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Money Talk
What Is a Good Salary for Your Job Title and Industry?
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Terri Williams image
Terri Williams

Salaries are all across the board and can range from $19,440, which is the median annual wage for food preparation and serving workers to $269,600 for anesthesiologists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Even among workers with a college degree, the difference in wages is astonishing. For example, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) reveals that, over the course of a lifetime, graduates with the top-paying college majors earn $3.4 million more than those with the lowest-paying majors.

To help explain these disparities, we’ll examine typical salaries for a variety of jobs and industries, and also analyze factors that can affect wages.

Recent Graduates

According to the CEW, recent high school grads earn a median average annual wage of $22,000. The average recent college graduate earns $33,000 a year. Among major college supergroups, wages for recent college graduates are as follows:

Architecture and engineering

$50,000

Computers, statistics, and math

$43,000

Health

$41,000

Business

$37,000

Social sciences

$33,000

Physical sciences

$32,000

Education

$32,000

Law and public policy

$31,000

Communications and journalism

$31,000

Humanities and liberal arts

$30,000

Agriculture and natural resources

$30,000

Biology and life sciences

$29,000

Psychology and social work

$28,000

Arts

$28,000

Industrial arts, consumer services, and recreation

$27,000

Career Wages

What is a good salary to live comfortably? That depends on how old you are and what your responsibilities include. Between the ages of 25 to 59, the CEW reports that high school grads earn a median average annual wage of $36,000. The average college graduate earns $61,000 a year. Among major college supergroups, career wages for college graduates are as follows:

Architecture and engineering

$83,000

Computers, statistics, and math

$76,000

Health

$65,000

Business

$65,000

Physical sciences

$65,000

Social sciences

$60,000

Agriculture and natural resources

$56,000

Biology and life sciences

$56,000

Communications and journalism

$54,000

Law and public policy

$54,000

Humanities and liberal arts

$52,000

Industrial arts, consumer services, and recreation

$52,000

Arts

$49,000

Psychology and social work

$47,000

Education

$45,000

Notice how physical science majors now out-earn social science majors. Also, agriculture and natural resources majors, along with biology and life sciences majors, have leapfrogged several spaces, while education majors are now in the bottom spot. 

Those with Graduate Degrees

How much of a difference does a graduate degree make? Well, it depends on the major. Below is a sample of career wages for graduate degrees:

Health and medical prep programs

$128,207

Chemical engineering

$108,603

Zoology

$104,256

Finance

$101,453

Computer science

$99,915

Advertising and public relations

$65,162

Psychology

$64,915

Commercial art and graphic design

$62,751

Human services and community organization

 $53,858

Early Childhood Education

 $53,420


Fairygodboss also has a salary database compiled from anonymous member submissions that can help you gauge whether your wages are in line with the national average.

Other Key Factors

While education plays a key role in your salary, there are other factors that determine pay.

Status

According to Lisa Kaess, Founder of Feminomics, “Are you starting out or starting over?” With little to no experience, Kaess says it might be unrealistic to expect the same wages as someone who has spent years performing the same job. 

Neal Stern, CPA, member of the American Institute of CPAs National CPA Financial Literacy Commission agrees. “Where are you on the career trail?” If you’re relatively new, Stern says your salary will reflect this. “However, if you've grown in skills, credentials, experience and responsibilities, you need to weigh what you’re making in comparison to what you’re worth in the market.”

Stern also says that your line of work could determine the feasibility of your salary. “If you’ve chosen a career that is typically limited in monetary rewards (but perhaps offers rich intangible rewards, for example in helping others or developing your creative talents), your salary may pale in comparison to what the market offers for the skills you bring to the table.”

For example, jobs in nonprofits or small organizations tend to pay less than those in large, corporate companies. Case in point, according to Robert Half, the starting salary for entry-level accountants in private accounting ranges from $44,250 to $59,500. However, for public accountants who work in auditing and assurance services, entry-level salaries range from $50,000 in small companies to $73,500 in large companies.

As we can see from CEW data, certain majors pay significantly more (or less) than others both at the entry level and throughout the employee’s career. 

Certain majors can make you a good middle- to upper-class income. What is considered middle class in the United States? The Pew Research Center defines the US middle class as anyone earning 67 percent to 200 percent of the median household income — and middle-class Americans earned about $39,000 to $118,000 in 2016.

Location

Depending on your part of the country, wages tend to reflect the cost of living and/or the level of demand for your services. For example, according to the BLS, mental health counselors earn an annual mean wage of $46,050. However, they earn $35,440 in Missoula, MT, and $72,630 in Napa, CA.

“In major cities and higher cost areas along the East/West coasts, taxes and housing will account for a major chunk of that income,” explains Kaess. Employers in more expensive areas are likely to offer higher wages.

Benefits and Opportunities

Often, your wages aren’t the only part of your compensation package. “If the job includes the ’big three’ - medical insurance, retirement (401k), paid vacation- personal days, your all-in package can run fifteen to twenty percent higher,” Kaess explains. “That doesn’t include the peace of mind knowing you’re building for your future, can take time, and will be ok if an emergency arises,” she says.

While employees tend to take these benefits for granted, Stern says they shouldn’t. “The cost of some of these benefits, if you had to purchase them on your own (assuming you were able to) might surprise you,” Stern says. “Be sure to consider the value of what your employer is providing in addition to salary in thinking about whether the salary is ‘good’ and comparing it to alternatives.”

Stern also advises readers to consider intangibles. “Does your job offer good work/life balance?” He says it’s important to consider how your salary fits with your lifestyle – and a higher salary might not make up for what you would have to forfeit.  “It’s hard to put a price on flexible hours or work-at-home options when you really need them, and some jobs come with a boatload of overtime work hours, possibly with additional pay.”

On the other hand, Stern says that a job that is two hours away and requires a $300 monthly train ticket should also be factored into the equation. “Consider the net reward from your job - what you’re really earning is your salary minus what it costs you to get to work, measured in both time and money,” Stern says.  

Another consideration is the opportunity for advancement and other perks. “Is the job with a company or sector that’s expanding, and does it offer ways to enhance your skills on the job, or with training, or career development?” Kaess asks. “Some places will help cover costs of graduate degrees and assist with covering costs of ongoing education - and that offers tangible payoffs now and in the future,” she says.

Sometimes, the most important question isn’t how much a job pays, but how well you can manage your finances. Leslie Tayne is a New York Debt Attorney and the author of “Life and Debt.” According to Tayne, “If you are budgeting properly, not spending more than you earn, using credit cards minimally and are able to put money into savings, money might not be the determining factor.” 

Money isn’t everything and since working takes up most of your time, it’s important to know for yourself what makes a job good or not,” Tayne says. In fact, she warns that you could make a ton of money, but if you have to work 80 to 90 hours a week, you wouldn’t have time to do anything else. “A happy workplace, good coworkers, reasonable commute and a fair boss are all factors that determine this,” Tayne concludes.  

So what is a good salary in the US? The average salary for every job and industry varies, but you should be aware if the salary offer you recieve from a potential employer at least meets the average salary of your field. You deserve a fair income, and the annual salary your new employer suggests should align with the aforementioned labor statistics ideal salary range of your industry. So before you accept the salary offer right away, study up on the annual salary you think you should earn and make sure it's somewhere in that salary range. Good luck.

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Terri Williams is a business, higher ed, tech, and finance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, About.com (dotdash), Realtor.com, and Business.com. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.

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