If you have the resources and opportunity, a degree can be a fantastic asset for your career. And for some fields, it’s a necessary first step. But not all degrees are created equal! In some fields, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree is all you need to get in the door. In others, you can expect to grab those degrees, then go on to get a master’s or even a PhD to advance in your career and earn top dollars in the field. Every industry has its own educational needs, but if you’re undecided about where you want to go—or you’re looking to change course and go back to school, PayScale has compiled some very useful data about different degrees, different majors, and earning potential.
First, let’s look at the “best in show” majors.
Top-Paying Majors for Each Degree Type
Associate’s: Political Science
Apparently being a Washington “fat cat” is really a thing! Seriously, though, people who have this degree can work in government, public policy, or community administrative roles. The top-paying job for a person with an associate’s degree in Political Science is $86,100, based on PayScale data.
Bachelor’s: Petroleum Engineering
Energy development and engineering are very hot topics right now, so petroleum engineers are in high demand. These engineers develop methods for extracting oil and gas deposits from under the Earth’s surface. The top-paying petroleum engineer jobs can command up to $185,000, per PayScale data.
Master’s: International Business
We live in a global marketplace, and MBAs who can make deals and work with colleagues in Hong Kong, Berlin, and Sydney are among the highest paid business people. Some of the top-paying jobs in international business for MBAs can fetch up to $158,000, per PayScale data.
In addition to a global marketplace, we also live in a highly data-driven world. Statisticians with doctorate degrees collect and analyze data to help solve real world issues in every industry. The highest-paid statistician gigs for PhDs make $172,000, per PayScale data.
If none of these careers sound right for you, you have plenty of options if you’re looking for well-paid options at different degree levels. Let’s look at some of the top-earning jobs in major fields like healthcare, education, public administration/social services, and transportation.
Top Healthcare Careers for Different Degrees
If you’re interested in working in the booming healthcare industry, here are some of the jobs with the highest lifetime earnings (median salary for those with a degree and 20+ years of experience) by degree type.
Associate’s: Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Diagnostic medical sonographers use specialized equipment to create images from inside the body, to help doctors diagnose and treat medical issues. Sonographers typically have an associate’s degree and have completed a certification program as well. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $71,300, per PayScale.
Bachelor’s: Physician Assistant
Physician assistants are the right-hand men and women in any medical practice or healthcare facility. They work with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare staff to examine, diagnose, and treat patients. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $157,000, per PayScale.
Master’s: Healthcare Administration
Healthcare administrators are the ones who keep things running behind the scenes, managing day-to-day office operations for medical practices and offices, as well as planning and coordinating health services for a hospital, facility, clinic, or department. These administrators are also responsible for ensuring that the facility is up to date with health laws, regulations, and technology. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $109,000, per PayScale.
Pharmacists fill prescriptions, dispense medication of all kinds, educate patients on the safe use of medications, and act as a medical reference for customers. They may also perform health screenings, educate customers on general wellness, and give immunizations. You can find them in retail pharmacies, but also in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities as well. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $172,000, per PayScale.
Top Education Careers for Different Degrees
The old saying is that teachers are underpaid for what they do—and while that may very well be true, if teaching is your calling you can still strategize about how to maximize your salary. Here are some of the educators with the highest lifetime earnings (median salary for those with a degree and 20+ years of experience) by degree type.
Associate’s: Preschool Teacher
Preschool teachers are often the first teachers kids encounter in their lives—so those early days of pre-reading skills, writing, basic math, and science are essential. They work with young kids (usually age 4-5) to get them ready for kindergarten. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $44,200, per PayScale.
Bachelor’s: Physical Education Teacher
PhysEd teachers do the important work of keeping kids active during the school day, and teaching them good fitness and athletic fundamentals along the way. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $70,100, per PayScale.
Master’s: Instructional Design and Technology
With curriculum changing all the time, and an emphasis on updating the way students use technology in their school lives, instructional designers are fast becoming a major player in the education world. These professionals oversee curriculum standards (and how they are implemented in school systems), develop educational materials, and assess the effectiveness of teaching methods. Instructional designers work in all levels of education, from elementary school to college. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $83,900, per PayScale.
Superintendents are high-level educational professionals responsible for the operation of schools (or school systems). In many cases, superintendents have a master’s degree and years of education/administration experience, but many superintendents hold PhDs in education. The median salary for PhDs in this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $96,600, per PayScale.
Top Public Administration/Social Services Careers for Different Degrees
Working in the public sector can be a calling as well. If you’re interested in one of these community-, town/city-, or state-level jobs, here are the career paths you might want to consider for maximum earning potential.
Associate’s: Fire Science
When you think of “public” jobs, it’s likely that “firefighter” is one of the first that pops into your mind. As the first responders in many different kinds of emergencies, these essential professionals sacrifice their time (and often their well-being) to keep the community safe. An associate’s degree in fire science can prepare you for jobs as a firefighter, but also administrative jobs like fire inspector, fire chief, or fire marshal. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $59,100, per PayScale.
Bachelor’s: Public Administrator
A bachelor’s degree in Public Administration prepares you for managing the day-to-day operations of local, state, or federal government agencies. This includes areas like strategic planning, public relations, and disaster planning, as well as general administration. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $76,100, per PayScale.
Master’s: Public Policy Analyst
Policy analysts are problem solvers. They take data, history, and trends into account to help plan and shape government and political systems. This is a job heavy on research, analysis, and strategic planning. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $101,100, per PayScale.
Top Transportation Careers for Different Degrees
You may not think of transportation as a particularly glamorous or lucrative industry, but if you have a passion for logistics and tight schedules, then it can be a great option for you. In transportation, the emphasis is usually on on-the-job training rather than a specific degree, but a bachelor’s degree and administrative know-how can be one of the most well-paid paths into the industry.
Bachelor’s: Aviation Manager
Aviation managers are logistics professionals who coordinate airport operations, including compliance with a complex system of local, state, and federal rules and regulations. Moving people and cargo from one place to another via air travel is an intricate, delicate, and fast-moving process, and aviation managers are the ones responsible for making sure it happens safely, smoothly, and on time. The median salary for this field (with 20+ years of experience) is $97,200, per PayScale.
Even though “20 years of experience” may seem like an unbearably far milestone (especially if you’re just starting out), it’s a really important factor to consider when you’re picking a major, or deciding how far you want to go with your degree. While you’re not locked in to any particular path, your decision should definitely be informed by what the long-term salary potential is in any given role, and how that lines up with your long-term goals. And if you know that sticking with your underpaid, less-than-glamorous job now can yield better benefits with the more time and experience you accumulate, that can make your work life easier in the meantime.