10 Best College Majors for a Healthcare Career

Attending college provides you with the opportunity to improve your salary and career prospects, and one of the best fields to do both is to select a healthcare career.

The US government anticipates that the growth of healthcare jobs will be at least 19% by 2024, which is much faster than job growth for other occupations. This will add nearly 2.5 million jobs to the US economy. And, the median salary for all healthcare practitioners and technical healthcare workers – such as RNs, doctors, surgeons and allied health workers – was $62,600 as of May 2015.

So, the health care career track is one that promises plenty of jobs and plenty of money, but which college majors in health care offer the most promise? Read on!

#1 Registered Nurse (RN)

A registered nurse or RN is one of the most important health care workers in the nation. They provide and coordinate vital patient care, educate patients about medical conditions they have and provide support and advice to patients and their family.

Important duties of registered nurses include:

  • Recording the medical history and symptoms for each patient
  • Administer the treatments and medicines for patients
  • Establish plans for the care of patients
  • Work with doctors and other healthcare workers on patient care

To become an RN, you have several options. The most common is to earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) after you graduate from high school.

However, another option is to earn either your associate’s degree in nursing or diploma in nursing. This will allow you to work as a nurse and gain experience, and later you can earn your BSN. Whichever path you choose, you must pass your NCLEX-RN examination to work as an RN in any US state.

Pay

The median salary for all registered nurses in May 2015 was $67,490. The lowest 10% earned $46,300 and the top 10% earned $101,000.

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Job Demand

There will be 16% job growth in the nursing field by 2024, so you will have many opportunities in nursing. One of the biggest advantages of becoming an RN is it is easy to move up in salary and in status by earning a master of science in nursing degree after you have several years of clinical experience.

#2 Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A nurse practitioner is an advanced nursing practice professional who is also a registered nurse, and has earned a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). These nursing professionals serve as primary and specialty care healthcare professionals, and deliver vital advanced nursing services to patients.

To become an NP, you need to study nursing in college, and first earn your bachelor’s degree.

NPs typically assess patients much as doctors do and determine the best path to improve their health. They also work with patients to integrate modern health promotion strategies into their lives.

One of the interesting aspects of becoming an NP is that you can opt to specialize in a specific type of patient, including:

  • Neonates
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics

To work as an NP, you must graduate with your MSN and then pass your national certification examination that is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

Pay

NPs earn a median wage of $98,190 as of May 2015, with the highest salaries going to NPs who work in hospitals: $111,080 on average.

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Job Demand

Becoming an NP is one of the best choices you can make in healthcare, because the demand for nurse practitioners by 2024 will soar by 35%. NPs are often called upon to do much of the same work as doctors, and it costs the health care facility much less to employ an NP, so this will be a growth field for many years to come.

#3 Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

A licensed practical LPN nurse is a registered nurse who holds either an associate’s degree or a diploma of nursing, which takes approximately two years to earn. Many people decide to major in this type of nursing because it allows them to earn their degree in approximately two years, and start working and earning a good salary.

An LPN has a more limited role in patient care than a full RN with a bachelor’s degree, but their duties include:

  • Monitor the health of the patient by checking vital signs several times per shift
  • Administer basic aspects of care, such as inserting catheters and changing bandages
  • Helping patients to bathe, go the restroom and get dressed
  • Talk about the care they are receiving and listen to concerns

To become an LPN, you must graduate from an approved associate’s or diploma program in nursing. Then you need to take your NCLEX-PN examination.

Pay

Median pay for all LPNs as of 2015 was $43,170, with the top 10% earning more than $59,000.

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Job Demand

Job demand for LPNs will be at least 16% by 2024. This is much faster than average. There will be a strong need for more nurses in residential care facilities and in home health care environments in particular. Also know that becoming an LPN is a growth position: You can earn your BSN, often with your employer paying for it, and get a higher salary and more responsibility.

#4 Physician Assistant (PA)

The career path of a physician assistant is very similar to that of a nurse practitioner, the major difference being that an NP is trained specifically as a nurse. But a PA and NP often end up in very similar roles and similar levels of pay.

A PA practices under the supervision of a doctor, surgeon or other health care professional, but there are also some states where PAs may work independently in their own practice.

A PA does most of the same work as an MD:

  • Review the medical history of the patient
  • Conduct physical examination of patient
  • Order and interpret various diagnostic tests
  • Provide treatments, which can include setting broken bones and giving immunizations
  • Prescribe most drugs

To become a PA, you must graduate with a master’s degree in physician assistant studies, and then pass your national certification examination that is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. You should study biology or chemistry or another science in college and earn your bachelor’s and then apply for your master’s program.

Pay

The median pay for PAs is $98,100, with the top 10% earning more than $139,000. It is important to note that many PAs can work a regular full time job and then also pick up part time work, if they choose to do so.

