10 Hot Fields of Study

College majors (right here!) that do the best in the real world.

Illustrations by Michael Sloan


Think global. Study local. Higher education now covers the world, addressing massive challenges: sustainability, new energy solutions, digital media, information technology, international trade, medical breakthroughs and much more. Major corporations are moving onto campus, too, pulling students into new research and ventures.

Here are some CliffsNotes on how regional colleges are jumping in to prepare students for the most promising careers of the next decade.

Ni-how, China: Thick with the BRICs

Brazil, Russia, India and China, often called the BRIC nations, are the world’s biggest emerging markets. They’re stepping up to first-world trade status, followed closely by the Middle East and Africa. Local colleges offer immersion in the culture and business sectors of those nations.

But first, it helps to learn the language. The University of Pittsburgh offers courses in the world’s major languages — and even a dozen that are less-commonly taught, like Swahili and Vietnamese. Pitt’s International Business Center in the Katz School of Business, which launched a Global Management program in 2008, includes language studies as well as business topics. The center bolsters course work with 10-week summer internships in business centers. Preceded by two-week orientations on the business cultures of their destinations, the work assignments include varied levels of language training. This summer, 46 students took advantage of the for-credit experience.

“The program’s been running for three years, beginning in Sao Paolo, Prague and Beijing,” says J.P. Matychak, director of career services for Katz. “We’ve added Madrid, Milan, Berlin and Paris — and we’re investigating India, South Korea and Japan.”

Carnegie Mellon University offered its first section of elementary Chinese in 1992. Today, the Department of Modern Languages offers more than 20 each semester, as well as Mandarin for business managers within the Tepper School of Business. This year, 99 students will major or minor in Chinese studies.

There’s a new demand on the horizon for individuals who can teach Chinese at the pre-college level, too. St. Vincent College recently became one of three colleges in the state to offer a certification program for elementary, middle- and high-school teachers. Students pursuing teacher certification must study abroad one semester or complete an immersion experience. The college arranges such opportunities through cooperative arrangements with Beijing Normal University, Fu Jen University or Wuhan University.

Mad Men: Marketing, Communications and Design

CMU’s School of Design offers undergraduate degrees in communication and industrial design. Dan Boyarski, the design school’s director of alumni relations, says more companies are hiring design professionals because they have a systematic way of creatively resolving problems; meanwhile, companies like Facebook, Twitter and Apple have been seeking these graduates because they’re also users of their products and services. These tech giants are looking for new hires who can think of different ways to extend product lines or build new businesses, enhance the visual impact of their interfaces and improve the user experience.

In the North Hills, La Roche College’s minor in Web design reaches outside the classroom, enabling students to create sites for real-life clients; students have interned in departments at Allegheny General Hospital and Pitt, among other businesses.

Mapping DNA: Biological Science

By Creating a map of our DNA, the human genome project produced an avalanche of data, causing a need for analysts who combine a background in biology with computational and statistical skills. That means you, if you’re equally at home in front of a monitor and a microscope.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including many local startups, seek to take advantage of the new data, and are hiring grads who can manage and interpret the information.

The bioinformatics program at St. Vincent provides students with the skills needed to enter the workforce for both companies. At Penn State, the university’s department fuses the expertise of folks in the molecular biology and biochemistry fields.

Going Green: Sustainability Soars

The academic subject of sustainability is still being defined, but its quest to examine the economic, agricultural, health and energy decisions that will sustain human life on earth is rapidly drawing attention from idealistic students and big thinkers. On the rolling former pastureland of Eden Hall Farm, located on the northern edge of Allegheny County, Chatham University is building a brand-new, net-zero energy campus that will be a lab for its School of Sustainability and the Environment.

Chatham has emphasized its legacy in environmental studies since the founding of the Rachel Carson Institute, named in honor of its 1929 alumna, in 1989. The school launched a popular M.A. in food studies in 2010.

“This fall, we will have 70 graduate-level students across our three graduate programs in the School of Sustainability and the Environment,” reports Michael May, director of graduate admission for the university.  “That’s an increase of 30 percent over the previous year.”

In July, Duquesne University held the graduation ceremony for its MBAs in sustainability at an appropriately “green” location: Phipps Conservatory. The 5-year-old program has been ranked in the top 25 internationally by the Aspen Institute for integrating sustainability into a business MBA curriculum and is among the top 10 schools for its size.

At Penn State, a new intercollege sustainability leadership minor combines course work across a number of the university’s colleges.

