If you've ever looked into what it takes to land a high-paying career in health care, you know there are many paths to take. Many health care jobs require at least a bachelor's degree, but you don't always have to spend ten years or more of school to get a good job in the industry.
We dug up some data on health care jobs that pay well, and where a master's degree is the recommended level of education. Here's a rundown of six careers in this category, along with some salary and employment information from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- Job Growth (2014-2024): 30.5%
- Mean Annual Salary (2015): $99,270
A physician assistant typically performs tasks to help a physician or surgeon. Graduate study is important to physician assistants because of the expanding scope of their work over these last several years. The deluge of high-tech medical devices and occasional primary care responsibilities can require quite a bit of study to master.
Here are some of the daily tasks for a physician assistant:
- Examining patients and taking medical histories
- Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
- Diagnosing and providing treatment for injury or illness
- Researching innovative treatments and medications
- Counseling patients and families on ways to manage their health
Education data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) shows that a master's degree is the most popular education for this career, with 50 percent of working physician assistants holding one as of 2016. A further 30 percent had a combination of a bachelor's degree and on-the-job experience, while 15 percent had earned what's known as a professional degree -- a graduate or post-graduate education designed for practitioners, like the M.D. earned by physicians.
- Job Growth (2014-2024): 27%
- Mean Annual Salary (2015): $81,690
The primary work of occupational therapists is helping disabled patients with everyday activities. This field is primed to see a good amount of employment opportunities similar to the growth predicted for physician assistants. Each patient has an individualized and specific set of needs, but here are the responsibilities of occupational therapists in a broad sense:
- Evaluating patients' condition, needs and medical history
- Developing goal-based treatment plans involving everyday activities
- Examining patients' home or workplace for opportunities to improve quality of life
- Recommending special therapeutic equipment based on patients' needs
- Speaking with patients' family members or employer about methods of accommodation and care
Occupational therapists also tend to educate themselves to the master's level before entering the profession, according to O*NET data. More than 70 percent of active occupational therapists held master's degrees in 2016, while just 14 percent were bachelor's degree holders and 5 percent had earned a professional degree.
The techniques and technologies of occupational therapy are as many and various as the injuries, illnesses and disabilities they've been developed to treat. Earning a master's degree before setting out to find work in the field is an important part of preparing to meet its challenges.
- Job Growth (2014-2024): 21%
- Mean Annual Salary (2015): $76,900
Another lesser-known health care career, speech-language pathologists (also known as speech therapists) provide vital services to patients who have speech impediments or are recovering from an injury. Here's a rundown of the general tasks performed of speech-language pathologists:
- Gauging patients' need for available speech therapy treatments
- Creating a therapy plan designed to suit a patient's individual needs
- Working with patients to develop the muscles used to speak and swallow
- Providing counseling services to help patients and families cope with speech disorders
This is one health care occupation where a graduate degree is practically mandatory. All the pathologists surveyed by O*NET in 2016 had earned at least a master's degree, with nearly 20 percent having gone on to earn a post-master's certificate after graduating. The BLS suggests that educational requirements may vary from employer to employer, but the data indicate that a master's degree is likely to be preferred by many and is perhaps the only way to develop the specialized knowledge necessary for success in the field.
- Job Growth (2014-2024): 35%
- Mean Annual Salary (2015): $101,260
Nursing is a large field with many different specialties and tiers of education requirement. Registered nurses with a few years of experience under their belt can study to become nurse practitioners, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who deliver a wider range of primary care and sometimes focus their efforts on a certain population. Here's a list of on-the-job duties that a nurse practitioner might perform:
- Performing or ordering physical exams, diagnostic tests and patient observations
- Creating or contributing to treatment plans for patients
- Analyzing test results to determine changes in patient condition and evaluate treatment
- Conducting research and consulting with doctors
- Discussing wellness and illness/injury management with patients, families and communities
Most employers of nurse practitioners require at least some graduate-level education, with most earning a full-fledged degree before working in the field. O*NET numbers showed that at least 93 percent of nurse practitioners had at least a graduate certificate in 2016, and 83 percent of those surveyed reported having a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or other master's degree.
The increased delicacy and complexity of an APRN's job makes it necessary for you to earn some sort of formal credential at the graduate level before you can be considered as a serious candidate. Some facilities or health care learning academies may have effective certificate programs, but a master's degree is a tried and true way to learn what you need to know.
- Job Growth (2014-2024):24.5%
- Mean Annual Salary (2015): $93,610
APRNs who focus on women's health, family planning and obstetric care are known as nurse midwives. Some of the responsibilities of a nurse midwife are similar to the general duties of nurse practitioners, but there are a few tasks specific to the midwifery specialty:
- Providing prenatal and perinatal care to expectant and recent mothers
- Monitoring fetal development using non-invasive techniques
- Guiding patients through their options for family planning services
- Conducting clinical research on infant care, breastfeeding, contraception and related topics
- Educating patients and family members about women's health and newborn care
Around 89 percent of working nurse midwives in 2016 had earned at least a master's degree, according to O*NET. The data show that 78 percent had earned an unembellished master's degree, while 11 percent had furthered their education with a post-master's certificate. Approximately five percent of nurse midwives held a graduate certificate instead of a full degree, while an additional six percent had come into the position with other combinations of experience and education.
Prenatal, perinatal and postpartum care are highly important to both the mother and the infant, so earning a graduate degree in nurse midwifery is not only occupationally necessary but also the most medically responsible choice. If you're unsure about which program to choose, talking to a nurse working in the field can help clear things up.
- Job Growth (2014-2024): 19%
- Mean Annual Salary (2015): $160,250
Nurse anesthetists are another type of APRN, and the highest paid one at that. There are considerable risks involved in administering anesthesia, and it's important that doctors and nurses in this area of practice have a fully articulated education in all the necessary details of the profession. A doctorate may not be necessary on the nursing side of anesthesiology, but a master's degree comes highly recommended.
Here's a general picture of a nurse anesthetist's duties on the job:
- Preforming anesthetic fitness screenings prior to surgical procedures
- Selecting, preparing or administering anesthetics and related drugs or medications
- Monitoring anesthetic patients' responses and vital signs
- Responding to emergency situations with emergency fluids, medications and other measures
- Choosing and prescribing post-anesthetic medications or other treatments
If you're thinking about becoming a nurse anesthetist, it's advisable to gain several years of nursing practice and earn an MSN. O*NET shows that 77 percent of active nurse anesthetists held graduate degrees alone in 2016, while 6 percent had earned doctorates, 6 percent held professional degrees and the remaining 11 percent reported other combinations of education and clinical experience.
- Occupational Information Network, accessed June 8-10, 2016, http://www.onetonline.org
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed June 8-10, 2016: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
- Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed June 10, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
- "Fastest growing occupations," Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_103.htm