Medical Field Majors Career Options
Careers in Healthcare
As of 2017, the healthcare industry officially became the largest employer in the United States. Between May 2017 and May 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 318,000 new jobs were created in the field and it only seems to be growing. And it’s not just patient care jobs like nurses and physicians that are increasing, but also positions in medical office administration, medical technology and insurance. If you are interested in working in the healthcare industry, read on to learn more about the range of careers available and the degree programs that can help you get there.
Industries Within the Healthcare Sector
Healthcare is an umbrella term that houses numerous jobs, all with varying skills and responsibilities. The field holds many opportunities for students with a wide set of interests and backgrounds through four major industries or segments. Understanding these individual industries is important when choosing a career path.
This segment of the healthcare field is comprised of the frontline caregivers who provide direct medical care to patients. This includes doctors, nurses, speech-pathologists, nutritionists and dieticians, occupational therapists, operating room techs and physicians assistants. These are but a few examples of a wide range of service positions. Within this segment, healthcare students can also pursue careers that are focused more on operations and administration within healthcare facilities such as hospitals, clinics and nursing care facilities.
Medical Devices & Supplies Manufacturers
As the name suggests, this segment focuses on devices/supplies — and the manufacturers of those devices/supplies — for patients and healthcare facilities. With advancements in technology and the need to serve an aging population, the medical device industry is experiencing continuous growth. On the operation side, there are positions for medical technologists who are certified in specific devices such as x-ray, radiology, MRI and nuclear medicine technology. On the supply and manufacturing side, there are positions in device engineering and sales. Certifications or degrees can range from highly specific and technical (e.g., medical engineering or a certificate in radiologic technology) to more general for sales or marketing jobs (e.g., business, biology).
Healthcare Management (Sometimes Called Managed Healthcare)
The managed healthcare industry focuses on reducing healthcare costs and improving overall quality of care. Working in healthcare management or managed healthcare is, essentially, working within the health insurance sector or with policies that affect how healthcare is administered. Opportunities within this segment include working in the private sector with private insurance companies as well as the public sector for federal programs such as Medicaid, Medicare or on the operations side of the Affordable Care Act. Positions could involve finance, accounting, healthcare quality assessment or front end case management. Applicable degrees can vary from a healthcare management certificate to finance.
Aside from nurses and doctors, this is probably the segment that most people are somewhat familiar with. However, the pharmaceutical industry is more than just the pharmacist or the pharmacy tech dispensing prescription medication. While those positions are essential in this industry, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. There’s research and development of new pharmaceuticals, safety and health monitoring of products on the market or about to go on the market, advocacy and policy around making essential pharmaceuticals affordable and accessible as well as sales and marketing of pharmaceuticals. While it’s important to have a strong foundation in the basic science (usually chemistry or biology), other non-pharmacy degrees, such as business or communications, can also be useful in the field.
Degrees That Prepare You for Healthcare Careers
While noble and important professions, doctors and nurses aren’t the only careers one can pursue in the healthcare field. The field is broad and diverse, which means many degrees (ranging from postsecondary certificates to doctorates) can provide entry into the healthcare sector. To illustrate this, the following are a few examples of degree programs that can provide a solid foundation for a career in each of the four healthcare industries discussed in the previous section, along with potential careers that degree can lead to. What students will find is that almost anyone can work in healthcare, they just need to find the right degree to get them started.
