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Written by Susan ShorSusan Shor

The highest-paying jobs and how to land them

23 min read
The highest-paying jobs and how to land them
Artwork by:Katya Simacheva
If you’re looking for the highest-paying jobs out there, it helps to have a “Dr.” in front of your name. But top-paying jobs abound, and with the right education, training and experience, one of them could be yours.

And yet, to be a bit more realistic, if you’re interested in high-paying jobs, you don’t necessarily need to invent the next killer app, perfect the electric car, or build a bouncing paper clip. 

In fact, if you’re looking for a top-paying job accessible to “normal” people, your best bet is–wait for it–just become a doctor. 

Physicians of all kinds dominate most lists of highest-paying jobs. In fact, there are so many doctors on the Top 20 highest-paying jobs list that there’s no room for lawyers (but someone is probably preparing a lawsuit to contest this). 

And if you’ve ever had a doctor stick a scalpel into your stomach, you’ll appreciate why all this training is necessary, and why these professionals deserve the money they make. 

Expert tip

How to become a doctor: Doctors require more education and training than any other field–typically 4 years of undergraduate study, 4 years of medical school and 3 to 9 years of hands-on training in internship and residency programs. That’s as much or more education than the K-12 program that preceded it. 

Here we’ve compiled a list of the 20 highest-paying jobs in the United States, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in September 2022 (based on 2021 data). In general, the BLS predicts all physicians jobs to grow at 3% from 2021-2031. You can assume that figure unless it’s otherwise stated.

Your experience may differ in Sweden or Swaziland, but the U.S. is the world’s third-largest country and currently considered the second-richest, so its data is a good measure for global results.

20 highest-paying jobs in America

The dollar figures attached to the following occupations are average annual salaries, meaning that the salaries are added together and divided by the total number. 

To assess the projected demand for jobs in each field, consider the job outlook. In all occupations, jobs are expected to grow by an average of 6% from 2021 to 2031. In many of the following fields, the number of jobs is expected to shrink–but there are a few where robust job growth is expected, including for psychiatrists, nurse anesthetists, and commercial pilots.

1. Cardiologists: $353,970

These physicians specialize in heart health. They diagnose and treat diseases and disorders of the cardiovascular system. 

2. Anesthesiologists: $331,190 

Why doesn’t surgery hurt? Anesthesiologists are doctors who deliver medications that numb part or all of the body before surgery so that the patient feels no pain. Anesthesiology is critical but potentially lethal if done wrong, which is why anesthesiologists are among the highest-paid of all physicians.

3. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons: $311,460

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons perform surgery on the mouth, teeth, jaws and face, including removing wisdom teeth, installing dental implants and repairing cleft lips.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2021-2031: +6%

Expert tip

How to become one: All dentists must be licensed in the state where they work, which usually requires a degree as a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry/Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). Dentists who practice in a specialty area need postdoctoral training, and oral/maxillofacial surgery programs usually take 4 to 6 years and may result in earning a joint Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree.

4. Emergency medicine physicians: $310,640

Emergency medicine physicians thrive under pressure. They diagnose and perform necessary medical procedures in cases of emergency such as sudden illness and accidents.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2021-2031: +3%

5. Orthopedic surgeons: $306,220

If you’ve wished for the star athlete on your team to heal from an injury, you know what orthopedic surgeons do. Orthopedic surgeons treat all musculoskeletal conditions as well as injuries through surgery.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2021-2031: +3%

6. Dermatologists: $302,740

These physicians specialize in skin, hair, and nail health–everything from melanoma to teen acne falls in their purview.

7. Radiologists: $301,720

Radiologists are medical doctors who use imaging techniques to diagnose or assess patients.

8. Surgeons, all other: $297,800

If you’ve ever been cut open (not in a bar fight, but by a doctor), you probably have a surgeon to thank. From tonsil removal to brain surgery to heart replacement, surgeons perform complex medical operations involving sharp objects. Surgeons are also responsible for preoperative diagnosis and postoperative care.

9. Obstetricians and gynecologists: $296,210

Obstetricians specialize in all aspects of pregnancy, including prenatal care, delivery and postnatal care. Gynecologists focus on all other aspects of women’s health care. And health professionals known as OB/GYNs do both.

10. Pediatric surgeons: $290,310

Pediatric surgeons treat patients from birth through adolescence. 

11. Ophthalmologists, except pediatric: $270,090

Ophthalmologists are eye specialists who treat diseases, perform surgery, prescribe medication, and correct vision through glasses and contact lenses.  

12. Neurologists: $267,660

Neurologists specialize in the nervous system. If you’ve ever experienced headaches, unexplained movement or pain, you may have been referred to these physicians who treat diseases of the spinal cord, brain, nerves, and muscles. 

