10 Most Popular Graduate Programs Heading into 2013

Despite humorous stereotypes about unemployed Ph.D.s, there is no variable in today's economy that correlates anywhere near as reliably with employment as the degree level a candidate has reached. Postgrads are more employed than college graduates, who are more employed than those with some college, who are more employed than those with a high school diploma, who are more employed than dropouts. However, not all jobs, and not all graduate degrees, are created equal. Students may be increasingly selecting higher education out of concern for economic prospects more than intellectual curiosity, though either one is a perfectly respectable motive, and of course some lucky students get to have it all. Here are the top 10 broad fields receiving the most applications from prospective graduate students, according to the most recent Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools:

  1. Engineering

    Engineering programs received the largest number of applications in Fall 2011, at 244,101. However they were fairly selective, with 85,197 applications accepted, a rate of 34.9%. These numbers all make pretty intuitive sense, considering the rigorous nature of the field and the powerful economic demand for it.

  2. Business

    Getting an MBA has become a very popular option for those in the corporate world and beyond. 240,545 people applied for spots at business schools last year, of whom 106,751 were accepted, or about 44.3%. It's not surprising in this troublesome, slow economic recovery that people are going straight for the degree they perceive as giving them the best chance to make more money.

  3. Social and Behavioral Sciences

    A whopping 203,103 people applied for these types of grad programs last year. This one's a bit more unexpected given the economics; social workers are better known for saving the world than getting rich. On the other hand, there are a lot of people out there who need caring for right now, in terms of family problems, crime, mental health, substance abuse, and the many other social problems touched by this field.

  4. Health Sciences

    This area of study attracted 185,969 applicants in Fall 2011. Besides the obvious (doctors), there are many diverse career paths within medicine. To take just one, the nursing shortage has been well publicized as a great opportunity for job seekers: openings are available following only short, intensive training, with the chance for ever further education and higher pay. The flexibility in terms of hours and location is almost unparalleled; people get sick and old everywhere, and the demographics guarantee it will remain a growth industry.

  5. Arts and Humanities

    Fairly or unfairly, this would be the field that gets the most disdainful snickers about wasted tuition and lack of job prospects. There have been some interesting studies done recently, however, showing that the pay gap between liberal arts students and “harder” fields disappears over time: they just naturally must take longer to figure out how to leverage their odd (to others) obsessions. While there does seem to be a decline in interest in this field relative to others, it still saw 161,100 applicants last year.

  6. Education

    Education, though it's sixth on our list with 148,684 applicants, is actually the most populated of these fields, just ahead of business in terms of the number of students newly enrolled, probably because a masters degree is a virtual requirement for real career advancement. Correspondingly, it's also the least selective type of graduate program, with spots for 66.3% of applicants.

  7. Mathematics and Computer Sciences

    127,930 applications were received for math and comp-sci grad programs last fall. It may be surprising that this field is not higher on the list, with all the emphasis on “STEM” we constantly hear these days out of education policymakers. However, it is indeed one of the fastest-growing. If you can hack it in one of these programs (no pun intended), you really can expect a pretty lucrative career.

  8. Biological and Agricultural Sciences

    This field (here too, no pun was intended), which attracted 116,460 potential students in last year's fall semester, encompasses everything from veterinary medicine to cell biology. So whether you want to work in the booming biotech industry doing genetics, or in agribusiness helping to eliminate the scourge of watermelon seeds, consider a graduate degree at one of these programs.

  9. Physical and Earth Sciences

    There's a steep drop-off here, with only 75,214 wanting to be students in this category. Also, unlike the norm for the other fields on our list, most of those are seeking doctoral programs rather than masters degrees. That doesn't mean they'll all be academics in the ivory tower though; geologists and mineralogists, for instance, are highly sought and well compensated in the petroleum industry.

  10. Public Administration and Services

    Considering the widespread concern, justified or not, about a glut of government in this country (hinted at by the enormous boom of population and wealth in the D.C. metropolitan area), perhaps conservatives can take heart that this ranked 10th of 10 broad fields on the CGS list. (We did not include the vague catch-all “Other Fields,” which would have been ninth at 104,726.) Still, the public sector requires trained and informed professionals as well, if there's to be any hope of good decision-making. 60,960 attempted to heed that call last year.