A salary is one of the most compelling factors for individuals deciding on a career path, a degree or even where to live, since some parts of the U.S. pay higher wages, on average, for the same position.
Although education can determine a worker's salary and even employment, not all high-paying jobs require advanced degrees.
With data recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), CNBC.com took a look at the most highly-compensated occupations in the country, based upon BLS job definitions.
The BLS also breaks down average salaries geographically and by industry.
The jobs listed here are placed in categories according to career path. The numbers are from 2011—the most recent figures available.
So, what are the highest paying jobs in the country? Read on to find out.
1. Doctors and Surgeons
Average annual salary: $168,650-$234,950
Current employment: 618,000+
Doctors and surgeons are usually at the top the list when it comes to the highest paid occupations in the country.
Like others on this list, becoming a doctor or surgeon requires extensive education and training. Doctors are required to have four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school and between three and eight years of an internship and residency, depending on their specialization or area of surgery.
The salaries of doctors also vary greatly by concentration: Anesthesiologists are the highest paid workers of 2011 at $234,950, while other high paying medical positions include surgeons ($231,550), OB/GYNS ($218,610), and oral and maxillofacial surgeons ($217,380).
Salaries also fluctuate based on location. For example, Arkansas is the top paying state for family and general practitioners ($215,500) with Iowa ($213,460) and Nevada ($204,990) ranking second and third.
According to the BLS, self-employed physicians who own or are part owners of a medical practice generally have higher incomes than salaried physicians.
2. Orthodontists and Dentists
Average annual salary: $161,750-$204,670
Current employment: 101,400
The service of dentists and orthodontists are practically an essential in this day in age. The high demand for the examination, diagnoses, and treatment of diseases, injuries and malformations of teeth and the gums makes this occupation among the most highly paid professions in the United States.
The top-paying states for dentists this year are New Hampshire with an annual average salary of $237,430 and Delaware where the average salary stands at $210,440.
Orthodontists—whose specialty is straightening teeth—have an average salary of $90,120 a year. That figure might seem low but it takes into account orthdontists that don't have a private practice and work instead in general medicine and surgical hosptials.
3. Chief Executive Officers
Average annual salary: $176,550
Current employment: 267,370
They may be at the top of their company, but on average, CEOs only rank 3rd as far as compensation is concerned. CEOs are responsible for formulating policies, coordinating operational activities, and planning the overall direction of companies or public sector organizations.
The qualifications depend on the company but many desire their CEOs to have at least a bachelor’s degree and considerable amounts of work experience.
The cities that pay the most to the highest level of management are Stamford, Connecticut ($234,030), Columbus, Indiana ($230,330), and Medford, Oregon ($225,100).
4. Petroleum Engineer
Average annual salary: $138,980
Current employment: 30,880
The booming oil industry and specialized skills required for petroleum engineers creates one of the most highly compensated jobs in the country. Petroleum engineers develop plans for oil and gas extraction, production, and tool modification, overseeing drilling operations and providing technical advice.
On average, petroleum engineers working for the oil and gas extraction industry made an annual salary of $150,890. The heavy reliance on natural resources dictates which states have the highest employment of petroleum engineers.
Texas employs the most at 18,060 with an average salary of $146,770 annually. Next is Oklahoma with 3,090 employees paid $146,770 and Louisiana with 2,440 paid around $120,720.
Average annual salary: $130,490
Current employment: 570,950
The legal profession isn’t the easiest industry to break into, with minimum formal requirements in most states requiring seven years of school (four undergraduate, three law school) and a passing grade on the bar examination.
Lawyers represent clients in both criminal and civil proceedings, draw up documents and advise clients on legal matters. Lawyers working for the private sector are compensated more generously than those in the public one: legal-services professionals make $137,170 on average in the private sector, while government lawyers make between $81,960 and $129,430.
The top three highest paying industries for lawyers are petroleum and coal products manufacturing at around $215,760 per year, motor vehicle manufacturing at $187,360, and specialty hospitals (excluding psychiatric and substance abuse) at $184,610.
If you are a lawyer practicing in the District of Columbia, then you are in good company. Around 29,010 lawyers are located there, or 45 lawyers per 1000 jobs. They are also the most highly paid with an average annual salary of $161,050.
6. Architectural and Engineering Managers
Average annual salary: $129,350
Current employment: 184,530
Architectural and engineering managers plan, coordinate, and direct activities in architecture and engineering, including research and development in these fields. Most of their work is done in an office.
Before becoming an architectural and engineering manager, one must complete a bachelor’s degree and have at least five years of related experience in their field.
Employment of architectural and engineering managers is expected to grow by nine percent in the decade from 2010 to 2020—slower than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.
In 2011, Alaska was the highest paying state for this occupation with an average mean wage of $160,640.
The industries that pay the most for this occupation are pipeline transportation of crude oil ($186,800) and oil and gas extraction ($167,060).
7. Natural Science Managers
Average annual salary: $128,230
Current employment: 47,510
Natural Sciences managers plan, direct or coordinate activities in life sciences, physical sciences, math and other science-related fields, according to the BLS.
A relatively broad career path, natural science managers work in various areas of the economy, including research and development, pharmaceuticals, agricultural engineering and even government.
Natural sciences managers need at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science or a related field. Most natural sciences managers work as scientists before becoming managers.
Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina has the highest concentration of jobs in a metropolitan area with 5.13 natural science managers per thousand jobs. Olympia, Washington comes in second with 3.03 per thousand.
Click here for the full list of America’s Highest Paying Jobs.
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