No bachelor's degree? No problem. Here are seven careers that still pay and require little school.
Maybe life edged in or you realized along the way that you aren't cut out for higher education. But that's no reason to take a dead-end job or accept a career that doesn't pay a good wage.
Despite what you may have heard, it's just not true that earning a bachelor's degree is the only path to a great career that pays well. You might be able to qualify for some promising careers with only an associate's degree or the right certificate.
Interested in learning how to get yourself into a career that utilizes your strongest skills, pads your bank account, and doesn't require years of schooling? Keep reading to learn about seven careers that pay a respectable median salary - all without a bachelor's degree.
Career #1: Paralegal
Median Annual Salary*: $46,990
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $75,410
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $29,420
Paralegals could be called the lawyer's right-hand man (or woman) because they're working to keep things in check all day, every day. But because they don't have to go to law school to make it into the office, they can start earning a great paycheck without spending years hitting the books.
What They Do: The U.S. Department of Labor says that paralegals do various tasks to support lawyers and help them prepare for trials, like conducting research, maintaining files, and writing reports.
Why It Pays: Because you'll often be doing the grunt work that makes a lawyer's work possible, lawyers are quick to pay you well as a paralegal, says Nicole Williams, a career expert for the professional networking site LinkedIn. Another way to think of it is in terms of the phrase "time is money." The work you do as a paralegal frees up a lawyer's time to do other things - something they'll always find invaluable, says Williams.
Due to their integral role in law offices, paralegals need to be intelligent, have the ability to fill in the blanks and solve puzzles, be highly organized, and know how to prioritize, says Williams.
Bachelor's-Free Path: "Most paralegals and legal assistants have an associate's degree in paralegal studies," says the Department of Labor. There is another route, however: Those who have a bachelor's degree in another field could pursue a certificate in paralegal studies.
Career #2: Physical Therapist Assistant
Median Annual Salary*: $52,160
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $72,720
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $32,420
If you're looking for a hands-on career that makes a real difference in the lives of others, physical therapist assistant could be right up your alley. And unlike licensed physical therapists, who need to spend years in school, physical therapist assistants don't need a bachelor's degree to pull in a solid paycheck.
What They Do: PT assistants are responsible for helping patients recovering from illnesses regain movement, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They might help patients do exercises, treat them using techniques like stretching and massage, and educate them about what to do after treatment.
Why It Pays: "The duties of a physical therapist assistant may not seem mentally challenging, but in fact, they are," says Williams. "Dealing with patients in different states of recovery is taxing and draining, which is one major reason that the job pays so well."
Bachelor's-Free Path: The pay sounds even better when you consider the schooling required to get there. The Department of Labor says, "Most states require physical therapist assistants have an associate's degree from an accredited physical therapist program." Physical therapist assistants must also obtain a license, typically by graduating from an accredited program and passing the National Physical Therapy Exam.
Career #3: Police Officer
Median Annual Salary*: $55,270
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $89,310
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $32,350
Are you courageous? Do you have a high level of integrity and self-restraint? If so, Williams says you could be cut out for a path as a police officer.
What They Do: Along with the qualities listed above, Williams lists empathy, the ability to preempt emergency, and a keen eye for preventing crime as some strengths of a good police officer. Police officers generally patrol the streets, enforce laws, respond to calls, and arrest suspects, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Why It Pays: Police officers work long hours, often on nights and weekends, Williams adds. Because they constantly need to be prepared, work in dangerous situations, and perform in any type of weather, they are usually paid well, she says.
Bachelor's-Free Path: The Department of Labor says police officers must usually have at least a high school diploma or GED, and graduate from an agency training academy. However, they also say that many agencies require candidates to have a college degree or some college coursework. You'll also need to be a U.S. citizen, be at least 21 years old, and meet "rigorous physical and personal qualifications," says the Department.
Career #4: Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Median Annual Salary*: $65,860
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $91,070
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $44,990
Williams says you'll need to exhibit tact, understanding, composure, and patience if you wish to pursue a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer.
