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50 highest-paying jobs in the federal government

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50 highest-paying jobs in the federal government

There are some major pros to snagging a job with the U.S. government. Federal jobs exist all across the country, the benefits tend to be competitive, and the types of jobs cover interests across the spectrum. Sure, the job comes with plenty of bureaucracy. And, yes, during government shutdowns, employees may have to take forced, unpaid leave. However, most of the time, the job is steady and may even come with a large paycheck. But which federal jobs are the best compensated?

Stacker took a look at FederalPay, a public resource website for U.S. employees that is not run by the government. Using information from 2017, FederalPay ranked each job by annual average salaries. Here, Stacker also notes the pay for the highest-paid individual in each particular job.

To find out who’s making the most paper while still making a difference for the country, read on. Plus, find out more about what each job entails and what it takes to get the gig.

RELATED: 100 biggest U.S. government contractors and what they do

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schriever.af.mil

#50. Fire protection engineering

Average annual salary (2017): $120,676
Salary for highest-paid individual: $172,100

Fire protection engineers investigate the root causes of fires, examining the way architecture and design could prevent or suppress blazes. Day to day, they also may inspect buildings or fire equipment. Most fire protection engineers start by getting a degree in engineering before getting on-the-job experience with a firefighting agency.

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Sgt. Andres Alcaraz // U.S. Marine Corps

#49. International cooperation

Average annual salary (2017): $120,921
Salary for highest-paid individual: $161,900

All 37 international cooperation personnel working for the federal government are employed by the Agency for International Development. This job requires planning, developing, and implementing foreign economic assistance programs. In addition to knowing about foreign policy and finances, these workers must understand the country that the United States is working with on any particular program.


 

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James St. John // Flickr

#48. Metallurgy

Average annual salary (2017): $121,071
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,000

The job title says a lot about what it entails—metal. Metallurgists are materials scientists specializing in iron, copper, and other metals, often focusing on extraction and processing. Most metallurgists get degrees in engineering or materials science. Government gigs are known for being the best paying in this field.

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agnosticpreacherskid // Wikimedia Commons

#47. Credit union examiner

Average annual salary (2017): $121,197
Salary for highest-paid individual: $279,000

Credit union examiners travel around the state, or even around the country, examining federally chartered credit unions. They typically work out of the credit unions they’re inspecting, or may even work from home. Qualifications for the job require a yearlong program of classes, on-the-job training, and progressive work assignments.

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USEPA // Flickr

#46. General physical science

Average annual salary (2017): $121,243
Salary for highest-paid individual: $245,670

This wide-ranging job category includes physicists, chemists, astronomists, and geologists. Many of these employees work for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Energy. Expect most of them to have master’s degrees or higher in their fields.

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Pixabay

#45. Operations research

Average annual salary (2017): $121,371
Salary for highest-paid individual: $192,522

If you’re a problem-solver by nature, this may be the job for you. Operations research analysts use data mining, mathematical modeling, and statistics to help organizations operate efficiently and cost-effectively. Math, business, or industrial engineering degrees are helpful to enter this field.

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Tim Evanson // Flickr

#44. Economist

Average annual salary (2017): $121,424
Salary for highest-paid individual: $268,000

Economists research and predict trends, analyze data, and examine financial resources. Most of these jobs, which are with departments like the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Internal Revenue Service, require a master’s degree in economics.

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Lisa Ferdinando // DoD

#43. Employee benefits law

Average annual salary (2017): $121,515
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,000

Employee benefits lawyers are experts on everything from health care and 401(k) to paid-time off and welfare benefits. Naturally, a legal degree is essential for this job. The federal government hires these legal minds for the Employee Benefits Security Administration and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

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NPS.gov

#42. Plant physiology

Average annual salary (2017): $121,662
Salary for highest-paid individual: $207,800

Whether studying entire plants or just their genes, plant physiologists are experts about the physical, biological, and chemical functions of flora. Most plant physiologists have a background in botany, chemistry, math, and biology, and most have experience working in labs. The Agricultural Research Service employs the majority of these federal workers.

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MBisanz // Wikimedia Commons

#41. Transportation industry analysis

Average annual salary (2017): $122,121
Salary for highest-paid individual: $161,900

These analysts have a mind for everything having to do with transportation, including air, trucking, freight, and more. They’re smart about regulatory controls, customs, and carrier operations, and may work for the Maritime Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, or Federal Railroad Administration, among other departments.

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United States Patent Office // Wikimedia Commons

#40. Patent examining

Average annual salary (2017): $122,477
Salary for highest-paid individual: $170,388

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office protects inventors and businesses, who file patents and trademarks. Patents protect new designs and trademarks help inform customers about the brands they’re buying. Patent examiners tend to be trained scientists and engineers who review patent applications and ensure that patents are, in fact, for new products.

