Telecommuting and flex-time privileges might have made the world of work more comfortable, but they've also made the lines between our work life and the rest of our life less visible. This isn't an open letter of complaint, however. The truth is that we're a society that lives, and loves, to work.
So it's important to be a society that loves the work it does.
Each year, U.S. News compiles a list of the Best Careers based on the Labor Department's employment projections. And this year, we continue to base our picks for the Best Jobs of 2012 on professions that should hire abundantly over the next several years. To better help you make a smart career choice, we've also started ranking our selections.
Jobs from quick-to-hire industries made our list: business, creative services, healthcare, science & technology, and social services. John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas predicts many of these sectors will overlap, with one industry standing the tallest. "Healthcare has become the core industry in this country, just like manufacturing in another era," he says. "It's a confluence of forces causing this, including the science involved in uncovering new frontiers, the aging of the population, and government's commitment to providing healthcare to a broader generation of people. That causes job growth in several sectors."
Growth might be one of the reasons to interview for one of these positions, but our rankings give you some context as to why you'd want to stick around. We use a formula that compares projected growth for the future to employment rates of the present. We then weigh in average salaries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and job satisfaction, as determined by the job review website Glassdoor. According to company spokeswoman Samantha Zupan, it's crucial to include professional fulfillment as a measure of a good or bad occupation, particularly as Glassdoor's scores are pulled from the actual reviews of those who currently work or have previously worked one of our Best Jobs. "Who better to ask and learn from than someone who has held the job?" Zupan says. "Job satisfaction ratings ... can give perspective on what you might expect before saying 'yes' to a job offer or before you pursue a particular career path."
The outcome is a diverse set of occupations which rank in ways that might surprise you. For example, the No. 4 job, medical assistant, requires no extensive training and has a median salary that's well below $40,000 a year. But it beat out several high-profile, high-paying positions (like lawyer and financial manager) that didn't make the top 25. Our No. 6 pick, Web developer, can expect reasonable growth and offers a competitive salary, but it got the biggest boost to our top 10 for having the strongest job satisfaction scores of any other profession.
[In Pictures: The 10 Best Jobs.]
Here's a summary of the rest of our top 10 jobs:
Salary Range: $48,920-$102,520
The term "occupational therapist" is purposely vague, because the purview for which these highly trained professionals could provide therapy is exhaustive. Patients with mental, physical, developmental, and emotional disabilities might see an occupational therapist to learn to function independently. There is no "typical" day, and therapists' specific—yet varied—skills will particularly be in demand as a large chunk of our population ages. This is one of fastest growing occupations this decade, but to land one of the 36,400 positions available before 2020, you'll have needed a headstart. Certified therapists must earn at least a master's degree from an accredited university.
Salary Range: $40,820-$114,180
Unlike some of the others on the list, computer programmers might be able to enter the field with a two-year degree instead of a four-year bachelor's. But if you're going to advance, it's best to think of yourself as a perpetual student who's always staying just ahead of the latest programming language, says 30-year industry veteran Barry Warsaw. Computer programmers eeked out a spot on our top 10 thanks to strong job satisfaction numbers, competitive salaries, and excellent job prospects.
[See our list of the Best Technology Jobs.]
Salary Range: $53,620-$107,920
This is another healthcare job that requires a minimum of a master's degree to begin practicing. And with good reason, since physical therapists often see patients overcoming adversity: Injured athletes, amputees, and stroke victims might all find themselves working with these professionals to rebuild their range of motion, coordination, and muscle strength. This profession graces our top 10 not only because of its comfortable salary and good job prospects, but because it's also one of the faster-growing occupations of the next decade. There should be a nearly 40-percent increase in available positions by 2020.
Salary Range: $48,360-$119,070
Think of this occupation as a very technically oriented project manager. Computer systems analysts determine the technological needs of their clients and then help configure a system to fulfill those needs. They often serve as a liaison between the client and another occupation on our top 10, software developers, when compiling a rundown of necessary hardware specifications. Similar to other information technology professions, computer systems analysts should have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a computer-related field. David P. Bieg, chief operating officer for the International Institute for Business Analysis, also recommends that analysts-to-be spend time learning business systems analysis.
Salary Range: $43,190-$119,940
Web developers use their knowledge of applications and HTML code and couple that with an understanding of Web users' preferred browsing experience to create visually appealing, intuitive, and organized Web content. A bachelor's degree in a computer-related concentration is usually the first requirement to land one of the 65,700 expected jobs in this profession, but you could also study to receive certifications that designate your level of expertise. And there are a few other good qualities Web developers should have that can't be learned: patience, imagination, and versatility.
Salary Range: $41,570-$115,660
Does anyone even use file cabinets anymore? Much of today's storage lives on a datachip, and competent database administrators (DBAs) are needed to build and maintain the systems used to house that information. Challenger explains why now is prime time to enter into this IT job: "The educational system hasn't caught up with the demand for technology skills. ... The education and preparation people need to qualify for science and technology jobs is extensive enough and requires so much that the population has yet to fully recognize the requirements to do the job." DBAs should earn a bachelor's degree in computer science or management information systems, and might want to pursue a master's in business administration. You should also obtain certification for as many database platforms as possible, so that your skills are transferable from one company to the next.
Salary Range: $20,810-$40,190
The Labor Department reports that there is no formal training required to become a medical assistant. But if you want to distinguish yourself from the more than 160,000 persons looking to enter this profession, then training is preferred. Some vocational high schools and colleges offer medical assisting programs. And professional associations like the American Association of Medical Assistants offer certification credentials. It’s also possible for a medical assistant to receive certification in particular specialties, such as podiatry or optometry.
Salary Range: $82,090-$138,620
There are some obvious perks to this profession. The compensation is one—pharmacists earn one of the highest average salaries of all of our Best Jobs—and excellent job prospects is another. But these literal pill pushers also undergo years of study, several examinations, and a postgraduate residency before donning their white coats. And like many healthcare practitioners, pharmacists frequently work evening shifts, weekends, and some holidays. Place yourself ahead of the competition during your job hunt by trying to secure internships early in your education. Also consider taking a few business courses if your program doesn't already include them in the curriculum, since many pharmacists work within retail facilities.
[See our list of The Best Healthcare Jobs.]
Salary Range: $54,360-$87,790
According to Bryan Cantrill, the vice president of engineering with the cloud-computing company Joyent, software developers should have one hand writing code and the other on the pulse of the evolving IT world. Advances are constant in this industry, and having an inquisitive nature will serve a budding developer well. Nailing as much on-the-job training as possible will also help, particularly as some software developers are able to advance through the ranks based on their experience.
Salary Range: $44,190-$95,130
One of the first things you should determine when entering this field is what type of nursing you'd like to do. According to Michael Wolf, an economist with the BLS, one of the reasons this profession will gain nearly 712,000 positions this decade is because it's such an expansive profession, period. "Actually its growth rate is good, but not out of line with some other occupations," he says. "Registered nurses should grow by about 26 percent. The healthcare practitioner occupations as a whole have a growth rate of about 26 percent, though." The bench might be deep, but the playing field is still competitive. For a better chance at landing a nursing job, you'll want to determine your niche early, consider using virtual networking tools, and look for employment outside a hospital setting.
Corrected 3/16/2012: An earlier version of this article misstated advice by Jean Lynch, director of communications and marketing at the American Association of Medical Assistants, on how to excel in the medical assistant profession.