Best medical jobs that don’t require medical school

Dreams of donning a white coat and stethoscope propel many young people to seek higher education.

Among college undergraduates, health profession programs are the second-most-popular field of study, making up 12 percent of degrees conferred in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These include pre-med, nursing and various therapy programs.

Other majors that rank among the most popular also have potential relevance to health care, including psychology (6 percent) and biological and biomedical sciences (6 percent). Students who study the latter make up the largest share of those who apply to and enroll in medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

But the path to becoming a doctor is difficult to traverse. It takes a long time, requiring between seven and 14 years of additional school and training after earning a bachelor’s degree. That means many newly minted physicians are approaching 30 years of age before they’re able to practice without supervision.

Getting into medical school is hard. Many programs have acceptance rates in the single digits, and aspiring doctors submitted an average of 16 applications each for the 2018-2019 school year, reports the Association of American Medical Colleges. Attending is expensive: Annual medical school tuition costs between about $18,000 and $66,000, depending on the institution and whether students are state residents, according to U.S. News data.

Not all medically minded people share the physician philosophy of focusing primarily on diagnosing and treating disease. Some view health through a lens they consider to be more holistic, while others simply hope to work more closely with patients than many doctors do.

For people who aspire to work in health care but are uninterested in or unable to attend medical school, there are plenty of well-paid career alternatives to becoming a physician. Many, though not all, still require graduate degrees, but the programs have shorter durations and often lower overall costs. Best of all, over the next seven years, demand for workers to fill these jobs is predicted to exceed that for physicians.

Despite their differing duties, these careers share one requirement: “A heart to help people and compassion,” says Kristen Smith, an occupational therapist in Oklahoma City. “That goes a long way.”

Learn more about great health care jobs from professionals throughout the industry. Salary data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Clinical Lab Technician
Median Salary: $51,770
Education Required: Associate degree

Students who are good at math and science, pay close attention to detail and are eager to jump into the working world quickly may make excellent clinical lab technicians. Laboring mostly behind the scenes, these workers examine blood and tissue samples and run tests that lead to disease diagnoses.

“We’re the best-kept hidden profession in health care,” says Suzanne Campbell, dean of allied health and director of medical laboratory technology at Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas. “We do want to help people but don’t want, necessarily, the high levels of hands-on patient care.”

Technicians work in hospitals, doctor’s offices and laboratories run by companies such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp. Campbell has also seen graduates go to work at water treatment and meat processing plants, as well as pharmaceutical research and development laboratories. Some of these jobs require bachelor’s degrees, but many, especially in rural areas, call for workers at the associate degree level.

The best part of the profession is playing an important role on a diagnostic health care team, Campbell says: “Even though I may not see the patient as much as the nurse or respiratory therapist, I’m going to be the one that looks at those blood cells in the microscope and know this patient has leukemia.”

[See: The 25 Best Jobs of 2019.]

Registered Nurse
Median Salary: $70,000
Education Required: Associate or bachelor’s degree

Registered nurses are patient advocates who care for and communicate with people seeking treatment.

In addition to a solid understanding of biology and chemistry, the profession requires a caring attitude and high ethical standards, says Amy Bieda, director of the nursing bachelor’s degree program at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University.

“We always have to be one step above everyone else in our ethical and moral behavior,” she explains. “You appreciate that what we’re doing is the right thing.”

An associate degree is the minimum requirement for the profession, but more and more positions require bachelor’s degrees. No matter their academic credentials, registered nurses need to pass a national exam.

Unlike doctors, who specialize in specific areas, nurses retain flexibility during their careers. They’re able to work in schools, throughout hospitals and in home health care. Over time, they accumulate huge stores of knowledge ranging from health care laws to proper IV technique.

“You have to be a lifelong learner,” Bieda says. “Every day is different. You’re never bored.”

Speech-Language Pathologist
Median Salary: $76,610
Education Required: Master’s degree

People of any age who have trouble communicating or swallowing may need treatment from speech-language pathologists, also known as speech therapists. Because the problems these professionals tackle can stem from cognitive, social or physical disorders, pathologists draw on research from multiple scientific fields, plus develop counseling skills.

“You act as a detective in the beginning, asking, ‘What does this patient need and how do we get to their goals?'” says Amber Hagel, a speech-language pathologist on Washington’s Whidbey Island who works with children who have special needs. “Retraining the brain is not simple work.”

Practicing speech-language therapy requires a master’s degree. Entry into relevant graduate programs often requires taking the Graduate Record Examinations test and passing prerequisite science courses.

Hagel, who originally studied and worked in special education, spent a year taking necessary classes in a post-baccalaureate program before applying to graduate school. In addition to her full-time role helping children, she now works on call at a hospital.

That she’s qualified to do both kinds of work is one of the benefits of her profession, she says: “I want to keep learning in different areas.”

