While graduate school is typically a shelter from the storm in an unforgiving job market, some who have gone back to school or recently graduated are finding that a college degree is worth the investment.
The average salary for some professions is going up. The college class of 2011's average starting salary is $51,018, up from $48,661 last year, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, NACE. Twice a year, NACE surveys its 900 member employers and 1,800 colleges and universities to come up with a list of top-paying college majors and their corresponding average salary offers.
“The steady increases in starting salary offers we’re seeing this year is a good indication that the job market for new college graduates is gathering strength,” says Marilyn Mackes, NACE's executive director.
As companies remain focused on business growth, many are looking for employees with technical skills. Petroleum engineering and computer engineering grads had the highest bumps in starting salaries this year.
There are, however, some notable exceptions. Psychology graduates, for instance, saw a whopping 23.8 increase in their average salary offer, which now stands at $40,069. Although the job market is not as encouraging for English or general liberal arts graduates, most saw their average offers increase.
"Typically the more technical degrees command higher salaries, which explains why nearly all of the top-paid degrees are in the engineering field," Andrea Koncz of NACE says.
Click ahead to see what college degrees are pulling in the best paychecks.
By Jessica Naziri
Posted 15 August 2011
Average starting salary: $58,909
The average offer to information sciences and systems graduates rose 4.4 percent. There are more than 300 engineering schools in the country, with MIT, or Massachussetts Instuitte of Technology, ranking the highest, according to a study done by US News & World Report. About 45 percent of all graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, roughly 2,800 students, are enrolled in the School of Engineering, and about a third of all faculty members teach at the school.
Anthony J. Vizzini, dean of Western Michigan University's College of Engineering & Applied Sciences, says that engineering is not a discipline that is appropriate for just anyone.
"Engineers have to be strong in math, science, and communication skills, and the best engineers have a broad knowledge of society as a whole," adds Vizzini.
Average starting salary: $59,826
About 37 percent of people with materials-engineering majors obtain a graduate degree," according to a recent "What's it Worth" report by Jeff Strohl.
"Most of these engineering specific jobs are some of the few jobs in the U.S. economy that actually have circular tracks almost directly tied to the occupation," Strohl adds.
Materials engineers work with specific material, such as plastics, ceramics, and steel, to find new ways to use products. Although students actively pursue careers in engineering, not all stay in it.
"A BS in engineering also serves as a foundation for lawyers and doctors. It demonstrates that the individual is a critical thinker capable of focusing and solving problems," Vizzini says.
Average starting salary: $60,345
Mechanical-engineering graduate salaries increased 3.2 percent compared with a year ago.
Mechanical engineers work with machines and engines, from elevator technology to robotics. An engineering education includes a full year of math and science, two years of discipline-specific material, and a year of general studies. Students in this major focus on areas such as heat transfer and fracture mechanics.
For those seeking jobs in mechanical engineering, it's important to note that students need to graduate from an ABET accredited (the recognized accredited for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology) engineering program to be considered for licensure as a professional engineer in most states. Those who are self-educated need to have their education certified.
About 6 percent of engineering majors are unemployed, while 93 percent work full-time, according to Strohl's report.
Average starting salary: $61,021
Salaries for electrical engineers—the largest of the engineering majors—were up 2.8 percent from 2010. Many graduates who major in communications-engineering programs specialize in areas such as telecommunications, new media, or wireless and mobile engineering.
This field is forecast to have the smallest growth in employment among all engineering majors, according to the U.S. News & World Report study.
Average starting salary: $62,738
Engineering makes up 8.2 percent of all majors, according to a report by Strohl.
Although engineering needs are global, "there are geographical areas such as LA, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas or any large city [where demand is strong]. But there might be smaller cities, such as Huntsville, Ala., where there is a significant concentration of technical employment," says Vizzini.
Average starting salary: $63,402
Graduates majoring specifically in computer science saw their average salary offer increase 3.7 percent.
Computer Science deals with information transformation, storage, retrieval, analysis, and display. The areas of specialization include artificial intelligence, computer vision, networking, database systems, computer-human interaction, computer graphics, and numerical and symbolic computation.
Average starting salary: $63,969
This group, which includes the geological profession, specialize in the extraction and processing of ores and minerals, which has been a booming sector for much of the last decade.
Average starting salary: $64,499
The average offer to computer-engineering graduates rose 7.6 percent.
Most engineering programs involve the student in hands-on activities. Many graduates go on to be software developers, software engineers, or programmers. A graduate degree in computer engineering combines training in electrical engineering and computer science.
Average starting salary: $65,618
Chemical-engineering graduates saw no movement in starting salaries compared with a year ago.
Chemical engineering involves chemistry, biology, math, and physics. Many graduates have become designers and inventors, working with everything from nanotechnology to new energy. In addition, they deal with processing gases, liquids, and solids.
Average starting salary: $80,849
The average offer for this group rose 8.1 percent, driven by interest from petroleum-products and coal-products manufacturers, which account for almost 90 percent of all job offers to this group.
Compensation among this group varies more widely than other engineering majors.
"I am going to bet that they all get work, because there are only about 14,000 of them, so it is a very small portion of engineering," says Strohl, adding, that the demand for petroleum engineers is high "relative to the supply."