Five Careers You Can Pursue with an Associate's Degree

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Looking to make a career change? Check out these careers that you could prepare to pursue in as little as two years.

By Amy Chang

Does this sound like you? You want a career that could potentially pay well, so you're considering returning to school, but you're worried that it means four plus years of cracking the books?

Well, don't slam the school door just yet. There are plenty of potentially well-paying careers that require only an associate's degree, which could be completed in as little as two years.

And just how do we define "well-paying"? Good question. We took a very matter-of-fact route: we chose careers with am average annual salary higher than the national average for all occupations - $45,230 in May 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics.

Intrigued? Keep reading to learn more about five careers that could potentially pay well but don't demand an extended tour of school duty.

Career #1 - Paralegal

Do you like researching and writing reports? Have an interest in law and value ethics? A career in the above average-paying paralegal field may be precisely what you're looking for - and could be pursued with only an associate's degree.

"This career is expanding because of the need to hand off tasks from highly paid lawyers to less expensive staff. Pay is high because paralegals need to have a broad knowledge in legal terminology and procedures," says Laurence Shatkin, a career expert with more than 30 years of experience and author of "Best Jobs for the 21st Century."

What It Pays (on Average): The average salary for paralegals is $46,960 per year, says the U.S. Department of Labor, with the top 10 percent earning over $75,400 and the bottom 10 percent coming in at $29,390.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Paralegal Program.

Career Details: Standard responsibilities for paralegals generally include conducting research on laws, writing reports for attorneys, drafting correspondence, and assisting in trials, according to the Department of Labor.

Education Options: An associate's degree in paralegal studies may be completed in as little as two years. Or, if you already hold a bachelor's degree in any field, you could enroll in a certification program that might take as little as a few months, depending on the school. Courses generally include legal research and computer applications as well as internships in law firms, notes the Department.

Career #2 - Registered Nurse

Want to prepare for a career in the medical field but don't have years and years to spend in medical school? You're in luck. With an associate's degree in nursing - which could take as little as two years to complete - you could be on your way toward a career in registered nursing. Just remember, registered nurses also must be licensed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A career as a registered nurse "ranks high on everyone's list of career choices because the demographic trend of an aging population guarantees an increasing need," says Shatkin.

What It Pays (on Average): The average salary for registered nurses is a healthy $69,110, with the top 10 percent earning above $96,630 and the bottom 10 percent coming in at $44,970, according to the Department of Labor.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Registered Nursing Program.

Career Details: Registered nurses might administer medication, assist with diagnostic tests, take care of newborns, and help patients learn to manage their illnesses, according to the Department.

Education Options: An associate's degree in nursing (ADN) could be completed in as little as two years. Other options include earning a bachelor's in nursing or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Registered nurses then need to get licensed. Courses in a nursing program generally include chemistry, anatomy, nursing, and microbiology, along with supervised clinical experience in hospitals, notes the Department.

Career #3 - Computer Support Specialist

Are you on speed dial for your friends and family members when they have computer issues? Are you a good listener, patient, and a problem solver? Consider leveraging your skills in pursuit of a career as a computer support specialist.

"This career will continue to grow, partly because of fast growth and partly because consumers want to talk to people whom they can understand. ...Off-shoring to foreign workers will not hurt the good outlook for this occupation," Shatkin says.

What It Pays (on Average): The top 10 percent of computer support specialists average at $81,190 per year, says the U.S. Department of Labor. The average salary for computer support specialists is $51,820, with the bottom 10 percent coming in at $28,980.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Computer Science Program.

Career Details: Typical job responsibilities include helping people understand how to use computers, testing network systems, and troubleshooting network problems, according to the Department of Labor.

Education Options: Though many employers want applicants to have a bachelor's degree, some may require only an associate's degree, notes the Department. Topics to consider studying: computer science and information science.

Career #4 - Dental Hygienist

Are you a sociable person and a stickler for hygiene? Those skills could translate into a promising career as a dental hygienist.

Dental hygienists are on the front lines of the human fight against oral decay and disease. But they're teachers, too, educating patients on the importance of oral care and how to maintain proper dental hygiene, says the U.S. Department of Labor. That's a lot of responsibility, which is why they are typically compensated fairly.

What It Pays (on Average): The top 10 percent of dental hygienists earn $94,850 per year. The average salary for this profession comes in at $69,760, with the bottom 10 percent earning $46,020, according to the Department of Labor.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Dental Hygiene Program.

Career Details: According to the Department, responsibilities of dental hygienists typically include removing tartar and plaque from teeth, taking x-rays, educating patients about how to brush and flush properly, and tracking patient treatment schedules.

Education Options: Requirements vary by state, but it is typical for prospective dental hygienists to earn an associate's degree in the field, says the Department. Additionally, all states require that dental hygienists be licensed.

Career #5 - Fashion Designer

Are you always on the cutting edge of hot styles? You could follow your passion for fashion - and for the potential to earn high pay as a fashion designer - in as little as two years with an associate's degree.

"This is a highly competitive career, but those with formal education in fashion design, excellent portfolios, and industry experience - such as an internship - are able to compete successfully and can command high wages because of their combination of creativity and business savvy," advises Shatkin.

What It Pays: The U.S. Department of Labor reports the average salary for fashion designers is $73,930, with the top 10 percent earning $127,820 and the bottom 10 percent coming in at $32,700.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Fashion Merchandising Program.

Career Details: Responsibilities for fashion designers might include planning and sketching a collection, picking out fabrics, using computers to create designs, and showcasing clothes and accessories at fashion or trade shows, according to the Department of Labor.

Education Options: Many fashion designers pursue an associate's degree in a field like fashion merchandising, says the Department. A portfolio, notes the Department, is essential to showcase your work and experience to potential employers.

* All median, top 10 percent, and bottom 10 percent salary information comes from the U.S. Department of Labor's salary estimates, May 2011 Occupational Employment and Wages.

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