Does higher education align with wealth?

Phillip Portman

May 10, 2021

There’s no denying that putting in the hard yards and completing a university degree can help you land your dream job. But does higher education align with wealth?

Do all the grueling tests, late-night study sessions, time-consuming assignments and lectures that come with higher education mean you’ll be wealthier than if you choose not to pursue a career that requires a qualification or degree? How much over the average income do high-paying occupations earn and is higher education required to pursue these careers?

To find out, we looked at the top five highest-paying jobs in five countries around the world. These countries include:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Canada
  • The United States
  • The United Kingdom

For each of these jobs, we set out to discover how much over the average annual salary across all jobs in each country they pay and whether the role requires a university degree or if it could be obtained through other qualifications. Where data is available, we also detail the course’s length and whether additional training is required.

Of course, medical specialities and legal professionals require a degree in order to practice in that field. They were highly paid in Australia and the UK and this is a trend that’s generally observed worldwide. Even though highly paid, we haven’t included these professions in each country analysis, as some countries collect and publish salary data on a broad aggregated basis rather than by individual roles.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage across all occupations in the United States is USD$53,490.1 So, how does this compare to the top five highest-paying jobs? Let’s find out.

Anesthesiologist

Average annual wage for anesthesiologists in the US: USD$261,7301

Amount above average annual wage: USD$208,240

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. To become an anesthesiologist in the United States, there’s intensive training involved. This includes:

  • Completion of a four-year undergraduate degree
  • Four years of medical school
  • Completion of a four-year residency program in anaesthesiology
  • Further training for specific medical fields such as obstetric anesthesia.2

Surgeon

Average annual wage for surgeons in the US: USD$252,0401

Amount above average annual wage: USD$198,550

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. Surgeons are required to spend many years studying and training on the job. Requirements to become a surgeon include:

  • Completion of a four-year undergraduate degree
  • Four years of medical school (for a Doctor of Medicine degree)
  • Up to eight years of residency in surgery at a hospital.4

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons

Average annual wage for oral and maxillofacial surgeons in the US: USD$237,5701

Amount above average annual wage: USD$184,080

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons require many years of higher education and training, including:

  • Completion of an undergraduate degree (which can take up to four years)
  • Four years of dental study
  • Up to six years of residency training (which includes two years for medical degree completion)
  • The option to complete further training to specialise in areas such as facial cosmetic surgery or head and neck cancer.6

Obstetricians and gynaecologists

In the United States, obstetricians and gynaecologists are often grouped together and pay similar wages – even though they are different roles.

Average annual wage for obstetricians and gynaecologists in the US: USD$233,6101

Amount above average annual wage: USD$180,120

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. In the United States, all budding obstetricians and gynaecologists must:

  • Successfully graduate from a certified medical school
  • Complete four years of an obstetrics or gynaecology residency
  • Undergo additional training for specialty areas of obstetrics and gynaecology, such as maternal-foetal medicine.7

Orthodontists

Average annual wage for orthodontists: USD$230,8301

Amount above average annual wage: USD$177,340

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. Orthodontists are required to undergo many years of education and learning. This includes:

  • Successful completion of a bachelor’s degree in science, chemistry or biology
  • Four years of dental school
  • Up to three years of residency specialising in orthodontics.9

According to the latest personal income report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the median employee income across Australia is AUD$49,083 (USD$35,227).18 Let’s see how some of the highest paying jobs compare and whether higher education is needed to fill these roles (professions that cover multiple occupations haven’t been included).*

*Please note: Internal medicine specialists, other medical practitioners and legal professionals are umbrella terms for professions that earn high amounts in Australia. However, they haven’t been included in our analysis because they don’t focus on a specific role.   

Surgeon

Average wage for surgeons in Australia: AUD$402,582 (USD$288,933)21

Amount above the mean Australian employee income: AUD$353,499 (USD$253,706)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. In Australia, you must be a qualified medical practitioner and undertake further training with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.19 To get there, you’ll require:

  • Completion of a medical degree at university
  • Complete training in a clinical environment (usually as part of your medical degree)
  • Complete up to six years of training in a specialised field such as brain or plastic surgery.20

Anaesthetist

Average wage for anaesthetists in Australia: AUD$367,343 (USD$263,642)21

Amount above the mean Australian employee income: AUD$318,260 (USD$228,415)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. You’ll need to train to become a qualified medical practitioner before you can even think about training to become an anaesthetist. This process includes:

