Best Degrees to Get: Popular Majors That Guarantee High Salary

Best Degrees to Get: Popular Majors That Guarantee High Salary
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

For many individuals, college is a time of exploration and making important decisions. One such major decision, for instance, is the best degree to get. On one hand, there are those who are fortunate enough to be able to choose a degree that aligns with their interests. On the other hand, many student have to be more practical and choose among popular majors that guarantee a high salary.

In this article, we take a look at bachelor’s degrees that offer candidates high mid-career salaries and lead graduates to jobs that they feel positively about. To complete the picture, we explore different career options and job prospects for every degree to provide helpful information to incoming college students.

Studying for the Future: Best Degrees to Get That Pay Well

  1. Petroleum Engineering
  2. Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (EECS)
  3. Applied Economics and Management
  4. Operations Research
  5. Political Economy
  6. Actuarial Mathematics
  7. Electrical Power Engineering
  8. Business Analysis
  9. Pharmacy
  10. Aeronautics & Astronautics

When considering the best degrees to get, prospective students often find themselves weighing their interest in the course with other important factors. These include job satisfaction, employability, and earnings of their potential careers after college. In a study, Mehta & Uhlig (2017) explored the relationship between annual income and completion of a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business administration and computer science among graduates of National University USA. They found that 32% of graduates had increased their annual income by 20% to 30% five years after obtaining their bachelor’s or master’s degree in business administration. On the other hand, 20% of graduates said that they saw their earnings increase by 20% to 30% five years after obtaining their bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in computer science.

Looking at possible earning post-graduation makes financial sense, given the somber picture of rising college costs. According to CNBC (2019), the cost of a college education has become 25% more expensive compared to 10 years ago. This has led to the student debt crisis, with 20.9 million students in the U.S. amassing loans of between $10,000 to $50,000 (Statista, 2020). Free college education is seen as a long-term solution. But until then, one fix for students is to study for degrees that offer decent wages after college.

Studying for the Future: Best Degrees to Get That Pay Well

1. Petroleum Engineering

Petroleum engineers develop plans to extract oil and gas from underground reserves (College Grad, n.d). They often travel to drill or well sites to determine how profitable a certain reservoir is (Environmental Science, n.d.). They also conduct surveys, testing, and analysis of the production levels of wells.

In 2019, the mid-career median pay for graduates of petroleum engineering was $176,900, making it one of the best degrees one can get. Drilling and completion engineers, which are specialized petroleum engineering jobs, are one of the highest-paid in the industry, with a global mean pay of $157,574 and $147,064, respectively (Society of Petroleum Engineers,2019).

Source: Payscale

Aside from being well-paid, petroleum engineers posted the highest scores in terms of finding meaning in their jobs. In a survey, 72% of petroleum engineering graduates said that “their work makes the world a better place (Payscale, 2019.) However, Smith et al. (2017) pointed out that the social and environmental impact of extractive industries like energy and mining poses ethical challenges to engineers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that demand for petroleum engineers will grow by 3% from 2018 to 2028. As of 2018, there were 33,500 petroleum engineering jobs, which are set to increase to 34,300 jobs by 2028 (BLS, 2020f).

2. Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (EECS)

Students with an electrical engineering degree are trained to design and develop electrical systems and oversee the manufacture of electrical equipment. They use their knowledge in electronic theory, mathematics, and materials in various applications, from designing microprocessors in mobile phones to creating the circuitry and wiring for outer space global positioning satellite systems (UNSW, n.d.).

On the other hand, a computer science degree equips students with knowledge in programming, algorithms, and databases. With this, they can design software, systems, and networks that meet users’ needs (Times Higher Education, 2019). With a computer science degree, one can get jobs as a web developer, software developer, full-stack developer, or user interface designer, to name a few (Kowarski, 2019).

According to Payscale, the annual median mid-career pay for electrical engineering and computer science graduates is $140,000. Meanwhile, the BLS projects that the demand for electrical engineers will grow by 5% from 2018 to 2028. This rate is the same growth rate for all occupations. From 191,900 jobs in 2018, electrical engineering jobs will increase to 201,100 jobs by 2028. In comparison, computer and information technology jobs are projected to grow by 12% for the same period. This sector is expected to generate 546,200 new jobs. Cloud computing, big data, and information security will drive demand for computer and IT-related jobs (BLS, 2020b).

3. Applied Economics and Management

A degree in applied economics and management lets students analyze macro- and microeconomic information to create economic forecasts. Students can learn about data analysis and developing managerial and financial strategies for governments or corporations. Bachelor degree holders can explore career options as budget analysts, financial managers, or consultants.

According to 2019 figures from Payscale, applied economics and management majors with more than 10 years of experience earned $140,000 in median pay. More data from Payscale indicates that an entry-level economics degree salary amounts to an average of $68,000.

Meanwhile, the job outlook for economists remains positive, with BLS predicting that the demand for economists will increase by 8% from 2018 to 2028. This means that from 21,000 jobs in 2018, there will be 22,800 available jobs by 2028. Demand for these jobs will be fueled by a competitive business landscape, the intricacies of the global economy, and an increasingly regulated financial industry (BLS, 2020c).

4. Operations Research

A degree in operations research gives students the opportunity to become problem-solvers for organizations. In this field of study, they will learn how to use statistics, databases, and modeling software. These tools will help them identify areas for improvement in sales, logistics, supply chain, and other areas of the business. They also perform cost-benefit analyses, give their recommendations to managers, and ensure successful follow-through of these plans. With this degree, one can get a job as an operations research analyst, decision analyst, or analytical strategist (Purdue University, n.d.).

