The ‘super-graduate’ jobs that pay over £180,000 a year – but come at a cost

A young businessman working late at an office at night
A young businessman working late at an office at night

David* was an hour late to his dad’s birthday dinner. They had booked to celebrate in a restaurant in London on a Friday night, where the 23-year-old thought he’d be free from the shackles of work. However, just when the investment banker believed he was done for the day, an urgent request from a client came in, meaning he had to remain chained to his desk far longer than he would have liked to at the end of the week.

“I also had to leave the dinner early to go back to work,” David recalls. “I finished in the office at 2.30am that day.”

Such is the life of the so-called “super-graduates” – they may be fresh-faced, artless and merely a few years out of university, but they’re in no way living a louche lifestyle; they’ve landed high-flying and demanding jobs boasting sizeable salaries that place them in the top 1 per cent of British earners.

The Office for National Statistics found the average UK salary for full-time employees in 2024 is £34,963, but in some industries, such as law and banking, employers are prepared to offer even the newly qualified significant sums in order to attract the very top talent. Quinn Emanuel, an American law firm with offices across the world, has now upped its base salary for newly qualified lawyers in London by 18 per cent to a staggering £180,000 a year – amounting to as much as £8,900 a month after tax. The move comes after rival law firm Gibson Dunn also raised its annual pay to £180,000 per annum.

It seems like an awful lot of money to be offering someone so early on in their career (an insider at Quinn Emanuel confirmed to The Telegraph that the youngest newly qualified lawyers at the firm could be around “24 or 25 years old”), but for James Lavan, the executive director at specialist legal recruitment firm Buchanan Law, the huge salary can be justified.

“It takes six years to become a lawyer, and you’re recruiting from such a limited pool of people offering specialist skills,” he says. “American law firms are blowing UK law firms out of the water because the salaries they are offering are so high.

“However, these companies are asking for a huge trade. They are asking these people to do very intensive and difficult work. It’s common for newly qualified lawyers to work 14-hour days. You hear lawyers say all the time that they finished work at 2am and they had to go back in and start again at 9am,” Lavan continues.

“You are expected to make sacrifices in this line of work. The good pay is to compensate for the loss of work/life balance. The salary comes at a cost,” he says.

For David, who graduated from the University of Oxford in 2022 with a humanities degree, having a well-paid yet pressurised job was always the end goal after finishing his studies. While he was reluctant to commit to six years of studying to be a lawyer, and thought working as a consultant “seemed boring”, he opted for investment banking and now works as a second-year graduate at a top American investment bank. Together with his base salary, bonus and additional sign on-bonus, David will earn around £175,000 this year alone.

While he works anywhere between 10-16 hours a day, David has never had to do what others in banking call the infamous “magic roundabout” – where you pull an overnighter in the office, get a taxi home which waits outside while you freshen up, only to take you straight back to the office.

“The latest I have worked is until 5am and then was back in the office for 9am,” he explains. “The main thing is that it’s very unpredictable and you have to be available.” This means that David now refuses to book any plans outside of work between Monday and Thursday – but the weekends aren’t necessarily always completely free either.

“Many times, my friends have seen me bring my work laptop to parties,” he explains. “I’m the only investment banker in our friendship group and they often tell me the hours I work are ridiculous and my job isn’t worth it.”

David doesn’t disagree, and admits there are times he has considered leaving his high-paid job.

“I even went through a whole process and got another job offer in an industry which I have a passion for, although the salary was much lower at £60,000,” he says. However, he adds, he turned the role down as he knew his quality of life would diminish on a smaller wage.

“I spend a lot of money eating out on weekends, as I’m a real foodie,” David says. “I spend a lot on concerts and the theatre. I like collecting art and antiques, so occasionally indulge in this. My rent is quite high as well, as I want to live in a nice area in a good apartment, so I prioritise this.”

And while his friends have spoken disparagingly about how much David works, even they have benefited from the super-graduate’s salary (and his abundant generosity).

“I have actually ended up subsidising my flatmate so we can live in a nicer apartment – I pay 60 per cent of the rent and their room is actually bigger than mine,” David says. “I often end up paying for my friends as well if they say they can’t afford to do something. I like being generous.

“I do think the money was keeping me in the job initially, however I also have started to really enjoy a lot of the work and my colleagues. I think I’m quite lucky though, as I have a great team that is very human in comparison to some of the other teams at my bank,” he says.

The huge salary was certainly enjoyable for Adam Taylor, who worked as an investment banker for Lehman Brothers in 2006, when he was just 25. When adjusted for inflation, Adam believes his salary would be the equivalent of £180,000 a year today.

