A college degree was once a kind of insurance against high tides of unemployment, but this downturn took plenty of white collar, degree-necessary jobs with it. What's more, it's no longer a given that an advanced degree will launch you into the upper echelon of earners.
Consider that a student could invest in a master's degree in anthropology, reasonably expecting to make the median wage for an anthropologist, about $54,000. The middle 50 percent of anthropologists and archeologists earn between $39,200 and $70,980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another student could invest in an associate's degree in radiation therapy and expect to earn a radiation therapist's median wage of $72,900 (the middle 50 percent of radiation therapists earn between $59,050 and $87,910.)
It's true that many workers do not choose their occupations based on the money they expect to earn from the investment in education, training, and time. They follow their interests and passions, and see their career as a calling. But the recession has turned many dreamers into pragmatists. For those who feel pressure to make the most of their education, here are some careers that offer major bang for the buck.
More than half of cancer patients are treated with radiation therapy, which involves high doses of radiation aimed at killing cancer cells, and, according to the National Cancer Institute. (Radiation is also used in lesser doses to capture images of the body through an X-ray.) Radiation therapists don't prescribe doses for patients, but they give patients the treatments—putting them in the proper position and running the machine. Employment in the occupation is expected to grow by nearly a third between 2008 and 2018, as advancements make radiation safer and more widely prescribed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest paid 10 percent of radiation therapists made more than $104,350 last year.
It's no surprise that the healthcare field is home to several careers that offer the best pay and opportunities for the education required, given that the healthcare industry has faced steady increases in demand despite the recession. Dental hygienists examine patients' gums, perform cleanings, take X-rays, and in some states even administer anesthesia. Most of the 301 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States grant associate's degrees. As with other healthcare occupations, dental hygienists need a state license to practice, so exams are also part of the deal.
Few jobs have the kind of growth projections as the respiratory therapist occupation. Employment is expected to jump more than 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Respiratory therapists help care for patients with lung or heart disorders, most often working in hospitals, but they are increasingly in patients' homes, medical equipment supply companies, or skilled nursing facilities, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care. Part of the reason earnings are high in the profession has to do with respiratory therapists' ability to constrain costs, says Sam Giordano, chief executive of the association. The healthcare system puts a lot of value on a respiratory therapists' ability to treat patients and help physicians determine when a treatment is no longer called for—increasing the quality and timeliness of decision-making, Giordano says. Respiratory therapists can also help patients avoid ventilator-associated pneumonia by weaning them off the ventilator more quickly.
Powerhouse electrical repairer
This category includes electricians who work on electrical equipment in generating stations, substations, and relays. Job titles might also be relay technicians or power transformer repairers. Most repairers work for utility companies, where the average wages are $61,330. For many of these jobs, an associate's degree in electronics and some professional certifications are preferred.