Engineering has also turned attention to renewable resources: Penn State’s Altoona campus now offers a B.S. in environmental studies (housed within the Division of Mathematics and Natural Sciences). At Pitt, the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, within its Swanson School of Engineering, builds on the school’s pioneering work in green construction. Focusing on the design of sustainable neighborhoods, it’s a resource for those earning engineering degrees. Micah Toll, named one of Entrepreneur magazine’s top five college entrepreneurs of 2011, was a Pitt senior working with the center when he invented a sustainable electric bike; the resulting company, Pulse Motors, was his third startup.

Western Pennsylvania’s reputation for brains has surpassed its reputation for brawn. That makes higher education an unusually vibrant scene. One-third of Pittsburgh residents above the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree, as opposed to the U.S. average of 27.5 percent. A 2010 study reported that one in five 25- to 34-year-old Pittsburghers hold graduate or professional degrees, a ranking that ties the city with Washington, D.C.

Mobile Us: Social & Online Communications

Andrew Stephen, who’s teaching the popular new social- media course in Pitt’s Katz School of Business, says social media is doing more than simply monetizing websites. “Our students are finding when they go to interviews — whether in finance, accounting, consulting or supply chain — that social media is coming up in every conversation,” he says.

While the course, first offered this spring, will be a requirement within the school’s digital marketing curriculum, Stephen stresses that social media “is not marketing-specific anymore. Social interactions can affect how companies deal with new products, and customer service, not just promotion. It runs the gamut.”

CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center creates interactive media — and much more. Students in the master’s program are proudly cross-disciplinary, pooling their skills in computer science, engineering and artistry to create new games, new programming capabilities, animations and even theme park experiences.

Of the 15 startups currently in the Plug and Play Tech Center, a  California incubator, four came from CMU. Strike Fortress, a breakthrough multiplayer video game created by Electronic Artists and Google, was based on work by a group of CMU students. With 3-D graphics, Strike Fortress is written in HTML; because it is accessed through a Web browser, the game can be played on smartphones, tablets or computers without a dedicated gaming device.

The commercial-music industry forecasts a 24-percent increase in tech jobs in the field in the next five years. California University of Pennsylvania’s commercial-music technology major prepares students to work as recording and broadcast engineers, digital composers and arrangers, sound mixers, TV and audio producers, and video-game engineers — all aspects of a music industry estimated to contribute $10.4 billion to the U.S. economy annually. “Cal U is the only four-year college or university in Pennsylvania to offer Pro Tools certification,” says Max Gonano, former chair of the music department. “This is definitely a career-builder for our students.”


Mystery 101: Full of Forensics

As unique as fingerprints, retina scans, voice scans and other measurements are now used to verify identity in every location from an ATM to an international airport. Biometric applications are at the forefront of homeland security, crime-fighting and even laptop access.

West Virginia University offers a biometrics degree that mixes computer science and engineering with forensic sciences. WVU is the lead academic partner and liaison for the FBI’s Biometric Center of Excellence in nearby Clarksburg, W.Va., where its Center for Identification Technology Research plays a key role.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in enrollment since starting the degree 10 years ago,” says professor Bojan Cukic, director of WVU’s Center for Identification Technology Research. “It’s growing 10 to 20 percent per year.”

To date, 120 students have chosen the major. Cukic says that most undergrads take on research internships with federal agencies or their corporate partners, such as defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. With that experience, 80 percent land full-time jobs or graduate school opportunities after earning their B.S.

WVU’s College of Business and Economics also offers a program in forensic accounting, as does Carlow University. Students in both programs trace white-collar crime with its forensic accounting major, while Cal U offers forensic anthropology. Students spend lab time analyzing one of the nation’s best bone collections, and they learn how to use ground-penetrating radar and other tools to find critical evidence to help solve crimes.

Starting with an undergraduate program in biochemistry or biology, Duquesne students can continue in the nation’s only master’s program in forensic science and law, in an institute named after Allegheny County medical examiner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.

Bit by Bit: Information Systems

We’re bombarded with bits. It’s now estimated that the amount of information available for human use doubles every three years. To grapple with that tsunami of data, expertise in information systems has become a skill set sought by organizations of every size.

From its 1901 founding as a training school for the Carnegie’s children’s librarians, Pitt’s School of Information Sciences has grown to 10 undergraduate and graduate programs. Now known informally as the iSchool, it enrolls nearly 750 students, many of whom choose telecommunications and health sciences (a master’s program and a subcategory of another master’s program, respectively).

Enrollment trends at CMU confirm demand for IS training. Since last year, the university has seen a 31-percent jump in applications for its information systems major, where students design and implement solutions for organizational information. According to director of undergraduate admission Michael Steidel, technology and engineering programs continue to be popular. Applications for computer science and engineering slots at CMU have increased 22 and 11 percent respectively since the 2011-2012 academic year.

Health Care: Nursing a Nation

Booming as always, the health-care industry continues to influence undergraduate and graduate studies. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, students enrolled in the nursing program go through community health training (including a clinical rotation). Geneva College has launched studies in cardiovascular technology.