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Elizabeth Merriam // U.S. Navy

#39. Geodesy

Average annual salary (2017): $122,558
Salary for highest-paid individual: $163,817

This job requires monitoring and measuring Earth’s shape, geodynamic phenomena, and gravity field, to determine its exact coordinates and how they might change over time. These trained scientists help track the rise of oceans, the change of tides, and more. It may come as no surprise that most geodesists work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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nrc.gov

#38. Materials engineering

Average annual salary (2017): $122,619
Salary for highest-paid individual: $172,100

Materials engineers may work in mechanical, chemical, nuclear, aerospace, civil, or electrical engineering, where they study various materials at the atomic level and sometimes even develop new products, such as technological devices or plastics, from their materials of choice. Most engineers employed in this field have at least a bachelor’s degree in their area of expertise.  

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Pixabay

#37. Foreign agricultural affairs

Average annual salary (2017): $122,989
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,000

The Foreign Agricultural Service oversees U.S. agricultural programs abroad, from market development to trade agreements. Personnel for the FAS are employed in offices all around the world.

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NTSB

#36. Air safety investigating

Average annual salary (2017): $123,653
Salary for highest-paid individual: $163,400

Working primarily for the National Transportation Safety Board, air safety investigators investigate the causes of aircraft accidents. This life-saving job requires a high-school diploma and, typically, a college degree.

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Pixabay

#35. Education research

Average annual salary (2017): $124,507
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,000

The Institute of Education Sciences, which helps ground education policy in scientifically based information, employs the majority of the government’s education researchers. These individuals analyze and share data about student performance and education policies. An education or analysis background is helpful for this job. The best part? The work can result in real changes for the nation’s school systems.

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Pixabay

#34. Foreign affairs

Average annual salary (2017): $125,055
Salary for highest-paid individual: $207,800

The duties of foreign affairs personnel are varied. Generally, they represent and support U.S. efforts abroad through foreign assistance programs, working on counter-crime units, enforcing security investigations, aiding military training programs, and more. Education requirements depend on the specialty, but most openings require a college education.

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Pixabay

#33. Air traffic control

Average annual salary (2017): $125,112
Salary for highest-paid individual: $202,285

More than 14,000 air traffic controllers in the United States guide 2.2 million planes from taxi to takeoff every day. It’s a demanding job with unusual hours, and one that requires a lot of training. Prospective employees need three years of "progressively responsible” work experience, a bachelor’s degree, or a combination of college and work experience. Interestingly, there’s also an age limit: Applicants must be under 30.

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Pixabay

#32. Cryptanalysis

Average annual salary (2017): $125,325
Salary for highest-paid individual: $163,900

Cryptanalysts crack secret codes and encrypted messages and, conversely, also work to make sure that messages and data from the U.S. government are kept secure. Only 18 of these workers have been hired by the feds, all working for the FBI. Most of these code-making and code-breaking experts have backgrounds in computer science, math, and computer engineering.

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Pixabay

#31. Mediation

Average annual salary (2017): $125,411
Salary for highest-paid individual: $172,100

Mediators work as middlemen, developing labor–management relationships that work for federal employers and employees. Beyond that, they improve relationships between management and laborers, try to reduce litigation costs, enforce workplace conflict-management training, and help establish workplace rules.

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Pixabay

#30. Computer cience

Average annual salary (2017): $125,751
Salary for highest-paid individual: $220,000

Computer scientists work for tons of governmental agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Institutes of Health, and the FBI. Typically, computer scientists need at least a master’s degree in computer science, computer engineering, or a similar field.


 

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Pixabay

#29. Computer engineering

Average annual salary (2017): $126,361
Salary for highest-paid individual: $199,869

Most of the federal government’s computer engineers work for the space and air programs. Of the 1,105 federal computer engineering employees, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center employs over 300 of them, the John F. Kennedy Space Center has 124, the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center has 81, and the Federal Aviation Administration has 78. Computer engineers tend to be experts in hardware, software, or software applications.

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Pixabay

#28. Medical officer

Average annual salary (2017): $126,492
Salary for highest-paid individual: $390,000

Depending on the role, medical officers may be licensed physicians or otherwise be trained in the medical field. Typically, they work for the feds in advisory, consultation, and administrative roles. Medical officers may conduct research, help institutionalize health programs, and more. There’s a staggering 33,100 such employees working for the government, many of whom have jobs with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Thomas Bresson // Wikimedia Commons

#27. Electronics engineering

Average annual salary (2017): $126,746
Salary for highest-paid individual: $192,879

Electronics engineers, naturally, design electronics. This includes circuits, devices, and other electrical components. Education requirements vary by the role. NASA’s electronics engineers, for example, are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in their fields.

