20 Highest Paying Careers

The College Consensus guide to the Top 20 Highest Paying Careers is based on PayScale median salary, while we also consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics for job growth rates and unemployment rates, where those statistics are significant.

1. Surgery

surgeon team

There’s a good reason that the professionals involved in surgery have some of the highest pay rates of any career – they do surgery. It’s well deserved, too, seeing as surgeons, anesthesiologists, and OBGYNs literally hold lives in their hands – and need a good 10-12 years of higher education to get qualified to do the job, from college to medical school to a residency (sometimes up to 4 years). Each of these jobs is expected to see thousands of job openings in the next decade, and their unemployment rate is, simply, nil.

Median Salary:

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon – $355,864
Anesthesiologist – $278,016
Surgeon – $254,329
Obstetrician and Gynecologist – $207,177

Education Level: Doctorate

2. Psychiatrist

therapy session male

The doctors who care for our mental health, like the ones who put us to sleep and cut out our tumors, also make quite a healthy salary. Psychiatrists (as opposed to psychologists) go to medical school, spend years in residency, and have the responsibility of prescribing medicine, which requires more years of schooling, and often requires a more demanding workload than a psychologist. The psychiatrist approaches mental health as a component of physical health, and therefore gets paid a medical doctor’s salary. With more than 3000 projected jobs in the next decade, though, there’s room for more.

Median Salary: $194,507
Education Level: Doctorate

3. Physician/Specialist

doctor thinking

When you say you’re “going to the doctor,” 9 times out of 10 you mean a physician – a medical doctor who has been trained in general care for people. As with the other highest-paying jobs, physicians spend a lot of time in school, working in residencies, and just working in general – hours for a physician are long and demanding. In exchange for the sacrifice of time, physicians make a lot of money, with general practitioners making income approaching $200,000, and even more for specialists.

Median Salary:

Physician – $173,953
Pediatrician – $145,141
Podiatrist – $124,868

Education Level: Doctorate

4. Oral Medicine

dental technician e1522037883716

It’s impossible to overestimate how important oral health really is. Diseases of the mouth can often be crucial, overlooked signs of larger issues, while poor oral hygiene can cause many other diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and dementia. While many Americans neglect their oral health, the people who are responsible for it make a well-deserved high salary. Dentists make around $125,000, while orthodontists can make as much as $170,000. They’re jobs that require many years of schooling, and face it – few people are cut out for looking in mouths all day.

Median Salary:

Orthodontist – $168,921
Prosthodontist – $151,723
Dentist – $125,464

Education Level: Doctorate

5. Nurse Anesthetist

operation anesthesia e1522034771924

While anesthesiologists are some of the highest-paid medical professionals, nurse anesthetists do pretty well for themselves too. An advanced practice nursing speciality, nurse anesthetists do pretty much what anesthesiologists do – administer anesthesia, monitor vitals – but they are required to do it under the supervision of a medical doctor. A master’s degree and a certification (CRNA) are required to work as a nurse anesthetist, and nurse anesthetists are generally expected to do the work of nurses as well, including aftercare. Their median 6-figure income is certainly well-earned.

Median Salary: $139,829
Education Level: Doctorate

6. Computer Network Architect

computer tech

Businesses in the 21st century rise and fall on their communication, and the computer network architect is a crucial part of keeping communication going. The computer network architect designs data communication networks, which may be as small as one company’s intranet, to vast cloud networks. It’s a job with a huge amount of responsibility, and more than a few years of schooling (at least a master’s degree, in most cases); no one becomes a network architect without numerous years of experience, either.

Median Salary: $116,408
Education Level: Master’s

7. IT Manager

IT Manager

Generally speaking, an IT Manager is in charge of the IT department at a corporation or organization, working in a position of authority and responsibility over the technicians and analysts who keep an organization’s computer networks running. While you may work your way up from entry level to manager, in most cases an IT manager will need specialized education. An IT manager not only needs to be fully versed in the technology, but also in management skills and techniques, which may require a master’s degree. For the years of education and vital responsibility, an IT manager can expect over $100,000 per year.

Median Salary: $114,603
Education Level: Master’s

8. Pharmacist


In many ways, pharmacists are unsung heroes of the medical field; doctors may prescribe medicines, but it’s the pharmacist who makes sure patients get the right dose, in the right form, when they need it. To become a pharmacist, you need a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree, as well as licensure from your state Board of Pharmacy. That comes down to many stressful hours of schooling, internship, study, and practice before getting to work as a professional, and while the job itself is fairly low-stress, it also carries a lot of responsibility and a salary to match.

Median Salary: $110,405
Education Level: Doctorate

9. Petroleum Engineer

oil rig

It’s a simple rule of thumb that any occupation with “engineer” in the title is going to be well-paid, and that’s especially true for Petroleum Engineer. From fuel to plastics, modern life runs on petroleum, and the experts who have the applied scientific knowledge to optimize production, manage drilling sites, design equipment, and implement strategies earn their keep. Petroleum engineers need several years of highly specialized post-bachelor’s education, and work conditions may be extreme (oil and mild climates just don’t tend to go together) – both good reasons for high pay.

Median Salary: $100,583
Education Level: Master’s

10. Nurse Practitioner

Nurse Occupation

These days, you’re far more likely to see a nurse practitioner than an MD when you go to your family clinic, and that’s a good thing. Most of the time, an NP can do anything a doctor can do, having learned most of the specialized knowledge that doctors learn, but they also have the hands-on experience and expertise – and bedside manner – of a nurse. In fact, in half of the US, nurse practitioners don’t even need the supervision of a doctor. NPs need a Master of Science in Nursing degree, as well as state licensure, to practice, and aspiring NPs should know the hours are just as long as nursing, with even more responsibility. The pay, though, helps make up for worn-out feet.