What They Do: Sonographers use imaging equipment to assess and diagnose medical issues in patients, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They're responsible for preparing the patients and machines for procedures, operating the equipment, and analyzing the images to provide preliminary findings for the physician.
Why It Pays: A major reason why it pays so well is because people in this position need to have excellent bedside manner. You'll have to assist patients - and keep them calm - when delivering negative news about their health, says Williams.
"When most people hear of sonography, they think of seeing a baby for the first time," she explains. "However, sonographers need to deal with cysts, tumors, and growths as well. And part of the job involves being on your feet 80 percent of the day, which can be tiring and contributes to why this career pays well."
Bachelor's-Free Path: While you don't need a bachelor's degree, the Department of Labor says education in the form of an associate's degree or a postsecondary certificate is necessary. "Many employers also require professional certification," adds the Department.
Career #5: Dental Hygienist
Median Annual Salary*: $70,210
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $96,280
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $46,540
While it's true that you'd need to hit the books big time in medical school to get into a career as a dentist, the good news is you can still join the office ranks as a dental hygienist - without a bachelor's degree.
What They Do: Dental hygienists might spend their days cleaning teeth, taking x-rays, and applying fluoride to protect patients' teeth, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Why It Pays: "Dental hygienists tend to do a lot of the leg work at the office," says Williams. "The routine can get tedious, and let's not forget that they need to deal with bad breath the majority of the day."
No one enjoys getting their teeth cleaned and the hygienist knows it, Williams continues. But because they perform a job that people need but don't necessarily want, they're often paid well.
Bachelor's-Free Path: Every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed, though exact requirements may vary, according to the Department of Labor. Additionally, you'll typically need an associate's degree in dental hygiene to pursue entry-level positions.
Career #6: Occupational Therapy Assistant
Median Annual Salary*: $53,240
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $73,120
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $32,970
Are you patient and compassionate? You'll need to be if you want to consider being an assistant to an occupational therapist. What you won't need, however, is a bachelor's degree to get yourself into this career.
What They Do: "Occupational therapy assistants help people tackle daily activities they can no longer do due to loss of limbs, a debilitating disease like multiple sclerosis, or developmental disabilities," says Williams.
Why It Pays: One reason occupational therapist assistants earn a decent salary is that the career can be strenuous and requires a great deal of determination, as many aspects of the job are repetitive teaching exercises, says Williams.
What's more, occupational therapy helps people regain the ability to take care of common tasks. "These activities are often things that are essential to functioning in society, which also makes this career essential and contributes to why it pays so well," she adds.
Bachelor's-Free Path: You'll need to be licensed in most states if you want to pursue a job as an occupational therapy assistant, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. An associate's degree is also required.
Career #7: Civil Engineering Technician
Median Annual Salary*: $47,560
Top 10 Percent of Earners: $71,800
Bottom 10 Percent of Earners: $30,430
Do you peg yourself as a tinkerer who's fascinated with the manmade world? Civil engineer techs get to flex their "always-on" brains and pair them with a well-paid career path, minus the bachelor's degree.
What They Do: Williams says that "these are people that help to plan and design roads, bridges, and tunnels. They determine the materials that are needed for a project and estimate the amount of money needed for its completion."
You'll need to have a solid set of analytical skills as well as amazing communication skills, she adds.
Why It Pays: Civil engineer assistants are often working on contracts worth millions of dollars, and their employers are often investing in them to move the project along, Williams says.
Along with those set of skills mentioned above, civil engineer techs are also paid well to be quick thinkers and excellent problem solvers, says Williams. She provides this illustrative example: "Let's say a water main breaks or a sewer leaks. The technician and his team need to have the answer as to why - and they need to have it fast."
Bachelor's-Free Path: An associate's degree in civil engineering technology is preferred for this career path, though the U.S. Department of Labor says that it's not always required. Prospective candidates should seek out programs that are certified by ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology).
* All median salary information from the Department of Labor Occupational Employment and Wages statistics, May 2012.