Lucrative Lessons: Engineering Pegged as Degree With Highest Starting Salary


Erin D. McKenzie
Chemical engineering senior Rhys Forgie works in the lab as part the college's Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Photo by Thomas Shea.
Chemical engineering senior Rhys Forgie works in the lab as part the college's Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Photo by Thomas Shea.

Wide array of profitable, rare programs offered at UH

In recent weeks Kaytie Curttright (2009 BSChE) has been settling into work as an engineer with Samsung Austin Semiconductors.

The position, which has her responsible for ensuring the quality of materials at the Austin-based manufacturing plant, is exactly the job Curttright had hoped for upon graduating from UH in May.

Not only is it challenging, but it is projected to have steady growth during the course of the next few years. And as if this wasn't enough, there is more.

It turns out her degree choice is quite lucrative—offering the second highest starting salary out of college.

Like Curttright, most Cullen College of Engineering graduates are sitting pretty. Based on the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2009 Summer Salary Survey, 12 of the top 15 degrees garnering these high starting salaries are in engineering. In fact, four of the five top spots are held by an engineering discipline.

Black Gold

Topping this list was petroleum engineering, where professionals search the world for oil and natural gas reservoirs as well as find new ways to extract these resources from the ground. On average, graduates make $83,121.

Why so much? As the single largest energy source, demand in the petroleum industry is high. However, across the country less than 25 universities offer petroleum programs—UH happens to be one of them.

“There are few programs out there like this," said Ray Flumerfelt, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and petroleum program director. “If there is any place that should have a petroleum engineering program, it is Houston. We are known for our oil and gas industry, and are surrounded by many big name companies such as BP America, ConocoPhillips and Halliburton. It seems only fitting we would have a program that not only serves this industry and offers new career opportunities to students, but also utilizes the expertise of leading Ph.D. industry professionals in teaching courses and ensuring our curriculum is at the forefront of new industry and technical developments.”

The lack of programs for this engineering discipline often means there are more opportunities than graduates to fill spots.

“Many of the engineering disciplines benefit from an imbalance in the supply, demand ratio,” said Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers who conducted the survey. “That drives salary up.”

The lack of programs coupled with statistics from the Society of Petroleum Engineering calling for nearly 40 percent of the industry’s workforce to reach retirement age next year, positions in this field stand to get even harder to fill. That’s why this fall UH introduced an undergraduate petroleum engineering option alongside its current minor and master’s degree.

So far some 30 students have taken advantage of this new offering, created to better prepare graduates for this changing industry.

Prior to its launch, administrators spent months crafting the program’s curriculum with the college’s petroleum engineering advisory board—consisting of industry professionals—to ensure graduates are armed with the skills necessary to succeed in a job in this industry. What was developed is a set of courses unlike any across the country that melds geosciences with the technical aspects of petroleum engineering and much more.

“This unique degree program is highly interdisciplinary and combines the fundamentals in petroleum engineering and geosciences with business economics and energy law—created through collaboration with industry,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and department chair, where the program is housed. “The degree also includes a revolutionary modular curriculum allowing students to focus their degrees in areas of specializations such as reservoir engineering and petroleum geology.”

Other Money Makers at UH

Beyond the first and second highest paying degrees—petroleum and chemical—the college offers many of the other top engineering disciplines. Among these is biomedical engineering, which combines traditional engineering with biology and medicine to develop cutting-edge techniques and tools to further modern medicine.

With approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the recent appointment of a founding chair, UH is transforming its longstanding biomedical engineering program into a department to be housed in one of the most state-of-the-art new buildings on the main campus. The college is pursuing the addition of a Ph.D. option that could be available as early as fall 2010.

Students choosing this degree path not only benefit from a new, expanding department with a unique curriculum, but also assistance obtaining some of the best real-world experience.

One of just three college-level career centers on campus, the Engineering Career Center helps thousands of students a year locate internships at places such as the nearby Texas Medical Center—the world’s largest concentration of health care and research institutions—and laboratories on and off campus.

“Their technical education is what will make them a success,” said Vita Como, senior director of the career center and college development, of their work to place students in industry. “We like to think we are polishing our gems, and getting them in shape to go out into industry.”

With this extra assistance obtaining valuable hands-on knowledge coupled with solid classroom instruction in gene, tissue and neuro-engineering, graduates are more than prepared to earn the biomedical field’s $54,158 starting salary.

Yet, if work in this expanding specialty just isn't interesting, UH offers plenty of the more traditional disciplines on this list—mechanical, electrical, computer and industrial engineering. In these, graduates average a minimum of $58,358 to as much as $61,738 when pursuing the fourth highest paying degree listed—computer engineering.

While each discipline is a little different, generally these engineers design products, the machinery to build these products and the plants where they are made. Employed in every major industry and some 1.5 million strong according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, these engineers apply their keen sense for math and problem solving to everything from robotics research to work building aircrafts and microprocessors at places such as NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, world-renowned research laboratories and major automakers.

For possessing technical abilities that touch many aspects of modern life, says Dave Shattuck, professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean for undergraduate programs, these graduates are paid generously.

“It is clear that companies and other organizations value the problem solving ability of engineers, and they have shown this by paying our graduates handsomely year after year,” said Shattuck. “This makes sense, since engineers are crucial for a technological society such as ours. We can expect that fundamental demand for good engineers in all fields will persist into the foreseeable future due to their intrinsic worth and their contributions to manifold aspects of our lives.”

Engineering Degrees Earning Top Starting Salaries
Petroleum Engineering $83,121
Chemical Engineering $64,902
Mining Engineering $64,404
Computer Engineering $61,738
Computer Science $61,407
Electrical Engineering $60,125
Mechanical Engineering $58,766
Industrial Engineering $58,358
Systems Engineering $57,438
Engineering Technology $56,447
Actuarial Science $56,320
Aeronautical Engineering $56,311
Agricultural Engineering $54,352
Biomedical Engineering $54,158
Construction Management $53,199
Didn't see your discipline of interest on the list? UH offers degrees in aerospace, materials, environmental, civil and computer & systems engineering. Follow the links to learn more about Cullen College undergraduate and graduate options.



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