Trying to figure out what to major in? Then you're probably curious about what the best college majors are in terms of how much money they can make you and what kinds of jobs you can get with them.
Here, we go over the criteria we used to determine the 17 best degrees to get. After, we cover some quick tips for identifying the best major for you.
What Determines Which Majors Are Better Than Others?
Is there really such a thing as a best college major?
If you're defining "best" by how good a major is for you specifically, then which college majors are better will vary depending on your academic interests and passions, your skills and abilities, and your future career goals.
In other words, the best college majors for you will be those that match your personal criteria (we go over this in more detail later).
But many students want to know what the best college majors are on a more objective level. To figure this out, most websites take into account all or some of the following three factors:
- How employable the major is (i.e., does it have a high employment growth rate?)
- The median salary of jobs related to the major
- The median base/starting salary of jobs related to the major
What does all of this mean exactly?
Essentially, the higher the employment growth rate and median salaries of a certain major or field are, the better that major is considered to be.
By contrast, if a major is related to a field that has a low employment growth rate and low median salaries, it wouldn't—objectively speaking—be considered one of the best majors to choose.
This is the main criteria we used to come up with our list of the 17 best college majors. Read on to see what these majors are!
The 17 Best College Majors, Ranked
After researching several reputable online ranking lists, including those on US News, Forbes, and Business Insider, we've come up with a list of the 17 best degrees to get.
We primarily based our rankings on the following criteria:
- How high the major ranked on other "best college majors" lists
- How high the median salaries of jobs in that major/field are
- How high the employment growth rate is for that major/field
All data on median salaries and employment growth rates (i.e., job outlooks) is from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and all the base median salary data comes from PayScale and Glassdoor.
Note that the average employment growth rate for all jobs is currently 7%, so jobs with rates higher than this are growing at a faster-than-average rate. (A negative growth rate means that the job is actually declining.)
Now let's go through each major, one by one, starting with the best of the best.
#1: Petroleum Engineering
- Base Salary: $94,500
- Median Salary (2018): $137,170 (for petroleum engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 15% (for petroleum engineers)
Petroleum engineering takes the top spot for best major, as petroleum engineers make some of the highest salaries and have a very promising job outlook in terms of anticipated growth over the next five to six years.
Students in this major study the extraction and production of natural gas and oil. Required classes typically include reservoir geomechanics, properties of petroleum fluids, petrophysics, chemistry, geology, calculus, and physics.
#2: Computer Engineering
- Base Salary: $72,900
- Median Salary (2018): $114,600 (for computer hardware engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 5% (for computer hardware engineers)
Computer engineering is our pick for the second-best college major, as it has high potential for a six-figure salary down the road and offers a solid starting salary of $70,000+ for recent grads.
In this major, which combines computer science and electronic engineering, students learn how to design, develop, use, and improve computer hardware and software. Fundamental courses usually include calculus, engineering design, digital computer design, electric circuits, chemistry, computer systems, and physics.
#3: Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering
- Base Salary: $70,250
- Median Salary (2018): $115,220 (for aerospace engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 6% (for aerospace engineers)
Aerospace and aeronautical engineering is another excellent major; this field boasts a great base salary and high median salary, as well as steady employment growth.
An aerospace and aeronautical engineering major teaches students everything they need to know in order to design, develop, and test aircraft and spacecraft. Aerospace engineering is the broader term for the field, while aeronautical engineering deals specifically with developing aircraft for use within the Earth's atmosphere.
Students normally take classes on topics such as aircraft/spacecraft structures, aircraft/spacecraft propulsion, gas dynamics, aerodynamics, and space system design.
#4: Nuclear Engineering
- Base Salary: $72,400
- Median Salary (2018): $107,600 (for nuclear engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 4% (for nuclear engineers)
Nuclear engineering majors can expect an enviously high starting salary comparable to that of computer engineers and impressive long-term earning potential as nuclear engineers.
Students in this STEM field study the principles of nuclear physics and the methods for harnessing energy from nuclear reactions. As a nuclear engineering major, you will most likely take courses in physics, fusion energy, calculus, differential equations, thermodynamics, nuclear design, and nuclear reactions and radiation.
- Base Salary: $55,350
- Median Salary (2018): $119,580 (for physicists)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 14% (for physicists)
Those hoping to become a physicist will be happy to know that the physics major comes in at #5 on our list of the best college majors due to its high median salary and promising job outlook.
While you'll need a graduate degree to become a physicist, you can still earn a decent salary with just a bachelor's in physics by becoming a computer programmer, hydrologist, or software engineer, for example.
As a physics student, you will study forces, energy, and the movement and properties of matter in time and space. Basic courses typically include gravity, electricity, thermodynamics, vibrations and waves, magnetism, and quantum physics.
