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15 Highest Paying Jobs for College Graduates

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 10/4/2022

One of the reasons students pursue years of higher education is that in general, education pays. Professionals with advanced degrees tend to earn higher wages and face less unemployment than those with less postsecondary education. But which jobs pay the most, and what kind of education do you need to secure them?

To find out, we looked beyond the college majors with the best early-career salaries to discover the highest paying jobs in America, regardless of degree and experience level. These roles may suit you if you want a lucrative career and are willing to study for however many years it takes.

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Highest Paying Jobs for College Graduates

Below, we list the highest paying occupations requiring a college degree. We drew all data from the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS stops calculating median salaries when they reach $208,000 per year or $100 per hour; the bureau sometimes provides mean salary data above that threshold.

It's worth noting one job not on this list because it doesn't require a college degree: Theatrical and performance makeup artists make a median annual wage of $134,750 in a field that doesn't necessarily require any education beyond high school. But they might benefit from a certificate earned at a trade school or community college, which some employers may appreciate.

Annual Median Salary: $208,000 or more
Job Outlook: 3% growth

As a group, doctors earn higher wages than any other occupation. Some medical specialties significantly outearn others if we look at their mean annual pay:

  • Anesthesiologists: $331,190
  • Obstetricians and gynecologists: $296,210
  • Surgeons: $294,520
  • Physicians and surgeons, all other: $255,110
  • Psychiatrists: $249,760
  • Internists, general: $242,190
  • Family and general practitioners: $235,930
  • Pediatricians, general: $198,420

Physicians must attend medical school to earn a four-year Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree after college, then pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). They must then complete a four-year residency, a series of rotations at different medical facilities where they gain real-world experience. Most people then take the board certification exam for their specialty, because many employers will only hire doctors who are board-certified.

Physician job growth is much slower than average for U.S. careers, mainly thanks to technological advances and the increase in assistant roles who can perform tasks that doctors used to do exclusively. The BLS expects relatively little job turnover, with about 24,000 openings per year through 2031 despite a pool of more than 700,000 physicians.

Annual Median Salary: $208,000 or more
Job Outlook: 5% growth

These are the highest paying dental specialties, which involve identifying and correcting problems with the teeth, gums, jaw, and neck tissues. All dentists complete four years of dental school to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry, or Doctor of Dental Medicine degree (the latter two are both called a DMD). After this, orthodontists do a 2-3-year residency, while oral surgeons have a 4-6-year residency

Positions in these specialties are growing at the average U.S. rate. About 12,500 of these professionals work in dental offices nationwide.

Annual Median Salary: $202,180
Job Outlook: 6% growth

There are several types of pilots, and those who fly for large passenger airlines earn the most money. By median salary, this is the best paying job you can secure without a graduate degree. But it will require significant training and seniority with your employer to reach the highest pay grades, including training at an FAA-certified civilian or military flight school that leads to certification and licensure.

Becoming a pilot typically requires a bachelor's degree in any field — such as aviation or aerospace engineering — military or commercial flight training, and certificates and ratings from the Federal Aviation Administration. This field is growing at an average rate through 2031, with 18,100 job openings each year due to regular turnover. Most pilots live in densely populated states such as California, Texas, and Florida.

Annual Median Salary: $195,610
Job Outlook: 12% growth

One of the most highly trained nursing specialties is also the most lucrative by a wide margin. Becoming a nurse anesthetist requires years of experience as a registered nurse along with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree — a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is no longer sufficient. 

This career is expanding fast despite the educational barriers to entry. Many areas of the country are underserved by anesthesiologists, and nurse anesthetists fill the gap for patients requiring anesthesia. For this reason, their employment is relatively high even in sparsely populated states. These nurses most frequently work in doctor's offices and hospitals.

