Friday, October 9, 2009

Best Jobs in America

Money/'s list of great careers

AP Photo

In the midst of the worst job market in three decades, you might think the only thing people care about when it comes to their career is having a job and keeping it. But when Money and, a leading online provider of employee-compensation data, surveyed 35,000 people online about what makes a great job, they rated intellectual challenge, a passion for the work, and flexibility just as highly as security. Perhaps the financial crisis has made many of us realize that we’re going to be on the job a few extra years, so we might as well be doing work we can enjoy.

1. Systems Engineer

Median salary (experienced): $87,100
Top pay: $130,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 45%
Sector: Information Technology

What they do: They're the "big think" managers on large, complex projects, from major transportation networks to military defense programs. They figure out the technical specifications required and coordinate the efforts of lower-level engineers working on specific aspects of the project.

Why it's great: Demand is soaring for systems engineers, as what was once a niche job in the aerospace and defense industries becomes commonplace among a diverse and expanding universe of employers, from medical device makers to corporations like Xerox and BMW. Pay can easily hit six figures for top performers, and there's ample opportunity for advancement. But many systems engineers say they most enjoy the creative aspects of the job and seeing projects come to life. "The transit system I work on really makes a tangible difference to people," says Anne O'Neil, chief systems engineer for the New York City Transit Authority.

Drawbacks: Long hours are common; project deadlines can be fierce.

Pre-reqs: An undergrad engineering degree; some jobs might also require certification as a certified systems engineering professional (CSEP).


2. Physician Assistant

Median salary (experienced): $90,900
Top pay: $124,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 27%
Sector: Healthcare

What they do: Call it MD lite. Working under the supervision of a doctor, PAs do all tasks involved in routine medical care, such as diagnosing illnesses and assisting in surgery. In most states they can write prescriptions as well.

Why it's great: You get the satisfaction of treating patients minus insurance hassles, since PAs have far less administrative responsibility than the typical MD. "I'm part of a team yet have a lot of autonomy," says PA Robert Wooten. You don't have to take on the time or expense of med school (see pre-reqs) and the field is virtually recession-proof, owing to an ongoing shortage of primary-care physicians. PAs are also far cheaper to employ than MDs, so demand is expected to steadily increase as medical facilities try to rein in costs, says Bill Leinweber, CEO of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. And since they don't need as much specialized training as doctors, PAs can switch from, say, geriatrics to emergency care with relative ease.

Drawbacks: It's a fairly new profession, so the number of annual job openings is still small.

Pre-reqs: A master's degree; 100 hours of training every two years; recertification every six.


3. College Professor

Median salary (experienced): $70,400
Top pay: $115,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 23%
Sector: Education

What they do: Teach and grade papers, of course. But profs also spend about half their time doing research and writing articles and books about their field.

Why it's great: For starters, major scheduling freedom. "Besides teaching and office hours, I get to decide where, when, and how I get my work done," says Daniel Beckman, a biology professor at Missouri State University. And that doesn't even take into account ample time off for holidays and a reduced workload in the summer. Competition for tenuretrack positions at four-year institutions is intense, but you'll find lots of available positions at community colleges and professional programs, where you can enter the professoriate as an adjunct faculty member or non-tenuretrack instructor without a doctorate degree. That's particularly true during economic downturns, when laid-off workers often head back to school for additional training. More valuable perks: reduced or free tuition for family members and free access to college gyms and libraries.

Drawbacks: Low starting pay and a big 50% salary gap between faculty at universities and community colleges. If the position is at a four-year university, you'll probably have to relocate, and you'll be under pressure to constantly publish new work to sustain career momentum.

How to get it: For a tenure track position, you'll need a Ph.D. But all colleges want at least a master's degree and prefer plenty of teaching experience.

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4. Nurse Practitioner

Median salary (experienced): $85,200
Top pay: $113,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 23%
Sector: Healthcare

What they do: In addition to performing routine caretaking tasks, nurse practitioners have the advanced medical training to diagnose and treat a wide range of ailments. They can also prescribe medication without consulting an MD.

Not that stability and growth don’t matter, of course. We put the heaviest weight on those factors when we began crunching the numbers to come up with our list of the 50 best jobs. But to make the final cut, a job had to get high quality-of-life marks too. Whether you’re thinking of switching careers, are job hunting, or want to nudge a child in the right professional direction, this list should give you plenty of fodder for discussion.

Why it's great: Thanks to the growth of retail health clinics and the shortage of primary-care doctors, opportunities abound for nurse practitioners in settings from hospitals and urgent-care centers to private practice. They can specialize in fields such as women's health or oncology. Experienced nurse practitioners looking for a change of pace can shift to teaching or medical research. Nurse practitioners are also specifically trained in patient teaching; disease prevention is typically a large part of their practice. "Helping people see that small changes in their lifestyles can make a big difference to their health is very rewarding," says New York City nurse practitioner Edwidge Thomas.

Drawbacks: Constant insurance headaches. Education requirements are ratcheting up.

Pre-reqs: Must first complete training to get license as a registered nurse; master's degree, plus certification. A doctor of nursing practice degree is increasingly in demand, which requires about three additional years of study.