13. Orthodontists: $267.280

Orthodontists use braces and other devices to straighten teeth, correct misaligned jaws and give patients a winning smile.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2021-2031: +6%

14. Physicians, pathologists: $267,180

Pathologists typically work in labs where they examine tissue and bodily fluid to help a patient’s physician to make a diagnosis.

15. Psychiatrists: $249,760

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health, focusing on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists can prescribe medications to help manage patients’ mental health issues.

16. General internal medicine physicians: $242,190

Rather than specialize in a given field, general internists are prepared to address almost anything that goes wrong with the adult human body. They are experts in the diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care of virtually anything that ails you.

17. Family medicine physicians: +$235,930

Similar to general internists but for all ages, family physicians address medical issues that arise in people of all ages, from newborns to the elderly. 

18. Physicians, all other: $231,500

This category includes all doctors not covered elsewhere on this list. 

19. Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers: $202,180*

Commercial pilots are experts at flying 400+-ton tubes of steel through the sky with hundreds of people aboard, executing safe takeoffs and landings and sometimes navigating thousands of miles to get from one part of the planet to another. For good reason, there are no airline pilots who make minimum wage – or if there were, you wouldn’t want to get on their plane.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2021-2031: +6%

How to become one: Airline pilots usually need a bachelor’s degree and also must complete flight training with FAA-certified flight instructors or schools that offer flight training. Commercial pilots typically receive on-the-job training, including several weeks of ground school and flight training.

Expert tip

How to become one: Airline pilots usually need a bachelor’s degree and also must complete flight training with FAA-certified flight instructors or schools that offer flight training. Commercial pilots typically receive on-the-job training, including several weeks of ground school and flight training.

20. Nurse anesthetists: $195,610*

These highly skilled nurses do most of the same things anesthesiologists do, providing pain care for patients before, during and after surgery. They hold advanced nursing degrees but do not need as much medical education or training as anesthesiologists.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2021-2031: +40%

Expert tip

How to become one: Nurse anesthetists, also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), must have at least a master’s degree and a state APRN license. They must be licensed registered nurses and pass a national certification exam. 

*The last two figures represent the median, not the average, income.

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Other lists of highest-paying jobs

Compiling lists of top-paying jobs is not exactly a precise science, as there are many methodologies and data sets that can be used. For example, the president of the United States makes $400,000 a year, with an expense account of $50,000 (not bad for government work), but you won’t see that job on many lists.

Also, being the Sultan of Brunei is pretty good work, since he’s worth an estimated $20 billion. But let’s face it – you’re probably not eligible for that job.

Still, let’s look at some of the highest-paying jobs on other lists that weren’t mentioned above.

U.S. News and World Report

U.S. News and World Report has a list of 25 highest-paying jobs that includes most of the jobs on the BLS list, with anesthesiologists, surgeons and OB/GYNs in the top three spots. But it also includes the following occupations and cites their median salaries:

1. IT manager: $151,150

IT managers coordinate all the computer-related activities of a company. 

2. Marketing managers: $142,170

Marketing managers oversee the marketing campaigns of the companies for which they work.

3. Petroleum engineers: $137,330

Petroleum engineers design equipment that extracts oil from deep reservoirs that contain oil and gas deposits.

4. Financial managers:  $134,180

Financial managers prepare financial reports, coordinate investment activity and develop long-term financial strategies for businesses.

5. Podiatrists: $134,300

Podiatrists are physicians who specialize in the lower extremities: feet, ankles and the lower legs. 

6. Lawyers: $126,930

Lawyers advise and represent individuals, businesses and government agencies in criminal or civil legal matters.

7. Sales managers: $132,290

Sales managers oversee and coordinate companies’ sales efforts, setting goals, training staff and developing sales strategies.

8. Business operations managers: $103,650

Business operations managers are involved in hiring, contracts, budgeting and overall business strategy.

8. Pharmacists: $128,710

Pharmacists fill prescriptions, ensure that medications interact safely and advise patients on how and when to take their medicine.

10. Optometrists: $118,050

Optometrists provide prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses and also diagnose and treat problems with the eyes.

11. Political scientists: $125,350

Political scientists are experts in government, politics and international relations who may work at universities or nonprofits and focus on teaching, research or service.

12. Actuaries: $111,030

Actuaries use math, statistics and financial theory to measure, manage and mitigate financial risk.

13. Financial advisors: $89,330

Financial advisors help clients manage their money, providing advice on investment, retirement and budgets.