Annual Median Salary: $179,520
Job Outlook: 7% loss

Corporate leaders are responsible for the strategic direction of their employers, and they're usually compensated well for that responsibility. Professional consulting firms and manufacturers tend to pay their executives the highest wages. Titles in this category include chief executive officer (CEO) and chief operating officer (COO).

There's no educational requirement to become a chief executive, though many business managers improve their career prospects with an MBA. Although the money is good, the job outlook is poor for chief executives. The BLS projects a 7% decline in jobs across the 2021-2031 decade as more companies move to a learner operating model at the top levels.

Annual Median Salary: $175,160 and $160,370, respectively
Job Outlook: 1% (all other) and 6% (general) growth

The American Dental Association recognizes 10 types of specialist besides orthodontist and oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Dentists in these specialties tend to earn more than generalists, but it takes more time and effort to pass a board certification. 

Becoming a dentist requires the completion of a bachelor's degree — preferably in a field such as biology — prerequisite science courses, a DDS or DMD degree, residency training, and passing scores on national and state licensing exams. General dentists are fairly evenly distributed by population. Interestingly, none of the highest paying states for general dentists is anywhere near the top 10 most populous states.

Annual Median Salary: $159,010
Job Outlook: 16% growth

These managers lead information technology (IT) teams in all manner of organizations. Most of them have bachelor's degrees in IT or another computer-related major, and some have master's degrees in IT or even MBAs. According to the analytics company Lightcast, 84% of IT manager job ads in the last 12 months specified a bachelor's degree, and only 4% asked for an advanced degree.

Job growth is faster than average for this career, with 16% expansion through 2031, or a gain of 82,400 jobs. The BLS posits that computer security threats will drive much of this growth, so it might be worthwhile to study cybersecurity instead of IT if you're interested in technology management.

Annual Median Salary: $152,430
Job Outlook: 8% growth

These are the highest paid natural scientists, who all require a PhD in their respective disciplines. Most physicists work in academia or research and development for government or private firms in the energy and defense sectors. Employees of private companies earn the most pay, especially in healthcare research.

The BLS expects physicist positions to expand by 8% in 2021-2031, but this is only 1,900 new jobs in total. Most physicists work in densely populated areas with high costs of living, with few rural jobs available. They're most densely concentrated in the Washington, DC area, where many defense and weapons firms have headquarters.

Annual Median Salary: $152,350
Job Outlook: 2% growth

This is another high-paying management role requiring some subject matter expertise beyond business and leadership. The BLS doesn't disaggregate architect manager salaries from engineering manager salaries, but engineering managers probably make more; most types of engineers earn higher wages than architects.

This role typically requires a bachelor's degree in architecture or engineering. You might improve your employability with a master's or doctoral degree, but it's not strictly required in architecture and engineering management. Lightcast reports that only 4% of advertised positions in the past 12 months have called for an advanced degree. But most of these same roles require at least three years of work experience, so time in the field seems to be more important for expanding your career opportunities. In all, the BLS projects tepid 2% occupational growth in 2021-2031.

Annual Median Salary: $148,030
Job Outlook: 1% loss

These are the robed judges who hold trials at various municipal levels. To become a judge, you must graduate from law school with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, pass your state's bar exam, and either win election or get appointed to a position. Most judges have years of experience practicing law before stepping into this role. Federal positions pay the most by far, then state, then local. 

The BLS expects a 1% loss in new judicial positions in 2021-2031 because of reduced government spending. Unsurprisingly, the distribution of judges roughly follows the nationwide population distribution.

Annual Median Salary: $137,900
Job Outlook: 6% growth

These managers run laboratories and offices and supervise teams of natural and physical scientists. They're typically scientists themselves and hold a degree in a science subfield such as biology or a related area. However, it doesn't always need to be an advanced degree; in fact, Lightcast calculates that more than 60% of advertised roles in the past year have called for a bachelor's degree.

As with other science roles, corporate research and development pays more than government or academic work. Although this field will likely grow 6% in the 2021-2031 period, the relatively small workforce means that employers will create only 4,600 jobs nationwide.

