If you’re thinking about going back to school (or starting college for the first time), one of your main concerns may be picking a major that puts you on the best path to earning an actual living. Perhaps you have a nagging suspicion that Philosophy or Theater Arts might not be the best use of your time and money from a strictly dollars-in/dollars-out point of view (and perhaps you would be right). But then, what does actually pay at the end of four years? Anything? Does anything even matter anymore?
In fact, it does. The bachelor’s degrees that lead to the highest-paying jobs in the U.S. in recent years are pretty thematic; nearly all of them provide you with a very specific skill-set, one that can’t easily be learned without several years of intense study. Most are in the engineering space, computer or otherwise.
We combed through the top 20 highest-paying bachelor degrees as aggregated by Payscale, and pulled those that lend themselves most readily to freelancing. Here’s our take.
Industrial and Systems Engineering
Whether the context is manufacturing, information and technology, or finance, industrial and systems engineers provide indispensable information about how to conduct business in the most efficient way. These engineers might advise a business on when it’s time to automate certain jobs, when it’s time to expand a facility, or what employees’ schedules should look like, all in the interest of eliminating wasteful practices.
As you can imagine, this job is ripe for the contracting. Since it’s applicable across so many fields, there’s no need to settle into one arena when you could maximize your profits (that’s what you do, right?) by striking out on your own and advising folks in a variety of industries. Payscale estimates that mid-career ISE experts earn about $114,400 per year.
Computer Science and Engineering
In recent years, the computer science and computer engineering fields have been combined at some schools to form one glorious major to rule them all: Computer Science and Engineering. While computer science has traditionally focused on theory, algorithms, and programming and computer engineering has focused on hardware and electronics, the single combined major seeks to integrate all of these areas so that man may finally, once and for all, dominate machine.
Seriously though, Computer Science and Engineering covers a lot of stuff. Rather than focusing only on software or only on hardware, you’ll learn how to treat the computer holistically, combining an understanding of the physical mechanics with an understanding of the theoretical concepts. As a freelancer, this knowledge is applicable to just about every business around, particularly those that are looking to add a digital component. That could be anything from a retail store looking to sell their products online or through an app, to an old-school business looking to take its stacks of paper files and put them onto this computer thingy. Either way, clients will be forever grateful to you for your mere existence. Payscale estimates that mid-career computer scientists and engineers earn about $116,800 per year.
As you may have inferred, this is the major that prepares you to be an actuary. As an actuary, you’ll help businesses of all stripes assess financial risk. That could mean figuring out what type(s) of insurance will be necessary to buy, where they should invest profits, or how to decrease the likelihood of potential adverse events in the future.
Remind you of anything? That’s right — the job lends itself perfectly to helping people start a small business. Not only will you be able to launch your solo practice with a massive advantage using your very own set of skills, you might also consider helping your own entrepreneurial brethren decide whether, when, and how to do the same. Or perhaps you’ll want to work with more established clients, like those in the government or finance sector. Whatever you choose, your future is rosy: Payscale estimates that mid-career actuaries earn about $131,700 per year.
Cognitive science might bring to mind poking around in labs or experimenting on unsuspecting rats for four years. But in fact, this field of study incorporates a wide array of disciplines, with the unifying goal of understanding human behavior and applying it to real-life scenarios. Knowledge gleaned from a cognitive science major is applicable to everything from the legal field to artificial intelligence to product design, to name a few. In other words, perfect for someone who wants to work with a diverse group of clients, and be routinely challenged by exploring different fields. AKA the freelancer!
Whether you go into your own practice or become an advisor in a specific field, get creative with how you market yourself as a cognitive scientist, and the rewards could be many. Payscale estimates that mid-career cognitive scientists earn about $121,900 per year.