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Surgeons, earning an average annual salary of $219,770, top the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates for average earnings in the U.S.
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updated 5/25/2010 7:34:16 AM ET 2010-05-25T11:34:16

Chief executives continue to make headlines for what many consider to be their excessive pay, but according to government data released this month, doctors, on average, do even better. They have the best-paid jobs in the country.

Surgeons, earning an average annual salary of $219,770, top the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. The survey reflects May 2009 salary and employment data gathered from more than 1.2 million businesses. Nine of the nation's 10 highest-paying occupations are in the medical field, including anesthesiologist, oral and maxillofacial surgeon, orthodontist, and obstetrician and gynecologist. Most of the lowest-paying jobs, which bottom out at $18,120 a year, are in the minimum-wage-heavy food service industry.

Doctors' salaries are so high not only because of supply and demand but also to offset the amounts they have to invest in education and in malpractice insurance. The U.S. has 5,390 oral and maxillofacial surgeons, who earn an average of $210,710. It also has 2.7 million people who prepare and serve food, for a meager $18,120 per year. Today the average doctor graduates with about $150,000 in student loans to repay, and the costs go on from there. Anesthesiologists and obgyns can pay well into six figures a year in medical malpractice premiums.

Chief executives are the only non-doctors who crack the list of top-10 earners. The BLS figure for them, $167,280, pales beside the take-home pay of some execs at publicly traded companies. Last year the highest paid chief executive in the U.S., Occidental Petroleum's Ray Irani, took home $52.2 million. The second-highest paid CEO, Walt Disney chief executive Robert Iger, earned $20.8 million in salary, bonus and stock.

Employees in the food service industry dominate the other end of the wage spectrum. Fast food cooks earn $18,230, followed by dishwashers, shampooers, and dining room and cafeteria attendants. The gap between surgeons and food servers widens if you include benefits like health insurance, which often represents 30 percent of an employee's salary and isn't offered for many low-paying jobs.

Workers at both ends of the spectrum made more last year, and across the U.S. the mean salary for all workers rose 2.8 percent, to $43,460. Salary growth outpaced inflation (less food and energy) by one percentage point. That's small consolation for the 2.7 million food servers who make only $8.71 an hour.

In operating rooms across the country, surgeons earn an average of $105.66 an hour. Maybe there are worse things in life after all than taking organic chemistry and being on overnight call.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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