- Base Salary: $55,250
- Median Salary (2018): $127,990 (for financial managers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 19% (for financial managers)
The sixth-best college major on our list is finance, which students may use in an array of positions, from financial manager (one of the most lucrative) to financial analyst and accountant, all of which have above-average employment growth and median salaries higher than $70,000.
Students majoring in finance learn how to develop and identify strategies for helping businesses and organizations make money. Specifically, they need to understand how the stock market and economy as a whole work, and how to come up with and manage a budget.
Courses often required for the major are macroeconomics, corporate finance, global economics, accounting, investment strategies, and financial modeling.
#7: Chemical Engineering
- Base Salary: $68,900
- Median Salary (2018): $104,910 (for chemical engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 8% (for chemical engineers)
Chemical engineering is a great major to choose (though it's also one of the hardest majors) because of its high base salary and solid employment growth rate.
This field involves the operation of industrial chemical plants and the design, use, production, and transportation of chemicals. Mandatory courses for a chemical engineering major include physics, calculus, chemistry, and biology, as well as specialized classes in kinetics, materials science, and transport processes.
#8: Computer Science
- Base Salary: $69,300
- Median Salary (2018): $105,590 (for software developers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 24% (for software developers)
One particularly great and popular STEM major to choose if you're looking to have a diverse array of job options is computer science. You can earn more than $100,000 as a software developer, a position that also has a super-high employment growth rate of 24%.
Another option is to work as a computer programmer; however, this job is expected to decline in coming years.
Computer science majors study computers and different programming languages to learn how to design, develop, and test software programs and applications. Students in this major take classes in calculus, electronics, computer systems, probability, programming, and algorithms.
#9: Actuarial Science
- Base Salary: $63,700
- Median Salary (2018): $102,880 (for actuaries)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 22% (for actuaries)
Some of you have probably never heard of this major, but it's a good one to be aware of, especially if you're really into math and problem solving—and making more than $100,000. Actuaries have a very high employment growth rate of 22%, making this field a great career path.
Actuarial science students learn how to solve problems and use math and statistics to analyze and quantify risk for insurance companies.
Regular classes include calculus, computing, probability and statistics, computer science, theory of mathematical interest, investments and financial markets, loss models, and accounting.
#10: Electrical Engineering
- Base Salary: $69,519
- Median Salary (2018): $99,070 (for electrical and electronics engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 7% (for electrical and electronics engineers)
This popular engineering major is currently experiencing a steady job growth rate and has a solid median salary of just under $100,000.
Electrical engineering is a technical field in which students learn how to design, develop, and test out electronic devices and other electrical equipment, usually through a combination of labs and design sessions. It's sometimes combined with computer engineering (see #2) as a single degree.
Common core courses are calculus, physics, chemistry, engineering design, programming, analog and digital electronics, electromagnetic theory, and electric circuits.
#11: Marine Engineering
- Base Salary: $72,600
- Median Salary (2018): $92,560 (for marine engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 12% (for marine engineers)
Can't get enough of the sea? Then this unique (and lucrative) engineering major might be the perfect fit for you.
A marine engineering major entails designing, developing, producing, and maintaining equipment to be used at sea, such as ships, boats, and oil rigs. Know that naval architecture is a subfield of marine engineering that deals specifically with the design of ships.
In addition to taking classes in math and physics, students take courses in marine hydrodynamics, marine structures, thermodynamics, ship and vessel design, and marine power and energy.
#12: Construction Management
- Base Salary: $58,600
- Median Salary (2018): $93,370 (for construction managers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 11% (for construction managers)
A degree in construction management can lead to great opportunities when it comes to salary and finding employment. Popular jobs include construction managers, who make $90,000+ a year, and property managers, who make around $60,000.
This major teaches you how to effectively manage and coordinate construction projects every step of the way, from planning and scheduling to budgeting and overseeing staff and materials.
You'll typically need to take construction-related courses in accounting, management, HR practices, planning, estimating, safety, and contracts.
#13: Materials Science and Engineering
- Base Salary: $69,400
- Median Salary (2018): $92,390 (for materials engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 2% (for materials engineers)
Although the job outlook for materials engineers isn't that high, this major and career should still give you a good shot at making a decent amount of money in the long run.
A materials engineering program integrates the fields of math and science, allowing students to study an array of materials, from glass and plastic to metals and ceramics. A materials science major is extremely similar but normally has a bigger emphasis on improving the function and composition of materials. Some colleges combine the two majors into a single materials science and engineering program.
Classes typically include calculus, physics, chemistry, engineering design, properties of materials, thermodynamics, kinetics of materials, smart materials, and sustainable energy technologies.
- Base Salary: $44,836
- Median Salary (2018): $93,280 (for biochemists)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 11% (for biochemists)
Biochemistry is a useful science major to consider if you're passionate about biological processes and lab work. Biochemists currently have high job growth and a median salary of $93,000.