According to Payscale, operations research degree holders can earn a median salary of $137,100 in the middle of their careers. They can expect a high demand for jobs, too. According to data from BLS (2020), job growth for operations research analysts will grow by 26% from 2018 to 2028. As such, from 109,700 jobs in 2018, operations research analysts jobs will grow to 137,900 by 2028 (BLS, 2020e).

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

5. Political Economy

A political economy degree merges two fields of study, with students learning how financial markets are integrated into politics and society. With this course, they can explore issues like economic inequality, the impact of consumer demand on climate change, and the effect of public and private sector institutions on the economy (UC Berkely, n.d.). In studying the various aspects of the political economy, students will learn formal modeling, comparative methods, and statistical techniques (Georgetown University, n.d.). Political economy degree holders can work as forecast or political analysts.

According to 2019 data from Payscale, a bachelor’s degree in political economy can lead one to earn $136,200 in median mid-career pay. On the other hand, BLS (2020) predicts that by 2028, there will be 22,800 economist jobs owing to its faster than average job growth of 8%.

6. Actuarial Mathematics

Getting a bachelor’s degree in actuarial mathematics gives students an interdisciplinary degree that merges business, economics, mathematics, and statistics (University of Michigan, n.d.). Actuaries use mathematics to calculate risk and uncertainty and help companies avoid or manage those risks. They can find employment in insurance companies, financial institutions, healthcare companies, and large corporations.

Bachelor’s degree holders of actuarial mathematics with more than 10 years of experience can earn a median pay of $135,100. In terms of job outlook, BLS (2020) reports that actuaries will enjoy 20% job growth from 2018 to 2028, which is four times the expected job growth for all occupations. However, the BLS describes an actuary as a “small occupation,” and as such, one will not see a dramatic jump in available jobs. From 25,000 jobs in 2018, actuarial jobs are projected to increase to a modest 30,000 jobs by 2028 (BLS, 2020).

7. Electrical Power Engineering

Electrical power engineering is a subset of electrical engineering that deals with the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power (IEEE PES, n.d.). Electrical power engineers design and maintain devices like generators and transformers that supply power to or draw power from power grids. Power engineering degree holders can find employment in power utility companies and industries related to metallurgy, gas processing, chemical manufacturing, and paper manufacturing (Bright Hub, 2009).

According to Payscale, bachelor’s degree holders can earn $134,700 in annual median pay in the middle of their careers. However, the demand for electrical and electronics engineers will be slower than other occupations at 2%. From 330,300 jobs in 2018, it is expected to increase to only 338,300 jobs by 2028.

8. Business Analysis

A degree in business analysis allows students to have a good foundation in building a business strategy, evaluating business cases, and managing organizations in general (Bellevue University, n.d.). In this course, students will learn problem-solving skills and different analysis techniques that will be useful in assessing the current state of a business (Frue, 2016). After graduation, they can put their skills to good use by providing strategic planning, business model analysis, process design, and systems analysis for organizations (Discover Data Science (n.d.).

Bachelor’s degree holders of business analysis can earn a median mid-career pay of $133,200, according to Payscale. Job growth for business analysts, also known as management analysts, appear to be healthy. BLS predicts that management analyst jobs will grow by 14%, much faster than the job growth for all occupations which is at 5%. As such, from 876,300 jobs in 2018, management analyst jobs are expected to grow to 994,600 by 2028.  In the U.S., demand for these jobs is particularly strong in the healthcare and IT industries (BLS, 2020).

9. Pharmacy

A degree in pharmacy prepares students to prescribe medication for minor health concerns, as well as explain to patients how to use them. Coursework for this degree includes modules on physiology, human biology, chemistry, and pharmacology (Top Universities, n.d.).  Graduates can find work as community or hospital pharmacists (AGCAS & Graduate Prospects, 2019). Other possible employment settings include health maintenance organizations, nursing homes, the academe, or in government agencies.

Pharmacy degree holders can earn a median salary of $132,500 in the middle of their careers. However, BLS data shows that from 314,100 jobs in 2018, there will be 100 fewer pharmacy jobs in the U.S. by 2028. This decline is driven by online and mail-order medicine delivery and pharmacy technicians taking over pharmacist roles (BLS, 2020).

10. Aeronautics & Astronautics

With degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, or related degrees in aerospace engineering, students can learn the basic concepts and techniques that enable them to design, implement, and operate aerospace and related engineering systems (Stanford University, n.d.). Aeronautics deals with physics principles that allow planes and other aircraft to fly within the earth’s atmosphere (, n.d.). On the other hand, astronautics deals with building and operating vehicles for travel to outer space (Merriam Webster). Aeronautics and astronautics degrees can lead to jobs as aerospace engineers, aerospace structural engineers, aeronautical engineers, and aerospace defense engineers (, n.d.).

Aeronautics and astronautics degree holders can expect to earn a median mid-career salary of $131,600. Aerospace engineering jobs are expected to grow by 4% from 2018 to 2028, particularly in civilian space companies (BLS, 2020a). This means that from 67,200 jobs in 2018, there will be 68,300 aerospace engineering jobs by 2028. 

U.S. Job Growth for Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technicians (2018-2028)

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Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Towards Meaningful & Rewarding Careers

Based on Payscale’s 2019 College Salary Report, the top three best degrees to have are petroleum engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, and applied economics and management. On the other hand, jobs that posted high growth rates stemmed from degrees like operations research, actuarial mathematics, and business analysis.

One’s choice of a college degree ideally must be aligned with one’s interests and strengths. However, with rising college costs and a competitive job market, it will be practical for students to also consider their job prospects and earnings from a particular degree.



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