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While being a doctor is considered a high status, high paying job, there are plenty of drawbacks to such a stressful position.

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Certain careers, such as those in the medical and legal professions, are generally considered to be prestigious and lucrative. But there are costs – both tangible and intangible – involved in pursuing careers in these and other well-paying professions. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Read on to find out.

Dream jobs vs. lucrative professions

Let's first distinguish between an individual's dream job and a lucrative profession. A dream job is often a matter of personal preference, and is one that is particularly well-suited to an individual's personal situation. Thus, a working mother's dream job may be one that allows her flexibility and permits her to work from home when required. But flexibility and telecommuting options may hardly be desirable job attributes for a hard-charging executive who is intent on climbing up the corporate ladder.

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The focus of this article is on the best-paying professions. Rather than using subjective criteria to define such professions, we rely on the annual data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produces employment and wage estimates for more than 800 professions.

Highest-paying professions

The popular perception that jobs in the medical field are among the best-paying ones is based on fact. Since 1999, when the OES survey began using a new occupational classification system, the highest-paying jobs in the U.S. have been dominated by the medical profession. Surgeons top the survey from 1999, with an average annual income of $135,660, which had risen by more than 50 per cent to $206,770 in 2008. Other medical careers that are among the best-paying are anesthesiologists and obstetricians/gynecologists, which have ranked among the top five since 1999.

In addition, a number of other medical careers such as internists, orthodontists and dentists, and family and general practitioners, have consistently ranked among highest-paying professions since 1999. Although pursuing a medical career is an almost certain way of attaining a top-tier income, other professions such as computer and information marketing managers, financial managers, physicists, marketing managers, petroleum engineers and chief executive officers, air traffic controllers, airline pilots and lawyers are also among the highest paid.

The Costs

There are obvious costs involved in pursuing the best-paying professions. These costs range from the tangible ones such as the monetary cost of education, to intangible costs such as stress and long hours. Each of these costs is discussed below.

Cost of education: Most of the best-paying professions require many years of intensive study, which often leads to a massive debt load by the time one commences work. For instance, consider the medical field, which as we have seen, has some of the best-paying careers. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), annual tuition and fees at state medical schools in 2008-09 averaged about $23,500 for state residents and about $43,500 for non-residents; the corresponding numbers at private medical schools were $41,300 and $42,500 respectively. These figures exclude housing and living expenses. The AAMC also states that about 87 per cent of medical students graduate with some educational debt, with the median debt at graduation amounting to $155,000 in 2008.

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Students who are pursuing careers in other well-paying fields that require years of study also have a substantial debt load upon graduation. For example, the average law school student is estimated to be about $100,000 in debt by the time of graduation. The only exception to this rule may be chief executives, although many obtain expensive MBAs from top schools, others rise to that position after starting successful businesses as entrepreneurs or obtain required designations. In the field of entrepreneurship, a lengthy period of time in the pursuit of higher education is not necessarily a prerequisite.

Opportunity cost: Apart from the direct cost of education, one also has to consider the forgone opportunity cost of not being a member of the workforce. Students who are pursuing a degree in a high-paying profession are often unable to work due to the rigorous academic schedule, and may lose many years of income as a result. For example, to become a doctor takes anywhere from 11 to 16 years to complete the education requirements. This includes four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of residency training in a specialty. Assuming one could earn, say, an annual average of $50,000 during that period, the opportunity cost of not working exceeds $500,000.

Cost of long hours: Long hours and the demands of the job can exact a considerable toll on family life and personal relationships. Airline pilots and other flight crew, for example, are typically away from home for five days at a time during a normal work schedule. Exceedingly long hours are generally the norm in the early stages of careers in the medical and legal professions, with 80+ hour workweeks common for medical interns and junior lawyers.

Stress: Some of the best-paying professions such as air traffic controllers and surgeons often rank as being among the most stressful jobs. Part of the stress for an air traffic controller may be attributed to the huge responsibilities of the job, where lives depend on correct decisions being made at all times and there is zero margin for error. Job-related stress can take a huge toll on one's physical and mental health, and can sometimes result in premature burnout.

Cost of uncertainty: People in the best-paying jobs still have to contend with some degree of uncertainty about their career like everyone else. For example, commercial pilots in the U.S. face ongoing uncertainty about their job prospects because of the state of the airline industry and the competition from low-cost carriers. Physicians and other medical specialists have to contend with malpractice lawsuits that can wreck their finances and reputation, not to mention the challenges stemming from dealing with an inefficient and overburdened healthcare system.

Costs Vs. Benefits

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Dissatisfaction with one's job or career is not restricted only to people with mundane, low-paying jobs. Even well-paid professionals express dissatisfaction with their jobs, although it may be logical to expect that the prevalence is less than in low-paid workers.

A survey of primary care physicians (a group that includes general practitioners and pediatricians) by the Physicians Foundation in 2008 found that 60 per cent of the respondents would not recommend medicine as a career. Furthermore, almost half said that over the next three years, they planned to reduce the number of patients they see or stop practicing medicine entirely.

Nevertheless, there are some obvious benefits of high-paying professions, including:

  • Greater job security - It is widely recognized that education pays. Workers without a college education are generally among the most vulnerable to job loss.
  • Money on education is well-spent - From a monetary viewpoint, the extra years spent in college seem to be worth it. For example, the average annual salary of the top 10 professions was $181,500 in 2008, or 10 times the average annual salary of the 10 lowest-paying professions. Granted that many are even unable to find work without some sort of education.
  • Affordable luxuries – High-paying professions can enable one to pursue a lifestyle that may not be possible for the average worker. Indulgences such as luxury automobiles, frequent overseas vacations, and cosmetic procedures that are commonplace for high-income earners may be unaffordable for those with lower incomes.

The bottom line

Ultimately, whether the benefits of a high-paying profession outweigh the costs, or vice versa, is a matter of personal choice and preference. However, for those who want to balance personal life with a decent income, consider careers that require fewer years of college education and that are not as stressful. Most importantly, choose a career where you like what you do. After all, as Confucius said, choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.

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