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The Best Cities for Pay in STEM Jobs

The median pay among STEM workers in 2014 was more than $72,000. That’s more than double the median income among all occupations, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Few would argue, however, that STEM workers are generally overpaid. Experts in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math are key contributors to economic growth. Furthermore, STEM occupations generally require years of rigorous and difficult training.

This is SmartAsset’s second annual study of the best cities for pay in STEM. Read the 2017 version here.

That being said, not all STEM workers are paid equally. In fact STEM pay varies greatly from one city to the next, in part because STEM employers and employees alike tend to cluster in certain parts of the country. Indeed, SmartAsset’s analysis of BLS data on STEM pay found that even among cities with large STEM workforces, median pay varies from as much as 40% higher than the national median to 15% below it.

Data & Methodology

In last year’s analysis of STEM pay, SmartAsset looked at 40 specific STEM jobs to find the best cities for pay in STEM. This year, we broadened our analysis to the three overarching STEM job categories as defined by the BLS: computer and mathematical occupations; architecture and engineering occupations; and life, physical and social science occupations.We considered any U.S. metro area with total employment across these three STEM categories of at least 30,000 – 54 metro areas in total.

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For each of those metro areas, we averaged the typical STEM pay across the three job categories. We also calculated the growth in pay from 2013 to 2014 (the most recent year for which data is available).

Lastly, we compared those data points to the national median. We found the cities that were furthest above the national median for both pay and income increases. Our final ranking gave 80% weight to median pay and 20% weight to the change in income.

Key Findings

  • STEM rising.  Nationally, STEM incomes increased by 1.6% from 2013 to 2014, but in many of the top metro areas for STEM pay income growth was more than 3%. Nashville, Tennessee had the highest income growth at 5.3%.
  • Bay Area top STEM region. The Bay Area features three of the top five cities for overall STEM pay and two of the top 25 for income growth among STEM professions. While San Jose has the nation’s highest pay among STEM professionals, its income growth over the period we analyzed was 1.1%, lower than the national average.
  • Income growth separates Bethesda area from Washington, DC. The nation’s capital has the third highest level of STEM pay but slipped in our analysis because of lethargic income growth. Income growth in DC was just 0.9% over the period we analyzed. In the top-ranked Bethesda area, just to the north of DC, income growth was more than double the national average at 3.7%.

Top 25 Cities for Pay in STEM

1. Bethesda-Rockville-Frederick, Maryland

Top STEM jobs for pay: mathematicians ($137,440 median annual income), physicists ($131,320), economists ($131,040).

Notable STEM Employers: National Institute of Health, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Human Genome Sciences, Lockheed Martin, Bethesda Softworks, WealthEngine, RainKing.

This is the second year in a row that the Bethesda metro area has ranked as the top U.S. region for pay in STEM professions. Bethesda ranks among the top five metro areas for median STEM income and for income growth in STEM professions. It is the only U.S. metro area to rank in the top five for both of these metrics.

2. San Francisco, California

Top STEM jobs for pay: computer hardware engineers ($133,600 median annual income), computer network architect ($129,110), landscape architect ($127,640).

Notable STEM Employers: Twitter, Salesforce.com, Square, Craigslist, Jawbone, Dropbox, AirBnB, McKesson Corp., Uber.

San Francisco has been transformed in recent years by a surge of investment in technology companies located in the city. There are 31 different STEM jobs that now have median income of more than $100,000 in San Francisco, tied with Washington D.C. for the highest number of six-figure STEM jobs of any city in the U.S.

The influx of well-paid tech workers has not been positive for all San Francisco residents, however. It has affected the city’s cost of living and led to stiff increases in rental rates.

3. San Diego, California

Top STEM jobs for pay: computer and information research scientists ($115,870 median annual income), software developers – system software ($114,000), actuaries ($111,770).

Notable STEM Employers: Qualcomm, Solar Turbines Inc., Underground Elephant, Northrop Grumman, Intuit, Illumina, General Atomics.

Income growth for STEM workers in the San Diego area from 2013 to 2014 was 3.7%, the fifth highest rate in the country. If that rate continues, the median income earned by San Diego’s STEM workers will top $100,000 by 2020.

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4. Oakland, California

Top STEM jobs for pay: nuclear engineer ($122,890 median annual income), materials scientist ($121,450), computer network architects ($119,450).

Notable STEM employers: Ask.com, Pandora Radio, AMCO Chemical, Clorox, Pac-West Telecomm, GT Nexus. Coming soon: Uber, Salesforce.com, Oculus VR Inc.