Although you'll need a graduate degree to become a biochemist, you can use your bachelor's in biochemistry in positions such as biological technician or pharmacy technician, which are presently experiencing faster-than-average employment growth (but make less money than biochemists).
A biochemistry major involves learning about and analyzing chemical processes and substances within living organisms. Undergrads in this program normally take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, math, physiology, computing, evolutionary biology, genetics, and cell biology.
- Base Salary: $47,700
- Median Salary (2018): $91,130 (for geoscientists)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 14% (for geoscientists)
Looking to make money studying rocks? Well, you're in luck! A geology major offers a pretty high median salary and an impressive job outlook.
This major, which is an earth science, deals with the study of the solid Earth—mainly the rocks and minerals that comprise it—and the planet's physical and chemical properties. Students take classes in topics such as natural disasters, mineralogy, sedimentology, history of the Earth, environmental science, and climate.
#16: Biomedical Engineering
- Base Salary: $59,757
- Median Salary (2018): $88,550 (for biomedical engineers)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 7% (for biomedical engineers)
Considered a more difficult major, biomedical engineering offers budding engineers a solid growth rate and a high median salary at just under $90,000.
This field is a subfield of bioengineering and entails using the principles of biology and engineering to create products for use in medicine and health care. Undergrads take classes in electric circuits, calculus, chemistry, physics, statistics, engineering design, and thermodynamics.
- Base Salary: $55,759
- Median Salary (2018): $88,190 (for mathematicians)
- Job Outlook (2016-2026): 33% (for mathematicians)
If you love straight-up math and want a wide range of possible career paths, then a mathematics degree is an ideal choice. Mathematicians currently have one of the best job outlooks at 33%.
Note, however, that you'll need a graduate degree to become a mathematician. Other high-paying jobs open to math majors include software engineers, computer programmers, financial analysts, and data analysts.
A mathematics major is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you get to study all different types of math, including algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other high-level math. Most classes are purely math-based and range from discrete math and linear algebra to number theory and differential equations.
How to Find Your Ideal College Major: 3 Critical Factors
Above, we gave you a list of the best college majors, ranked according to factors such as how much money they can make you and how much growth they're seeing.
So which major should you choose? And how should you go about picking one?
First, don't select one of the majors above just because it's one of the "best." Remember that this list is only based on a few specific criteria and doesn't take into account individual differences among students.
When it comes down to it, there are three essential factors you should consider before you pick a major:
- Your interests and passions: If you're not passionate about the academic program you have chosen (or, worse, don't care for it at all), you likely won't have any motivation to work hard in it.
- Your abilities: If you really struggle to do something related to a particular major, or can't do it at all, then consider choosing another major that comes more naturally to you and that you have a genuine interest in. For instance, you shouldn't major in accounting if you have always struggled with math and would find it really difficult to use math every day in a job.
- Your career goals: Although your major doesn't need to perfectly reflect your professional ambitions, it should be at least somewhat related. For example, if you've always wanted to work in publishing, then you should be able to realize that a writing-related major will work better for you than a math or science major will.
These are the three primary factors to consider before you commit to a particular major.
Know that you don't need to declare a major right away or while you're still in high school; it's perfectly fine to take your time and explore your academic interests and options through classes and extracurriculars as a college student before you select a major.
Wrap-Up: What the Best College Majors Mean for You
So, what are the best bachelors degrees? In reality, there's no single college major that's the best for everyone. Ultimately, the best college degrees for you will depend on your interests, your skills and abilities, and your career goals.
Nevertheless, it can be helpful to know what the best college majors are in terms of their salaries, employment growth rates, and overall popularity.
We scoured the web to look for reputable ranking lists of college majors and also used data from the BLS, PayScale, and Glassdoor to come up with the list below of the 17 best degrees to get:
- Petroleum Engineering
- Computer Engineering
- Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering
- Nuclear Engineering
- Chemical Engineering
- Computer Science
- Actuarial Science
- Electrical Engineering
- Marine Engineering
- Construction Management
- Materials Science and Engineering
- Biomedical Engineering
As you can see from this list of the best majors, STEM reigns supreme, particularly engineering, in terms of overall salary potential.
Feel free to use this list as a jumping-off point to get a feel for what degrees might make you more money, both upfront and in the long run.
Just don't forget this: by far the most important factor to consider when choosing a major is what you personally are interested in studying. And if that's not any of the best degrees above, that's completely fine—that doesn't mean you can't make good money or find a great job with the major you have chosen!
You now know what the best majors to choose are—but what about the worst majors? Our in-depth guide lists the majors with the lowest salaries and highest unemployment rates.
What are the easiest majors? The hardest majors? Read all about which majors you might have an easier or more difficult time with here.
Considering double majoring? We tell you what a double major is and go over the pros and cons of having two majors in college.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.