Top Healthcare Careers That Require a Postsecondary Certificate
|Career||Median Salary||Majors||Career Description|
|Surgical Technologists||$46,300||Surgical technology postsecondary certificate||Surgical technologists, also known as operating room techs, set up and prepare an operating room for surgery.|
|Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses||$45,030||Practical nurse certificate||Licenced practical nurses (also known as LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) assist registered nurses and doctors in the clinical setting and in nursing homes.|
|Massage Therapists||$39,990||Massage therapy certification||Massage therapists use muscle manipulation to relieve pain and pressure for clients seeking help for healing injuries, improved circulation, pain relief or general relaxation|
|Medical Records and Health Information Technicians||$39,180||Certified Electronic Health Records Certificate, Computer Programming, Information Technology||With advances in technology always evolving, medical records and health information technicians are becoming increasingly important in the healthcare sector.|
|Dental Assistant||$37,630||Dental Assistant Certification, Biology, Basic Sciences||Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks within a dental setting including scheduling appointments and recordkeeping as well as assisting with patient care and performing X-rays.|
An associate degree in nursing is the minimum requirement for anyone who wants to become a registered nurse or RN, however, a bachelor’s in nursing is increasingly required by employers. A nursing degree introduces students to the fundamentals of the profession through courses in anatomy, biology, public health, and theory and research in nursing. Additionally, students receive practical experience through required clinical work. A degree in nursing is also a jumping off point to other advanced practice nursing careers (e.g., nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner and nurse midwife) in which a higher degree is required.
- Public Health
Public health degrees are offered at all postsecondary levels (associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate). On a foundational level, this degree looks at health and healthcare from a bird’s eye-view and investigates how a public health issue can be addressed through education, awareness and other large-scale solutions. It emphasizes health promotion and disease prevention for the community rather than just the individual. Students also gain a foundation in subjects such as the life sciences, sociology, psychology and public policy. A public health degree can lead to careers in healthcare administration, healthcare policy or research.
Bachelor’s level biology courses are oftentimes prerequisites for advanced professional healthcare degrees. Thus, a bachelor’s in biology is a great option, especially for pre-medical students at colleges that don’t offer an official pre-med degree. Biology gives students the scientific foundation needed for a variety of careers in healthcare including microbiology, organic chemistry and human physiology.
- Occupational Health & Safety
A bachelor’s or master’s in occupational health and safety is an excellent way to enter healthcare facilities management through the means of workplace safety. While the degree can be applied to many fields outside of healthcare, it is particularly important in the medical and health fields because of the implications for patient safety. The degree has a strong focus on the laws and regulations around workplace safety, technologies and tools that help monitor safety standards and the various safety risks within the workplace.
For anyone interested in mental health, a psychology degree is a great option. In order to use this degree in the healthcare services segment, a master’s or doctorate will be required. These advanced degrees will allow students to pursue careers in therapy, counseling or social work.
Top Healthcare Careers That Require an Associate Degree
|Career||Median Salary||Majors||Career Description|
|Radiation Therapists||$80,570||Radiation Therapy||This highly specialized position requires not only the technical proficiency in administering radiation, but also requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills.|
|Nuclear Medicine Technologist||$75,660||Nuclear Medicine Technology||A nuclear medicine technologist is highly specialized in the use of radioactive imaging devices such as positron emission tomography (PET) and computer tomography (CT) scanners which help doctors look for diseases or sources of injuries.|
|Dental Hygienists||$74,070||Dental Hygiene||Dental hygienists perform the majority of the dental work for routine preventative dental care, such as teeth cleaning, advising on good oral health maintenance and doing initial examinations for oral diseases.|
|Diagnostics Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians||$65,620||Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Cardiovascular Technology||Diagnostic medical sonographers (also known as ultrasound techs) are specialists in imaging devices that use sound waves to produce images of specific areas inside the body.|
|Radiologic and MRI Technologists||$60,070||Radiologic Technology||Radiologic and MRI technologists (also known as radiographers) perform diagnostic imaging scans.|
Medical Devices & Supplies Manufacturers
- Biomedical Engineering
At the bachelor’s level, biomedical engineering prepares students for a career in medical devices and manufacturing (graduate level biomedical engineering degrees are also commonly required for some areas of the profession). The degree involves coursework in chemistry, physics, biology, physiology and engineering. Upon graduation, students are prepared to enter an array of medical technology fields including medical device engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, medical imaging, bionics (design of “bionic” limbs for amputees) and clinical engineering.
- Medical Device Technology
Master’s and master’s certificate programs in medical device technology cover a wide range of subjects including elements of design, engineering and manufacturing of medical technology, marketing and policy. This degree can lead to a career in medical equipment maintenance, engineering or manufacturing. With the technological background it provides, it can also be useful in medical device marketing and sales.
