Highest paying jobs and degrees 2020
At a time when university is at its most expensive, today's graduates face one of the toughest job markets ever. Cash in on your investment with a high-flying career like these!
Despite rising numbers of graduates, surveys still suggest that it's worth getting a degree to significantly enhance your lifetime earnings potential – and we've done the research to help you really maximise your salary packet after university.
The methodology is outlined below, but note that these figures don't account for bonuses or other benefits. Instead, they refer to each job's median salary (before tax), according to official government statistics.
We've also looked at the top five highest-paying jobs and explained which degrees will help you enter the industry. Of course, you shouldn't expect to go straight into the upper end of the salary range on day one – but if you want to make it there someday, these career choices might be for you.
Highest-paid jobs in the UK
These are the highest paying jobs in the UK:
- Chief Executives and Senior Officials – £97,708
- Air Traffic Controllers – £94,431
- Marketing and Sales Directors – £80,411
- Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers – £78,570
- Legal Professionals (n.e.c.*) – £74,701
- Medical Practitioners – £72,019
- Information Technology and Telecommunications Directors – £69,409
- Financial Managers and Directors – £66,353
- Functional Managers and Directors – £62,595
- Senior Police Officers – £58,854
- Functional Managers and Directors (n.e.c.*) – £57,538
- Train and Tram Drivers – £56,591
- Senior Professionals of Educational Establishments – £53,735
- Other Drivers and Transport Operatives – £50,412
- Health Services and Public Health Managers and Directors – £50,000
- Higher Education Teaching Professionals – £49,862
- Electrical Engineers – £49,674
- Financial Institution Managers and Directors – £49,495
- Business and Financial Project Management Professionals – £49,113
- Purchasing Managers and Directors – £49,100
* n.e.c. (not elsewhere classified) refers to all other jobs within a given industry that aren't classified under another title.
How to get one of the best-paid jobs in the UK
If you're aiming for the very top, here's some more info on the highest paying jobs in the UK, as well as how to get there yourself:
Chief Executives and Senior Officials
Median salary: £97,708
In the UK, Chief Executives may also be known as Managing Directors or CEOs, and are the highest-ranking individuals within an organisation.
You'll be happy to hear that there are no stipulations for Chief Executives to hold any formal qualifications and, notably, some of the world’s most famous CEOs dropped out of uni without attaining a degree (including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson)!
However, unless you follow in their footsteps and start your own company, you’ll find that most organisations require their head honchos to be educated to at least an undergraduate degree level.
Studying a business-related degree and actually starting your own business is likely to set you in good stead.
Many CEOs have previously served on the board of directors and may also have professional or postgraduate qualifications such as an MBA. Leadership skills and thick skin are essential, too!
Air Traffic Controllers
Median salary: £94,431
Air Traffic Controllers have a huge amount of responsibility and operate 24/7, so it's no surprise that they're handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
Coordinating hundreds (if not thousands) of departing and arriving planes every day is no mean feat, and aside from having five GCSEs, you'll need to pass the NATS course to become an Air Traffic Controller. Sounds simple enough, but less than 0.5% of applicants (15 out of 3,000) are successful each year.
While it isn't strictly necessary to have a degree to become an Air Traffic Controller, the highly competitive nature of the application process is such that it won't hurt to have something extra on your CV to stand out from the crowd.
As the role involves problem-solving and plenty of data interpretation and assessment, a degree in Maths or Computing will help you prove that you've got the skills they're looking for.
Marketing and Sales Director
Median salary: £80,411
Sales and marketing are crucial to the success of many organisations – it doesn’t matter how good your product is if no one knows about it!
But marketing isn't solely confined to the private sector – there is a diverse range of roles within the public sector and not-for-profit organisations.
As a marketing executive, you could be involved in anything from promoting a new product to raising awareness of a charity.
Like many sectors, marketing is highly competitive, with many employers preferring graduates with related degrees in marketing or business. Previous work experience is also an advantage, whether gained through internships, holiday jobs or placements.
You can also find a whole host of great specialised online courses in marketing that you can do for free. These will keep you up to date on the latest practices (marketing evolves pretty quickly) and will look great on your CV.
As for sales, things are a little more open. It's still exceptionally competitive (unlike many other jobs, it's pretty easy to measure who the best salesperson is), but there's less of a need for a degree. Instead, experience and a natural talent for the role are often more important.
Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers
Median salary: £78,570
First Air Traffic Controllers, now Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers – it seems that aviation is the field to go into if you're after some sky-high wages...
Pilot salaries vary according to employer, experience and the type of aircraft being flown. Minimum entry qualifications required to train as a pilot are five GCSEs and two A Levels, although a degree may help you stand out against the competition.
While it's now possible to gain a BSc in Air Transport with Commercial Pilot Training, degrees that demonstrate you have a thorough understanding of maths and physics may also provide you with an advantage.
An Airline Transport Pilot's Licence (ATPL) is a necessary prerequisite, and in order to retain their licence, pilots are required to pass certain exams every six months.
A degree can, therefore, be useful preparation for balancing studying around other commitments.
Median salary: £74,701
As we explained earlier, this one is technically 'Legal Professionals (n.e.c.)', with 'n.e.c.' meaning 'not elsewhere classified'. In other words, this includes all jobs that could be classified as 'Legal Professional' that weren't covered by a more specific listing elsewhere in the data.
Anyway, explanations out of the way – there's clearly big money in law, despite the relatively low starting salary for Law graduates.
The highest-paying jobs are in commercial and corporate law but, as you might expect, these are also among the most competitive too. While other areas, such as personal or family law, don't pay quite as much, you'll still find your salary is very healthy – particularly as you climb the career ladder.
And, despite what you may have heard, you don't need a Law degree to work in the industry. Although this is useful, graduates of other subjects simply have to take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) conversion course which lasts a year and puts you on the right track. CILEx, though slightly lesser-known, also offers a number of ways for non-Law grads to work in law.
In fact, many people even argue that studying a non-Law degree and then working in the industry is the better option, as you can then take the knowledge and skills acquired from your undergraduate degree to stand out in a super competitive field.
These careers, as well as those as brokers, financial advisers, medical professionals, IT professionals and countless other lucrative roles, are extremely competitive.
While the above salaries won't reflect graduate starting salaries, don’t despair; a degree should still be seen as an investment in future earning potential.
And although there might not be a shortcut to the top-earning careers, a relevant degree and work experience can help you gain a foothold on the occupational ladder.
How far you climb is up to you – good luck!
In the meantime, find out how to land your first graduate job.
Data on average earnings is compiled and made available by the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) 2019.
The figures we've used were sourced from the dataset 'Earnings and hours worked, occupation by four-digit SOC'. We looked at the full-time gross annual pay and sorted the data by median – as per the ONS' recommendation. Bonuses have not been accounted for.