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Written by Karl KahlerKarl Kahler

The highest-paying jobs and how to land them

30 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.

Judging from a list of the world’s richest men, many of the highest-paying jobs involve doing something anyone can do – start a website! As long as it’s the next Amazon, Google or Facebook, you could soon be a billionaire flying to space when you’re not sailing on the world’s largest yacht.

Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) are joined by other technology moguls on the “10 richest list,” including Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer (Microsoft) and Larry Ellison (Oracle). The list is rounded out by Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), Bernard Arnault (LVMH and Christian Dior), and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway).

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). 

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. 

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. 

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 2021 (based on 2020 data). 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 median annual salaries, meaning that in each field, half the jobs pay more and half pay less. This is somewhat different from “average” salaries, where all the salaries are added together and divided by the total number. 

Also, the first nine jobs list median salaries only as “equal to or greater than $208,000 per year,” but they’re not necessarily in order. But read on after the following list, and there’s a separate breakdown of average annual wages for physicians and surgeons.

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 8% from 2020 to 2030. 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. Psychiatrists: $208,000+

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.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +13%

Expert tip

How to become one: Like all physicians, psychiatrists typically need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

2. Obstetricians and gynecologists: $208,000+

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.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: -2%

Expert tip

How to become one: Like all physicians, obstetricians and gynecologists typically need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

3. Surgeons, except ophthalmologists: $208,000+

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.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: -3%

Expert tip

How to become one: Like all physicians, surgeons typically need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

4. General internal medicine physicians: $208,000+

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.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: -1%

Expert tip

How to become one: Like all physicians, general internists typically need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

5. Anesthesiologists: $208,000+ 

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.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: -1%

Expert tip

How to become one: Like all physicians, anesthesiologists typically need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

6. Physicians, all other; and ophthalmologists, except pediatric: $208,000+

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

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +5%

Expert tip

How to become one: All physicians need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

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7. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons: $208,000+

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, 2020-2030: +8%

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.

8. Orthodontists: $208,000+

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

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +8%

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, including orthodontists, need postdoctoral training.

9. Prosthodontists: $208,000+

While orthodontists deal with crooked teeth, prosthodontists deal with missing teeth, rebuilding or replacing teeth lost due to injury or illness.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +8%

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, including prosthodontists, need postdoctoral training.

10. Family medicine physicians: $207,380

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.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +5%

Expert tip

How to become one: Family medicine physicians usually need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. 

11. Chief executives: $185,950

How do you say “boss” using only three letters? A CEO is the top manager at any company, ultimately responsible for all its operations, products, profits and losses. At larger companies, CEOs oversee senior management teams and provide overall strategic leadership for any business endeavor. 

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: -6%

Expert tip

How to become one: Not counting college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, top executives usually need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in their field. For academic posts like college presidents and school superintendents, a doctorate is generally preferred.

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12. Nurse anesthetists: $183,580

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, 2020-2030: +13%

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. 

13. Dentists, all other specialists: $183,300

Dentists are specialists in teeth, repairing tooth decay, filling cavities, and diagnosing and treating dental problems. And of course, they also remind you to floss.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +8%

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.

14. Pediatricians, general: $177,130

Pediatricians treat children, from infants to young adults, whether for a well-child checkup or for diagnosis and treatment of any health problems that may arise.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: -2%

Expert tip

How to become one: Like all physicians, pediatricians typically need a 4-year bachelor’s degree, a 4-year medical school degree, and 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Specialists may need additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

15. Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers: $160,970

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, 2020-2030: +14%

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.

16. Dentists, general: $158,940

Similar to #13 above, this category describes dentists with no particular specialization. 

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +8%

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). 

17. Computer and information systems managers: $151,150

There is virtually no industry in the world that doesn’t rely on computers. Computer and information systems managers are responsible for most or all of the electronic operations that their companies depend upon. 

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +11%

Expert tip

How to become one: Computer and information systems managers usually need a bachelor’s degree in computer and information technology or a similar field. A graduate degree such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is required for some jobs, requiring 2 years of postgraduate study.

18. Architectural and engineering managers: $149,530

Architects design the blueprints for residential, commercial and industrial construction projects, and engineers figure out how to build them. Architectural and engineering managers supervise all of the above, providing the management and leadership to bring the entire project to fruition.

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +4%

Expert tip

How to become one: Architectural and engineering managers usually need at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering or architecture, although a master’s degree is preferable and may be required. Extensive experience in architecture or engineering is also a must.

19. Marketing managers: $142,170

Without marketing, the Apple computer would probably still be a prototype in Steve Jobs’ garage. Marketing managers are responsible for all the publicity, public relations, advertising, promotion and brand management that goes into making a company great. 

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +10%

Expert tip

How to become one: In addition to extensive experience, marketing managers generally must have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in marketing, communications, advertising or journalism. 

20. Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates: $141,080

Judges and magistrates resolve legal issues in court, from speeding tickets to capital murder. If you’ve never met a judge in court, consider yourself lucky! Or if you have, let’s hope they ruled in your favor. 

Projected gain or loss in jobs, 2020-2030: +3%

Expert tip

How to become one: Virtually all judges are lawyers who have completed 4 years of undergraduate study followed by 3 years of law school, and have passed the bar exam in the state where they practice. Judges and magistrates are usually appointed or elected, which may require political support. 

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Additional breakdown for physicians

The BLS does not record median wage breakdowns for all types of physicians and surgeons other than to say that most make a median wage equal to or greater than $208,000 per year. However, it does provide these mean (average) annual wages for physicians and surgeons (data as of May 2020):

  • Anesthesiologists: $271,440
  • Surgeons: $251,650
  • Obstetricians and gynecologists: $239,120
  • Physicians and surgeons, all other: $218,850
  • Psychiatrists: $217,100
  • Family and general practitioners: $214,370
  • Internists, general: $210,960
  • Pediatricians, general: $184,570

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. Petroleum engineers: $137,330

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

2. Financial managers: $134,180

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

3. Podiatrists: $134,300

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

4. Lawyers: $126,930

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

5. Sales managers: $132,290

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

6. Business operations managers: $103,650

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

7. Pharmacists: $128,710

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

8. Optometrists: $118,050

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

9. 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.

10. Actuaries: $111,030

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

11. 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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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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