10 Highest Paying Careers for College Graduates


If you’re going to invest in your education, you probably want to be sure it’s going to pay off, right? Not all degrees and careers are created equal.

As you’ll see in a moment, most of the highest paying jobs in the U.S. are in STEM-related fields. So if you’re not planning to major in some kind of science, technology, engineering, or math, your selection of top-tier careers is going to be a little slim. You’re pretty much looking for the almost highest paying jobs.

Most “highest paying jobs” posts are going to show you a list of engineering careers. But unless you really want to become an engineer, you don’t want to scroll through 14 kinds of engineering careers before you find something different. So we went ahead and lumped all of these top paying engineering careers into one “career” on our list. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (you know, from the Department of Labor), engineering careers are actually a ways down the list.

For all you future engineers out there, don’t worry, we’ll still get into the best kinds of engineering careers—and we even have a special treat for you.

We’re going to show you the median salaries, projected job growth rate, degree programs that lead to each career, and some of the organizations that hire people in those professions. To determine salaries, we used occupational employment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data is averaged across every state. Some states are going to pay significantly less—or significantly more—than the numbers you see here.

Keep in mind that the average employment outlook across all careers is that they will grow by 6.5% between 2014 and 2024, and median household income in 2016 was $59,000.

Sound good? Let’s get started.

1. Physicians and surgeons

Average salary: $208,000+ per year

Projected job growth: 14%

Education requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Doctor of medicine
  • Two+ year residency

Employment opportunities:

  • Hospitals
  • Healthcare organizations

“Physicians and surgeons” is obviously pretty broad, but there are five medical professions that max out the BLS’s payscale, and four more that come before you even see a non-medical related field.

Other lists put all kinds of engineering positions at the top, but according to the federal government, medical professionals are dominating with the highest median salaries. I’m going to go with what the Department of Labor says on this one.

If you want to set your sights on the highest paying medical careers, you’ll focus your residency on programs that set you up for careers like:

  • Surgeon
  • Obstetrician
  • Gynecologist
  • Orthodontist
  • Anethesiologist
  • Psychiatrist

In high school, my career services rep had us take a test that allegedly matched our aspirations, personality, strengths, and interests with a career. That was the first time I ever heard of an anesthesiologist. Despite what the test said, it wasn’t for me.

Why’d I tell you that random anecdote? Because becoming a medical professional is a ton of work, and you have to really be passionate about it to succeed. Some of the careers you’ll see below only require a bachelor’s degree (or not even a bachelor’s degree) and maybe a few years of experience. To be a top-tier medical professional, you have to count on at least seven years of school, and a couple years in a residency program before you even get started.

But if you’re determined to provide a highly specialized, highly valuable service to society, a career in a medical-related field seems to clearly be the right choice.

2. Dentist

Average salary: $159,000 per year

Projected job growth: 18%

Education requirements:

  • Any bachelor’s degree
  • Doctoral degree from an accredited dental school
  • Two+ year residency
  • Dental licensure

Employment opportunities:

  • Private practice
  • Other dentists
  • Healthcare organizations

I know we were just talking about medical professionals, but the path to becoming a dentist is unique since you go to a specialized dental school, not medical school.

Through dental school, you’ll develop a strong background in anatomy, anesthesiology, periodontics, and radiology. There are nine dental specialties, and to practice any of them you need a license in that specialty:

  • Dental public health (dental health education)
  • Endodontics (AKA the root canal people)
  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology (causes of oral disorders)
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology (mouth X-rays)
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery (mouth surgeries that aren’t root canals)
  • Orthodontics (teeth/mouth alignment)
  • Pediatric dentistry (kids’ mouths)
  • Periodontics (gums)
  • Prosthodontics (dentures and what not)

3. Computer information systems manager

Average salary: $135,000 per year

Projected job growth: 15%

Education requirements:

Employment opportunities:

  • Medium to large organizations that rely on technology

CIS managers “help determine the information technology goals of an organization and are responsible for implementing computer systems to meet those goals.”

Most organizations depend on technology in some way to carry out their normal functions. But as the data they use becomes more complex or grows in quantity, organizing that information and keeping it accessible becomes more challenging. CIS managers may use a team of IT professionals to ensure that organizations maintain regular, reliable access to the data they need.

This includes maintaining the security of this information as well as planning, directing, and implementing the organization’s hardware and software needs.

