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Careers by degrees The best college choices combine opportunity with passion

Being a college student can be scary.

As students stand face to face with their futures, much time is spent worrying, "Am I making the right decisions? What will become of me?"

With a jobless recovery looming on the horizon, there is a lot of gloom in the halls of higher education.

"Students are now beginning to panic," said Fran Schmidt, director of the career services center at D'Youville College.

But panic doesn't translate into inaction. Schmidt said students are responding to that fear in healthy ways, seeming more determined than ever to make things work.

As an antidote to their mounting anxieties, more college students than ever before are turning to practical career paths.

"Security has always been part of the equation, but now it's of paramount concern," said Laurence Shatkin, author of the book "50 Best College Majors for a Secure Future." "Students are considering the rising cost of education and want to be sure they will be able to pay their student loans. They're looking for the best payoff in economic terms."

In his book, Shatkin compiled lists of the most secure college preparation paths, taking into account the income potential, number of annual job openings and projected job growth of each one.

As usual, health care careers rate highly, and students are paying attention.

At D'Youville, nursing, physician assisting and physical therapy programs are all filled, without a seat to spare. The college is constructing a new building to take on majors in pharmacy, another practical career in high demand.

Though more students are opting for practical courses of study, both Shatkin and Schmidt warned that degree program needs to be interesting. Schmidt said she discourages students from neglecting what they love in favor of a sure-shot career path.

"You want to make sure it's a good fit," said Schmidt. "If you're not passionate about what you're doing, it will be very difficult to get through the program."

Indeed, Shatkin said, forcing a square peg into a round hole can be disastrous.

"There are so many preferences people have that can't be quantified in a list," he said.

Some people want to dress up for work, some people want to use their hands, others want to work outdoors. The weight of those preferences shouldn't be underestimated.

"We have people who come in and say they like to work with people, but then they say they want to be an accountant," Schmidt said. "That's just not going to work. A few years later and these people are miserable."

He suggests students weigh practical options without focusing merely on earning potential or the likelihood of landing a job, but at what the student might enjoy doing with his or her life. How does the course work match up with the student's skills and interests?

Once that's settled, he warns students not to wait until halfway through their program of study to test drive the field with an internship. Instead, they should shadow someone in their field early on to make sure the work environment is right for them.

"It's one thing to read about a stressful environment in a book, it's another thing to be there and see people biting their nails," he said.

Here are what Shatkin found to be the most secure college majors overall:

10. Actuarial Science

Average annual earnings: $85,690

Minimum degree: Bachelor's

This math-heavy major prepares students for careers in insurance and investment. Advanced courses in math, economics, computers and finance teach students how to analyze and forecast risk. For example, a graduate may find work for an insurance company, calculating the cost of auto insurance premiums.

9. Veterinary Medicine

Average annual earnings: $75,230

Minimum degree: Doctorate of veterinary medicine plus state licensing.

The college major says it all -- graduates in this field care for the physical health of animals. The course load includes a wide spectrum of scientific study, as well as a smattering of math and social sciences. Grads have a host of specializations from which to choose, such as veterinary dentistry, zoological medicine and veterinary anesthesiology.

8. Hospital/Health Facilities Administration

Average annual earnings: $76,990

Minimum degree: Bachelor's, but a master's is preferred

Careers in health care are often seen as "recession proof," because people continue to get sick no matter what the economy is doing. Often, the first career paths that come to mind are those that lead to traditional medical occupations, such as doctors and nurses. Yet there are several health-related occupations that slip under the radar. There is all kinds of supporting work done in health care that doesn't involve treating patients, but is important nonetheless.

Students in this field learn how to manage health care facilities. They go on to supervise and lead facilities or departments for clinics, hospitals and doctors' offices as well as public and community health systems. Coursework includes a foundation in liberal arts and sciences along with specialized health, medical and business studies.

7. Health Information Systems Administration

Average annual earnings: $76,990

Minimum degree: Bachelor's, often plus a certificate

This major prepares students to deal with health information and medical records in every way imaginable, something that may increase in importance as the medical industry veers toward digital record keeping.

Careers may include storing, collecting or analyzing data, as well as designing ways to manage, deliver or keep it safe. A diverse array of courses include several health, business and technical classes. A common specialization is information technology.

6. Medicine

Average annual earnings: $145,600

Minimum degree: Doctorate of medicine, plus three to eight years of residency training.

No surprise here, eh? Medical doctors have always been necessary and -- barring any revolutionary, Star Trek-like treatment breakthroughs -- they always will be.

A long, rigorous educational career focuses heavily on training in mathematics and science.

5. Graduate Study for College Teaching

Average annual earnings: $56,567

Minimum degree: Master's or doctorate, depending on subject matter

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Right?

Well, not exactly. But Shatkin's research found that students with advanced study in almost any field can make a career of teaching that same material upon graduation, making it a dependable Plan B for many. Education employment remains stable during times of recession and pays pretty well.

4. Pharmacy

Average annual earnings: $100,480

Minimum degree: Doctorate of pharmacy

Students typically go on to be pharmacists, but have a wide range of specialties from which to choose. They may also never step foot in an actual pharmacy, choosing instead to work in such places as managed care facilities and hospitals or as consultants.

Course work includes math and science training, especially in chemistry.

3. Physical Therapy

Average annual earnings: $69,760

Minimum degree: Master's

Students will likely go on to become physical therapists, working directly with patients to ease pain and increase physical mobility. Expect lots of science classes, especially variations on anatomy and physiology.

2. Nursing (registered nurse training)

Average annual earnings: $60,010

Minimum degree: Associate

Nursing shortages have been highly publicized and the need for nurses shows know sign of letting up. The Labor Department projects an average of 233,499 annual job openings for graduates trained in this field.

A science-heavy course load is rounded out by social science and math training.

1. Physician Assisting

Average annual earnings: $78,450

Minimum degree: Bachelor's

As physician assistants, graduates will diagnose and treat patients under the (sometimes limited) supervision of a medical doctor. They perform several of the functions of traditional medical doctors, but are considered a more cost-effective alternative. More than half of all physician assistants work in doctor's offices or clinics.

Bachelor's preparation for the field is often accelerated, and is heavy in math and science. As with most medically associated majors, clinical and lab work is also required.

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