Which graduate career offers the best pay?

Find out which professions offer the highest starting salaries. Discover, too, what effect your degree discipline could have on your earning potential.

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Pay in popular graduate careers: solicitors | barristers | accountancy | investment banking | financial services | consulting | civil and structural engineering, construction and quantity surveying | property surveying | retail | teaching | public sector | hospitality

The highest starting salaries for graduate jobs are typically with law firms. The annual salary survey carried out by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), published in November 2021, put law firms ahead of all the other career sectors covered.

The median graduate starting salary for law firms was £42,250. The next highest median starting pay was offered at finance and professional services firms at £32,850, just ahead of the digital and IT sector at £31,750.

With any employer, it is always worth looking into the whole salary package rather than pay alone, as there may also be significant benefits to take into consideration.

Expectations down, salaries up

It's interesting to note that students and graduates are expecting a slightly lower salary in the 2021–22 recruitment round than they were before the pandemic took hold. According to the 2021 Cibyl Graduate Research UK survey of 67,688 students and graduates, the expected average graduate salary respondents was £27,113, slightly less than the previous year’s survey amount of £27,755.

However, the ISE reveals that the median graduate salary rose in 2020–21 to £30,500, up from £29,667. It's important to remember, however, that ISE members include many large multinational employers that tend to offer relatively high starting salaries.

Graduate starting pay by business sector

The latest figures from the ISE indicate that the median graduate starting salaries in the 2020–21 recruitment round were as listed below. Do bear in mind, however, that this is only a survey of the ISE members (which comprise the largest employers) and so these figures are not representative of graduate pay across the board.

  • Legal £42,250
  • Finance and professional services £32,850
  • Digital and IT £31,750
  • Health and pharmaceuticals £29,500
  • Energy, engineering and industry £28,000
  • Built environment £28,000
  • Retail and FMCG £28,000
  • Charity and the public sector £25,996

All of these salaries are up on the previous year, with the exception of the built environment (the median salary of which remains unchanged) and the charity and the public sector (the median salary of which has fallen slightly).

How much can you earn as a trainee solicitor?

Graduates who join large and medium-sized commercial firms tend to earn the highest solicitors’ starting salaries. Most City law firms offer between £40,000 and £50,000 to first-year trainees. Benefits offered by large recruiters often include season ticket loans, private healthcare, life assurance and gym membership.

How much can you earn as a barrister?

The most generous pupillage awards are available from commercial and chancery sets, where they are usually between £40,000 and £70,000 for 12 months. Sets carrying out publicly funded work are likely to offer significantly less, but all pupillages must offer an award of £16,601 for pupillages outside of London and £18,960 for those in London for 12 months. If you are successful in establishing your practice after obtaining tenancy, you are likely to see a substantial increase in your earnings, whatever area of law you have chosen to specialise in.

What are the typical salaries and benefits in accounting?

Accountancy starting salaries are likely to be in the region of £20,000–£28,000, depending on the employer and location. Larger employers, especially the Big 4 professional services firms, may pay more. Qualifying with a professional body usually takes three to four years and most accountancy employers will pay for your exam fees and give you time off to study. You may be offered a graduate loan as part of your overall package of pay and benefits. There are good prospects for future wage increases as you progress.

Pay and perks in investment banking

Benefits offered by investment banks typically include a discretionary bonus, life assurance, gym membership, a pension scheme with company contributions and private healthcare. Other benefits available from some investment banking employers include share options and a golden hello.

Salaries in financial services and insurance

TARGETjobs uses ‘financial services’ as an umbrella term for careers in insurance, retail banking, actuarial work, risk and regulation. Graduate starting salaries vary according to the role, location and employer, but are likely to be in the region of £28,000–£35,000 and possibly more in London.

What salary and benefits can you expect in consulting?

Most consulting employers are tight-lipped about their salaries until they offer you a job; they tend to use terms such as 'competitive' or 'highly competitive' to describe the graduate starting pay on offer. Newton Europe is one exception to this rule: its salaries start at £45,000. Consulting firms typically offer a wide range of benefits, most notably MBA programme sponsorship.

What is the graduate starting salary in construction and civil engineering?

Salaries for construction graduate jobs typically fall in the region of £24,000 and £28,000, but some pay higher. Larger employers running graduate programmes often pay the same rate for all of their graduate roles (although some offer more for certain locations). However, employers offering individual jobs might pay different rate for different types of job, with engineers typically being offered more.

What salary can a graduate property surveyor expect?

The typical starting salary of a graduate property professional is between £20,000 and £30,000, with the exact salary on offer varying according to location and specialism. It’s likely that your pay will increase as you pass your APC with the Royal Institute or the Royal Town Planning Institute and become chartered. When you are researching employers, consider whether they can give you the range of experience you’ll need to gain chartership, as it is vital for your future earnings.

What can graduates who work for retailers earn?

Aldi and Lidl are the high payers among retailers, offering £44,000 and £37,000 respectively (plus a car). Other retailers pay less, typically ranging from the low to high twenties. The perks offered by retailers usually include discounts on their products.

What is the starting salary for a teacher?

A newly qualified teacher (NQT) in England usually starts work on the minimum rate of the main pay range, currently £25,714 a year (rising to £32,157 in inner London). Academies and independent schools may offer different conditions.

What can graduates expect to earn when they start work in the public sector?

Many public sector schemes offer pay that is comparable to that on offer from big graduate recruiters in the private sector, and many graduate schemes guarantee a pay rise after the first year. Among the highest payers are MI5 (the technology programme has a starting salary of £34,366), HM Revenue & Customs (which pays between £30,880 and £35,105) and the Intellectual Property Office (which pays patent examiners in telecommunications £33,101). The Civil Service Fast Stream typically pays between £28,000 and £32,000.

What could you earn as a graduate in hospitality, travel and events?

The McDonald’s trainee manager scheme offers a starting salary of between £24,000 and £27,000, while the Mitchells and Butlers programme pays £26,000. When it comes to graduate management schemes in hotels, a salary of between £19,000 and £24,000 is typical. A report by Hays, Hays UK salary and recruiting trends 2020 , shows that a position as an events executive or coordinator may provide pay of between £18,000 and £26,000, while events managers are likely to earn between £30,000 and £38,000 (and more in London and the south-east – in both cases). There aren't many graduate schemes in the travel industry, but you could be earning anywhere between £20,000 and £32,000 if you secure one – depending on the role and employer.

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