A lot of today’s students grew up hearing — and parents have been telling them — that they should study what they love. While that’s a nice sentiment, it has also landed many, many recent grads in a quagmire of student debt and unemployment. In today’s rough economy, some college majors simply offer better prospects than others—and students who are going to college to brighten their financial prospects, as well as their minds, should want to know the difference.
Kiplinger’s recently compiled and rated the best college majors for a lucrative career. They analyzed the unemployment rates and salaries for graduates of the 100 most popular college majors, using data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, as well as Payscale.com.
The study specifically looks at fields of study with graduates—both recent grads within the past five years and those well into their careers—who boast an attractive combination of big paychecks and abundant employment opportunities. The undergraduate programs listed below can take from two to five years to complete.
A pharmacy major can be a bit of an investment, since most states require students to earn a post-grad degree to work as a pharmacist. However, pharmacologists, who don’t necessarily require graduate training, can land jobs right out of college. Public and private labs hire recent grads to research drugs and drug interactions. But whether pharmacy undergrads go on to med school, research or some related field, they can expect to earn big salaries fast. Pharmacists stand to make six figures working in hospitals and stores. Both programs involve pharmacology, toxicology and ethics classes—and promise plenty of jobs when class lets out. Even among recent grads, unemployment is a low 5.4%.
Nursing has always made for a steady, well-paid career, but it’s looking especially good as baby-boomers age. Demand for nurses is way up, so unemployment, even among new grads, is down. Nursing majors study a predictable list of health care subjects including anatomy, physiology and biology. While you can score an R.N. certification after two years, nurses with bachelor’s degrees generally enjoy better salaries, earning potential and advancement opportunities than their less-educated peers.
Careers in Treatment Therapies
While physical therapists typically need a doctorate degree, respiratory, radiation and recreational therapists make the big bucks on a B.A. alone. Recent grads start off at $60,400, one of the highest salaries on our list. Radiation therapists, for example, stand to make $75,000, the national median for that particular therapy field, after a few years. Treatment therapy programs generally include anatomy and physiology courses, as well as chemistry, physics and pharmacology. Regardless of specialty, most therapists work in hospitals or nursing homes.
Chemical engineering majors make more money out of school than any other major on our list. If that’s not enough to send you running for the chem lab, consider the fact that, a few years in, the average chemical engineer will make over $30,000 more than his friends in other fields. The work isn’t easy. Chemical engineers study chemistry, physics and biology in school. But after graduation, these engineers stand to enjoy high five-figure salaries in labs and offices and a very low unemployment rate.
Electrical engineering isn’t for the faint of heart or the mathematically challenged. But if you can survive four years of differential equations and circuit theory, you’re on track to make $57,000 a year at your first job. That’s $20,000 more than the median salary for new grads in the top 100 majors. Long-term job growth is modest, with a 10-year projection below the 14% average for all occupations. Still, consistent demand for qualified electrical engineers keeps unemployment in check. Nearly 300,000 electrical engineers design and test components for manufacturers, engineering firms and power plants across the country.
Construction services may seem an odd choice in a down economy, when building projects can grind to a halt. Still, there’s enough demand for general contractors and construction managers to keep unemployment at a tidy 5.4%. Construction-services majors study project scheduling and construction law and go on to oversee projects ranging from office buildings to power plants. The workplace isn’t as glamorous as a swanky office, but new construction services grads make more money than new grads in finance, general engineering and pre-law.
Management Information Systems (MIS)
Not all computer majors are created equal, contrary to rumor and admissions-office hype. Computer-networking majors, for instance, see 8.2% unemployment and a $37,300 salary upon graduation. But management information systems majors can expect high starting salaries right out of school, and strong job and salary growth after that. The major prepares students to work in IT for big organizations—helping clueless technophobes fix their e-mail, sure, but also building, securing and maintaining a network for an entire company.