Advanced Degrees: Which Fields Provide the Highest Paying Jobs?

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Male Business Manager Ashford University

Every spring it’s in the news: colleges are raising tuition. Higher tuition means students will be carrying a larger debt into the workforce, which cuts into their income. Choosing the right field of study for an advanced degree requires considering several factors in determining the return on investment of an education, or ROI. What you study can determine the economic value that an education investment will hold after graduation.


STEM (science, technology engineering, and math) fields have a higher lifetime earnings growth potential. STEM fields aren’t for everyone. Engineering careers may sound lucrative, but they are challenging, and there aren’t very many of them. Don’t expect to sit behind a desk.

  • Engineering and computer science degrees top most lists for a high economic return on investment. Average engineering majors have a starting pay of $60,000 and a mid-career pay of approximately $103,000.
  • Physics, economics, and statistics majors have a median starting salary of about $49,000 and a mid-career pay of $95,000.

Humanities and Social Sciences

If you want to work in humanities and social sciences, you can still get a good return on your investment. While these majors have a lower starting salary, they are more versatile, as they can be applied across multiple industries.

  • Government, political science, international relations, and advertising majors start around $40,000 with a mid-career pay of about $78,000.
  • Marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, and health care social workers all need a Master’s degree as a minimum requirement and while predicted to have as much as a 41% growth in employment, the median salary is about $47,000.
  • Industrial-organizational psychologists usually need a Master’s degree, at minimum, with an average earning of about $94,000 for those with a PhD.


Health programs tend to be a safe return on your investment. You can start working in the field with a Bachelor’s degree and then the advanced degrees will yield more salary and opportunities. For instance you can find opportunities as a physical therapy assistant, and through earning a Master’s or Doctorate degree find further opportunities as higher salaries.

  • Nursing may start at a higher initial pay of around $53,000, but there isn’t as much growth in salary as the mid-career pay is around $65,000.
  • Physical therapists, audiologists, and medical scientists typically need either a master’s or doctorate degree, and the average salary is about $75,000.

Things to consider in an ROI

When trying to determine the right field of study for an advanced degree, consider these points:

  • Look at how that field fits with your career plans
  • Evaluate the cost of the program
  • Consider how much you will owe after you graduate
  • Investigate your estimated starting and mid-career pay rates
  • Find the projected growth of the industry
  • Determine the alternative jobs you can hold with this degree
  • Look at what your current and future costs of living will be for potential employment locations
  • Examine how much more salary and opportunities could be available for you with a PhD, PsyD, EdD etc. over a Master’s degree.
  • Understand the work environment for the field

With any decision, you should investigate more than just the economic value of the education. You also need to look at how it meets with your career and experience goals. Evaluating the personal rewards of the job helps some students decide if a career calling such as a marriage and family therapist is enough, or if they should go on to earn a PhD to research various therapies for couples. Each path will have different pros and cons and will depend on the career goals of the individual.

Written by: Jason Smith
Jason is a Career Services Specialist at Ashford University. He is 22-year Navy veteran who helps students transition into new careers. After the Navy, he completed a Master’s in Education, specializing in Higher and Post-Secondary Education. He is interested in assisting other veterans who transition from military to student cultures and military to post-military careers.


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