  • Up to six years of medical school
  • Training as a doctor for a year
  • Completing residency for two years, specialising in anaesthesia
  • Undergoing a fellowship with the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists.22

Financial dealer

Average wage for financial dealers in Australia: AUD$272,895 (USD$195,856)21

Amount above the mean Australian employee income: AUD$223,812 (USD$160,629)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. Australians looking to become financial dealers will require a university degree (usually three years) in one of the following fields:

  • Actuarial science
  • Commerce
  • Finance
  • Accounting
  • Economics.23

Psychiatrist

Average wage for psychiatrists in Australia: AUD$225,206 (USD$161,630)21

Amount above the median Australian employee income: AUD$176,123 (USD$126,403)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. According to the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, there’s quite a lot of study and education involved. This includes:

  • Successful completion of a medical degree (which can take up to six years)
  • At least a year of training at a hospital
  • At least five years of specialist training with RANZCP.24

Mining engineer

Average wage for mining engineers in Australia: AUD$179,28821

Amount above the median Australian employee income: AUD$130,205

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. In Australia, mining engineers must obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering as a minimum, majoring in either mining or geotechnical engineering.26 Depending on what you specialise in, it can take up to five years to complete this type of degree.

According to Statistics Canada, the average wage across all occupations in Canada is CAD$49,805 (USD$37,469) per year.35 Let’s see how some of the higher-paying jobs compare and what kind of education or qualifications are required.

Legislator

Average wage for legislators in Canada: CAD$175,546 (USD$132,066)35

Amount above average Canadian wage: CAD$125,741 (USD$94,597)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. In Canada, legislators gain employment by being elected to a legislative body or appointed to roles such as a governor-general or senator.36 However, because this role is categorised as a Skill Level A occupation by the Government of Canada, it usually requires a university degree of some sort.47 This could be a bachelor’s degree, doctorate or master’s qualification.48

Judge

Average wage for judges in Canada: CAD$123,067 (USD$92,585)35

Amount above average Canadian wage: CAD$73,262 (USD$55,116)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. There’s extensive learning and training involved in becoming a judge in Canada. You must:

  • Complete an undergraduate degree (usually four years) to qualify for law school
  • Pass the Law School Admission Test
  • Complete an undergraduate law degree (usually three years in length)
  • Undergo articling (working under supervision) or complete The Law Practice Program to gain experience in the field
  • Pass the Bar Admission Exams.37

Lawyer

Average wage for lawyers in Canada: CAD$123,067 (USD$92,585)35

Amount above average Canadian wage: CAD$73,262 (USD$55,116)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. Almost all law professionals in Canada start as lawyers, meaning the initial training is the same for most legal professionals. You’ll need to:

  • Successfully complete an undergraduate degree (usually four years) to qualify to law school
  • Pass the Law School Admission Test
  • Obtain an undergraduate law degree (usually three years in length)
  • Undergo articling (working under supervision) or complete The Law Practice Program to gain experience in the field
  • Pass the Bar Admission Exams.37

Mining supervisor

Average wage for mining supervisors in Canada: CAD$125,634 (USD$94,517)35

Amount above average Canadian wage: CAD$75,829 (USD$57,047)

Is higher education compulsory? Technically, no. While most mining supervisor roles in Canada require secondary school completion at a minimum, higher education isn’t always compulsory. However, some roles may require you to obtain a college or university degree in engineering or mining technology. You’ll generally need to gain several years of experience in the field before you can become a mining supervisor.40

Engineering manager

Average wage for engineering managers in Canada: CAD$115,808 (USD$87,124)35

Amount above average Canadian wage: CAD$66,003 (USD$49,655)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. To become an engineering manager in Canada, you must:

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering (typically four years)
  • Gain experience in the engineering field.

The median weekly earnings for Brits in 2019 was £585 (USD$756), equal to an average of £30,420 (USD$39,363) a year.11 However, some occupations pay much more than the average wage in the UK and higher education isn’t compulsory for them all.*

*Please note: Medical practitioners, finance managers, and legal professionals are among the UK’s top paid industry professions. Because our data is looking at specific roles, we’ve excluded umbrella terms from our analysis.

