College professors are a distinguished bunch, what with their advanced degrees and tweed jackets with patched elbows. However, for some professors, the patches might not be a fashion statement.
Consider that postsecondary career and technical education instructors earned an average of only $60,420 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Only graduate teaching assistants made less, and at that annual salary, elevator installers, web developers and dental hygienists all make more. Not that the people in those professions don't work hard and deserve their income, but those jobs typically require an associate degree while college instructors may be required to have a master's degree or doctoral degree.
Government data also points to criminal justice, education and fitness as being on the bottom end of the pay scale for postsecondary teachers. Instead of toiling away in a low-paying field, you may want to try one of these instead — here are the ten highest-paying fields for professors, based on the nationwide mean annual wage information from the BLS for 2019.
1. Law teachers - $129,950
Lawyers get paid well so it's probably not surprising that their teachers also earn good salaries. With a nationwide average of $129,950, postsecondary law teachers earn far and away the highest average income of postsecondary instructors in any discipline.
Of course, it's not easy to become a law teacher. The University of Chicago notes the path to teaching often involves a person graduating from law school, then working for a law review and holding a judicial clerkship, preferably with the Supreme Court if possible. Easy, right?
On second thought, maybe law teachers deserve all that income.
2. Health specialties teachers - $121,620
Health specialties teachers land in the number two spot for average annual income, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These instructors don't teach biology or nursing, but they cover just about everything else.
Dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and therapy are all topics covered under the umbrella of health specialties teachers. Like law teachers, these individuals have often paid their dues by working diligently in their chosen field before moving into the classroom. In return, they pull down average annual incomes of $121,620.
3. Economics teachers - $119,160
Economics teachers round out the six-figure income positions for postsecondary instructors. They earned an average of $119,160 in 2019 with those in New Hampshire earning the highest incomes in the field, at an average of $168,130.
However, if you want to be a top-tier economics professor, expect to face some tough competition. A 2013 analysis coming out of the University of Chicago found the top 15 Ph.D. programs in economics brought in 59 percent of their faculty from six schools. In fact, 39 percent of the faculty came from only two schools: Harvard and MIT.
If you're not concerned about landing a job at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, a master's or doctoral degree in economics from any graduate school may get you in the door at many colleges and universities.
4. Political science teachers - $102,290
Government drama, political maneuvering and international intrigue may all be topics de rigueur for political science teachers. Some many focus on U.S. politics while others specialize in international relations. Political theory and comparative politics are also common areas of instruction for postsecondary political science teachers.
As with other fields, a doctoral degree is typically needed for anyone wishing to become a professor with tenure. Those with a master's degree in political science may find jobs as adjunct faculty or at the community college level. With average incomes of $102,290 nationally, teaching about politics sure beats working in the field when you consider the average wage of legislators at all levels was only $49,440 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
5. Physics teachers - $101,110
The Physics Teacher Education Coalition says there is a serious shortage of high school physics teachers, so earning a master's or doctoral degree in the subject could open up teaching opportunities at both the secondary and postsecondary levels.
Those who taught at the college level in 2019 had average annual incomes of $101,110, but with enough time and energy, professionals in the field have the potential to earn much more.
6. Anthropology and archaeology teachers - $95,140
Not sure what to do with that degree in anthropology or archaeology? Well, if you stay in school long enough, you could use it to teach others about how human societies and behavior have changed over the years.
Earning an average of $95,140 per year, postsecondary anthropology and archaeology teachers teach both undergraduate and graduate students. They may also lead field work and undertake their own research in between classes.
7. Environmental science teachers - $93,450
Not to be confused with forestry and conversation science teachers, environmental science teachers are all about exploring the topics of sustainability, pollution and climate, among other things. They could have an environmental science degree or may come from a variety of backgrounds, including microbiology, agricultural science and alternative energy, but they tend to be committed to taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying the environment.
Nationwide, postsecondary environmental science teachers earned $93,450 in 2019, but if you want to earn the really big bucks, head to California where these teachers averaged $136,250 that year.
8. Chemistry teachers - $92,650
Chemistry professors at research institutions are just as likely to be conducting their own research in the lab as they are to be teaching students. At other undergraduate schools, they may be giving lectures, grading papers and overseeing student experiments. Meanwhile, community colleges hire postsecondary chemistry teachers to teach science classes to students in technical programs as well as those who expect to eventually transfer their credits to a four-year institution.
According to the American Chemical Society, tenure track positions can be highly competitive and those applying need a doctorate. However, community college teachers may be able to land a job with only a master's degree in chemistry. Overall, postsecondary chemistry teachers earned an average of $92,650 in 2019.
9. Geography teachers - $86,540
Geography teachers don't earn as much as those who work in some other science specialties, but their income is nothing to sneeze at. With an average income of $86,540, geography teachers not only instruct students on the physical world also on its social and cultural ramifications.
If you want to work in the field, you might be able to find a position at a community college or other two-year school with only a master's degree in geography. However, a doctoral degree is more common and typically required for those who want tenured positions.
10. Social sciences teachers - $85,390
Rounding out our list of the top ten best paid subjects for college professors is social sciences. By Bureau of Labor Statistics standards, this category serves as a catch-all for any social sciences teacher who doesn't fall neatly into another category such as economics or history.
They may be teaching in specialized areas such as art history or linguistics or in general social sciences topics. Depending on the level they want to teach, they need to have experience in their field and likely a master's or doctoral degree in social sciences.
Working as a college professor can provide meaningful employment and an opportunity to pass on knowledge to the next generation. What's more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates jobs for postsecondary teachers to increase 11 percent from 2018-2028, a rate much faster than the average for all jobs. That makes this occupation worth considering if you want to work in a field with good career growth potential.
If you dream of being a professor but want make sure any patches on your clothes are strictly for show, try studying one of these ten fields that get an A+ in income potential.
- About AESS, Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, http://www.aess.info/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=939971&module_id=35440
- Chemistry Professor, American Chemical Society, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/college-to-career/chemistry-careers/chemistry-professor.html
- Graduate Programs, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, http://polisci.columbia.edu/academic-programs/graduate-programs
- Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, accessed April 8, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_stru.htm
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 8, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm
- Paths to Law Teaching, University of Chicago, http://www.law.uchicago.edu/careerservices/pathstolawteaching
- The Path to Being an Economics Professor: What Difference Does a Graduate School Make? Zhengye Chen, University of Chicago, March 2, 2013, https://research.stlouisfed.org/conferences/moconf/2013/The%20Path%20to%20Being%20An%20Economics%20Professor.pdf
- U.S. Physics Teacher Shortage and the Need for PhysTEC, Physics Teachers Education Coalition, http://www.phystec.org/webdocs/shortage.cfm