4. Architectural and engineering manager

Average salary: $134,000 per year

Projected job growth: 2%

Education requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree

Employment opportunities:

  • Engineering firms
  • Construction companies
  • Industrial production plants
  • Research and development

Architectural and engineering managers plan, coordinate, and direct projects in these fields. Since you’ll be in charge of architects and/or engineers and directing their projects, you usually need to have a lot of experience in one of those professions before you can be a manager. You’re probably not going to be the boss right after finishing your undergraduate studies.

And while you don’t necessarily need a master’s degree, it could be a good substitute for or supplement to industry experience. If you pursue graduate studies, look for programs in engineering management, business management, or technology management.

In addition to a strong background in the field, it helps to have a solid grasp of accounting, engineering economics, financial management, industrial and human resources management, and quality control.

The projected job growth rate for architectural and engineering managers is extremely low. And that means that most positions are probably going to be competitive, with a lot of very experienced, over-qualified candidates.

5. Marketing manager

Average salary: $131,000 per year

Projected job growth: 9%

Education requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree (usually)

Employment opportunities:

  • Most medium to large sized organizations

This one came as a huge surprise to me. I’ve worked with marketing managers who made about $100,000 less than the median national salary—and I live in a state with higher than average salaries for marketing managers. But according to the federal government, the average marketing manager makes more than the average chief executive! How about that?

To be a marketing manager, you have to understand how an organization can meet its objectives through communications. You could be managing marketers with specialties like:

  • Email
  • Blogging
  • Social media
  • Advertising
  • Project management
  • Web development
  • App messaging
  • Search engine optimization
  • Event coordinating
  • Partnerships
  • Print magazines

As a marketing manager, you’ll work with a unique intersection of roles and expertise, and you’ll be expected to have a firm grasp of them all. This doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree though. It may just require extensive experience in your industry or field. A BBA or BBM can certainly help you understand the major areas of business, but marketing itself is actually one of the business degrees we don’t recommend. You can learn everything you need to know about marketing for free online, and by actually doing it.

6. Engineer

Average salary: $84,000-$128,000 per year

Projected job growth: 4%

Education requirements: Engineering

Employment opportunities:

  • NASA
  • Google
  • Boeing
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • Apple
  • Microsoft
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • GE
  • Ford
  • Disney

Obviously, we gave a huge range in average salaries for engineers. That’s because saying you want to major in engineering is like saying you want to major in science. It’s a broad category of fields unified by foundational knowledge and principles that incorporate both math and science.

Engineering overlaps with just about every other field, and each branch of engineering is highly specialized. So if you want to be a specific kind of engineer, you’ll need to get a degree in that type of engineering. Some of the most popular types of engineering are mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering. Each of those pay very well, but mechanical and civil engineering are on the lower end of the range. If you truly want to pursue the highest paying career, you’re going to look into petroleum engineering. Who knew oil companies had so much money?

That being said, some very reputable organizations including the National Science Foundation and the National Bureau of Economic Research have determined that there are far more engineering graduates than there are engineering positions. A Harvard research associate suggested that “the only disagreement is whether it is 100% or 200% more.” So bear that in mind.

While the projected job growth rate is pretty low, it completely depends on the type of engineering you pursue. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, petroleum engineers have a projected growth rate of 9.8%, which is well above average, but even that is blown out of the water by another high-paying engineering field—biomedical engineering. The projected growth rate for biomedical engineers is 23.1%.

Interestingly, the National Science Foundation says that about 24% of professional engineers don’t hold even a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Of course, that also means 76% of engineers do. If you want to be at the higher end of that payscale, you’re going to need either additional education or experience—or both.

OK, so I promised a special treat for engineering junkies, right? Well, we’ve put together a list of the top online engineering schools, so no matter what type of engineering you’re interested in, you can find an online program to earn your credentials from home. Three of them even have online petroleum engineering programs.

7. Physicist

Average salary: $115,000 per year

Projected job growth: 7%

Education requirements: Physics

Employment opportunities:

  • Raytheon Corporation
  • IBM
  • AT&T
  • Boeing
  • Lucent Technologies
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • Hewlett-Packard Company
  • Morolla Incorporated
  • 3M Company

While physics is a pretty widely applicable field that can lead to engineering, healthcare, astronomy, energy, or technology-related careers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics limited their findings to the highly research-focused career of physicist. According to BLS, physicists “Conduct research into physical phenomena, develop theories on the basis of observation and experiments, and devise methods to apply physical laws and theories.”

These research positions come primarily from private organizations (as you can see above), but a significant amount of them are also employed through the federal government, institutions of higher education, and hospitals.