Chief executive

Average annual wage for chief executives in the UK: £97,083 (USD$125,625)12

Amount above average UK wage: £66,663 (USD$86,261)

Is higher education compulsory? No. While a qualification or degree related to the field you’re working in (such as law or finance) may help, it’s not always compulsory. In fact, CEOs can:

  • Be self-appointed if they create their own business
  • Complete an internship (which can take up to three years to complete)
  • Work their way up through on-the-job experience.13

 

Marketing director

Average annual wage for marketing directors in the UK: £75,126 (USD$97,213)12

Amount above average UK wage: £44,706 (USD$57,849)

Is higher education compulsory? Technically, no. While a degree isn’t compulsory to become a marketing director in the UK, degrees in marketing, business, management communications and advertising can help.14 You may also be able to:

  • Complete an apprenticeship
  • Work your way up to the role
  • Complete courses offered by professional bodies.14

IT director

Average annual wage for IT directors in the UK: £72,109 (USD$93,309)12

Amount above average UK wage: £41,689 (USD$53,945)

Is higher education compulsory? No. Having a university degree in computing, project management or business management could help; however, it’s also possible to secure this job through apprenticeships or by gaining experience on the job.15

Public relations director

Average annual wage for public relations directors in the UK: £65,074 (USD$84,205)12

Amount above average UK wage: £34,654 (USD$44,842)

Is higher education compulsory? Technically, no. However, while it’s possible to gain this job in the UK through experience or by working your way up through a business, you’ll usually require a university degree in either:

  • Marketing
  • Public relations
  • Communications.16

Senior police officers

Average annual wage for senior police officers in the UK: £59,634 (USD$77,166)12

Amount above average UK wage: £29,214 (USD$37,802)

Is higher education compulsory? No. In the UK, you can apply to become a police officer directly, but there are other ways to assist with the process.17 These include:

  • Completing a professional policing degree at university
  • Completing a college diploma in public services at college
  • Undertaking a three-year police constable degree apprenticeship.17

In New Zealand, the median weekly earnings from wages and salaries is NZD$1,016 (USD$674),27 which is around NZD$52,832 (USD$35,031) a year. But how do some of the top-paying jobs compare and what skills are needed for these roles?

Chief executive

Average wage for chief executives in New Zealand: NZD$410,000 (USD$271,862)29

Amount above the median annual earnings in New Zealand: NZD$357,168 (USD$236,830)

Is higher education compulsory? No. In many cases, you’ll need experience in a senior position within an organisation. However, qualifications in specialty areas such as law, business administration and commerce may be favoured.29

IT manager

Average wage for IT managers in New Zealand: NZD$128,500 (USD$85,205)34

Amount above the median annual earnings in New Zealand: NZD$75,668 (USD$50,173)

Is higher education compulsory? No. While no formal qualifications are required, degrees in project management or information technology may help gain employment as an IT manager.34

Dentist

Average wage for dentists in New Zealand: NZD$125,500 (USD$83,216)30

Amount above median annual earnings in New Zealand: NZD$72,668 (USD$48,184)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. According to the New Zealand Government, completing a degree at the University of Otago is the only way to obtain the relevant qualification in the country.30 You’ll be required to:

  • Participate in the Health Sciences First Year programme at Otago University
  • Successfully complete the Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree at Otago University (which takes four years).

Data Scientist

Average wage for data scientists in New Zealand: NZD$119,000 (USD$78,906)31

Amount above median annual earnings in New Zealand: NZD$66,168 (USD$43,874)

Is higher education compulsory? Technically, no. It’s possible to gain employment as a data scientist without a qualification. However, degrees or diplomas in the following areas can be favoured:

  • Statistics
  • Mathematics
  • Computer science
  • Economics31

Finance Manager

Average wage for finance managers in New Zealand: NZD$90,000 (USD$59,677)32

Amount above median annual earnings in New Zealand: NZD$37,168 (USD$24,645)

Is higher education compulsory? Yes. In New Zealand, finance managers must have one of the following qualifications as a minimum:32

  • A university degree in business management majoring in accounting (usually takes three years)33
  • A three-year university degree in commerce (majoring in accounting)33
  • A postgraduate degree in finance and business management (usually takes four years).33

What do the findings mean?

Of the jobs analysed, which require a degree?

