8 high-paying, nontraditional degrees

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Different degrees, similar pay

Every year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ list of the highest-paid college majors are dominated by a select few fields. This year, 7 of the top 10 highest-paid majors are in engineering alone, with computer science, management information systems and finance majors rounding out the list. But fortunately for students who aren’t interested in these industries, those aren’t the only lucrative degrees out there.

These commonly overlooked college degrees not only provide new grads with enviable salaries but they also include generous compensation packages, the ability to scale the corporate ladder and, in some cases, the opportunity to freelance or work from home. Though they don’t all bring in mega-salaries, these eight college degrees do lead to jobs that provide serious bucks for their student loan dollar.

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Game design
Game design © Photo courtesy of Michael Stegeman

Designing for the console, computer and mobile worlds may look like fun and games, but the work (and salary) is nothing to laugh at. According to the 2012 salary survey in the March 2013 issues of Game Developer Magazine, the average salary for game designers is $75,065 per year. Programmers, game producers and audio professionals on average rake in $92,151, $84,127 and $81,543, respectively — though individual pay can vary dramatically.

Game design degrees incorporate courses in computer science, multimedia production, project management, quality assurance testing, game engines and business. Degree programs may lean toward the artistic or technical sides of the industry, but the most successful job candidates will have both, says Andrew Greenberg, president of the Georgia Game Developers Association, a video game trade group.

“Those who can really distinguish themselves by work they’ve done beyond their schoolwork — games they’ve made on their own or with a small team — are the ones who succeed to a higher degree,” he says.

The market also values self-starters, those with a diverse range of skills, and job candidates who make industry connections through attending conferences such as the Game Developers Conference or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, Greenberg adds.

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Technical writing
Technical writing © Dmitry Chumichev/Shutterstock.com

Everyone knows computer scientists, architects, engineers and systems designers usually fare financially well, but so do those who help those workers explain what their products do and how to use them. Gifted with the ability to break down complex concepts to reach an audience who’s not as well-versed in the field, technical writers must have excellent communication skills in addition to a thorough knowledge of the industry they’re writing about, says Nicky Bleiel, president of the Society for Technical Communication, or STC.

“Technical communicators are employed by and can be an asset to all kinds of companies, from Fortune 500 companies on down,” she says. “It’s also a very viable path to starting your own business.”

Technical communication degrees offered through schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and Northeastern University require a mix of mathematics, science and communication courses, but certificates and two-year degrees are also available. On top of a degree, you’ll also need industry connections, Bleiel says, which you can gain through internships, networking and STC’s mentoring program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, technical writers rake in a median salary of $65,500, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $100,000.

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Soil conservation
Soil conservation © forestpath/Shutterstock.com

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but for these workers, it may be found in the dirt. Dedicated to keeping soils healthy, nutrient-rich and safe from erosion, soil conservationists help farmers and government entities retain soil nutrients and water-holding capacity.

Soil conservationists “study everything from the physics of soils, the chemistry of soils, the biology of soils, the organisms and microorganisms that live in soils, how soils appear in the landscape, and how they develop,” says Nicholas Comerford, director of the University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center and former president of the Soil Science Society of America. They may also work in areas such as waste management, soil mapping or degraded land reclamation.

Though many soil conservation jobs are available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they’re also found through public health organizations and environmental consulting firms, Comerford says. Breaking into the field requires a bachelor’s degree in soil conservation or soil science, though some employers require additional certification through SSSA.

BLS reports the median soil scientist salary is $58,740, with the top 10 percent of workers earning nearly $97,000.

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Theme park engineering
Theme park engineering © Jessica Bethke/Shutterstock.com

Petroleum, chemical and computer engineers are known for being well-compensated, but so are the engineers who create death-defying thrills. The theme park engineering degree program at California State University, Long Beach prepares students to design rides and attractions, while the entertainment engineering and design degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas focuses more broadly on preparing students to “work in the design, production, installation, and operation of entertainment devices, systems, and venues.”

Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a global consulting firm that focuses on the leisure attractions industry, says future ride designers won’t necessarily need a theme park engineering degree to break into the field. They will need a solid foundation of math, physics, geometry, and structural and electrical engineering.

