Petroleum engineering offers the highest median earnings among graduate degree holders, according to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In fact, many of the top 10 highest-paying graduate degrees are in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) specializations.
The same Georgetown University report also evaluated the most popular graduate school majors. It ranked psychology as the No. 1 most popular graduate degree major, despite noncompetitive median earnings among psychology graduate degree holders.
If you’re deciding on a graduate program, it’s helpful to know what kind of pay your degree may offer later on. Keep reading to learn more about the best graduate degrees to pursue based on potential earnings and the most popular fields of graduate study.
10 best graduate degrees by median earnings
The Georgetown University report, called “The Economic Value of College Majors,” was published in 2015 using 2009 to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey.” Although the report is older, it provides useful context about the value of graduate programs as a whole.
Researchers evaluated the wages for 15 groups of majors and 137 college major subgroups and used the 25th to 75th percentile wage data for the most representative earnings for each graduate degree.
Additionally, only Census data for full-time, full-year workers ages 21 through 59, were included in the report, if respondents had positive earnings. Figures were also adjusted to 2013 levels based on the Consumer Price Index Research Series. It’s important to note that some majors were combined in the Census survey which limited the University’s ability to separate specific earnings for certain graduate majors.
1. Petroleum engineering 2. Health and medical preparatory programs 3. Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration 4. Geological and geophysical engineering 5. Aerospace engineering 6. Electrical engineering 7. Chemical engineering (tie) 7. Metallurgical engineering (tie) 7. Economics (tie) 10. Engineering and industrial management
1. Petroleum engineering
Medium earnings: $128,430
Petroleum engineers are responsible for designing strategies to effectively extract oil and gas from below the Earth’s surface. These extraction sites may take place on land or offshore.
Working closely with geological engineers about the surrounding drilling location and its obstacles, petroleum engineers determine appropriate drilling methods to use. They also install and maintain the equipment on the field. Since current drilling methods tap into a small portion of a reservoir’s resources, they analyze drilling project results to create new extraction techniques for the surrounding environment.
2. Health and medical preparatory programs
Median earnings: $128,207
The report data bundles multiple graduate majors into “Health and medical preparatory programs.” Health-related fields of study, including pre-medical, pre-dentistry, pre-chiropractic and pre-veterinary programs, fall under this umbrella.
Professionals in these fields perform hands-on work with patients to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. In addition to listening to patients’ health concerns, they prescribe medication as needed, interpret lab test results, and work alongside other medical staff.
3. Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration
Median earnings: $117,523
Individuals in the pharmaceutical profession may be pharmacists, pharmacy administration staff, or professionals who deal with creating new pharmaceutical drugs.
Pharmacists, in particular, prepare and distribute prescribed drugs and medication to individuals who have consulted with a physician. In addition to measuring prescription dosages, they speak with patients about recommended use for prescription and over-the-counter drugs, inform them of potential drug side effects, and perform insurance- and record-based administrative tasks.
4. Geological and geophysical engineering
Median earnings: $113,930
When it comes to extracting minerals like gold and coal from the ground, geological engineers are called to the job. They design underground mines, tunnels and mine shafts while ensuring that the areas are safe for workers.
Geological engineers may work with petroleum engineers when drilling for oil and gas. They troubleshoot issues related to the land, water and air in a mine, and develop ways to efficiently transport the mined raw materials for processing. Professionals in this field are also responsible for developing mining processes that are environmentally sustainable.
5. Aerospace engineering
Median earnings: $112,181
Aerospace engineers work specifically on aircraft, satellites, spacecraft, missiles, rockets and any other aviation-based technology. They develop and supervise the manufacturing of these products, and test their viability. Once tests are completed, aerospace engineers analyze the results and draft reports about successes or issues that arose.
When pursuing a career in aerospace engineering, professionals often take on specialties, like aerodynamics or thermodynamics, within aeronautical and astronautical fields.
6. Electrical engineering
Median earnings: $111,861
As the name might suggest, a graduate degree in electrical engineering requires workers to plan, create and test electrical equipment. This can include navigation and communication systems, power generation, automotive and aircraft electrical units. They oversee the complete operations surrounding a particular product, from designing its parts and planned function, manufacturing, analyzing tests and maintaining equipment.
Depending on where they work, they may review customer feedback about a product and design solutions to address those issues during production. Electrical engineers also work closely with project managers to ensure projects are completed on time and within budget.
7. Chemical engineering (tie)
Median earnings: $108,603
Using various scientific fields of study, like chemistry, biology, physics and math, chemical engineers plan and test the manufacturing of use of various commercial products. In addition to developing new ways to manufacture goods, they’re responsible for setting safety standards in the factory, understanding how the manufacturing process affects the environment, and maintaining operations when working with hazardous chemicals and materials.
Like in other engineering fields, chemical engineers may specialize in specific areas, like oxidation or biological engineering.
7. Metallurgical engineering (tie)
Median earnings: $108,603
As a subtype of geological engineering, metallurgical engineering specifically involves the study of the metals and minerals that are extracted from mining facilities. Metallurgical engineers may work on-site to document and identify metals, and also work in laboratories to test and analyze samples.
They create maps and drawings for mining projects and are required to have an understanding of safety and environmental regulations.
7. Economics (tie)
Median earnings: $108,603
Graduate degree holders in economics gather qualitative and quantitative data about the resources, goods and services of a particular area. Conducting surveys is one way they collect information. Once they’ve gathered the information needed, economists may analyze historical data and make projections that are used by individuals, businesses or governments for planning and decision-making purposes.
These analyses are presented in the form of a report, academic journal or other types of communication, and may include recommendations about how to proceed based on the findings.
10. Engineering and industrial management
Median earnings: $108,191
Engineering and industrial management is a graduate degree study that prepares students for a career that blends business and finance, with industrial plant operations.
Industrial managers are responsible for ensuring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards are upheld in factories. In addition to enforcing safety practices, industrial engineers and managers project how much an engineering project might cost, and track the budget during production to ensure funds are being allocated effectively.
Next 10 best graduate degrees by median earnings No. 11: Engineering mechanics physics and science (tie; $106,839) No. 12: Mechanical engineering (tie; $106,839) No. 13: Mining and mineral engineering ($105,771) No. 14: Applied mathematics ($105,644) No. 15: Zoology ($104,259) No. 16: Chemistry ($103,573) No. 17: General engineering ($103,173) No. 18: Computer engineering (tie; $101,498) No. 18: Industrial and manufacturing engineering (tie; $101,498) No. 20: Physics ($101,453) 20 best graduate degrees by popularity
Based on the analysis of Census Bureau data, the Center on Education and the Workforce report only included degrees of study that had a minimum sample size of 100. The report also acknowledges that the data doesn’t differentiate between types of degree classifications — for example, Bachelor of Arts versus Bachelor of Science.
No. 1: Psychology No. 2: Biology No. 3: General education No. 4: Elementary education No. 5: Business management and administration No. 6: English language and literature No. 7: Political science and government No. 8: General business No. 9: Accounting No. 10: Nursing No. 11: History No. 12: Economics No. 13: Electrical engineering No. 14: Computer science No. 15: Chemistry No. 16: Communication and mass media No. 17: Finance No. 18: Mechanical engineering No. 19: Mathematics No. 20: No. Sociology
Rebecca Saifer contributed to this report.