Median Salary: $91,697
Education Level: Master’s

11. Physician Assistant

Charge Nurse and Doctor

Physician assistants make up one of the most crucial aspects of the healthcare system, because in many cases they are the difference between medical care and no medical care. The education for PAs comes close to that of medical doctors, ending at the master’s level, and PAs are qualified to examine, diagnose, and treat patients. In many rural and underserved areas without doctors, PAs are instrumental in providing medical care. While their pay rate is not as high as a full medical doctor’s, a physician assistant does not go unappreciated.

Median Salary: $91,348
Education Level: Master’s

12. Nurse Midwife

baby midwife

There are many specializations for advanced practice nurses, but Nurse Midwife is one of the most rewarding, in more ways than one. For women who want the comforting and less invasive care of a midwife, with the assurance of modern medicine, a nurse midwife is the best of both worlds. To practice, nurse midwives need a Master of Science in Nursing and licensure, and in most states nurse midwives must work under the supervision of an OBGYN. For the most part, though, nurse midwives are fully in charge of the birthing room and the care of pregnant women and their babies, and their salaries reflect that responsibility.

Median Salary: $89,158
Education Level: Master’s

13. Actuary

3 business charts

Actuarial science is a highly specialized area of accounting that combines accounting, statistics, and business; actuaries use all that expertise to analyze risk for insurance companies, banks, government agencies, and more. Besides a lot of study and several years of higher education, it’s a job that very few people really have the mind for. For those who can do the math, an actuary is one of the best jobs out there for job security, workload, and pay rate. Since it’s a challenging niche, there are never enough actuaries, meaning a well-trained actuary can pretty much write their own ticket.

Median Salary: $83,620
Education Level: Master’s

14. Lawyer


It’s easy for laypeople to say there are too many lawyers, but that’s willfully forgetting just how critical lawyers are for just about every aspect of business, government, entertainment, healthcare, and more. Lawyers protect the accused from injustice, keep businesses on the straight and narrow, help families manage their assets in life transitions, and provide legal counsel when someone has been wronged. Lawyers need a Juris Doctor degree and licensure from their state Bar Association to practice, and their long hours, high stress, and big responsibility is repaid in a high median salary.

Median Salary: $81,648
Education Level: Doctorate

15. Operations Research Analyst


There’s a simple reason Operations Research Analysts make a high salary: math. To put it simply, operations research analysts use mathematics, statistics, and data to analyze business problems and create solutions. That may mean anything from making changes to the supply chain, to organizing products in a store for higher sales, to optimizing human resources. Since it’s a highly technical field, the education and skill set creates an automatic barrier to entry, so unemployment is low, job projections are high (growing by 27%), and median salary is stable and satisfying.

Median Salary: $77,118
Education Level: Master’s

16. Veterinarian


Veterinarian is high up on the list of jobs kids want when they grow up, but it isn’t all petting fluffy animals. Vets care for household pets, certainly, but they also care for zoo animals, farm livestock, and endangered species in captivity. They’re a crucial part of keeping the food supply healthy, preventing overpopulation of stray animals, and even researching climate change’s impact on wildlife. Veterinarians must earn a doctorate in veterinary medicine, which can take anywhere from 4 to 6 years, and be licensed in their state; some specializations may take even more education and certification.

Median Salary: $75,363
Education Level: Doctorate

17. Construction Manager

construction management

Some occupations are perennial, and construction is one. Construction may go through phases, depending on the economy, and some areas of construction may be seasonal, but one thing is for sure – people are always building. A good construction manager will never be out of work for long, whether it’s residential or commercial, government contracting or private sector. Construction managers may work their way into the job through experience, but a bachelor’s or master’s degree can provide skills and expertise that add to experience and help earn higher salaries.

Median Salary: $74,388
Education Level: Bachelor’s/Master’s

18. Psychologist

helping hands comfort hands people

Unlike a psychiatrist, a psychologist is not a medical doctor, but an academic doctor. A psychologist may earn a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or PhD in Psychology; the primary difference is if you plan to work directly with clients as a therapist, or to work in education and research. Psychologists may find themselves in all kinds of workplaces and environments, from clinics and laboratories to business and marketing firms. Salary rates can fluctuate, depending on where a psychologist works, and in what capacity, but the high level of expertise and wide range of applicability gives psychologists a high median salary.

Median Salary: $73,921
Education Level: Doctorate

19. Business Operations Manager

saving business school

The Business Operations Manager is the point person, the one who oversees the day to day operations of businesses large and small, troubleshooting problems, motivating employees, and communicating with the higher-ups. It’s a position that strong employees might work their way into through promotions, but these days, professional competition can be fierce; a higher degree like an MBA or Master’s in Management can be the key to making it. Strong managers can not only count on a high median salary, but opportunity to break through to the executive suite.

Median Salary: $72,988
Education Level: Master’s

20. Statistician

analytics big data student

Any college student who has eked out a passing grade in a statistics class will tell you – anyone who can handle statistics is worth their weight in gold. Because it is a highly specialized skill set, statisticians are in high demand in a wide variety of fields – finance, insurance, technology, entertainment, healthcare: you name it, there’s a place for statisticians. The education level necessary for a career in statistics varies, but a master’s degree will usually provide the expertise and adaptable skills that a statistician can carry into any number of career paths.

Median Salary: $71,550
Education Level: Master’s