Some degrees pay off better than others

Christina Bennett

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In an economy teetering on the edge of stability and an uncertain future for CSUs, students may worry whether they will find a job. But even with a degree, students might find that their respective major does not guarantee economic security.

The top-10 college majors that pay the most are all in math sciences, according to PayScale, a website that compiles data about job salaries and analyzes colleges across the nation.

PayScale has a report on “degrees that pay you back,” which ranks degrees by starting median pay and mid-career median pay and considers that “typical starting graduates have two years of experience,” according to the report.

Of the top 10, seven are in various fields of engineering, including petroleum engineering at No. 1 with a starting median pay of $97,900 and mid-career median pay at $155,000.

Also in the top 10 are physics (No. 7), applied mathematics (No. 8) and computer science (No. 9) with starting median pay of $49,800, $52,600 and $56,600, respectively.

It may not be surprising that math and science degrees offer top dollar. Dr. Say-Peng Lim, chair of the physics department at CSUN, said there are reasons for this high demand.

“Traditionally, it has always been that physics majors tend to be very well paid. A lot of the people who do quantitative analysis in financial firms tend to have physical science and math background(s),” Lim said. “Physics-trained students gravitate towards positions that require a lot of problem solving, a lot of quantitative type work.”

Physics degree holders are being employed by a variety of sectors of the economy, according to the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which reported on hiring trends.

In August, the American Institute of Physics published enrollment and degree data from 711 degree-granting physics departments nationwide on the 2010-2011 academic year and confirmed that the pool of physics students is small.

The rigors of the physics program appeal to a certain type of student, Lim said.

“You really have to like math, you really have to be inquisitive and like to understand how things work or why things have certain properties and behave the way they do,” Lim said. “If you have those kinds of inclinations, then this can be a very challenging, interesting, rewarding major.”

Jake Reschke, 21, senior physics major, echoes this point of view, adding that patience is an indispensable virtue for physicists.

“There are definitely difficult problems that can be very frustrating, but in my opinion those are the best problems to solve [because] the ones that really get you frustrated pay off the most,” Reschke said. “[When] you finally solve a problem you’ve been working on for days or thinking about for weeks, it just feels really good to finally have an answer.”

Dr. Sharlene Katz, full-time faculty member at CSUN’s electrical and computer engineering department, offered her insight on the rigors of the electrical and computer engineering program and stressed the intensity of the prerequisite and core course load.

“It’s a very difficult major. I’d say it’s probably one of the most difficult programs on campus,” Katz said.

Electrical engineering may be one of those degrees students initially choose because of the financially rewarding job prospects, but if no underlying passion for science and math exist, the allure of a high paying job often wears off, according to Katz.

“If you can pick something that you are passionate about, but you can see leads to a career, I think that’s the best combination,” Katz said.

On the lower end of the scale, degrees in liberal arts, communications and social and behavioral sciences are not as promising, according to PayScale.

The bottom 10 collegiate degrees on PayScale’s report have starting median salaries ranging from $29,600 to $35,600 and mid-career median pay salaries ranging from $40,500 to $52,000.

Yesenia Vasquez, 22, senior psychology major, said she feels the work in her major will be rewarding but admits that salary was a factor in her decision.

“Before I thought about psychology, I wanted to be a choreographer. My passion used to be dance, and I wanted to do that,” Vasquez said. “I had to choose—am I going to go struggle with dance, or am I going to go with something that will definitely be more stable.”

Vasquez has not given up dance as a passion, but chose psychology after weighing the financial prospects of her two interests. Psychology is personally a good fit because of the opportunity to help a wide range of people, she said.