Looking for an academic direction with terrific growth potential? Some traditional fields are newly hot at the bachelor's level; in other cases, enterprising colleges are creating new majors in emerging fields. Here are some hot majors you might want to consider.
1. Biomedical engineering: The folks standing at the intersection of the life sciences, engineering and medicine are working on such advances as an artificial kidney to help 2 million people worldwide give up their dependency on dialysis, and "designer" blood clots created from artificial platelets to save wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the field will see a 62 percent growth in jobs between 2010 and 2020. The Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor boast top 10 programs in the field.
[Explore the best colleges for biomedical engineering.]
2. Biometrics: This field teaches students how to build automated identification devices, such as facial recognition systems. As biometric readers replace photo IDs and passwords in both the public and private sectors, the industry is expected to grow to $363 million by 2018, according to New York-based Transparency Market Research.
West Virginia University and Davenport University are the pioneers offering undergrad degrees in the discipline, says Bojan Cukic, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at WVU. Grads with a strong foundation in biometrics can pursue careers as security consultants, intelligence analysts or biometric system designers.
3. Forensic science: More experts are needed to operate the new, sophisticated tools to prevent and investigate crimes. Forensic science focuses on using technology to analyze evidence. Students should expect "tons of math and science, plus learning to interface with the criminal justice system," says Timothy Palmbach, chair of the forensic science department at the University of New Haven.
About 15 U.S. bachelor's degree programs are now accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in forensic science or forensic chemistry, including Pennsylvania State University, Loyola University Chicago and Texas A&M University.
4. Computer game design: The global market for video and online games is expected to reach $82 billion by 2017, according to DFC Intelligence, a San Diego-based market research company.
Budding designers must learn skills such as animation, audio design, programming and production management - expertise that can also be employed to create simulated training environments in which, for example, emergency personnel respond to an earthquake.
More than 200 colleges and universities now offer majors in game design, development and programming, including the University of Southern California, University of Utah, George Mason University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Becker College and Drexel University.
5. Cybersecurity: Large companies and governments are moving aggressively to protect their computer systems. Between 2014 and 2016, the Pentagon plans to add more than 4,000 experts at its Cyber Command. Specialists in cybersecurity can also expect to find openings in health care, energy and at security services firms.
The National Security Agency is identifying centers of excellence in cyber operations, starting with Dakota State University, the Naval Postgraduate School, Northeastern University and the University of Tulsa.
In one essential course at DSU, "students learn to 'lift the hood' of the software program, see how it works, determine where it is vulnerable and then write code to exploit that vulnerability," says Josh Pauli, associate professor of cybersecurity.
[See photos of the hot college majors.]
6. Data science: The International Data Corp., a Massachusetts-based technology market research firm, says the global volume of computerized data is doubling every two years. This will help create some 4.4 million jobs worldwide by 2015, estimates Connecticut-based technology research firm Gartner Inc. Interested students should consider a major in data science or business analytics (No. 7 below).
The College of Charleston is one of the few institutions to offer an undergraduate degree in data science. By studying statistics, math and programming, graduates learn to help government agencies, consulting firms, scientific organizations and a variety of companies from e-commerce giants to big-box stores to develop strategy, understand customer behavior or predict market trends.
7. Business analytics: While closely related to data science, business analytics is primarily a business major, says Kenneth Gilbert, head of the department of statistics, operations and management science at the University of Tennessee, which launched a degree program in 2010. Courses include computer software, math, statistics and communication skills.
Rutgers Business School introduced a business analytics and information technology major for undergrads in 2011. The University of Iowa offers a B.S. in business analytics and information systems, while Old Dominion University features a major in business administration/business analytics.
8. Petroleum engineering: New technology has opened up shale formations thought unproductive 10 years ago. A new crop of petroleum engineers will be needed to tap these reserves; half of the current supply is expected to retire in the next decade.
Grads, who can expect high starting salaries of more than $100,000 a year, will find employment in three areas, says Robert Chase, chair of the department of petroleum engineering and geology at Marietta College: as drilling engineers who supervise the effort to access oil or gas; as production engineers who design and install the equipment needed to produce it; and as reservoir engineers who analyze how much can be recovered.
Texas A&M, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Wyoming and the University of Alaska--Fairbanks all offer highly regarded programs, and with major oil companies or suppliers nearby, provide opportunities for internships.
9. Public health: Two factors give public health majors rosy prospects: the threat of global epidemics, and the part of health reform that focuses on prevention. Students can focus on the scientific aspects of the discipline, the statistical angle or policy, and find work in hospitals, nonprofits and community health centers.
Columbia University's Summer Public Health Scholars program gives college students from across the country who are going into their junior or senior years, or who have just graduated, the chance to explore public health as a career. Other undergrad programs can be found at Temple University, Brown University, University of California--Berkeley, University of California--Irvine and George Washington University.
[Check out scholarships for in-demand majors.]
10. Robotics: Between 2012 and 2020, robotics could create between 2 million to 3.5 million new jobs, according to Metra Martech, a London-based market research firm - hardly surprising in a field helping to expand human capabilities across every walk of life. Anesthesia bots are assisting in surgery; oceanographers are using underwater robots to map the underside of Arctic ice; and NASA's robotic rovers are currently surveying the surface of Mars.
"Over the last five years, more and more students were self-designating a major in robotics, so we decided to craft a formal curriculum," says David Barrett, professor of mechanical engineering and design at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Robotics majors generally study mechanical, electrical and software engineering as well as modeling and entrepreneurship. Other schools with strong robotics programs include Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Lawrence Technological University, University of California--Santa Cruz and Carnegie Mellon University.
11. Sustainability: New and retooled environmental degree programs are placing fresh emphasis on practical problem-solving. The University of Tennessee, which graduated the first students from its sustainability major in May, offers a solution-oriented curriculum that spans law, business, science, resource management and ethics, says Michael McKinney, professor of geology and environmental studies.
Sustainability managers in all sorts of companies and organizations look for ways to make the "institution more efficient and produce less waste and pollution. As a result they tend to save money for their organization, which is one reason why these jobs are becoming popular," says McKinney.
In 2012, at least 17 schools added sustainability majors, including the University of South Dakota, Cornell University and Oregon State University--Cascades.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.
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