This isn’t a job you get fresh out of your undergraduate studies. This is a career that requires higher levels of education (such as a doctorate) and usually at least a couple of years of research experience (which can be acquired through a doctoral program).

8. Airline and commercial pilot

Average salary: $105,000 per year

Projected job growth: 5%

Education requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree (usually)

Employment opportunities:

  • Airlines
  • Independent contractor

Airline pilots have a pretty unique career path. Before you take control of the cockpit in a giant 747, you usually begin as a commercial pilot and accrue a several special licenses and certifications. This could be through a two- or four-year program at a university, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, or through an independent flight instructor certified by the FAA.

Either way, you’re going to need to pay for hundreds of hours of flight time to get your foot in the door. Nobody will hire you until you have several hundred hours of time in the air. In the past, the majority of commercial and airline pilots have come from the military, as highly trained pilots transitioned into civilian life. But today, there’s a greater gap, and more opportunity for civilian pilots to work their way up.

Pilots also start with much lower salaries than what the median shows above, but there’s opportunity to go far beyond that as well.

Various companies and planes will likely require additional certifications and licenses.

9. Chief executive

Average salary: $103,000 per year

Projected job growth: 6%

Education requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree (usually)

Employment opportunities:

  • Virtually every organization

A lot of people imagine being the boss someday. Chief executives don’t have to imagine. They play a major role in shaping the direction and operation of their organization, and they can tell anyone what to do (unless they’re another chief executive). Of course, no matter how good you are at delegation, the full weight of responsibility ultimately sits on your shoulders, too.

Despite the minimal “required” education, executives often have additional education such as an MBA, and at the very least, years of experience in their industry. Without that experience, it’s incredibly difficult to consistently make the right decisions to drive your organization towards its goals.

Since this role is so heavily based on experience, rather than focusing on becoming a chief executive, you should find an industry you love and learn what you need to do to advance within that industry. Or, if you really do just care about being the boss as soon as possible, you could always be an entrepreneur and start your own company. If you ask us, that’s not worth getting a degree in though. We have some tips for choosing a business degree if you’re not sure where to start.

10. Actuary

Average salary: $100,000 per year

Projected job growth: 18%

Education requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree (optional)

Employment opportunities:

  • The Travelers Companies, Inc.
  • Liberty Mutual Group
  • Towers Watson
  • Milliman Inc.
  • The Hartford
  • CNA Insurance Companies
  • Zurich North America
  • Allstate Insurance Company
  • Nationwide Insurance Company

Actuaries are specialized mathematicians who handle risk management, primarily for insurance companies. About 50% of actuaries work in the insurance industry, calculating the likelihood of particular events occurring and determining premiums based on those likelihoods.

While the degree programs we listed give you a strong background in the underlying methodologies and principles you’ll rely on as an actuary, you technically don’t need them. You just have to pass actuarial exams. These are conducted by the Casualty Actuarial Society and the Society of Actuaries. Passing these exams shows employers you are capable of performing the required tasks.

But that’s certainly not to say becoming an actuary is easy. More than half the people who take these exams fail. BeAnActuary.org recommends taking at least 100 hours to study for every one hour of exams.

Why you should consider cost of living

If you’re choosing a potential career based on how much you’ll make, there’s something you should know: where you live completely changes your relative income.

Obviously, there can be quite a bit of variation in salaries from state to state anyways, but living in a big city is going to significantly affect how much you can actually do with the money you have. At the same time, living further from big cities means a lot of these careers won’t be available to you unless you’re willing to commute. Densely populated areas have far more opportunities, but it’s a tradeoff.

Should you choose a career based on salary?

I’m just going to say it: no. When you have no idea what you want to do with your life, the sheer number of possibilities is totally overwhelming. And starting with salaries is a nice way to make that list of options shorter. I get it.

But if you’re looking for an easy answer to “What do you want to do with your life?” this isn’t the place to start. Each of these careers has its own long, complicated path, and it takes a lot of dedication to succeed. Money alone might be enough to motivate you to make it through years of school and entry-level work in the industry—but probably not.

What’s going to give you the clearest, most confident answer to that nagging question is finding topics that interest you and exploring them. Read about them. Talk to people who work in the field. Talk to academic advisors.

If you’re totally unsure, our online degree rankings could be a good place to start—we give you an overview of what you can do with each degree and then get into how the best schools in the country tackle those topics.

At the very least, I hope this post has inspired you to look into a field and continue your quest to find a job you’ll love.

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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