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What is Your Degree Worth?
What is your degree worth? (Image credit: Getty Images)

Would you let a 19- or 20-year old choose your career path for you? If you are a college graduate, you probably did just that when you chose your college major.

Students consider many things when they choose a college major, such as their personal interests, the strength of a program, and their own talents and abilities. Future employment prospects often factor into the decision.

When making a decision or considering your career track, it's natural to wonder what various degrees are worth. One measure of the value of a degree is the average salary offered new graduates of a particular discipline.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) tracks the starting salaries of new graduates in particular disciplines. The NACE's Summer 2003 Salary Survey reports the following average starting salaries for various college degrees:

Chemical engineering: $51,853
Electrical engineering: $49,946
Computer science: $47,419
Accounting: $40,546
Information sciences: $39,718
Marketing: $34,628
History: $32,108
English: $30,157
Psychology: $27,454
Beyond starting salary

Starting salaries don't tell the whole story. You have to consider other factors, and you have to look long term.

Career satisfaction is key. If you like what you spend your day doing, you are more likely to succeed at your job. This could lead to faster advancement in your career even if your starting salary is modest. Conversely, if you pursue a major and a career track solely for the money, you may be headed for trouble.

Back to School?
Back to school? (Image credit: Getty Images)
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Here's an example: Upon graduation from an aeronautical engineering program, Joan C. accepted a high-paying job with an airplane manufacturer. She hated it--'the work was boring, and I didn't feel like my individual contribution would ever make much of a difference.' 

So Joan took a big gamble: She quit, and even though many people doubtless thought she was crazy to leave such a 'great job', she reinvented her career around her interest in the world and her desire to help others.

Today, motivated by her passion for her work, she is a successful administrator for a nonprofit agency that provides health care in developing countries. The change undoubtedly cost her some earnings, but over the long term she ended up on a better and more personally rewarding track.

Joan's experience is not unique. Evidence shows that today's dynamic job market offers unprecedented flexibility in jumping between career tracks, and it's common not to work in the field you studied.  For example, in the computer industry, which includes some of the highest-paying occupations, about two-thirds of workers did not actually major in IT or computer-related fields.
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Online degrees

Opportunities for midcareer changes are enhanced by the proliferation of flexible and highly focused adult education programs. Online schools and universities offer alternatives ranging from single, focused courses and short certification programs to bachelor's and postgraduate degree programs.

In a sense, those who chose a major in college simply because they loved the subject, and left career questions for later, may have made a pretty smart choice. Today's job climate not only allows for professional reinvention; in many cases, job security demands flexibility and adaptation. And with higher education no longer limited to a four-year window after high school, workers can discover their interests and strengths in the 'real world,' and gain the knowledge and skills they need accordingly.

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