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Higher Ed Doesn’t Always Mean Higher Satisfaction

Which degrees create workers most satisfied with their pay?

Doctor, lawyer and scientist have long been among the most enviable professions. These roles are highly desirable not only for their stability and high social regard, but also because they are known to be very well-paying. While we recognize that they aren’t easy jobs, we assume that they are worth the stress, largely because they are so well compensated.

In our previous analyses here and here, we found that while higher paid and overpaid people tend to be more satisfied with their compensation than lower or underpaid people, larger paychecks are not a perfect predictor of salary satisfaction. Our previous research also shows that higher degrees command higher pay. Naturally, these findings led us to ask: Does pursuing education to the highest levels result in a more satisfying salary?


We examined the salary profiles of over 26,000 workers between April and June of 2017. In addition to providing their annual compensation and highest degree completed, they also rated their agreement with the statement “I am satisfied with my pay” on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 represented “Strongly Disagree” and 5 represented “Strongly Agree.”1


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Following the general trend that higher education leads to higher pay, which in turn leads to higher satisfaction, we would expect both salary and satisfaction to increase in a similar pattern across education levels, or even to match up closely. Instead, we see that while education is a reliable predictor of pay, it is not a reliable predictor of satisfaction with pay.

Most notably, we see that the highest educated and highest earning groups have significantly different feelings about their pay, a conclusion which holds up to rigorous statistical analysis.1 While Ph.Ds. have the highest satisfaction levels, all other master’s and have similar or lower satisfaction levels as those with bachelor’s degrees, despite their higher pay.

Glaringly, J.Ds. and M.Ds.2 have the largest disparities between their average pay and average pay satisfaction. These two groups command the highest salaries, but their satisfaction does not match. What can this be attributed to?


There are many factors we believe may contribute to the dissatisfaction felt by both J.Ds. and M.Ds., but we will focus on the one we think may be most significant: student loan debt.

Getting your J.D., M.D. or other advanced medical degree is an expensive undertaking. According to the American Bar Association in 2012, law students graduating from public law schools had an average of $84,000 of debt, and at private law schools that figure was more than $122,000. As of 2014, medical school graduates’ average loan burden was $169,000. These figures are more than twice the average debt for all masters’ degree holders.

Compare this to Ph.Ds., the group most satisfied with their pay. Depending on the field of study, as many as 75 percent of Ph.D. students graduate debt-free.

When facing six-figure sums of student debt, it makes sense that even high salaries would not feel satisfying. They may even be insufficient to compensate for high monthly loan payments and the cost of living in some markets.


While we are not ruling out the impact from variables such as job stress, workload or other emotional factors, it seems that debt is a strong contributor to lawyers’ and doctors’ dissatisfaction with their pay. Attempting to alleviate that debt, whether that be through higher salaries, sponsoring employees’ tuition or creating loan forgiveness programs, may lead to more satisfied workers.


  1. The Y-axis for Average Pay Satisfaction Score goes from 2 to 3, while the full range of options for this question ranged from 1 to 5. We used the abbreviated range to better show the differences between the average for each educational group. These differences are statistically significant.
  2. References to “J.Ds.” or “Law Degrees” include both J.Ds. and LL.Ms. “M.Ds.” and “Health Care Doctorates” refer to all doctorates for health care professionals, including M.Ds., D.D.Ss., D.M.Ds., D.Cs., D.C.Ms., Pharm.Ds., O.Ds., D.P.Ms., D.Ps., Pod.D.s, and D.V.Ms. We use “J.Ds.” and “M.Ds.” for brevity and ease of understanding.
Caitlin Kearney
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