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Pixabay

#26. Financial institution examining

Average annual salary (2017): $127,731
Salary for highest-paid individual: $288,524

Analyzing insurance companies, housing, farming, and other institutions to make sure they’re complying with all laws and regulations is the name of the game for financial institution examiners. Legal degrees, auditing experience, and accounting backgrounds all help to land one of these jobs.

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Pixabay

#25. Zoology

Average annual salary (2017): $127,875
Salary for highest-paid individual: $173,417

Zoologists study everything about animals and their behavior. It’s a dream job for many but, with just 58 federal slots, there aren’t many zoologists working for the government. But the ones who do—often for the Smithsonian Institution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the Environmental Protect Agency—make good money doing so.

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Shutterstock

#24. Actuarial science

Average annual salary (2017): $128,524
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,000

Actuaries analyze risks for financial institutions, insurance, and other groups and professions. Because their main tools are math, statistics, and business savvy, it may come as no surprise that a background in these fields helps procure this job. Most of the government’s actuaries work for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service.

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Pixabay

#23. Pharmacology

Average annual salary (2017): $128,533
Salary for highest-paid individual: $248,699

Pharmacologists test and research drugs. It’s a serious, tedious job, but one that can help countless patients and even save lives. Most pharmacologists attend medical school. What can they expect for all those years of education? A high salary and rewarding work.

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Pixabay

#22. Aerospace engineering

Average annual salary (2017): $128,757
Salary for highest-paid individual: $193,840

These engineers help planes and rocket ships take flight. Their day-to-day job requires designing all manner of aircraft, including satellites and missiles. At least a bachelor’s degree in engineering is required. For those doing national defense-related work, special security clearance is necessary, too.


 

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Coast Guard Compass

#21. General engineering

Average annual salary (2017): $129,820
Salary for highest-paid individual: $240,100

Falling under the wide umbrella of "general engineering” are folks who work for the Department of Energy, the Veterans Health Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s also the 34th most popular job in the U.S. government. Most have a bachelor’s or master’s in engineering, typically with a specific focus depending on their field.

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Shutterstock

#20. General attorney

Average annual salary (2017): $130,515
Salary for highest-paid individual: $287,774

A lot of lawyers work for the federal government. Nearly 35,000, to be exact, in every department or agency from customs to immigration to the environment. Like lawyers in private practice, attorneys for the feds need to attend law school and pass the bar exam.

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Pixabay

#19. Health system administration

Average annual salary (2017): $130,791
Salary for highest-paid individual: $225,398

These administrators are typically responsible for managing health care systems, from hospitals to larger networks. Rather than having feet on the ground working directly with patients, they typically take a larger, overview look at the systems. They may work for the federal prison system, the Veterans Health Administration, or even the Indian Health Service. There are degrees for health system management at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

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Defense.gov

#18. Fish and wildlife administration

Average annual salary (2017): $134,259
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,000

This job combines environmentalism with government action. Fish and wildlife administrators (who typically work for the Fish and Wildlife Service) evaluate conservation efforts, help with budgeting, and may even oversee certain wildlife preserves. Most of the employees in this role began working as scientists before moving into administrative work.

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Tech. Sgt. Sean Tobin // U.S. Air Force

#17. Financial management

Average annual salary (2017): $134,671
Salary for highest-paid individual: $280,500

Financial managers oversee everything to do with the fiscal health of a particular federal department, from the Department of Energy to the Veterans Benefits Administration. Most have a bachelor’s degree and then work as auditors, accountants, or analysts before becoming financial managers.

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Navsea.navy.mil

#16. Naval architecture

Average annual salary (2017): $135,553
Salary for highest-paid individual: $161,900

Only seven people are employed by the feds as naval architects. Those lucky enough to snag one of these high-paying gigs, where they design vessels and other water-based devices, find themselves working for the Maritime Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A specific set of skills is needed for this job, so most have undergraduate or graduate degrees in naval architecture.

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reynermedia // Flickr

#15. Financial analysis

Average annual salary (2017): $135,750
Salary for highest-paid individual: $286,345

Financial analysts look at how each department is functioning from a cost level. They need to know about accounting, law, and how their department is organized. Accounting, business, and math degrees are useful for this job, which is known as one of the most desirable in the financial services industry.

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Pxhere

#14. Patent adviser

Average annual salary (2017): $136,011
Salary for highest-paid individual: $161,900

Patent advisers work within the Agricultural Research Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when patents are needed for new innovations. The CDC also employs in-house experts who can help review patents when outside scientists file claims related to their scientific discoveries. These advisers tend to have legal degrees.


 

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Pixabay

#13. Physics

Average annual salary (2017): $136,591
Salary for highest-paid individual: $270,400

Physicists working for the government usually find themselves in labs and conducting research. It’s an intensive job, but one that can result in incredible, world-changing discoveries. Most have a doctorate or master’s degrees in physics.