Annual Median Salary: $135,030
Job Outlook: 10% growth

These managers supervise teams of marketing specialists as they drum up interest in products and services. They tend to earn the highest pay at consulting companies that provide outsourced marketing advice to smaller firms. A bachelor's degree in marketing might be all that's required, but employers may prefer an MBA or master's in marketing

According to the BLS, this occupation should grow by 10% through 2030, which is a bit faster than average. Lightcast claims that the highest demand is in the most populous areas, such as California and New York. However, in the last 12 months, the top advertised salaries were in Delaware and Massachusetts.

Annual Median Salary: $131,710
Job Outlook: 17% growth

These employees lead teams who analyze an employer's finances. They typically hold a bachelor's in finance or other business major, but some also earn master's degrees in finance to improve their marketability. Many professionals also earn finance certifications to set themselves apart in the job market. 

This career is growing fast, with 17% expansion projected through the end of the decade. Unsurprisingly, the New York City metro area boasts the highest concentration of financial managers, along with the highest mean wages.

Annual Median Salary: $131,490
Job Outlook: 21% growth

These scientists seek advances in computer systems, software, and hardware. You typically need an advanced specialist degree to qualify for one of these jobs, such as a master's or doctorate in computer science or IT. With a diploma in hand, your most likely bet is the federal government, which hires nearly a third of computer and information research scientists. However, technology companies tend to pay higher wages.

Still, there's plenty of work to go around, and the BLS projects blazing-fast 21% growth in 2021-2031. As with many tech occupations, security may be the impetus behind this growth, so there's good potential for careers in cybersecurity research in the coming years.

Annual Median Salary: $130,850
Job Outlook: 8% growth

These engineers are the highest paid professionals in an already high-paid category. According to Lightcast, 94% of petroleum engineer job ads asked for a bachelor's degree in the last year, with only 4% requiring a master's. However, only 20% of these same ads were seeking entry-level engineers, with most employees preferring candidates with 3-8 years of experience.

Still, the field is adding new jobs at the average 8% rate, and the BLS expects about 1,700 open roles each year due to turnover. Jobs in oil and gas extraction tend to cluster in certain areas of the country, especially the Southwest and West Coast — engineers typically need to go where the petroleum is. 

FAQs About The Highest Paying Jobs

What Are the Highest Paying Jobs?


The highest paying careers call for a medical degree: anesthesiologist, obstetrician and gynecologist, surgeon, psychiatrist, and several other varieties of physicians earn median annual salaries at or above $208,000. The highest earners without doctoral or professional degrees are airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers, with yearly median pay of $202,180. These employees earn the most flying for scheduled air transportation firms, which includes passenger airlines.

How Much Do the Highest Paying Jobs Usually Pay?


The median yearly salaries for the most lucrative jobs are all over $208,000, which is where the BLS stops calculating. The top physician jobs pay under $350,000 per year, on the median. Of course, individual executives in successful business can make millions or even billions of dollars each year, but these are rare exceptions.

How Can I Get a High-paying Job?


You need to study hard and probably get at least a master's degree. MDs provide the greatest chance for big salaries down the line, but they involve many years of school and residency before you can land a high-paying position.

What Is the Highest Paying Job in the World?


CEOs are the highest paid individuals worldwide, and technology companies tend to produce the highest paid CEOs. But billionaires don't come close to representing the vast variety of the world's workforce. It's more useful to examine median annual salaries, and by that metric, anesthesiologists are the highest paid professionals in the U.S. — reliable worldwide data is much harder to calculate.

Bottom Line

Most of the highest paying jobs in the country require advanced education, with an MD giving the best chance of a high-earning career path. Some potentially lucrative careers require only a bachelor's degree, but even those tend to call for many hours of advanced training — as with pilots — or often benefit from graduate degrees, as with chief executives who hold MBAs.

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