After analysing the top-paying jobs across the five countries we analysed, we determined that higher education was required for 68.2% of them. These occupations include:

  • Anesthesiologist
  • Surgeon
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
  • Obstetricians
  • Gynaecologists
  • Orthodontists
  • Financial dealer
  • Psychiatrist
  • Mining engineer
  • Dentist
  • Finance manager
  • Judge
  • Lawyer
  • Legislator
  • Engineering manager

Roles can vary between nations and the training and experience can also differ, so make sure you know the requirements within your country.

Of the jobs analysed, which don’t require higher education?

From our analysis, higher education wasn’t required for 31.8% of occupations. Here’s a list of jobs that might not require a university degree:

  • Chief executive
  • Marketing director
  • IT director
  • Public relations director
  • Senior police officer
  • Data scientist
  • Mining supervisor

Always read the specific requirements for the role you’re applying for in your country as they can vary between nations.

How common are the highest paying jobs across the five countries?

Only four occupations appeared in more than one country’s highest-paid jobs list across the countries we analysed. These include:

  • Anesthesiologists: The highest paying profession in the United States and the second-highest paying job in Australia.
  • Surgeons: The highest paying occupation in Australia and second highest paying position in the United States.
  • Chief executives: Topped the list both in the UK and New Zealand
  • IT directors/managers: The second highest paying job in New Zealand and the third in the UK.

Is a degree always required to bring home the bacon?

From our analysis, it really depends on the country you reside in and your role. In the United States and Australia, for example, the top paid jobs all require higher education. However, we also observed that in some countries, such as the United Kingdom, a degree isn’t compulsory for any of the top-paying positions. Countries like New Zealand and Canada saw some high paying roles that require higher education and some that don’t.

So, does higher education align with wealth?

Our data shows that higher education can play a role in obtaining jobs that pay well above the average wage on a country level. In fact, looking at 25 jobs across five countries shows that a degree is necessary for 15 of them. However, our data also indicates many jobs, such as chief executives, data scientists and mining supervisors pay well and don’t require a degree.

Higher education doesn’t always result in financial consciousness

Higher education may not be the most important factor when it comes to financial consciousness. Our 2018 Financial Consciousness Index report found that while Australians who have completed higher education have a higher FCI score (a ranking of the ability to change or influence financial incomes) compared to those with a lower education, it doesn’t always mean they reach their peak of financial consciousness. In many cases, it’s other factors, such as whether a person has a mortgage, that increases this score.

Similarly, the report also found that people on lower incomes tend to be good at budgeting and sticking to their budget – suggesting that higher education alone doesn’t always influence the money decisions we make.42

Meanwhile, a link between higher education and money has been found in other studies. A 2018 study conducted by Cornell University found that people with an education behind them might improve economic decision-making quality or economic rationality.44 This research is backed up by a 2009 study conducted by the University of Minnesota, which found those with higher IQs tend to make wiser financial decisions.45

Greater knowledge could cloud on-the-job decisions

While a university degree can help you earn more money, it may not always help you make the best decisions. How so?

Research published in the Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications Journal in 2020 found that having prior knowledge of a topic may lead people to make worse decisions if they’re presented with new facts.43

Researchers also argued that extra knowledge might cause people to focus on factors not relevant to the problem at hand, which could make them less confident in the decisions they make.

Men are more likely to choose higher-paying jobs

It turns out men are more likely to pursue higher-paying jobs than women. Research published in the Sociology of Education Journal in 2019 found that, even when males and females in college select majors that result in higher-paying jobs, women are still more likely to pick fields that will result in less money.46 The study found women usually choose majors they believe are realistic to them, which often come with a lower salary.

Job descriptions

Now that we know what these occupations pay, let’s look at what’s involved in the roles. We’ve listed these roles in alphabetical order. Please note: Job descriptions may vary between companies and countries and this is a general guide only.

Anesthesiologist

The role of anesthesiologists (or anaesthetists) is to administer anaesthetics to patients who undergo surgery or other medical procedures. They can also help manage pain before, during or after an operation.3

Chief executive

Chief executives, also known as CEOs or managing directors, are the top dogs of businesses. They create policies, lead companies, set plans and essentially direct how an organisation operates.13

Data scientist

A data scientist (also known as a data analyst) unpacks data through various methods to help an organisation. For example, data scientists may conduct surveys, establish trends or review other information to help a business or organisation achieve its goals.31

Dentist

If you’ve ever had a toothache, filling or dental check-up, you’ll know that a dentist is someone who improves and treats oral and dental health. They can treat injuries, illnesses and diseases of the gums, mouth, jaw and teeth and provide education about overall dental health.30

