Six Careers That Are High In Salary, Short on School


Earning a bachelor's isn't necessary to pursue these hot, high-paying careers.

By Danielle Blundell

Want to make a career switch to a more lucrative field, but worried about starting from scratch in terms of education requirements? We hear you loud and clear. Earning a degree can be a strain on your time, energy, and money, so it's not a decision to take lightly.

But what if we told you that some well-paying jobs might not require four long years of preparation in school? It's true - you could spend as little as two years in school and pursue a high-paying job upon completion.

To make your own career search a little simpler, we've homed in on a few fields that are worth looking into for their short-on-school, big-on-pay potential. Read on for our picks.

Career #1: Paralegal

Median Annual Salary*
Top 10 Percent of Earners
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners

Think you might have what it takes to prepare facts and search for witnesses for a big case? Then a career as a paralegal might be a good option for you. The best news of all? You could pursue this path without ever stepping foot into law school and still manage to be compensated quite nicely year after year.

What They Do: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, paralegals might help lawyers stay on top of duties such as drafting correspondence, preparing and filing documents for court use, and conducting research for cases.

Why It Pays: Even though paralegals don't go to law school, Cheryl Lynch Simpson, an Ohio-based job search coach and owner of, points out that a lot of the skills paralegals must possess are the same as lawyers themselves.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Paralegal Program.

"Sometimes paralegals know more about the given cases, because they've done all the prep and grunt work behind the scenes, and the lawyer's the one that comes out to present in court," she says. "Because of that skill set, pay is high. It's a combination of having that legal mind - being probing and investigative - and balancing just a huge workload of research that involves critical thinking."

How To Prepare: According to the Department of Labor, most paralegals have either an associate's degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in a different field and a certificate in paralegal studies. Some firms may hire candidates with bachelor's degrees and then provide them with on-the-job related training, says the Department.

Career #2: Registered Nurse

Median Annual Salary*
Top 10 Percent of Earners
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners

Ever been told you're the empathetic type? Well, why not cash in on your good nature and pursue a career in nursing, where you could be paid pretty well to care for the sick and elderly? What's even better is that you won't have to worry about investing multiple years of your life in medical school.

What They Do: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nurses monitor and operate medical equipment, record patients' medical histories and symptoms, and educate patients and family members on caring for their ailments.

Why It Pays: "The pay for a RN is high partly because it's a specialized field," says Simpson. "The level of technological proficiency is rising every year, too, and being a nurse requires some medical understanding that you have to have to perform the job."

Next step: Click to Find the Right Nursing Program.

Another contributing factor to high pay, says Simpson, is the human component and high risk associated with practicing nursing. "You need interpersonal skills and that attention to detail here, too, because, quite frankly, one mistake could mean life or death."

How to Prepare: According to the Department of Labor, RNs usually complete one of three paths to pursue the job: a bachelor of science in nursing, an associate's degree in nursing, or an approved nursing diploma program. RNs must also have a license.

Career #3: Police Officer

Median Annual Salary*
Top 10 Percent of Earners
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners

If you've got great gut instincts and street smarts, you might want to think about pursuing a career as a police officer. And you don't have to spend years in school to prepare or to potentially see a good paycheck.

What They Do: Cops do much more than what the famous television series of the same name might lead you to believe. In addition to responding to calls and enforcing laws, the U.S. Department of Labor says officers might write detailed forms, prepare court cases, and appear in court to testify, too.

Why It Pays: For Simpson, a career as a police officer pays well, because it's a protective service that's absolutely necessary in society and can be quite dangerous on a day-to-day basis.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Criminal Justice Program.

"In a society that's increasingly violent, police officers play an important role by protecting people and property," she says. "It's a highly valued job, as it should be, and compensation reflects that. Not all people can be officers and do the job well."

How to Prepare: At a minimum, the Department of Labor says candidates must be high school graduates (or GED earners), at least 21 years old, and able to successfully pass a rigorous physical exam. Candidates must also graduate from the local police academy. According to the Department, "many agencies require some college coursework or a college degree."

Career #4: Dental Hygienist

Median Annual Salary*
Top 10 Percent of Earners
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners

Think about it: Your smile wouldn't be the same without brushing, flossing, and that regular professional cleaning performed by a dental hygienist. Turns out honing this craft can take less time than going to dental school but still pays big.

What They Do: The U.S. Department of Labor says dental hygienists often clean and examine teeth to look for signs of oral disease. They may also educate patients on proper oral hygiene and ways to prevent diseases, says the Department of Labor.

Why It Pays: For Simpson, the technical skills required to pursue a job as a dental hygienist along with the essential tasks make for a fairly high-paying profession.

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

"Not everyone can or is willing to put their hands in somebody's mouth," says Simpson. "In fact, all dentistry-related occupations are high on the list of hated jobs, and that's why salaries in this field can be high."

How to Prepare: While every state has specific certification requirements, an associate's degree in dental hygiene is typically needed to pursue a career as a dental hygienist, according to the Department. Every state also requires dental hygienists to be licensed, the Department notes.

Career #5: Computer Programmer

Median Annual Salary*
Top 10 Percent of Earners
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners

Were you the kind of person that tricked out your Myspace page by editing the CSS scripts? Or maybe you've published your own website and have experience manipulating code? You could parlay those coding fundamentals into a potentially high-paying career as a computer programmer by earning just an associate's degree.

What They Do: Computer programmers may utilize their deep knowledge of different programming languages such as C++ to create and modify software applications, says the U.S. Department of Labor. Common tasks might include debugging program code and designing flowcharts to help plan software coding, the Department of Labor notes.

Why It Pays: "A job as a computer programmer is part of the most reliable, high-paying occupation cluster out there right now that doesn't require an advanced degree," says Simpson.

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

"It's hot, and it's going to stay hot simply because the ability to maximize technology and marry that with people skills is not something that everyone possesses. You have to be able to understand languages and how a computer works, and then be able to communicate that to others," she says.

How to Prepare: According to the Department, while most computer programmers have a bachelor's degree, some employers hire workers with an associate's degree. Most of these professionals pursue a degree in computer science or a related field.

Career #6: Medical Records and Health Information Technician

Median Annual Salary*
Top 10 Percent of Earners
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners

Want to get in on the big business of health care, but know you don't have the desire to work one-on-one with patients? Well, professional certification may be all you need to pursue a behind-the-scenes career as a medical records and health information technician.

What They Do: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, medical records and health information technicians might organize and maintain patients' medical information. They may also be responsible for helping keep patient information private and confidential, says the Department of Labor.

Why It Pays: Simpson says that salaries are high for medical records and health information technicians, relative to the amount of education required to pursue the job. This is due to a "perfect storm of a few things - the regulatory environment that surrounds medical information, the fact that Obamacare is going to require different levels of privacy for medical records, and the fact that medical data is being computerized rapidly right now," she says.

Next step: Click to Find the Right Health Information Technology Program.

"The people that make these systems work are going to be key to health care in the future by accurately recording data so the right caregivers and patients can access and understand it," says Simpson.

How to Prepare: According to the Department, medical records and health information technicians usually need a postsecondary certificate, although it also notes that these workers may have an associate's degree. Many employers also require professional certification from one of several organizations, says the Department, which can involve graduating from an approved program and/or passing an exam.

* All salary information from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment and Wages data, May 2012.

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