Robert Morris University offers the area’s only four-year nuclear medicine program; the school provides specific instruction in high-tech imaging, such as nuclear medicine technology and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

A new addition to the liberal-arts curriculum at Grove City College is the exercise-science major. Also available as a minor to students of all majors, the program trains students with career aspirations in commercial or community based health, fitness, coaching and athletics.

Compressing the time required to earn graduate degrees in medical professions is an imperative impelled by the booming regional health-care economy. The Duquesne University Physician Assistant Studies (PAS) Program was the first five-year, entry-level master’s degree program in the nation. Seton Hill University also offers a five-year bachelor/master’s pairing, streamlining a program that traditionally requires two or more years of post-graduate work. Other five-year programs are offered regionally at St. Francis and Seton Hill Universities. Duquesne also offers a six-year program culminating in a doctor’s degree in physical therapy. At nearby Chatham, a two-and-one-half year doctor’s program in PT is offered.

To ease the transition to medical school, Seton Hill has also launched a cooperative agreement with Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, guaranteeing admission for undergrads who successfully compete the Seton Hill undergrad program (either the standard four years or a three-year accelerated curriculum).

Ideal Innovation: Entrepreneurs Step In

According to a 2010 study from the Kauffman Foundation, job growth in the nation is largely driven by startups. And in a city that’s a hotbed of high-tech startups in everything from robotics to regenerative medicine, an idea for a new product isn’t enough. Future entrepreneurs need to be able to turn their ideas into successful companies. Campus-wide programs at a handful of western Pennsylvania schools fit the bill.

To equip all students with an understanding of technological change, CMU offers a unique undergraduate minor in Innovation, Economic and Entrepreneurship Development. Known as “I Double E,” it provides an intellectual framework with which to interpret the impact of technological change on their careers.

Pitt’s highly-regarded Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, reaching out to small businesses in the region, also invites undergraduates to participate, offering an annual competition to win $75,000 in start-up funds. At Duquesne, undergraduates in the A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration’s entrepreneurship program participate in a student-run consulting business, as long as they’re members of Duquesne’s Entrepreneurial Alliance. Seton Hill’s E-Magnify program targets women business ownership and has been honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Penn State now offers an intercollege minor in entrepreneurship and innovation; Grove City College offers entrepreneurship as a major and minor for all enrolled students.

High-Powered: Fueling Jobs

As the impact of the Marcellus Shale natural gas play grows from a blip to a boom, jobs in every aspect of the region’s newest industry are expanding. Innovation in sustainable approaches and smart grids extends the region’s expertise across seven related industries: coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar, wind, distribution, and green building. Collectively, the sector represents 10 percent of the local economy, with 700 firms in the global energy supply chain. Pittsburgh is also a research powerhouse, attracting $1 billion a year in federal and corporate R&D.

With the worldwide activities of Westinghouse Electric, headquartered in Cranberry Township, Pitt’s nuclear certification program graduates engineers who are “instantly hirable,” says director Don Shields. Energy engineers may also earn certificates in energy resource utilization, supply chain management, mining engineering, international engineering studies, and sustainable engineering. Pitt’s strengths complement the work of CMU’s Engineering and Public Policy program, which addresses big-picture issues in technology and economic development.

At Penn State, the B.S. in Earth Science and Policy now offers an energy option. Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s new track for Energy Resources within the department of Geoscience blends course work in environmental studies, geospatial mapping and geographic information systems, and safety science. The program, which was introduced last year, offers students a range of course work applicable to energy careers. Professor Steve Hovan, the department chair, adds that it’s not just grads with geology and earth science degrees who are in demand; nearly 24 students have already chosen the new track, and Hovan says that overall enrollment in geology majors has nearly doubled in the past four years.

The relatively new field of mechatronics covers systems training in three areas: electrical, mechanical and electronic. Mechatronics is in demand within the Marcellus energy field — in fact, in any field that employs industrial robots and other computer-controlled devices.

“It’s a hot topic because it includes programmable logic controls, or PLCs,” explains Sylvia Elsayed, project manager for CCAC’s program. “A background in mechatronics is helpful in the Marcellus Shale industry, particularly in midstream compression jobs (workers who operate compression stations once wells are operational). Companies are telling us that they need those skilled workers.”

An added perk: thanks to a federal grant, CCAC tuition is free for qualified candidates enrolling for its associate degree program, whether they’re recent high school graduates or workers looking for new skill certification.  Cal U has approved a new four-year B.S. in Mechatronics Engineering Technology degree and hopes to enroll students in fall 2013.


Christine H. O’Toole is a frequent PM contributor who wrote our April cover story, “52 Weekend Getaways.”

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