The Seven Jobs That Require the Most Education, but Pay the Least

College graduates with student loans owed an average of $25,250 in 2010, an all-time high and a 5% increase, according to a recent report. What makes matters worse is that students graduating in 2010 faced unemployment of 9.1%, the highest annual rate on record, according to the Project on Student Debt’s report.

Given the grim figures facing college graduates, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify the seven occupations that require at least a college degree and pay the least.

Jobs that pay poorly and require a college degree or higher have at least one thing in common: the wrong industry. Some industries, including those in mental health, academic research, the arts and publishing tend to pay poorly. The entry level jobs in these fields and on this list do not pay well. Reporters starting out make less than $20,000 per year.

Many of the people employed in the jobs on our list will have a hard time paying off their student loans. The occupations on the list earn less than $40,000 annually. In every case, jobs paid far less to start. A quarter of the people employed as survey researchers, for example, earn less than $24,000 annually.

24/7 Wall St. examined wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics Database, to identify the major occupations that make less than $40,000 annually. BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook was used to identify educational requirements and long-term job prospects. O*Net Online, an independent career research and advisory site, was used to determine the percentage of people in each occupation with a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD. The six occupations on our list required a bachelor’s degree for most employers.

6. Recreational Therapists
> Median income: $39,410
> Bottom-tier income: $24,640
> Number employed: 20,830
> Pct. With at least a bachelor’s degree: 71%
> Projected change in jobs (2008 – 2018): +15%

Recreational therapists work with sick or disabled individuals to help reduce depression and “maintain the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their clients,” according to the BLS. Most recreational therapists have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 15% have a master’s degree. The number of positions available is expected to increase by 15% between 2008 and 2018 as the elderly population, one of the largest group of clients, grows. The median wage for a recreational therapist is just $39,410 per year, and the bottom 10% make less than $25,000 per year.

5. Biological Technicians
> Median income: $39,020
> Bottom-tier income: $24,930
> Number employed: 72,940
> Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 83%
> Projected change in jobs (2008 – 2018): +18%

Biological technicians, the BLS explains, “work with biologists studying living organisms. Many assist scientists who conduct medical research–helping to find a cure for cancer or AIDS, for example.” Despite the important work, the median wage for a technician in the field is just $39,020 per year. About 83% of the people working in this field have a bachelor’s degree. The number of biological technicians is projected to grow by 18% from 2008 numbers by 2018.

4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
> Median income: $38,600
> Bottom-tier income: $25,210
> Number employed: 119,960
> Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 98%
> Projected change in jobs (2008 – 2018): +20%

There are several lucrative positions in the field of mental health. The median income for psychiatrists, for example, is around $165,000 a year. At the other end of the spectrum are mental health and substance abuse workers. These individuals work with the sick, the depressed and the addicted to help restore health and well-being. Despite the often stressful conditions under which these specialists work, as well as the fact that one in four has a master’s or doctorate, the median annual wage for this position is just $38,600. The bottom 10% makes $25,210 or less each year.

3. Museum Technicians and Conservators
> Median income: $37,310
> Bottom-tier income: $24,440
> Number employed: 10,390
> Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 80%
> Projected change in jobs (2008 – 2018): 26%

Museum conservators employ advanced technology to maintain the quality of the artwork and artifacts on display and in storage. Success in this position requires proficiency using different laboratory techniques, such as x-ray, to determine the best way to treat a piece. Some can get the job with just a bachelor’s degree, but most museums look for a least a master’s in the study of conservation. The median income for museum conservators is $37,310 per year, and the bottom tier makes less than $25,000.

2. Survey Researchers

> Median income: $36,050
> Bottom-tier income: $18,660
> Number employed: 17,850
> Pct. with at least bachelor’s degree: 100%
> Projected change in jobs (2008 – 2018): +30%

The BLS says that market survey researchers’ main goal is to “gather information about what people think.” They work primarily for advertising, marketing or consulting agencies. According to O*Net, 52% of individuals in this position have at least a master’s degree, and 11% have a doctoral degree. Despite the high level of qualification, the median wage for researchers is just $36,050. The bottom 10% of people in this position make $18,660 or less. Survey researchers are one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country with number of positions expected to increase by 30% from 2008 to 2018.

1. Reporters and Correspondents
> Median income: $34,530
> Bottom-tier income: $19,970
> Number employed: 45,130
> Pct. with at least bachelor’s degree: 87%
> Projected change in jobs (2008 – 2018): -8%

Most publications hiring reporters and correspondents require a bachelor’s degree in communications or journalism. Many larger newspapers look for writers who specialize in a particular field of writing, such as economics or the arts. The median wage for a reporter or correspondent is just $34,530 each year, with the bottom 10% of workers earning less than $20,000 per year. On top of the low wages, many may consider journalism an undesirable field to go into because of diminishing job prospects. With the decline of print publications, the number of reporters and correspondents is expected to fall by 8% between 2008 and 2018.

-Michael B. Sauter

Correction: A previous version of this article included Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technicians in error. Only 28% of Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technicians jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more. Unlike Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technicians, 71% of Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree and have a median salary of $56,130.

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