- Medical Technology
A bachelor’s degree in medical technology gives students an opportunity to work either directly with patients or in the medical device side of the field through sales. By specializing or obtaining certification in a specific medical technology (e.g., cardiovascular technology, dialysis technology, radiation technology, nuclear medical technology etc.), a graduate receives preparation to also enter the supply side such as testing devices, sales or medical device training.
- Healthcare Administration
Healthcare administration isn’t just a degree for those wanting to work in management, it can also lead to a career in medical device sales. A master’s in healthcare administration provides a background in strategic decision-making and marketing that are highly useful for selling medical devices. With this degree, graduates may also have more opportunities for growth within the field.
An associate or bachelor’s in business might not be specifically focused on a career in medical devices, but it can easily be translated over. While some additional background in life sciences or biomedical engineering might be helpful, the foundations of a business administration degree (e.g., sales, marketing, finance, etc.) are skills that are incredibly valuable in medical device sales. A master’s in business administration can also lead to management positions within the field.
Top Healthcare Careers That Require a Bachelor’s Degree
|Career||Median Salary||Majors||Career Description|
|Registered Nurse||$70,000||Nursing||Registered nurses are on the front lines of many healthcare settings including clinics, hospitals and nursing care facilities.|
|Occupational Health and Safety Specialist||$67,720||Occupational Health and Safety, Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, Industrial Hygiene, Health Physics||Occupational health and safety specialists are charged with ensuring that the workplace is healthy and safe for employees by collecting and analyzing data through site inspections.|
|Dieticians and Nutritionists||$59,410||Biology, Nutrition, Chemistry, Food And Nutrition, Public Health, Public Health Nutrition, Clinical Nutrition||Dieticians and nutritionists specialize in food and nutrition and work with people to manage and avoid disease through education and assistance around diet.|
|Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides||$56,690||Occupational Therapy Assistant, Biology, Health Education||Under the direction of occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistant and aides work with individuals of all ages to learn and/or re-learn how to carry out the skills needed to accomplish everyday tasks.|
|Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians||$51,770||Medical Technology, Life Sciences||Medical and clinical laboratory techs take body fluid and tissue samples and perform analyses of them based on an attending physicians’ or general healthcare providers’ orders.|
The insurance industry is, essentially, a financial industry which makes an associate or bachelor’s in finance an excellent way to prepare for a career in healthcare management. By having a foundation in finance, students set themselves up for the money management side of the sector. The emphasis on accounting, investment and corporate finance in this degree can help lead to careers as insurance risk managers, actuaries or finance officers.
- Healthcare Management
Healthcare management degrees exist at almost every level including postsecondary certificates. The degree often combines business principles such as finance, human resources, economics and operations management with the fundamentals of healthcare operations (e.g., ethics, delivery systems and technology applications in healthcare). The coursework is excellent preparation for working within the managed healthcare/insurance industry.
A bachelor’s or master’s in communications can often lead to working in healthcare-specific or managed healthcare communications, marketing or public relations. Health communications (typically offered at the master’s level) is even more targeted for the healthcare sector and provides specialized skills and knowledge in not only general communications coursework, but also health communications and promotion and healthcare administration.
- Human Resources
Because healthcare institutions are, quite often, the largest employers in a region or state, human resources specialist are important within the healthcare management segment. With a bachelor’s in human resources, a student gains skills and knowledge in organizational leadership and development, performance management and corporate or social responsibility.
- Health Informatics
Because of the ever evolving state of technology and, with it, advancements in electronic medical records, the field of health informatics is quickly growing. With a master’s in health informatics, students gain a strong foundation in understanding healthcare systems as well as the technological skills and knowledge to develop, manage and maintain electronic health records with privacy and security in mind. Because of the growth in this field, it’s an excellent launching pad for healthcare management.