Engineering manager

Engineering managers have the task of controlling what happens within an engineering service, firm or department. Typical duties include planning, organising, directing and controlling engineering activities and creating policies and procedures within a company or business.41

Finance manager

Finance managers have the all-important task of managing the finances within an organisation or business. Tasks can range from managing a business’ cash flow to monitoring financial trends and planning budgets.32

Financial dealer

As a financial dealer in Australia or New Zealand, your job focuses on selling and purchasing financial products within the market. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job, ranging from analysing data to researching and monitoring market conditions.23

Gynaecologists

Gynaecologists are medical professionals that can diagnose, prevent and treat diseases and illnesses impacting the female reproductive system.8

IT director

With the world becoming more digital than ever before, IT directors are responsible for developing and managing IT systems for businesses and clients. There could be a focus on using digital technology to store data or to simply help a company manage its day-to-day tasks.15

Judge

As a judge, your job is to hear criminal and civil matters in courts of law make decisions to uphold the law. You can specialise in specific areas such as civil, family or criminal law.38

Lawyer

Lawyers have the task of advising clients of their legal rights and information relating to the law. They can represent clients in courts of law, write wills and legal contracts or even act as trustees or executors.39

Legislator

In Canada (which is the only country we analysed that saw this profession as one of the highest paying jobs), a legislator is a member of a legislative body (be it local, federal, provincial or territorial government) who focuses on:

  • laws
  • regulations
  • government policies
  • matters that concern the general public.36

It’s important to note that the term ‘legislator’ can differ between countries, so a legislator’s role in Canada may be different from one in Australia or The United States, as an example.

Marketing director

A marketing director’s job is to figure out ways for a company, brand or agency to promote products or the company itself. Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into the role, such as management, leadership and customer service skills.14

Mining Engineer

As a mining engineer, your job is to manage the engineering aspects of sourcing, locating and extracting gas, minerals and petroleum from the earth.26 Tasks can range from conducting surveys to managing finances and planning future projects.

Mining supervisor

As a mining supervisor, your job focuses on managing teams and production around mining operations focusing on extracting metal, coal and other materials from the ground. Tasks can range from supervising workers and preparing reports and maintaining safety procedures on site.40

Obstetricians

The role of obstetricians is to provide care and expertise to women before, during and after they give birth. 8

Oral and maxillofacial surgeon

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are surgeons that focus specifically on the tissues of the mouth, face and jaw. Their job is to conduct operations and procedures to treat illness, injury or enhance appearance or function.7

Orthodontist

Orthodontists are dental practitioners that focus specifically on dental and jaw misalignment and oral abnormalities. They can create and fit dental appliances that correct issues, restore function and visually enhance the oral area.10

Police officer

A police officer’s job is to enforce the law, investigate crime and impose measures to keep the public safe. They may use skills around safety, communication and security to assist with the role.17

Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists are health professionals who focus on the mental health and wellbeing of patients.25 You may choose to specialise in a unique field of study, such as adolescence forensic or medical psychiatry.

Public relations director

Public relations directors are generally in charge of advertising, public relations, sales or marketing within a company or organisation.16

Surgeon

Surgeons are medical professionals who treat patients by performing surgery, operations and other medical procedures on patients with diseases, injuries or other illnesses.5

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Sources

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  2. American Society of Anesthesiologists – ‘​Anesthesia as a Career’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
  3. S Bureau of Labor Statistics – ‘Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019 29-1211 Anesthesiologists’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
  4. com – ‘Surgeon Education Requirements and Career Information’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
  5. S Bureau of Labor Statistics – ‘What Physicians and Surgeons Do’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
  6. The American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons – ‘What is an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon?’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
  7. The University of Illinois College of Medicine – ‘Education and Training Requirements’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
  8. Australian Government Department of Health – ‘Obstetrics & Gynaecology’ – Accessed 01/10/2020
  9. Orthodontic Associates – ‘Becoming An Orthodontist’ – Accessed 23/09/2020
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  33. New Zealand Education – ‘Business management courses & programmes’ – Accessed 24/09/2020
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  38. Government of Canada Job Bank – ‘Judge – Law in Canada’ – Accessed 17/06/2020
  39. Government of Canada Job Bank – ‘Lawyer in Canada’ – Accessed 17/06/2020
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  48. Government of Canada – ‘Skill level’ – Accessed 01/10/2020