Glassdoor

Glassdoor, a major jobs portal, uses its own proprietary data in its list of 25 highest-paying jobs in America. Most of the usual suspects are on the list, but there are several additional entries as well:

  1. Physicians: $193,415
  2. Pharmacy managers: $144,768
  3. Dentists: $142,478
  4. Pharmacists: $126,438
  5. Enterprise architects: $122,585
  6. Corporate counsel: $117,588
  7. Software engineering manager: $114,163
  8. Physician assistants: $113,855
  9. Corporate controllers: $113,368
  10. Software development managers: $109,809
  11. Nurse practitioners: $109,481
  12. Applications development managers: $107,735
  13. Solutions architects: $106,436
  14. Data architects: $104,840
  15. Plant managers: $104,817
  16. IT program managers: $104,454
  17. Systems architects: $103,813
  18. UX managers: $102,489
  19. Site reliability engineers: $100,855
  20. Cloud engineers: $98,626
  21. Attorneys: $97,711
  22. Data scientists: $97,027
  23. Information security engineers: $95,786
  24. Analytics managers: $95,238
  25. Financial planning and analysis managers: $94,874

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CareerOneStop

CareerOneStop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, uses the same BLS data in the Top 20 list above, but it contains a far longer list of occupations, from #1, anesthesiologists, to #789, musicians and singers. (Apologies to all the cover bands out there who do “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”)

The Top 20 list here is virtually identical to the one above, but here’s how the list continues, again showing median annual salaries as of May 2020:

  1. Natural sciences managers: $137,900
  2. Petroleum engineers: $137,300
  3. Podiatrists: $134,300
  4. Financial managers: $134,200
  5. Advertising and promotions managers: $133,500
  6. Sales managers: $132,300
  7. Air traffic controllers: $130,400
  8. Physicists: $129,900
  9. Pharmacists: $128,700
  10. Lawyers: $126,900
  11. Computer and information research scientists: $126,800
  12. Purchasing managers: $125,900
  13. Political scientists: $125,400
  14. Compensation and benefits managers: $125,100
  15. Human resources managers: $125,100
  16. Astronomers: $119,700
  17. Computer hardware engineers: $119,600
  18. Aerospace engineers: $118,600
  19. Public relations and fundraising managers: $118,400
  20. Optometrists: $118,100
  21. Computer network architects: $116,800
  22. Law teachers, postsecondary: $116,400
  23. Personal service managers, all other; entertainment and recreation managers, except gambling; and managers, all other: $116,400
  24. Nuclear engineers: $116,100
  25. Training and development managers: $115,600
  26. Physician assistants: $115,400
  27. Nurse practitioners: $111,700
  28. Nurse midwives: $111,100
  29. Actuaries: $111,100
  30. Mathematicians: $110,900
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Highest-paying jobs without a college degree

Maybe academics just weren’t for you or you needed to go out and earn a living before you hit 30 and without the average student loan debt of around $30,000. You can still earn a decent living, and have a career that doesn’t require a white lab coat.

Mint compiled this list, which are updated as of May 2021:

  1. Theatrical performance makeup artists: $134,750
  2. Police and detective supervisors: $98,760
  3. Transportation, storage, and distribution managers: $98,230
  4. Elevator and escalator installers and repairers: $97,860
  5. Power plant operator: $94,790
  6. Subway and streetcar operators: $81,180
  7. Transportation inspectors: $79,770
  8. Non-retail sales supervisors: $79,680
  9. Electrical power line installers: $78,310
  10. Firefighter supervisors: $78,230

If you’re considering a trade and want to know what the highest paying trade jobs are, here are several that did not make the list above. Some of these may prefer a college degree or require training or an associate’s degree in the field. Take note that three of the top five are in the healthcare industry. (Are you starting to get the picture?):

  1. Construction managers: $98,890
  2. Radiation therapist: $82,790
  3. Nuclear medicine technologist: $78,760
  4. Medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians: $75,380
  5. Aircraft technician: $65,550

Highest paying jobs in the world

You won’t be surprised to find that the highest paying jobs in the world correlate closely with the highest paying jobs in the United States. Physicians and surgeons top the list everywhere, but there’s no individual physician who earns as much as the world’s biggest earners.

The highest paid people in the world are all CEOs of multinational corporations, with Tim Cook, Apple’s top banana, coming in at No. 1 with a 2020 salary of $265 million. Yes, we know that Elon Musk is richer, but technically, his salary is $56,000 a year and he refuses it.Key takeaways: Points to consider

  • Money shouldn’t be the sole consideration in choosing a career, or else you may end up rich and miserable.
  • On the CareerOneStop list, actors come in at #786 – so this is among the least lucrative professions. But if you want to be an actor, you want to be an actor! Also, of course, if you have real talent, a never-say-die attitude and maybe a few good connections, hitting the big time could make you fabulously wealthy.
  • You’ll notice that with rare exceptions, all the most highly paid jobs require years of education, training and experience. The expense of higher education can be enormous, and can leave you saddled with student debt for years.
  • Once you graduate from the 12th grade, you may choose to go down a road that requires 12 more years of education and training. Or that may strike you as the worst possible way to spend your prime years. College can open up big opportunities, but college is not for everyone.
  • Ultimately, your best bet is to figure out what you really like to do, and then to research how to earn a comfortable living doing just that. The intersection of good pay and job satisfaction is the sweet spot you really want to find.
  • They say money can’t buy happiness. But then again, it does make misery more tolerable.
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