Photo credit: 

When we think of America's top wage earners, doctors and lawyers typically are the first two careers that come to mind. That's why it wouldn't surprise anyone to learn that both career fields made a recent ABC News list of the best-paying jobs of 2014. Surgeons topped that list with an average annual salary of $233,150 per year. They were followed by physicians, psychiatrists, orthodontists, and dentists in the top five. Surprisingly, the sixth highest paying job was petroleum engineers, as they earn an average of $130,280 per year. That's well above lawyers who rounded out the top 10 list with an average annual salary of $113,530. Let's take a closer look at a job that surprisingly pays so well. 

Surging salaries
Not only are petroleum engineers well paid, but they've seen a meteoric rise in pay over the past two years. According to a report by the American Geosciences Institute, the average annual salary is up $10,000 in the past two years alone. That's the highest increase in median salary for any of the jobs the Institute tracks.

It's not just those at the top that make the big bucks, those just starting out in the field enjoy the highest starting salary of all fields. In fact, a petroleum engineer can start at $89,000 per year right out of college according to College Factual. That's about $30,000 per year more that the starting salaries of nursing or computer science majors, which were the next two highest paying majors on College Factual's list. Prospects for future pay are even better as petroleum engineers have a lot of upward mobility within their salary -- the average mid-career salary is $159,900 per year.

Photo credit: Flickr user photologue_np 

Why the pay is so good
One of the reasons petroleum engineers are paid so well is because it's a highly specialized field. Only about 1,000 students graduate with a petroleum engineering degree each year, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were only about 38,500 petroleum engineers in the U.S. in 2012. 

For some perspective on how small that job market is, computer software engineers, for example, employed 10 times that many people. And while computer software engineers as a whole earn an average annual wage of $96,620, those just starting out with a computer science degree only make $53,800 as opposed to the near $90,000 starting salary for petroleum engineers.

Still, the job prospects for petroleum engineers are very good. Over the next decade the need for petroleum engineers is expected to grow by nearly 10,000 jobs, or 26%. On top of that growth, 40% of the industry's petroleum engineers are expected to retire over the next decade, leaving many more job openings in addition to those new openings.

That puts the energy industry in a tough spot as the North American energy boom is fueling demand for new petroleum engineers, which are key to helping energy companies extract oil and gas from shale deposits as well as finding new ways to get more oil and gas out of older fields. Because of this, pay for petroleum engineers could continue to move even higher in the years ahead. So, those still undecided on what to major in, or simply looking for career change, might want to take a look at a career as a petroleum engineer.