The best way to view this is a balance between probability and income potential.
Sure, if you start the next Google or become the CEO of Goldman Sachs, you’re going to be making a ton of money.
But, becoming an extremely successful entrepreneur or CEO is a much less linear path than becoming a physician, for example.
So, a rating of careers with a reasonable balance of probability and income potential will likely be your best bet.
*Please note, first: these are all the highest-paying careers. So, the careers in the low-income category may still earn a very high income. Second: each career is in order of risk and income potential. Third, this is just a selection. Please offer additional ideas in the comments.
High Probability / Lower Income Potential
Assuming the current state of healthcare isn’t altered drastically, medicine (and healthcare in general) is one of the highest-probability paths to an upper-level income. Physician salary ranges from $200–800k. Primary care physicians earn around $200–250k. Specialists earn a median in the 300s and surgeons often earn half a million or so. Of course, long hours, lawsuits, bureaucracy, lots of student debt, starting your career late, high stress, future governmental uncertainty etc. are major downsides, making it a bad career to choose purely for the income.
FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) and Microsoft, are some of the largest tech companies. Total median compensation is about ~$200k. If you get promoted and have lots of experience, you can earn $300–500k+. Even fresh engineers/product managers etc. at Google earn high 100s. If you can become an employee at a FAANG company, especially in engineering, product management, strategy, data science, sales, etc. it’s a solid path towards upper-income. And you can get in straight out of college. The main thing to consider is COL (cost of living), which is very high in FAANG companies. Finally, these are the top tech companies, so if you aren’t highly skilled, it may not be a feasible option.
–Fortune 500 Corporate
Moderate Probability / Moderate Income Potential
Sales reps who sell enterprise software (e.g. Microsoft, IBM, Google Cloud, AWS, etc.) to Fortune 1000-type companies earn a median of ~$300k. The range is between $200k-millions. A lot of reps work remotely and some in great situations have little travel and very reasonable hours. But others have constant travel, crazy hours/stress, etc. So, if you are able to become a top performer (ideally, beating quota most years), business-to-business sales is a great option. Of course, it’s a competitive environment, and you have to be good with both technical skills and understanding the product and good with people.
One of the most common career paths of graduates of elite colleges is high finance: investment banking, sales & trading, hedge funds, private equity, asset management, private wealth management, etc. Pay starts around $100k and increases to seven figures. A common path is top undergrad -> investment banking -> MBA -> private equity/hedge funds etc. The career, however, is less steady/certain than other paths and requires extreme hours (up to 80+) especially in the beginning years. Also, it is extraordinarily difficult to break in from a non-elite school (e.g. Harvard).
In the past, this would have been in the first category, but today, law has an extraordinarily bi-modal salary distribution. If you’re the top of the top, you’ll be making crazy money. But an average lawyer might end up with less than six figures and lots of hours. Many (most?) lawyers do not recommend the profession and seem quite miserable. But top lawyers (e.g. BigLaw corporate lawyers) earn great money. They have a higher average income potential than medicine but a lower median.
-Small Business Owner
The top 1% of America (who earn a bit under half a million per year) are predominantly composed of small to medium sized service business owner/managers. These include physician/dentist offices, accounting firms, law firms, consulting firms, engineering firms, specialty trade contractors etc. While it’s certainly a much less straightforward path than becoming a physician or engineer or even investment banker or top salesperson, but it’s doable for those with the skills, experience, patience, hard work, and connections – especially if you work on it on the side until it replaces your full time income.
Low Probability / Highest Income Potential
The founder and C-Suite of giant companies and fast-growing companies earn the most, period. But the probability is extremely low. So, generally not a recommended path for those who want a decent chance at making good money.
Hope this list is insightful – let me know in the comments!