With San Francisco’s office buildings becoming increasingly crowded, many employers are looking to the East Bay and its lower rates for commercial real estate. The ultimate example of this trend is Uber, the world’s most valuable venture-backed company, which has announced plans to open a large office in downtown Oakland.

That means more demand for STEM workers in the city, but it may also worsen the trend of skyrocketing rental rates in the Oakland area.

5. Nashville, Tennessee

The Best Cities for Pay in STEM Jobs

Top STEM jobs for pay: computer network architects ($107,210 median annual income), software developers – systems software ($89,010), atmospheric and space scientists ($88,030).

Notable STEM employers: Emma, Griffin Technology, Asurion, HealthStream, Gibson Guitar Corporation, Cybera.

Music City had the strongest growth in STEM pay of any metro area in SmartAsset’s analysis. Income growth for STEM workers in Nashville was 5.3% in 2014, more than three times the national rate. Nashville’s STEM workforce is also one of the smallest in SmartAsset’s analysis, though that may change if STEM income and jobs growth remains as strong as it has been in recent years.

6. Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas

Top STEM jobs for pay: petroleum engineers ($128,270 median annual income), aerospace engineers ($113,870), software developers – systems software ($108,010).

Notable STEM employers: American Airlines, Bell Helicopter, BNSF Railway, Consolidated Robotics, XTO Energy.

The Fort Worth-Arlington area has experienced strong economic growth in recent years. That has led to big pay increases for STEM workers, who saw incomes increase by 4.1% on average from 2013 to 2014. That’s the second highest STEM income growth rate of any city in the U.S.

While the median pay for STEM workers in Fort Worth and Arlington is not as high as in some of the other cities on this list, Texas STEM workers will bring home a larger chunk of their paycheck because of the state’s low taxes.

7. Seattle, Washington

Top STEM jobs for pay: physicists ($121,950 median annual income), computer programmers ($119,790), software developers – applications ($115,850).

Notable STEM employers: Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow.com, Expedia, EMC Isilon, Tableau Software, T-Mobile.

The Seattle area economy has long been buoyed by one or more major STEM employers, beginning with the rise of Boeing in the mid-20th century and continuing with Microsoft’s dominance of the software industry in the late 80s and 90s.

Today it’s online retail giant Amazon that is leading a STEM employment surge in Seattle. The company has hired tens of thousands of new employees in Seattle in recent years. That has been good for the incomes of STEM workers, but it has also pushed the city’s cost of living to new highs.

8. Detroit, Michigan

Top STEM jobs for pay: physicists ($143,610 median annual income), computer and information research scientists ($109,320), computer network architects ($105,200).

Notable STEM employers: Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Lear, Visteon, Quicken Loans, General Electric.

Pay for STEM jobs in the Detroit area increased by 3.8% in 2014, the third-highest level growth among the 54 metro areas in SmartAsset’s analysis. One driver of that growth may be the recent success of Detroit’s “big three” automakers (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler) who are posting some of their best years in history. Car sales reached a new peak in 2015.

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9. San Jose, California

Top STEM jobs for pay: software developers – applications ($137,710 median annual income), computer network architects ($136,970), computer hardware engineers ($136,240).

Notable STEM Employers: Adobe Systems, EBay, PayPal, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, Google, Intel.

The San Jose area – a.k.a. Silicon Valley – is the only U.S. metro area with average STEM pay over $100,000. Based on pay alone, there is no better place for a STEM worker than San Jose. However, the region saw below-average growth in STEM incomes in 2014. STEM workers in San Jose also face some of the highest living costs and highest taxes of any place in the country, with California tax rates as high as 13.3%.

10. Boston, Massachusetts

Top STEM jobs for pay: aerospace engineers ($118,290 median annual income), computer network architects ($115,740), software developers – systems software ($115,610).

Notable STEM employers: DataXu, TripAdvisor, EMC, Akamai, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, Raytheon Corp., Biogen Idec, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wayfair, RunKeeper, iRobot.

There are at least 35 colleges and universities in the Boston area, including several of the best schools in the country. Yet Boston continues to invest in STEM education, with organizations such as the Boston STEM Network and the Northeastern University Center for STEM Education encouraging further research and investment in K-12 STEM education.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/OJO_Images, ©iStock.com/gianlucabartoli


1. These three categories encompass STEM jobs such as software developer, petroleum engineer, physicist and mathematician. They do not include jobs in the healthcare industry, which the BLS categorizes separately.

Nick Wallace Nick Wallace studied economics at the University of Washington, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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