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Most Useful Degrees

Updated on January 1, 2015

Which Degrees are Most Useful?

College degrees have become more expensive. Current laws block dismissing student loans in a bankruptcy. So, you are going to pay for your degree. It needs to be worth the cost. This article addresses the value of a degree, how to select a program, and which jobs pay the most.

Most Important Income Predictor: a Professional Degree

The two most important predictors of how much money you will earn in your lifetime are these:

1. If you hold a professional degree, you will make 50% more than your peers if you are a woman. If you are a man, you will earn about 67% more than your peers by holding a professional degree. These numbers compare income with your peer age group who hold a doctorate in a non-professional field like History of Romania, philosophy, or psychology. Comparing professional degrees to age-group peers with only high school education, the ratio rises to 6-fold.

2. A positive attitude. Those who believe they can succeed, do succeed significantly more than those who are less positive. Make positive affirmations each day when you shower.

3. There are many other factors that predict financial income. See this article on Predictors of Income Success.

But, which degrees are considered professional degrees?

Thinking of Law School? Better Buy the Barron's Guide!

What is a Professional Degree?

As noted above, a doctorate is not necessarily a professional degree. A professional degree is one which qualifies the holder to sit for a professional examination and (after passing) to hold a license to practice the profession.

More specifically, professional degrees, and the exams required to work as a professional are these:

1. Medicine- pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination

2. Accounting- pass the Certified Public Accountant Exam

3. Law- pass the bar exam, a series of tests required by the state in which you desire to practice.

4. Engineering- Work 4 to 8 years (varies by state), pass a Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (the FE), work 4 more years, then take the Professional Engineering (PE) exams.

5. Geologist

6. Land Surveyor

7. Architect- Each state has its own unique licensing board for Professional Architects.

These professional jobs have a barrier to entry: education, experience, and exams. For this reason, many do not enter these professions. Basic laws of supply and demand dictate that members of these professions will earn more.

So, what are the highest paying jobs in the United States?


Top 7 Highest Paying Jobs

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these were the highest paying jobs in the Unites States in 2011.

Top 7 Highest Paying Jobs in America

Doctors & Surgeons
Chief Executive Officers
Natural Sciences Manager
Petroleum Engineer
Architectural & Engineering Manager

Power of the Brand of the Degree Issuing Institution

Consider also that some names carry a profound premium in opening the door for excellent jobs. Names like Harvard, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, Wharton, Brown, MIT, and Harvey Mudd carry prestige. Graduates from these schools tend to have greater options than other graduates.

Outside of the very top tier of prestige-branded institutional names, the degree issuing school name makes less difference. In all cases, it is really the individual that counts. It is not the degree that is hired. An individual is hired. The reason big-name graduates can fairly claim to have greater potential for hiring managers lies in the selection process for those programs. By accepting only 8% to 12% of applicants, a school already guarantees that it's graduates are a cut above.

If you do not plan to attend one of the top 10 or so most famous institutions, look for a real value. Consider the cost to attend to graduation and also consider the graduation rate. Real values in degree acquisition can be found both in campus programs and in online classes.

Most Useful Degrees in Engineering

Which engineering degree will earn you the most money over your lifetime? The main branches of civil engineering are: Mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, environmental, biomedical, petroleum, and nuclear. In general, a degree in civil engineering provides the highest compensation to engineers over a lifetime. Typically, this means advancing to engineering management. A Master's degree in engineering is recommended for this. However, today many M.Eng. degrees can be achieved online. Norwich University offers Structural M.Eng. degrees. California State University offers an Master's degree in Environmental Engineering- totally online.

Now, let us look at the 2010 median pay (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and lifetime pay for each of the classes of engineering listed above.

Highest Paying Engineering Jobs

(click column header to sort results)
Engineering Field  
Median Pay (2010)  
Lifetime (40 years) Earnings  

Law Degree Cautions

The average starting salary for a law degree is inflated by the salaries offered by the largest corporate law firms. These tend to be in the $160,000 range. Other salaries tend to range from $40,000 to $65,000 to start. Corporations tend to hire from certain programs.

Many excellent businesses develop long-term relationships with campuses. They use this relationship to recruit candidates. Law firms do the same.

Research the biggest law firms. Learn what they do, who they hire, where they hire, and why. Then, plan your academic training accordingly.

With the biggest corporations in each of the professional fields, human resources departments determine which campuses have the strongest recruitment programs and graduate the most competent employees. HR then develops regular and annual recruitment visits and programs to bring those workers into their offices. For this reason, and especially for the legal field, the most useful degrees should also be attained at the most prestigious universities and colleges.

The Big Win

Of course, there is really only one thing important in life. You can win at everything to which you put your hand in life: have a perfect career, manage your finances and accrue great holdings, marry the perfect person, and enjoy perfect health. But, there is one thing, that if you miss it, your entire life will count as worthless.

Every person must seek and know and learn to follow Almighty God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You can gain the whole world. But, if you lose your soul, you made a bad deal.



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    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 6 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Yes, Mary, medical programs pay very well. One profession increasing at this time is the Physician's Assistant. Entry into programs is very competitive. These PA's, as they are called, perform work typically done by a doctor, but which do not require the greater expertise of the M.D. or Ph.D. In some clinics, PAs may be the only professional staff above the RNs. PAs earn above six figures annually.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 6 years ago from Florida

      Any career related to medicine is good now a days, I think. Very informative Hub. Thanks.

    • tamarawilhite profile image

      Tamara Wilhite 6 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

      We could fight degree inflation by eliminating automatic salary increases in many areas for those who hold master's degrees. A teacher shouldn't make more because they have another degree. A manager with an MBA is not necessarily a better manager. Eliminating pay increases tied only to the number of credit hours someone has will slow degree inflation.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the information. Voted up and interesting. I hear more and more at work that a bachelors degree soon won't be enough-- you'll need a master's to be in the hunt. Talk about "degree inflation". I feel sorry for the young men and women entering or in the work force. They'll have to work like dogs-- after incurring huge amounts of debt for the privilege of getting a job.