How to study your way to millions

4 Minute Read | Author: Ruth Callaghan

So you’re an Australian with a job?

Congratulations. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, you can count yourself a millionaire.

That’s a key finding of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), which has mapped the likely earnings of Australians over their lifetime. Even Australians who left school in Year 11 or earlier are likely to earn in excess of $1.7 million over their working lives — equivalent to $42,500 a year for 40 years — while those holding a postgraduate degree are set to pull in more than $3 million throughout their career.

But if taking 40 years to accumulate your wealth isn’t ideal, what are the university courses most likely to deliver you your millions?

Here are five options worth checking out.


NATSEM puts graduates of engineering and related technologies at the top of the tree for lifetime earnings, with an average of $2.95 million in paycheques over their careers. That’s not bad for a degree that can be finished in four years, and — depending on your speciality — has some of the lowest unemployment of any sector.

Engineers can expect to earn nearly a million more than the average lifetime earnings of someone in education ($2.16 million) and around $100,000 more than the average earned by someone who studied architecture. If lifetime earnings aren’t enough to sway you, consider this: 48 of the world’s top 100 billionaires on the Forbes Rich List studied engineering, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Mexican entrepreneur Carlos Slim. 


If you want to fast track your first million, learn to love teeth. Dentistry continues to have some of the highest paid graduates, according to Graduate Careers Australia, with graduates earning a median starting salary of $80,000 in the public health sector. That beats a graduate doctor by an average of $15,000. Adding a postgraduate certificate or diploma in dentistry to round off the course is even more lucrative: in 2015, 29 dentists with this certification took home a median $92,000 in their first year behind the chair.


Optometry is a specialist health field rocketing up the graduate salary tables, with median graduate earnings doubling from 2000 to 2015. Last year Graduate Careers Australia looked at 30 optometry graduates from UNSW, the only optometry school in Australia to offer a bachelor degree in the course, finding their median starting salary was $80,000. Underscoring the demand for the sector, an optometrist could increase his or her median starting salary to six figures — $112,000 — by holding a graduate certificate or diploma as well, putting them at least $10,000 ahead of any other discipline.


Lumped under architecture and building, property-related degrees may not seem advantageous at first blush. The average starting salary is only $50,000 in the private sector, and at many universities, fewer than 60 per cent of students find full-time jobs. But as a breeding ground for millionaires, property is excellent: the Australian Financial Review’s Rich List 2017 revealed five of the top 10 places were held by property billionaires.

No degree at all

University degrees are, on average, a better path to wealth than skipping higher education (in fact, a 2012 Grattan Institute study found performing arts was the only subject in which you would be worse off after graduation, compared to stopping study at Year 12.) But a remarkable number of the very wealthy left education early. More than 60 entries on the Forbes 400 list hold no degree beyond high school — including some well-known names.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gained his honorary degree at Harvard this year, some 12 years after he dropped out of a psychology and computer science degree. Microsoft’s Bill Gates was pre-law when he dropped out of Harvard. And one of the best no-degree stories belongs to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who didn’t study at university but did take calligraphy classes, which he credited with developing his interest in Apple fonts and design.

It goes to show; ambition mixed with a bright idea can be an education in itself.