General Education

The 5 Highest-Paying Careers That Don’t Require a Master’s Degree

The 5 Highest-Paying Careers That Don’t Require a Master’s Degree
Is a master’s degree worth it? That depends. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly January 13, 2020

While these top-paying positions may see a master’s degree as a perk, they prove that a six-figure salary is possible without one. You just need to know what to have in its place.

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Whether you’re fresh out of undergrad or a working professional with ample job experience—it’s likely that at some point, you’ve asked yourself, “Is a master’s degree worth it?"

With graduate school becoming a more common option, the question is as well. According to a 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between 2000–01 and 2016–17, the number of master’s degrees obtained by U.S. graduates increased by 70 percent, equating to an uptick from roughly 474,000 to 805,000 degrees.

So, is a master’s degree worth it? That depends. On one hand, some specialized jobs—like nurse anesthetist, forensic psychologist, and clinical social worker, to name a few—require candidates to have a master’s degree in their related fields. In other cases, master’s degrees can help candidates stand out among a pile of job applicants—making the degree something employers prefer instead of require.

There’s also truth in the notion that people with advanced degrees tend to earn bigger paychecks than those who have only an undergraduate degree. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median annual pay for full-time workers whose highest level of education was a master's degree was $72,852, compared to a median $60,996 pay for those whose highest level was a bachelor's degree—a difference of nearly $12,000 a year.

But graduate school isn’t right for everyone, especially for those who see the extra years of schooling and additional thousands of dollars (or more) in student loans as something to avoid.

Still, heading back to school isn’t the only path toward a six-figure salary. While these top-paying positions—particularly those with “manager" in the title—may see a master’s degree as a perk, they prove a lucrative career is possible without one. You just need to know what to have in its place.

Architectural and Engineering Manager

__Median annual pay: $140,760

Titles like principal engineer, project engineer, engineering group manager, and director of engineering, among others are all at home in the category of architectural and engineering managers. In general, the group is in charge of most, if not all, aspects of construction projects in areas of manufacturing, government, and scientific research and development services, as well as at management of companies and enterprises.

Architectural and engineering managers tend to split their time between consulting clients in-office and interacting with engineers, contractors, and construction personnel in the field. Their focus covers site preparation to building completion—and between, includes developing, organizing, and reviewing building plans, as well as preparing construction contracts for general contractors.

Like most managers, architectural and engineering managers often take part in interviewing and hiring contractors, as well as supervising their employees and setting schedules. They also confer with managers throughout the project’s building process, including those in finance, production, and marketing, as well as with contractors and equipment and materials suppliers.

Given that architectural and engineering managers must be well-versed in architectural standards, engineering practices, building ordinances, and blueprints, many employers require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree in architecture or an engineering specialty with considerable work experience as an architect or engineer.

Certification—whether through the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) or the American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM)—is voluntary, but it can help prove competency and experience to prospective employers and clients.

Computer and Information Systems Manager

__Median annual pay: $142,530

Different types of computer and information systems managers include roles like chief information security officer (CISO), IT director, chief technology officer (CTO), and IT security managers.

While specific responsibilities may vary from position to position, as a whole, computer and information systems managers are generally tasked with overseeing the computer-related activity of a company or organization. This includes working with top executives to determine its technological needs and meeting those needs by recommending and implementing types of computer hardware, software, and programs.

From leading the charge in network security reform to supervising software upgrades and maintenance, computer information systems managers must stay up-to-date on the latest advances and trends in computing systems, including cybersecurity, an issue that continues to gain importance as hacks and data breaches become more frequent and sophisticated.

Additionally, these professionals must have a high degree of leadership, decision-making, and communication skills—not only to steer teams of computer systems analysts, software developers, information security analysts, and computer support specialists but also to explain problems and offer solutions in a way that those in their organization who lack IT training can understand.

Computer information systems managers usually have a bachelor's degree in a subject like information systems management, information science, or computer science. Some may also seek out specialized credentials like computer information systems (CIS) or certified information security manager (CISM) certification to further prove qualification.

Petroleum Engineer

__Median annual pay: $137,170

Petroleum engineering is a field of engineering concerned with activities related to the production of hydrocarbons, which can be either crude oil or natural gas. Petroleum engineers focus on extracting oil, gas, and other natural resources from the earth and providing it to a wide range of manufacturers.

While certain responsibilities of a petroleum engineer’s role vary depending on the company they work for, many petroleum engineers travel the world and often live in foreign countries for extended periods as their work concerns nearly all phases of production, from finding oil or natural gas, to refining and distributing it.

After using engineering and geological data to locate underground reservoirs of gas or oil, petroleum engineers determine if extracting the product will be worth the time, money, and effort while assessing the safety and environmental impact of drilling operations. They typically work together with other engineers to install drilling equipment, interpret test drills, and create computer simulations to identify possible construction and production issues.

Most employers require that candidates have a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering. Certification is voluntary and most commonly pursued through the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE).

Marketing Manager

__Median annual pay: $134,290

From blockbuster movies and fashion lines to New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, marketing teams work in virtually every industry to make sure their brands are getting exposure. At their center are marketing managers, who channel their creativity and highly-skilled business mindset into shaping the public image and response of a particular product or products.

On a given day, they may coordinate with sales teams to brainstorm new ways of improving brand exposure, track current campaigns, ensure their staff meets deadlines, and delegate new tasks when necessary. They may also analyze data concerning product demand, pricing, and target audiences to evaluate the success of their marketing efforts and think up new strategies to help their company meet their sales objectives.

These days, it’s not enough for marketing managers to know the ins and outs of various print and digital marketing channels. They need to be a numbers-oriented, well-versed in project management, focused, and have an eye for detail.

To enter the profession, a bachelor's degree is necessary in majors like marketing, business administration, advertising, or a related field. While certification is optional, some may complete professional certified marketer (PCM) certification from the American Marketing Association to gain a competitive advantage when looking for a job. Others may opt for more specialized credentials in areas like marketing analytics, coding for marketing, and paid social media marketing.

Air Traffic Controller

__Median annual wage: $124,540

Whether referred to as “controllers," “air controllers," or “flight controllers," air traffic controllers ensure that commercial and private aircraft move safely through their assigned flight paths within the global air traffic control system.

Some air traffic controllers monitor a specific sector of airspace—or sky—and are responsible for directing and monitoring aircraft, maintaining safety, and informing pilots about weather changes, visibility issues, wind conditions, and nearby aircraft. Others regulate arrivals and departures or supervise ground traffic like baggage vehicles, airport workers, and taxiing airplanes.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs most air traffic controllers and offers candidates three paths to professional qualification. The first is by gaining military experience as an air traffic controller. The second is by pursuing an associate or a bachelor’s degree in aviation through the FAA's Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) program. Lastly, candidates have the option to complete either three years of progressively responsible experience in an aviation-related job, a bachelor's degree, or a combination of the two.

Aspiring air traffic controllers must also have U.S. citizenship, pass a background check, and complete FAA-facilitated training. Since air traffic control is a highly stressful career, the FAA enforces medical examinations to ensure the most mentally healthy and highly trained individuals operate in the field.

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