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Highest-paying jobs are in health care: Survey

If you can stomach dealing with illness on a daily basis and are willing to spend about 10 years training to become an expert in it, you'll be among the top U.S. earners.

A new study from CareerCast.com shows that of the top 10 highest-paying jobs tracked by the online jobs marketplace, six are health care–related.


doctor pay money
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The top three are surgeon, in first place, followed by psychiatrist and general-practice physician. All three fields are expected to grow by 18 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kyle Kensing, editor of CareerCast.com, said there's more behind the published median salary of $352,220 for surgeons.

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"What's fascinating is how different the salaries can be in that category," Kensing said. "Depending on the specialty, the salary can jump to almost a half-million [dollars] for some surgeons."

Indeed, various data show that, for instance, orthopedic surgeons command an average annual salary of more than $464,000 and heart surgeons who specialize in invasive procedures grab above $461,000.

Toll in time, treasure

Ranking No. 2 on the list is psychiatrist, with a median yearly salary of $181,880. General practitioners, ranked third, boast a median salary of $180,180.

But the top three on the list also come with a hefty investment in terms of both time and treasure.

The median four-year cost of attending medical school—including tuition, books and living expenses—is about $298,500 at private schools and $226,400 at public schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. And that's on top of what you'll pay for the bachelor's degree you'll need before even setting foot in med school.

AAMC data also show that the average medical school grad owes about $180,000 in student loans.

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Additionally, according to health-care provider education website Medscape.com, 41 percent of doctors age 40 to 44 are still paying off debt from medical school, and 22 percent of those age 45 to 49 continue making those monthly payments. That drops to 11 percent for those age 50 to 54.

Meanwhile, other health-care careers in CareerCast.com's top 10 list are dentist (No. 5), orthodontist (No. 7) and pharmacist (No. 10).

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Dentists, with a median annual salary of $146,340, typically need a bachelor's degree followed by four years of dental school. Orthodontists earn an annual median salary of $129,110 after a bachelor's degree, dental school and two or three more years of specialized training.

Meanwhile, pharmacists need a bachelor's degree followed by pharmacy school, which typically takes four years to complete. The median salary for pharmacists is just shy of $121,000 per year.

Robo-proof careers?

All of these careers "require more investment at the outset," said career counselor Anne Marie Segal, owner of Segal Coaching.

She pointed out that—unlike some other industries, in which many jobs can be automated—some positions in health care need to be performed by a human being.

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"Frankly, we will always need people in those careers," Segal said. "We can automate medicine in some ways, but we'll never automate away those jobs."

If health care isn't your thing, the other careers in the top 10 don't require the same amount of education and, therefore, financial investment.

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For instance, petroleum engineer, in sixth place, typically only requires a bachelor's degree in engineering and comes with an annual median wage of $130,050. Moreover, it is a field expected to grow by 26 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Kensing of CareerCast.com said demand for oil and petroleum is the biggest driver of that job's growth.

"Companies are looking for new and safer ways of extracting fossil fuels, so they are going to invest more in those positions," Kensing said.

At No. 4 is senior-level corporate executive, with a median annual salary of $173,320.

Less education required

As CareerCast points out, there really are no education requirements for that job per se, largely because it typically lacks licensing and regulatory requirements. Nevertheless, the study points out that having a master's degree in business administration can't hurt.

Data scientist comes in at No. 8, with a median annual salary of $124,150 and a growth outlook of 15 percent. In simple terms, the job involves interpreting data from a variety of sources in a way that delivers beneficial knowledge.

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In the ninth spot is air-traffic controller. This position earns a median annual salary of $122,340 but is expected to grow by only 1 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Requirements include either a bachelor's degree or similar education and experience in lieu of a degree, along with age and citizenship restrictions and medical, security and language screenings.

"The first step is to talk to people who are doing that job. It's kind of like doing a reconnaissance to see what you're really getting into." -Anne Marie Segal, owner of Segal Coaching

Segal, the career coach, said if you are considering any of these careers, you can do more beyond simply exploring the education requirements.

"The first step is to talk to people who are doing that job," she said. "Reach out to them and see if they'll tell you what the job is really like.

"It's kind of like doing a reconnaissance to see what you're really getting into."

—By Sarah O'Brien, special to CNBC.com