 

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Peter Rosbjerg // Flickr

#12. Mathematics

Average annual salary (2017): $136,934
Salary for highest-paid individual: $258,616

Working primarily for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Federal Aviation Administration, National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health, federal mathematicians’ duties are varied. They may help research groups process data, analyze statistics, or create models for analysis, among many other things.

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U.S. Nat'l Archives

#11. Patent classifying

Average annual salary (2017): $137,809
Salary for highest-paid individual: $161,900

Patent classifiers examine patents that come through the Patent and Trademark Office. Not only do they have to be able to review the applications per rules and regulations, but they often need niche technical experience to understand specific types of innovations, from feats of mechanical engineering to medical discoveries.

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Pixabay

#10. Program management

Average annual salary (2017): $141,595
Salary for highest-paid individual: $325,000

These federal workers oversee an array of departmental projects and programs. They also direct teams and help boost their departments through marketing and other means. This is no small task: Poor program management was largely to blame for issues with HealthCare.gov during its 2013 rollout. Most program managers have some business and budgeting experience, plus expertise in the area their department covers.


 

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Bill Hrybyk // NASA Goddard

#9. Astronomy and space science

Average annual salary (2017): $141,981
Salary for highest-paid individual: $181,562

The majority of the government’s astronomists and space scientists work for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. It takes a lot of skills and training to be paid to discover new parts of the universe; most of these roles require doctorate degrees. Some background in computer science is also helpful.

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U.S. Navy

#8. Chief engineer

Average annual salary (2017): $150,803
Salary for highest-paid individual: $165,164

Not only do chief engineers carry out feats of electrical and electronic engineering, but they also plan and direct projects as managers. Since most of these engineers work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that typically means repairing ship systems. A background in engineering is required, as is knowledge of marine systems and machine repair.

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DARPA // Wikimedia Commons

#7. General mathematics and statistics

Average annual salary (2017): $153,214
Salary for highest-paid individual: $241,600

Mathematicians appear on the list again alongside statisticians. Both types of experts crunch data to help solve issues related to engineering, health care, the environment, or even FBI investigations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most mathematicians and statisticians have master’s degrees and have taken significant math courses, though some of these federal jobs only require bachelor’s degrees.


 

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F Delventhal // Flickr

#6. Technical systems program manager

Average annual salary (2017): $153,430
Salary for highest-paid individual: $199,548

There are 551 technical systems program managers, all employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. They’re responsible for a variety of jobs, such as completing and overseeing research on electrical power systems in planes. This typically requires engineering expertise, plus plenty of training on the job and some managerial experience.

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Alan Kotok // Flickr

#5. Patent administration

Average annual salary (2017): $161,308
Salary for highest-paid individual: $187,148

Working for the Patent and Trademark Office, these administrators help support patent attorneys. This may mean drafting patent forms, maintaining electronic filing systems, managing attorney prosecution dockets, providing legal advice, and more. This job requires business and organizational smarts, as well as some legal knowledge.


 

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Pixabay

#4. Administrative law judge

Average annual salary (2017): $163,113
Salary for highest-paid individual: $183,425

These judges oversee cases involving the operations and procedures of various government agencies. Though the vast majority of administrative law judges work for the Social Security Administration, they may also work for the Office of the Secretary of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, or the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. As with any judicial appointment, this job requires a law degree and many years of experience in the field.

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U.S. Air Force

#3. Nurse anesthetist

Average annual salary (2017): $167,818
Salary for highest-paid individual: $207,800

Perhaps it’s surprising to see a medical job toward the top of this list. These nurses administer anesthesia during surgery, which is known to be a particularly tricky task. Because of this, nurse anesthetists require special training and accreditation in nursing school. All of the nurse anesthetists employed by the federal government work for the Veterans Health Administration.

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Pixabay

#2. Patent attorney

Average annual salary (2017): $170,079
Salary for highest-paid individual: $190,444

For lawyers who know a ton about intellectual property, filing patent applications and defending patents in court may be their dream job. Not only do patent attorneys have to attend law school and pass the bar exam, they also must pass a federal "patent bar exam.” What’s more, they may be an expert in a specific topic, such as chemistry or computer science.

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Scott S // Flickr

#1. Securities compliance examining

Average annual salary (2017): $181,013
Salary for highest-paid individual: $244,184

The highest-paying government job is with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which works to protect investors and enforce regulations for companies. It’s the job of examiners to take on Wall Street and ensure that companies follow the law. According to the SEC, examiners conduct inspections, review portfolios, look at sales activities, and perform interviews and on-site examinations. The SEC usually looks for hires with a law or business degree, and their pay is high to compete with the private sector.

 

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