“When I graduated from Warwick University, I wanted to do investment banking as it was one of the hardest, more competitive graduate jobs you can get,” he says. “I did corporate finance, which meant we often started at 9am and routinely didn’t finish until midnight.”

Adam worked hard, saying he was fuelled by energy drinks to try to keep up with the demanding hours. He was well aware of the Wolf of Wall Street self-styled stereotypes where bankers under pressure snorted cocaine in the office loos, but it wasn’t something he really saw himself.

“We were addicted to our BlackBerries, but we played hard, too,” Adam says. “We spent a lot of our salary going out to glamorous Mayfair nightclubs to blow off steam. I think I needed to get clubbing out of my system and it worked – I’m married with four kids now.

“But we certainly enjoyed our salaries. I bought designer suits, ties, would go on incredible holidays. I would also save a portion of my salary and bonus, which I used to buy my first flat.”

Adam no longer works in finance – he left Lehman Brothers after the company went into administration during the financial crash in 2008, and now runs the pet food supplier petshop.co.uk, where he earns around £200,000 a year. However, he has no regrets about the time he spent as an investment banker.

“As I’m dyslexic, I’ve sometimes struggled with my confidence,” Adam says. “It gave me a really good grounding – everyone was driven, so it made me really push myself, I learnt how hard I could work and what I could achieve when I put my mind to it.”

Adam Taylor and wife Lexi Tamasan with their dogs
Adam Taylor, pictured with his wife Lexi, launched his own pet food business after working in corporate finance in his 20s - Andrew Fox

While Adam still speaks to his colleagues from Lehman Brothers, none of them have continued or pursued a career in finance.

“I think it’s a great career when you’re in your 20s, but you can’t work that intensely forever,” Adam explains. “The money is good, but working at that level consistently would result in burnout.”

But there are some high-powered super-graduates out there who find the highly pressurised conditions the most appealing part of the role. Xinyi Tong, who graduated from the London School of Economics in 2019, always knew she wanted to become a consultant. In 2020, she was selected as one of 25 leading graduates selected for Dubai Business Associates (DBA) – a unique, fully funded postgraduate business programme where graduates are selected “on their ability to be world leaders”. The selected few are then given a stipend of $60,000 (around £47,188) and receive a life and career coach as well as regular talks from global business leaders in order to build connections as well as study.

“The jobs I have since university are all thanks to the DBA,” says Xinyi, now 28. “The connections I made were invaluable.”

Indeed, Xinyi’s first job in 2020 was as a senior analyst at FutureMap, where she and 11 other members of a task force presented a European government with a 10-year national economic vision for the EU government to reform its post-Covid economy. Her current role is even more impressive; as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, based in Saudi Arabia, she takes home around $200,000 a year (around £157,247), as well as bonuses.

But for Xinyi, landing these roles was never about the take-home pay – though she does admit she enjoys the freedom it gives her; she regularly takes her mum on trips abroad and decided to fly to Argentina, off the cuff, to take private tango lessons “because [she] randomly felt like it”.

“Honestly, I didn’t come here for my salary. It was just I really was interested in government consulting,” she explains. “It’s about seeing what I’m capable of. If you had told me while I was at university that I’d one day be presenting to a world leader, I’d never have believed you.”

Xinyi Tong
Xinyi Tong graduated from LSE in 2019 and was selected by Dubai Business Associates for a fully funded postgraduate training programme - Shara Matlin

But we can’t pretend that these substantial salaries aren’t appealing for those looking for work – and as the competition becomes fiercer, we can expect to see even chunkier pay packets. An insider at Quinn Emanuel confirmed to The Telegraph that they believe starting salaries for newly qualified lawyers could “easily” rise to more than £200,000 in the next few years to ensure they land top legal talent over rival firms. It’s certainly tempting, particularly as official statistics from the Department for Education found the UK’s average salary for a graduate comes in at about £38,500. It’s not a huge amount of money, particularly after you’ve studied for three years at a top university and are now likely in at least £50,000 of debt, thanks to tuition and maintenance fees, as well as inflation squeezing every last penny out of our earnings.

For David, the high stresses of a job that eats into most of his time is worth it for the financial freedom it gives him. “If you don’t go into a career such as banking or law, where you’re working 16-hour days, you are pretty much forced to take a job that’ll pay you less than £30,000 a year,” he explains. “Ten years ago this was a decent salary – however with rents averaging more than £1,000 for just a room in London, you’re stuck living like a student on these smaller salaries. I have thought a lot about whether the money is worth the amount of time I have to sacrifice to the job and, to be honest, I think yes. I am young and have very few responsibilities and enjoy having the financial freedom to, in most cases, be able to say yes to everything and not worry about money.”

* Names have been changed