Degrees to dollars: The 10 highest-paying degrees

Recent media reports on the job market for new college grads are full of horror stories: sky high student debt and sub-par entry level salaries. But it isn't all bad news. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found salary offers made to the class of 2011 increased 4.8 percent to an overall average of $51,018. What's more, a trio of recent reports indicates picking the right degree can mean the difference between a $30,000 starting salary and a $60,000 starting salary. The latest of these reports is the 2011-2012 PayScale College Salary Report.

PayScale survey confirms engineering degree holders are top earners

The annual PayScale survey results show that for those looking for the quickest financial return on their degree, engineering can be the way to go. Seven of the top ten degrees in terms of salary were in the engineering field. The PayScale results are similar to a 2011 NACE survey that found four of the five best paying majors were in engineering. A Georgetown University study this spring also gave top honors to engineering when it ranked median salaries by major.

The same Georgetown University study showed that many students in the top-earning majors went on to work within their fields, suggesting a tight link between the most lucrative degree programs and eventual employment opportunities.

Top dollar degrees according to PayScale

PayScale collected data from U.S. workers who have a bachelor's degree. Workers with advanced degrees were excluded from the survey to avoid skewing the income results. The survey analyzed starting and mid-career salaries for 120 of the most popular undergrad programs. Mid-career salaries measure earnings 15 years after graduation.

It's important to note, however, that just earning a degree doesn't mean today's grads will rake in the big bucks. Getting a job--and the healthy salary that can come with it--depend on everything a candidate can bring to his or her employer. Hiring managers cite work experience via internships, personality, specialties and more as factors when it comes to making hiring decisions.

Nonetheless, below are the 10 college degrees PayScale found in 2011-2012 to lead to the highest salaries, ranked by average mid-career earnings:

1. Petroleum Engineering. Median starting salary: $97,900. Mid-career average: $155,000

The survey numbers suggest that petroleum engineering can be by far the best paying major available today. According to the Society of Petroleum Engineers, a large number of workers in the industry are expected to retire during the next ten years. Add the global demand for energy and you have a scenario in which petroleum engineering majors should continue to be in-demand and well-compensated for years to come.

2. Chemical Engineering. Median starting salary: $64,500. Mid-career average: $109,000

According to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, professionals in this field are at the forefront of research in fields including energy, biomedicine, food production and electronics.

3. Electrical Engineering. Median starting salary: $61,300. Mid-career average: $103,000

PayScale reports that while salaries for electrical engineers remain high, competition for jobs is expected to be stiff. While job experience is important, having a degree in electrical engineering can be key to filling positions created by retiring employees.

4. Materials Science and Engineering. Median starting salary: $60,400. Mid-career average: $103,000

As one of the lesser known engineering disciplines, materials science studies, manipulates and improves on materials used in the biotechnology, energy and communications industries. Emerging fields such as nanotechnology also play a role in materials science and engineering.

5. Aerospace Engineering. Median starting salary: $60,700. Mid-career average: $102,000

From self-guided machines to helicopters to spacecraft, aerospace engineers are involved in the design and creation of any vehicle that travels above the Earth's surface. The technical skills learned by those with aerospace engineering degrees place graduates in the top five highest-earning majors, PayScale reports.

6. Computer Engineering. Median starting salary: $61,800. Mid-career average: $101,000

In a relatively new field, qualified computer engineering graduates are few and far between. "We are desperate to find skilled employees, but simply cannot do so," says Sander Daniels, co-founder of web start-up Thumbtack.com. With multiple companies vying for relatively few candidates, median starting salaries for computer engineering graduates are high. Sanders said, "I see supply slowly catching up to demand over the coming years--but at least today, there aren't enough computer engineers for all the available jobs."

7. Physics. Median starting salary: $49,800. Mid-career average: $101,000

Today, these professionals work in the fields of chemistry, oceanography, seismology and astronomy. Physics is the only major on the list with a median starting salary below $50,000, but by mid-career, the average rises to more than double that amount.

8. Applied Mathematics. Median starting salary: $52,600. Mid-career average: $98,600

According to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, employers across a number of industries hire mathematicians and computational scientists. Jobs can be found in the energy, finance, science, health care and publishing sectors among others.

9. Computer Science. Median starting salary: $56,600. Mid-career average: $97,900

In a society that is increasingly dependent on computer technology, computer science graduates can expect to see lucrative starting salaries. Make no mistake, these professionals do more than simply provide tech support and program games. For instance, computer science researchers at Cornell University work in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, computer architecture and security.

10. Nuclear Engineering. Median starting salary: $65,100. Mid-career average: $97,800

Rounding out the top ten on the PayScale list is nuclear engineering. Jeff Madison, President of CoolHandNuke.com, a job site for nuclear professionals, says several factors help boost the incomes of nuclear engineers. These include the high caliber of nuclear engineering graduates, the sensitive nature of their work and a decreasing number of individuals entering the field.

In addition, Madison predicts an upswing in the need for nuclear engineers that could mean better salaries in the future. "Over the course of the next 10 plus years, these engineers with start being paid very, very well," he said. "And the benefits packages are already the best of any industry."

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