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Graduate careers: which offers the best pay?

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
Salary isn't the only thing that matters when making career decisions, but knowing what pay you'll earn as a graduate may be important in helping you plan.

In October 2019, the Australian Tax Office issued a report on Higher Education Loan Program (HELP, formerly HECS) debt in Australia. It found that, while the average amount of HECS debt accumulated per debtor was $22,425, the number of graduates with more than $50,000 of debt had grown by 97,918 over the course of a single calendar year. Worse, the number of graduates with more than $100,000 of debt had grown by 16,718, totalling 84,625.

Whatever your own student debt situation looks like—and it’s possible that you don’t have any at all—acquiring a degree is also a significant investment of time (which, as they say, is itself money). So it’s perfectly understandable if, having graduated, you’re eager to get the best possible return on the investment you’ve made in your own education. Do we think it’s wise to consider only salaries when selecting a career? Of course not. But it would be equally misguided not to consider them at all. So, with that in mind, read on to learn which graduate careers can offer you the best starting salaries.


According to the 2020 Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), published by Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT), dentists are ‘making it rain’ like nobody else with a median starting salary of $86,300. Even three years after graduation, early-career dentists get to sink their teeth into a median $105,100 per annum. Combine that with just slightly above standard average hours (44 a week) and you're all smiles.


Like their colleagues in dentistry, graduates who embark on the long path to becoming a doctor receive a generous salary. In 2020, the overall median salary for fresh medicine graduates was $70,000 (with a difference of $1,500 between male and female graduates). While the salary is relatively high, it should be noted that many doctors in Australia continue to work longer shifts (on average) than other career starters, with some interns regularly clocking 70 hours per week. This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, with medical students being rushed to graduate around the world to keep pace with infections. Hence, as an hourly rate, the pay for junior doctors is less competitive than it may at first appear.

Having said that, medicine is a good example of a field in which graduates are frequently required to complete on-the-job training before receiving their professional accreditation. This tends to result in low starting salaries that grow rapidly as one begins to specialise (vocational training can take up to eight years following graduation). For example, while the mean starting salary for a medical intern is $70,300, the average salary for an anaesthesiologist is $225,934; for cardiologists, it’s as high as $412,168; for haematologists, it’s $180,000; and for neurosurgeons, it’s $538,117. Each of these medical specialties requires extensive additional training, with the job titles ‘protected’ by accrediting bodies like the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP).


Statistics about the average salaries of graduate engineers can be tricky to interpret. We know from the 2020 QILT GOS that the overall median salary for engineering graduates was $64,400, with little variation between male and female graduates. But different types of engineers, and where they're situated can make a huge salary difference. The QILT GOS puts engineering into six broad categories, each with their own (median) pay:

Engineering category Starting pay  Three years in
All other $67,000 $87,200
Process and resources $65,600 $88,500
Electrical and electronic $65,000 $84,000
Civil $64,000 $83,000
Mechanical $60,000 $80,000
Aerospace $58,300 $78,300


Nevertheless, engineering graduates as a whole tend to receive competitive remuneration, with many fresh graduates responding to their starting salary just like this GradAustralia insider at Lendlease: ‘The pay is brilliant and more than I would have ever thought to receive on my first year out of uni.

Teacher education

According to the QILT report, teachers in the public school system receive an average starting salaries ranging from $59,500 for early childhood to $65,000 for primary and secondary. This can grow in some states following a mandatory twelve-month probationary period for teachers in their first full-time position. In addition to a competitive salary, teachers enjoy several benefits, such as access to salary-packaging arrangements and, for teachers in rural areas, relocation and rental subsidies.

Salaries for teachers in the private school system vary based on experience, position, and other factors. As a general guide though, they tend to be higher than salaries for equivalent positions in the public system. According to the 2020–2021 Hays Salary Guide, the average salary range for an experienced teacher in the public system is $69,000–111,000 (depending on level of responsibility). In the private system, the average salary range is $75,000–113,000.

Social work

The 2020 QILT GOS report revealed that social workers earned a median salary of $62,700 during their first year of full-time employment. The gender salary gap continues to close as the result of an equal remuneration order issued by Fair Work Australia in 2012. However, evidence of a gap persisted in 2020, with the median salary for male graduate social workers $900 higher than for female graduates. After the first year, the average salary range for a social worker grows from $77,000 in WA or QLD to $87,000 in NSW or SA (p77).

Social work has been identified by the federal government’s Department of Jobs and Small Business as having 'very strong' growth, the highest classification, meaning this occupation is very likely to be in demand over the next five years. 

Health services and support

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare predicts that, over the coming five decades, elderly Australians will represent an ever-larger proportion of the population. People aged over 65 currently make up 15 per cent of the population, with this figure rising to 22 per cent by 2057.

The steady aging of Australia’s population must be matched by an equivalent growth in the health services industries if they are to meet mounting demand: this has become a central policy challenge of the federal government.

Hence, though the median salary for first-year health services and support employees is already a respectable $61,450, many pundits expect it to rise as the government (and private employers) attempts to entice more young Australians to launch a career in health. In fact, salaries for healthcare workers are already among the fastest-growing in the country, with economists and health personnel pushing for higher wages in the wake of COVID. As a result, when we ask our industry insiders to comment on their salaries, we generally get responses like this one from a midlevel employee at the Western Australia Department of Health: ‘although we do not receive bonuses, graduates who work within the Department of Health can expect extremely attractive salaries in comparison to the private sector.’

Law and paralegal studies

If you’ve seen Suits, then you probably have a general idea of the financial future that awaits law students: it’s a glossy vision of yachts, private rooms in fancy restaurants, fancy cars, and designer clothes, all brought together by a seemingly endless torrent of cash. In fact, while new entrants to the law profession are reasonably well compensated—the QILT GOS report found that first-year lawyers and paralegals earn a median salary of $60,000—there is significant variation within the industry. Graduates in Melbourne, Perth or Canberra see an average low-end starting salary of $52,000, with Sydney grads having a high-end average of $67,000.

The main factors affecting first-year salaries in the legal industry are the area of law in which you choose to practice and where, whether you choose to work in-house or for a firm, and, if you choose the latter, the size of the firm that employs you. As a result, the 2020/21 Hays Salary Report includes average salaries ranging from $47,000 for a paralegal in a small private firm to $80,000, which is more than the top end for a fresh grad. But after three years, a law graduate in NSW sees an average salary of between $70,000 to $91,000. 

Moving ahead: is my salary enough?

If you’re pursuing a career in one of the above fields, then it should be encouraging to learn that you’re on track to receive some of Australia’s most competitive professional remuneration. However, it also helps to put each salary into context before using it as the basis for an important career decision. With this in mind, you can learn more about the factors that affect graduate salaries by reading the article Graduate salaries: what they don’t tell you”. You can also head to the GradAustralia website and read what graduate employees in your chosen field have said about the salaries they’re receiving at some of Australia’s best-known employers.