Ever wonder how much another two or three years of schooling would do for your earning power? The mantra has always been that education pays for itself, but there is huge variation in how well it pays. We'll look on the return for a couple different career paths. (Sometimes a one-week vacation isn't enough. Learn the pros and cons of an extended break, in Rejuvenate Your Life And Career With A Sabbatical.)

3 Vs. 6
There is a definite difference between a three or four-year degree program versus a six year (or longer) masters/doctorate program. Many longer degrees - medical and the MBA being obvious examples - bring substantially higher earnings in the end. That said, a four-year engineering degree can result in higher lifetime earnings than either a doctor or a MBA because the initial cost is lower and the years spent earning are longer.

Slippery Numbers
When looking at these careers, it's important to remember that these stats are far from clean. The bureau of labor statistics provides broad figures on the earnings within each occupation, but it excludes some types of bonuses and notably overtime pay. Many trades come in on the low end of earnings because so much of their yearly income owes to seasonal overtime and thus is not included.

Pinning the costs of education is also difficult because the school name often impacts the cost, and tuition alone doesn't really capture the all-in costs of an education. Tuition on even a four-year degree can range between $30,000-120,000. For simplicity's sake, we'll consider $50,000 as a base for four years and $90,000 for six. Each occupation will have a estimated lifetime earnings value using the average - assuming you started college at 18 and retired at 65 - minus the initial cost of education. Keep in mind this does not take into account compounding interest of investing portions of your income, and is useful only as a general idea of the potential return over a career lifetime.

  • Nursing (3 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $2,750,590
    Three-year nursing programs make this profession even more attractive, and a $65,130 average salary (remember – overtime is not included) helps round it out.

  • Computers (4 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $3,153,500
    Many of the computer programming/computer science degrees are four years, and the average salary is a healthy $74,500.

  • Engineering (4 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $3,021,490
    For $50,000 and four years, engineers gain entry into a field where the mean average of annual income is $71,430. This can go up rapidly if they specialize in industries like petroleum or computer hardware.

  • Surgeons (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $8,387,570
    Surgeons beat out doctors, dentists, orthodontists, pharmacists and every other profession by having an average salary of $206,770.

  • Lawyers (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $5,024,750
    In return for extra schooling, lawyers walk into a $124,750 average salary. The legal profession in general hosts some of the highest average salaries of all occupational groupings.

  • Physicists (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $4,274,040
    Earning more than economists, psychologists and other scientists, physicists take home $106,440 on average. Physicists would probably fall off the list if we factored in a more accurate cost of education.

  • Management (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $4,022,710
    The famous MBA does payoff, with an average salary for all management occupations of $100,310. If severance packages and other compensation were included, the figures for executives would likely be much higher.

Conclusion
The highest paying jobs take the top spots in our simple survey. There are many factors that would change this. For example, if the number of unemployed people or people not employed in the field they specialized in were included, the average salaries for MBAs would no doubt drop sharply this year. Also, people switching specialties in post-secondary can double their initial costs as it also increases opportunity cost by adding non-earning years to their lives. In reality, an exercise like this is useful in helping a person choose between several career paths that interest them. That said, income shouldn't be a sole determinant in deciding your career path. Most people would a agree that you get a lot more than money when you find a profession you enjoy day in and day out. (Companies are in need of strategic candidates, not walking resumes. Find out more in Business Grads, Land Your Dream Job.)

Related Articles
  1. Professionals

    Is A Stockbroker Career For You?

    Becoming a stockbroker requires a broad skill set and the willingness to put in long hours. But the rewards can be enormous.
  2. Professionals

    Broker Or Trader: Which Career Is Right For You?

    Both brokers and traders buy and sell securities, but there are some subtle differences between the two careers.
  3. Chart Advisor

    3 Charts That Suggest Now Is The Time To Invest In Real Estate (VNQ, SPG,PSA)

    Real estate assets have some of the strongest uptrends around. We'll take a look at three candidates poised for a move higher.
  4. Chart Advisor

    Stocks With More Upside Due to Bear Traps (TAP, SPY)

    A bear trap is a pattern that typically leads to at least a short-term rise in prices. Here are stocks exhibiting the pattern.
  5. Investing Basics

    How to Become A Self-Taught Financial Expert

    Becoming a self-taught financial expert may not be as daunting of a task as it seems.
  6. Professionals

    Financial Career Options For Professionals

    A career in finance can take a business professional down many different paths.
  7. FA

    The Basics of The Series 79 Exam

    Passing the Series 79 exam is usually necessary for anyone who wants to work in investment banking.
  8. Professionals

    10 Steps To A Career In Hedge Funds

    The first step to getting your hedge fund career started is to be sure you really want to work for a hedge fund. If you do, it’ll show in your actions.
  9. Active Trading Fundamentals

    New Traders: Trade the Market in 5 Steps

    New traders shouldn’t throw money at securities without knowing why prices move. Follow these five steps to tilt the odds in your favor.
  10. Professionals

    Business Analyst: Job Description & Average Salary

    Learn the different types of business analyst careers available; understand the skills and education needed and the salary you can expect to make.
RELATED FAQS
  1. What is Fibonacci retracement, and where do the ratios that are used come from?

    Fibonacci retracement is a very popular tool among technical traders and is based on the key numbers identified by mathematician ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. How does a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) affect my salary?

    Some companies build salary adjustments into their compensation structures to offset the effects of inflation on their employees. ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. What’s the difference between the two federal student loan programs (FFEL and Direct)?

    The short answer is that one loan program still exists (Federal Direct Loans) and one was ended by the Health Care and Education ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Does working capital include salaries?

    A company accrues unpaid salaries on its balance sheet as part of accounts payable, which is a current liability account, ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Do financial advisors need to meet quotas?

    Most financial advisors are required to meet quotas, particularly if they work for firms that pay base salaries or draws ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Does a financial advisor need an MBA?

    Obtaining a license as a financial adviser does not require an Master's of Business Administration (MBA) degree. The Certified ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Flight To Quality

    The action of investors moving their capital away from riskier investments to the safest possible investment vehicles. This ...
  2. Discouraged Worker

    A person who is eligible for employment and is able to work, but is currently unemployed and has not attempted to find employment ...
  3. Ponzimonium

    After Bernard Madoff's $65 billion Ponzi scheme was revealed, many new (smaller-scale) Ponzi schemers became exposed. Ponzimonium ...
  4. Quarterly Earnings Report

    A quarterly filing made by public companies to report their performance. Included in earnings reports are items such as net ...
  5. Dark Pool Liquidity

    The trading volume created by institutional orders that are unavailable to the public. The bulk of dark pool liquidity is ...
Trading Center