The 5 Best College Degrees for Your Career

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Congratulations, young (and some older) people! You're going to college!

Springtime is here, and millions of aspiring scholars across the country have by now received their college acceptance letters, beginning the process that will take them through the rest of their lives. Some already have their whole lives planned out, but most will enter the halls of higher education not quite certain which direction to take. Is computer science the way to go? Should you join a fraternity or sorority? What's the etiquette on texting while playing beer pong?

I can't answer the latter two questions -- that's a journey you'll have to take on your own -- but there's a wealth of information available to help you decide what to study if you want to maximize your opportunities after graduation. Getting a degree will undoubtedly help your chances of landing and holding a job in today's economy, but some degrees offer better prospects than others right from the start. The five degree paths (ranked from fifth to first in median salary) you'll see below offer the best salaries out of 130 different options reviewed by PayScale, an analytics company specializing in salary and career data. If your interests align with these majors, you should take a closer look. It could be well worth your while, now and for decades to come.


5: Nuclear Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $66,800
  • Median mid-career salary: $107,000
  • Employment totals: 19,930
  • Unemployment rate: 1.7%

Forget about being another Homer Simpson at this specialized job. The relatively thin ranks of nuclear engineers are tasked with developing and overseeing processes, instruments, and systems used to harness nuclear energy and radiation. You might find them in biohazard suits inspecting radioactive locations, but if nuclear engineers have done their jobs properly, they won't have to don those protective getups. Many are employed at nuclear power plants, but others work in industrial and medical settings to find uses for radioactive materials.

4: Chemical Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $67,500
  • Median mid-career salary: $111,000
  • Employment totals: 32,190
  • Unemployment rate: 2.8%

Chemical engineers have a broader range of functions, and thus suffer a bit in terms of unemployment, if not in salary. These engineers can be found in any industry that produces or uses chemicals to create products, which is quite a number of industries -- from pharmaceuticals to petroleum, and nearly every manufacturing process in between. A number of chemical engineers may go on to get graduate degrees or professional certification, but there aren't that many openings expected in the future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects just 1,800 more chemical engineering jobs to be created by 2020.

3: Actuarial Science/Mathematics

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $56,100
  • Median mid-career salary: $112,000
  • Employment totals: 21,700
  • Unemployment rate: 0% 

The only job on our list with an effectively negligible unemployment rate also happens to be the best job in America, according to job site CareerCast.com. Actuaries help companies manage their risks by applying complex mathematical and statistical probability models to various hypothetical circumstances, and then help develop strategies to mitigate those risks. If anything, the 2008 financial crisis has made businesses across the spectrum far more risk-averse than they once were, which puts skilled actuaries in even greater demand. This is also the fastest-growing job of the bunch in percentage terms, so if you love working with numbers but can also see the big picture, this might be the degree path to follow.

2: Aerospace Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $62,500
  • Median mid-career salary: $118,000
  • Employment totals: 80,420
  • Unemployment rate: 1.5%

The demand for aerospace engineers is not huge -- only 4,000 more are expected to join the workforce by 2020 -- but pay is high, the field of options is somewhat broader than in the other four careers on this list, and hey, you get to make things fly. If you spent weekends in the backyard with a model airplane, you'll love an opportunity to design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missile systems. The proliferation of drones of all types over the coming years will offer creative aerospace engineers plenty of challenges, but should also provide lots of professional satisfaction and enjoyment.

1: Petroleum Engineering

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $98,000
  • Median mid-career salary: $163,000
  • Employment totals: 36,410
  • Unemployment rate: 0.6%

If you're at all interested in America's energy independence, then you might want to consider becoming a petroleum engineer. It's thanks to these well-paid and in-demand scientists that oil and gas companies have managed to extract so much more oil from domestic deposits than was thought possible a few short years ago. Petroleum engineers help find and exploit new deposits of oil and natural gas as efficiently as possible, and are also tasked with recovering more from existing wells. If you like getting your hands dirty, so much the better -- many petroleum engineers have to spend a fair amount of time working at drilling sites.

The best of the rest
There are plenty of reasons to get a degree besides the simple desire to make money. After all, the business world is full of individuals who've reached the highest levels with a degree that ranks in the middle, or even in the lower reaches, of PayScale's scale. Ultimately, the choice of a degree program should be based on a variety of factors, not least of which should be your desire to work with that knowledge for years and years to come.

If you'd like to see the full list of 130 majors by salary potential, click here. Please feel free to share your thoughts on these majors by leaving a comment below.

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