Occupational Therapist
Median Salary: $83,200
Education Required: Master’s degree

Occupational therapists help clients identify daily tasks they’d like to complete more successfully, then devise activities that help build the skills and strengths necessary for achieving those goals. They work with children who have disabilities, adults recovering from injuries and even high-caliber musicians dealing with performance pressure.

These professionals earn master’s or doctorate degrees and can specialize in fields such as pediatrics or geriatrics. Being science-savvy and creative is important to the job, as is possessing an encouraging personality.

“The people we are working with are people who face a lot of challenges every day,” says Smith, the pediatric occupational therapist in Oklahoma City. “It helps to be positive.”

Therapists work in diverse environments that include schools, prisons, hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Additionally, “occupational therapy is branching out into advocacy for people with disabilities,” says Bridget Hahn, instructor and academic coordinator in the department of occupational therapy at Rush University.

While the field shares some similarities with physical therapy, Hahn believes occupational therapy differs because of its focus on mental health, environment and social dynamics.

“In practice, our goals are more specifically, directly linked to function,” she explains.

[See: 25 Best Jobs That Pay $100K.]

Nurse Midwife
Median Salary: $100,590
Education Required: Master’s degree

As reproductive health specialists, nurse midwives work with women during “transformative moments” such as puberty, pregnancy, childbirth and aging, says Dana Perlman, director of the Midwifery Institute at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University).

“We’re invited into the most intimate part of people’s lives,” she says. “People want to become midwives because they really believe in and want their life’s work to be about empowering individuals and women through health care.”

Midwives, who may have their own practices or work in birth centers or hospitals, share some similarities with obstetricians and gynecologists. Both kinds of professionals have training in anatomy and physiology and responsibilities that include providing annual check-ups, offering disease screenings and prescribing birth control. But while the latter are qualified to treat disease and intervene in case of medical emergency, the former work mostly with patients in good health.

“Every woman would benefit from a midwife, and some really need a doctor too,” Perlman explains. “For healthy women, we provide a lifetime of care. When there is a problem, we can collaborate with all kinds of other people to provide the midwifery aspect of that care.”

Most applicants to midwifery master’s programs are already registered nurses, although some have bachelor’s degrees in other areas. Among the top 50 programs ranked by U.S. News, annual tuition for a nursing master’s degree program ranges from about $11,000 to about $45,000.

Physician Assistant
Median Salary: $104,860
Education Required: Master’s degree

During and after medical school, doctors have demanding schedules and face a lot of pressure. That made Richele Koehler hesitant to pursue the career, despite her interest in medicine.

While interning in a children’s hospital during her senior year of college, she discovered a role that offers flexibility and the power to make decisions without requiring an additional decade of education.

Instead of a physician, she decided to become a physician assistant.

“You don’t have the same time commitment as they do to get to where you need to be,” says Koehler, who works in a hospital in Aurora, Colorado. “You’re not siloed into a specific area in medicine. You can change to any area any time in your career.”

To get into physician assistant graduate school, applicants need to have passed specific science and math courses and taken the GRE. Some schools also require health care job experience. Programs last about two years and combine classroom time with clinical rotations in areas like emergency medicine, neurosurgery and pediatrics. Median tuition at public schools is $42,792 for residents and $79,552 for non-residents, and it’s $85,430 at private schools, according to the Physician Assistant Education Association 2017 survey.

“It’s kind of a crash-course medical school,” Koehler says.

Physician assistants work with specific doctors and are qualified to do what their supervisors can do. In Koehler’s pediatric surgery and trauma department, she reports to 15 surgeons during her three rotating, 13-hour shifts each week.

“You have to tailor the way you think through and plan, depending on the surgeon,” she says.

[Read: Health Care Jobs Abound. Here’s How to Tap Into the Hot Job Market.]

Nurse Practitioner
Median Salary: $103,880
Education Required: Master’s degree

Nurse practitioners and physicians share similar duties and levels of authority. In many states, members of both groups can work autonomously, make diagnoses and prescribe medicine.

But as their titles suggest, nurse practitioners remain true to the tenets of nursing philosophy, coupling evidence-based practices with special attention to each patient’s familial, financial and cultural circumstances.

“We come at care of people in a more holistic way,” says Alison Edie, assistant professor in the school of nursing at Duke University. “Being able to sit down with a patient or the mother of a child and come up with a plan of care that includes them in the decision-making, that’s very satisfying.”

Like doctors, nurse practitioners specialize in graduate school in areas such as primary, family or acute care.

“As you enter the nurse practitioner field, you do need to decide what population and setting you want to practice in,” Edie says.

They may practice among populations whose patients don’t have adequate health care resources.

“The real challenges are in meeting those same needs in an environment where access is limited,” Edie says. “Maybe the best drug isn’t affordable to this patient, or maybe there are challenges for someone to get diagnostic testing done.”

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