Students often study aspects of engineering that make an appearance in their everyday lives.
Mechanical engineering can be a natural fit for those who like cars, while electrical engineering can appeal to those who want to work with cellphone technology and other consumer devices, says Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Washington's College of Engineering.
A graduate in one of these areas can leave undergrad with a job that pays more than $60,000 a year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. But sometimes the real money is found in disciplines that are under the radar.
These areas of study may have smaller enrollments or lead to careers in niche job markets. The return on investment, some say, is worth the time and money spent pursuing a degree in these areas.
Experts outline the following three areas of engineering that are studied less often but offer graduates challenging careers and compelling salaries.
• Mining and minerals engineering: Students who specialize in mining or minerals have a number of career options available to them, says Greg Adel, a professor and department head for the mining and minerals engineering program at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.
They might work as an engineer for a mining company, he says. Or they could work at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health doing research on safety and health issues in the mining industry, Adel says. A student specializing in mineral processing could also get a job in a processing plant.
No matter which subspecialty they enter, students can expect a high salary once they graduate.
"With a bachelor’s degree we’re typically seeing starting salaries around $65,000 to $70,000," Adel says. A master's degree can usually be obtained within a year and a half to two years and can bump up a salary by $10,000, he says.
There's one catch, though, with this field of engineering: Aspiring students will be hard pressed to find a school that offers it as a course of study. There are only 14 mining programs accredited by ABET, an organization which evaluates engineering, science and other programs, making it a less popular discipline. There's a demand for mining engineers, says Adel, but not for as many that are needed in fields like mechanical or civil engineering.
• Materials science and engineering: One reason materials science and engineering may not have students enrolling in high numbers is because many people don't know what it is, says Riskin. "You don't see kids exposed to it as much."
In contrast, civil engineering is something kids might see every day, in the form of construction projects like bridges.
But the meaning behind the term is simple – it's the study of materials. Students might study bone as a material, for example, she says. Or they may study energy or learn to develop solar cells with new materials, she says.
Students who specialize in this topic could work at an airplane manufacturer, she says, designing composite material for a plane.
As few as 951 master's degrees in this field, which is also known as metallurgical and materials engineering, were awarded in 2011-2012, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Those who pursue it can receive one of the more competitive engineering salaries. The median pay in 2012 was $85,150, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
• Nuclear engineering: Nuclear engineering is a controversial area of study, says James E. Moore II, vice dean for academic programs at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. One reason stems from a 2011 disaster in Japan, he says. More than 150,000 people had to be evacuated after three nuclear reactors unexpectedly had their power supply and cooling capabilities disabled after a tsunami.
"People don’t realize the risks are manageable and they shy away from the area,” Moore says. It's difficult to build new nuclear plants in the U.S., but plants in existence are a huge draw for new graduates in the field.
"Professionals that work there are aging out of the workforce," Moore says. If working at a plant isn't appealing to new graduates, they may also work in labs or for a government agency that focuses on nuclear work.
The median pay for a career in this specialty is $104,270, according to the BLS. Moore expects to see nuclear engineering programs to start at schools that do not have on-site reactors, particularly at private schools, where there tend to be fewer political concerns about fostering such a program.
Graduates that want to get a job in this field will have few competitors. Only 704 people were enrolled in a master's program for nuclear engineering in 2012, a small number in comparison with more popular fields like mechanical engineering, which had 13,381, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
Anyone conflicted about which area of engineering to study shouldn't stress too much, though. "Virtually any field in engineering is well paid," Moore says.
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