Top Healthcare Careers That Require a Master’s Degree
|Career||Median Salary||Majors||Career Description|
|Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners||$110,930||Master’s degree Nurse Anesthesia, Nurse Midwifery, Master of Science in Nursing.||These advanced practice nursing professions have one element in common, they start as registered nurses, but the tracks are all very different.|
|Physicians Assistant||$104,860||Physicians Assistant, Medical Science, Health Science||Physicians assistants are independent care providers that often serve as the primary healthcare professional to patients to conduct preventative care assessments, diagnose and help manage illness and prescribe medication.|
|Occupational Therapists||$83,200||Occupational Therapy||Occupational therapists work with patients to develop or redevelop skills to help them carry out everyday tasks such as cooking or putting on clothes.|
|Genetic Counselors||$77,480||Genetics, Counseling with a specialty in genetics||Genetic counselors work with families to identify and assess the risks of birth defects or other inherited conditions and counsel families about the risks and provide a thorough diagnosis.|
|Speech-Language Pathologists||$76,610||Speech-Language Pathology, Linguistics||Speech-language pathologists work with adults and children of all ages to diagnose and help develop strong speech and communication skills.|
- Pharmacy Technician Certificate
Pharmacy technician certificates typically require fewer than two years of postsecondary coursework plus clinical experience. An associate degree would fulfill the certification element but also require general education coursework. Courses cover science and pharmacy including pharmacology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology. Programs also provide technical and clinical skills. This is a great way to get a foot in the door to pharmaceuticals.
Because pharmaceuticals is, at its root, chemistry, an associate or bachelor’s in the subject is an obvious choice for someone interested in pursuing a career in this healthcare segment. A chemistry degree provides a foundation in the many different subsets of the subject including biochemistry, geochemistry, organic chemistry and medical chemistry. For those drawn to research and lab work, chemistry graduates can enter the field of pharmaceutical research and development. Additionally, paired with strong communications skills, the degree can lead to pharmaceutical sales.
A degree in biology delves into how living organisms function. There are many subsets of the subject, but a general associate or bachelor’s degree in biology will provide a foundation in a variety of those including microbiology, biochemistry and environmental biology in addition to other life science coursework. Because of the research component in the field, a degree in biology can lead to research and development in pharmaceuticals.
- Pharmaceutical Engineering
A master’s degree in pharmaceutical engineering is specifically geared toward people interested in advancing the research and development of pharmaceuticals. Programs prepare students to test drugs that are going to market and identify safe and efficient manufacturing processes. The degree often merges the science and research with business and organizational skills.
- Pharmaceutical Sciences
Pharmaceutical science degrees are offered at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. A bachelor’s or master’s degree will prepare students to work in drug analysis, marketing/pharmaceutical sales and research. A doctorate in pharmacy provides the required education for pharmacists who dispense prescription medication and provide counsel to patients regarding their prescriptions. Coursework covers pharmacology, chemistry and other related sciences as well as ethics and laws around the industry.
Highest Paying Careers for Healthcare Majors
No matter what education level a student pursues, there are myriad high paying career opportunities in healthcare. From postsecondary certificates to doctoral degrees, this list highlights the five highest paying healthcare careers for graduates at each degree level.
Top Healthcare Careers That Require a Doctoral or Professional Degree
|Career||Median Salary||Majors||Career Description|
|Physicians and Surgeons||$208,000+||Medicine||A physician’s primary role is to work with patients to prevent, diagnose and manage diseases and a surgeon’s is to treat injury or disease by performing surgeries.|
|Dentist||$158,120||Dentistry||The foundation of a dentist’s work is to examine and treat problems with patients’ teeth. While we’re likely most familiar with general dentists who see patients for preventative care, there are a variety of dentistry specialties to pursue.|
|Podiatrist||$127,740||Podiatric Medicine||Podiatrists diagnose and treat injuries, pain and other issues experienced in the foot, ankle or the lower leg region and perform surgeries when necessary.|
|Pharmacist||$124,170||Pharmaceutical Studies||Pharmacists dispense prescription medications and advise patients on their safe use.|
|Optometrist||$110,300||Optometry||Optometrists examine eyes and the visual system and diagnose and treat injuries or diseases to the eyes. Optometrists can specialize in a variety of areas as they relate to eye health including geriatrics,|
Q&A with a Healthcare Graduate
Courtney Szper always knew that she wanted to work in healthcare. While she graduated with her bachelor’s in environmental policy from Barnard College in 2003, it took her several years to decide the best path for her. After a successful career as a competitive swim coach, she took the plunge to go back to school and graduated from the University of Portland with a bachelor’s in nursing in 2017 and now works as a behavioral health nurse in Portland, Oregon.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in healthcare?