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Job Demand

The demand for PAs will soar by 30% by 2024, which is much faster than average. This is a very high demand field, and you will have no shortage of work for years in the future.

#5 Physical Therapist (PT)

A physical therapist helps ill and injured people to improve their ability to move and to manage pain. PTs are often a vital part of rehabilitation, treatment and preventing patients from suffering from chronic degradation of their health pertaining to movement.

Most PTs do some or all of the following in their day to day work:

  • Review the medical history of the patient and determine what needs to be done in terms of physical therapy
  • Diagnose the movements and functions of the patient by observing them standing or walking and listening to their issues and concerns
  • Develop a plan of care for the patient
  • Use stretching, exercises, hands on therapy and equipment to ease pain and improve movement over time

To become a PT, you must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which lasts three years. After you graduate from this program, you must take your national examination that is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Pay

The median wage for all PTs as of May 2015 was $84,020, with the top 10% earning in excess of $119,000 per year.

Job Demand

The demand for jobs in this field will increase by an impressive 34% by 2024, which is much faster than average.

#6 Phlebotomist

A good way to enter the health care field with a relatively low amount of education is that of phlebotomist. This type of health care professional draws blood for transfusions, blood tests, and research. Some of them are responsible for explaining what they are doing to the patient.

Common duties are:

  • Drawing blood from each patient
  • Talking with patients to help them to feel less nervous about the procedure
  • Verify the identity of the patient before the blood is labeled
  • Enter information of the patient into a database

To become a phlebotomist, most people enter a postsecondary certificate program for a year and then they can begin working.

Pay

The median wage in this field was $31,600 as of May 2015, with the top 10% earning more than $45,000 per year.

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Job Demand

The demand for jobs in this field will rise by 25% by 2024, which is much faster than average.

#7 Respiratory Therapist (RT)

A respiratory therapist cares for patients who have breathing problems. This can be due to a chronic respiratory disease, including asthma or emphysema, or could be due to pneumonia. Patients for RTs range from premature babies to elderly patients who have chronic diseases.

Typical duties include:

  • Interviewing and examining patients with breathing problems
  • Talking to doctors to develop patient treatment plans
  • Treating patients by using chest physiotherapy and aerosol medications
  • Monitor and record the progress for each patient

To become an RT, you need to earn at least an associate’s degree, but more employers today prefer you to have a degree in respiratory therapy. You can study respiratory therapy as your bachelor’s major.

You then must earn your license that is provided by the National Board for Respiratory Care.

Pay

Median pay for RTs as of 2015 was $57,790, with the top 10% earning more than $80,000 per year.

Job Demand

Job demand in this field will grow by 12% by 2024, which means that you should be able to find plenty of work in most health care systems.

#8 Speech Language Pathologist

A speech language pathologist assesses, diagnoses and treats communication and swallowing problems in patients. These types of issues are possible due to birth defects, brain injury, hearing loss, stroke, cleft palate and more.

Typical duties for a speech language pathologist are:

  • Evaluate the patient’s language, speech or difficulty swallowing
  • Identify various treatment choices
  • Create and carry out a treatment plan that addresses the specific problems of the patient
  • Teach patients how to make proper sounds and to improve their voice

To enter this field, you must have a master’s degree in speech language pathology, and having a bachelor’s degree and background in the physical sciences is recommended.

Salary

The median salary in this field was $73,400 in 2015.

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Job Demand

Job demand will increase by 21% by 2024, which ensures a strong career for anyone who chooses to earn their master’s in this field.

#9 Radiation Therapist

A radiation therapist treats cancer and other diseases that are administered by radiation treatments. Most radiation therapists use machines that are known as linear accelerators, which deliver radiation treatments. These machines direct highly targeted radiation to the cancer cells in the patient’s body, which kills or shrinks them.

To become a radiation therapist, you must earn your associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy.

Pay

The median salary for radiation therapists was $80,220 in May 2015.

Job Demand

Demand in this field will increase by 14% by 2024, which is much faster than average. This is being driven by an increase in cancer patients as people are living longer.

#10 Occupational Therapist

An occupational therapist treats, ill, disabled or injured patients and helps them to improve their ability to engage in their daily activities. They are primarily focused on helping patients to develop, recover, and improve skills that they need to live and work.

For example, patients who have permanent disabilities, including cerebral palsy, may need help to perform daily tasks of living, and may help them to do so with leg braces, wheelchairs and aids used for eating.

To become an occupational therapist, you will need to earn your master’s degree. Then, you must earn your license as administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Pay

Median pay for occupational therapists was $80,100 in May 2015.

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Job Demand

Job demand in this field promises to be strong through 2024, with job demand increasing 27%.

Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is HealthGrad.com's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

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