A background in amusement parks helps, he adds. “We always recommend to young people that they look in the markets in which they live for a theme park … where they can get some basic training operating rides and attractions and get a basic understanding of how a theme park works,” he says.

Though no formal salary studies of theme park engineers exist, Speigel estimates entry-level jobs start around $50,000 and mid-career salaries hover between $70,000 and $80,000.

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Mortuary science
Mortuary science © Bruce Works/Shutterstock.com

Your wallet will thank you for getting over your discomfort with the dead. Preparing students to become morticians, funeral directors or even embalmers, mortuary science programs are oftentimes available as two-year degrees, though some states require a four-year degree, says Michael Smith, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education.

In addition to completing courses in pathology, restorative arts, psychology and ethics, you’ll also need to pass a state licensing exam and, in some cases, a national board exam. Some states also require an internship or apprenticeship before working on your own, and most require workers to complete continuing education credits, reports the National Funeral Directors Association.

“Most (mortuary science graduates) work in funeral homes,” Smith says. “There are some in pre-need insurance claims, (and) some go into the supply side, (such as) casket sales and cemetery management.”

According to the BLS, funeral service managers have a median salary of $66,720 per year while funeral directors, morticians and undertakers bring in median salaries of $46,840.

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Decision sciences
Decision sciences © Paul Barnwell/Shutterstock.com

Decision sciences graduates “essentially use analytical techniques, concepts, methodologies and tools to solve problems that are generated in the realm of business,” says Jerry Dake, executive director of the Center for Decision and Information Technologies at the University of North Texas, one of the few schools in the country that offers a bachelor’s degree program in decision sciences. “Sometimes we solve transportation distribution logistics problems. We solve information technology problems. … We might work on market research problems, financial analysis problems (or) distribution problems.”

Decision sciences majors are also paid handsomely for their problem-solving skills. According to Dake, his brand-new graduates land entry-level salaries ranging between $52,000 and $65,000 per year.

But you’ll have to work hard to get there. Decision sciences degrees incorporate a mix of data analysis, project management, analytics, logistics management and business systems course work. And some schools only offer them at the graduate level. Once your education is done, decision sciences majors are prepared to work in commercial and consulting firms as analysts or data scientists in nearly any department, ranging from labor relations to market research.

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Turf grass management
Turf grass management © Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock.com

Professional athletes aren’t the only one making big bucks on the field. Those who manage the environmental systems underneath the players’ feet do, too. Working on golf courses, stadiums and sports fields, turf grass managers monitor the grass health of courses and fields, analyze patterns of grass wear, and manage equipment and budgets that keep the grounds functioning well, says Andrew McNitt, director of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Pennsylvania State University.

A degree in turf grass management requires heavy coursework in the three B’s — botany, biology and business management — but education alone isn’t enough, McNitt says.

“We have an extensive internship program. To get good jobs, (students) need to have experience and the degree — both,” McNitt says. “The ones that tend to rise to the top are the ones with some of the best communication and management skills (and) skills in agronomy and plant science.”

How much turf grass managers make depends on where they work. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America reports the average golf course superintendent takes home a base salary of $82,573. McNitt estimates the average salary in other turf management positions is around $65,000.

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Animation © Photo courtesy of Michael Stegeman

Some animation is for kids, but those who make movie, TV, commercial and video game magic bring home adult pay. Working in large studios and small boutique outfits, animators land jobs as full-fledged animation and 3-D artists as well as background illustrators, character designers, producers, technical directors and storyboard artists, says Fatimah Abdullah, president of the Atlanta chapter of the Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (International Animated Film Association), an umbrella group for the animation industry.

Abdullah says you don’t necessarily need a degree in animation — any related art major will do — but you’ll need to know how to use software programs such as Adobe After Effects, Photoshop and Toon Boom and have strong figure-drawing and modeling skills. You’ll also need an impressive portfolio tailored to the job you’re aiming for and that showcases the diversity of your work in that field.

Animators can earn $61,370 per year, according to BLS, but Abdullah says you won’t jump to the top of the financial totem pole immediately.

“I’ve interviewed (job applicants who) say, ‘I want to produce my own show here.’ Right out of school, that’s very unlikely,” Abdullah says.

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