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5. Information Technology Project Manager

Median salary (experienced): $98,700
Top pay: $140,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 16%
Sector: Information Technology

What they do: Keep big tech projects like software upgrades running on time--and on budget. "We bring order to chaos," says April Ellison, an IT project manager in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Why it's great: Lots of opportunity. "Just about all companies need techsavvy people who are great managers," says Houston tech recruiter Linda Ranostaj. Figuring out how to implement cutting-edge technologies keeps the job challenging. Good upward mobility: IT project managers can rise to chief technology officer of a company, where the salaries can hit $300,000. Do you prefer to work for yourself? The field offers plenty of consulting work.

Drawbacks: Hours (and hours and hours) of meetings. Aggressive project timelines. Staff jobs can be outsourced to consultants.

Pre-reqs: Five to seven years of technology and computer-related experience. A project management professional certification, along with an MBA, will enhance career prospects.


6. Certified Public Accountant

Median salary (experienced): $74,200
Top pay: $138,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 18%
Sector: Financial

What they do: Crunch the numbers, whether it's for financial analysis or tax preparation.

Why it's great: Businesses began stocking the payroll with CPAs after major accounting scandals earlier this decade, and a host of new corporate accounting rules going into effect soon should ratchet up demand further. Government agencies are also hiring CPAs, to monitor how well companies are complying with the new regs. Add inevitable changes to personal income tax rules and you have a pretty recession-proof profession. "Unless Congress does away with taxes, we'll always have work," says CPA Lisa Featherngill of Winston- Salem, N.C. Some 33,000 independent CPAs also work for themselves, typically as tax preparers.

Drawbacks: Deadlines are nonnegotiable; if you're in tax preparation, kiss your personal life goodbye between mid-February and April 15.

Pre-reqs: A certification exam and, typically, 150 hours of business and accounting classes and work experience.

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7. Physical Therapist

Median salary (experienced): $74,300
Top pay: $98,100
Job growth (10-year forecast): 27%
Sector: Healthcare

What they do: Restore strength, flexibility, and range of motion to people who have been sidelined by injury, illness, or disease.

Not that stability and growth don’t matter, of course. We put the heaviest weight on those factors when we began crunching the numbers to come up with our list of the 50 best jobs. But to make the final cut, a job had to get high quality-of-life marks too. Whether you’re thinking of switching careers, are job hunting, or want to nudge a child in the right professional direction, this list should give you plenty of fodder for discussion.

Why it's great: Unlike many health-care professionals, physical therapists generally see great progress in their patients. "I don't just treat the symptoms-- I give people the tools to get better," says Jennifer Gamboa, an orthopedic physical therapist in Arlington, Va. Plus, there's no overnight or shift work. Medical advances that allow a growing number of people with injuries and disabilities to survive are spurring demand, says Marc Goldstein, senior director of research at the American Physical Therapists Association. And hey, baby boomers' knees aren't getting any younger: An aging population means more chronic conditions that need physical therapy treatment.

Drawbacks: The impact of health reform on the profession is a wild card. Can be physically demanding.

Pre-reqs: A master's degree, plus certification and state licensing. Many employers prefer a doctor of physical therapy degree.


8. Computer/Network Security Consultant

Median salary (experienced): $99,700
Top pay: $152,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 27%
Sector: Information Technology

What they do: Protect computer systems and networks against hackers, spyware, and viruses. "I consider myself a cybercrime fighter," says Gregory Evans, an independent computer security consultant in Atlanta.

Why it's great: No company or government agency can afford to have a serious breach in the security of its computer system. New technologies and an unending supply of creative hackers around the world keep the field challenging. Consultants can often work from home. And top-level pros command big paychecks.

Drawbacks: Talk about stress. If a system is infiltrated by a virus or hacker, it could mean lights out for the security consultant's career. "This is a job you can't afford to ever fail in," says Evans.

Pre-reqs: Mostly major geekdom, since the skills can be self-taught. Still, a computer science degree comes in handy. An information systems security professional certification (CISSP) is increasingly favored. Experience is key for better-paying positions: Most companies won't hire a consultant with less than five years of experience.

AP Photo/CIA

9. Intelligence Analyst

Median salary (experienced): $82,500
Top pay: $115,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 15%
Sector: Government

What they do: Gather and analyze data related to international policy and military strategy, most often for the government or defense contractors.

Why it's great: Like adventure? Data might be collected from satellite images, wiretaps, Internet chatter, and military and spy reports. Given the country's continued vigilance about national security, demand should remain high. "The best part is helping our country," says Nate Copeland, an intelligence analyst in Herndon, Va.

Drawbacks: High stress; you often can't talk about your job outside of work.

Pre-reqs: Security clearance, of course. Foreign languages and often military experience are a huge plus.


10. Sales Director

Median salary (experienced): $140,000
Top pay: $239,000
Job growth (10-year forecast): 10%
Sector: Sales and Marketing

What they do: Set and meet sales goals, generate new accounts, and mentor and train new recruits.

Why it's great: A successful sales director--especially one who can weather an economic downturn-- will always be sought after. "I feel secure since I'm bringing money into the company," says Holly Anderson, a sales director in St. Helena, Calif. Sales directors often move into high-level management.

Drawbacks: Sales down? You're vulnerable to getting the ax. Commission-based pay can fluctuate dramatically. Expect to be on the road about 50% of the time.

Pre-reqs: 10 years of sales experience and a year or two in management. A proven track record beats an advanced degree.

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