As an RN, you have an independent scope of practice and you also keep the door open to other advanced practice nursing jobs like nurse practitioner. I like the idea of being a primary practitioner as an NP in the future. I really like the independent aspect of the field and it could potentially allow me to go into the medical field. Also, as a nurse you can be anything. The rest of my life, I could be a nurse and I could never be bored. If you want to something new in nursing, you don’t necessarily need to switch professions.
What did you study in college and how did your education prepare you for the job you have today?
I graduated from undergrad with a degree in environmental policy. There’s a really strong connection between that degree and nursing to me. It was an integrated science degree that also incorporated sociology and anthropology. There’s a strong connection between the degree and public health. We’re living in a more integrated society, everything we do in an independent silo is coming out of vogue. My first undergraduate degree was all about integrating multiple systems and not just looking at a crisis management. That’s part of the reason I wanted to go into nursing — because of the nursing modality of health prevention.
My nursing program did a great job of teaching me to not be just a “thinking nurse,” but to also have the clinical knowledge. University of Portland’s nursing program really emphasizes using your five senses to take a holistic view of your patient and address them on multiple levels. If they have a gastrointestinal issue, you’re finding out what is wrong, what could help them, and how to make that solution unique to their situation and their lives. I get to use that reasoning process a ton in my job. If someone doesn’t want to take their medication, there’s oftentimes a good reason not to take them. For example, with schizophrenia, you don’t have any insight because you don’t believe you have a mental illness, so why would you take medication? Oftentimes it’s because they’re operating in a different world or mindset than we live in. The program helped me understand patients in their terms and work with them accordingly.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in healthcare?
I think the most challenging thing for me right now is the lack of funding in social services. The lack of funding to help people’s basic needs. If someone’s homeless, it’s really hard to help them get regular diabetes care. We have an epidemic of these preventative diseases that disproportionately affect people of color and poor people because of that. We have these really siloed healthcare and short-viewed approaches to dealing with it. We had one example we discussed in school where this kid kept coming in with pneumonia, but what they really needed was someone to pay their heating bill. You can give a kid antibiotics but if you’re not treating the real problem (the lack of heat in the apartment), they’ll keep getting sick.
Housing in Portland is a crisis, so a lot of our members for various reasons are struggling a lot with housing. If we can’t house them, everything we do feels like crisis management. But I would also say that healthcare is transitioning into the integrated community setting and that’s how I see myself involved in the field in the future.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about majoring in a healthcare-related field?
First, I’m a huge fan of shadowing and informational interviewing. I feel that people underuse that opportunity. By doing this, you can see what it’s really like. In the case of nursing, I shadowed at an operating room, at a pediatric ICU and labor and delivery unit on top of my clinicals in school. You might have an idea of what it is you want to go into, but seeing the reality will give you a realistic perspective. When I wanted to shadow someone in a specific unit, I just reached out to people who might have contacts and they helped put me in touch with their manager.
Second, you should get a mentor. Find someone doing what you want to do, meet with them, take them out to coffee. These things will not only make you stand out as a candidate, but it will ensure that you know what you want to get into by doing your research and getting to know someone who lives it.
The third thing I’d say is not to get overwhelmed or daunted looking at what it’s going to take to complete your program. For me, it felt like so much work at first just to start taking the pre-reqs before even applying to nursing school. Then, finally I took one class and got the ball rolling and it went from there. Just take the first step. Don’t get paralyzed by looking at the whole journey.
Finally, stop and celebrate along the way. I can’t tell you how big of an accomplishment it was to finish my prereqs. And then get into nursing school. And then to graduate. And then to pass my boards and then get a job. I never stopped to celebrate those milestones and now I wish I had enjoyed the journey a bit more.
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