engineering – $60, 125
- Mechanical Engineering – $58,766
- Industrial Engineering – $58,358
- Systems Engineering – $57,438
- Engineering Technology – $56,447
*UPDATED 2010 TOP 10 DEGREE SURVEY IS IN!
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 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.
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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.
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