The Most (and Least) Prestigious Careers

Emily Brandon

You might pick one job over another because you make more money, get better perks, or like helping children or the sick more than you do, say, doing income taxes. But you probably wouldn't mind if your prestigious job title also put a twinkle in your parents' (or children's) eyes.Firefighter, teacher, and scientist topped the 30th annual poll on the most prestigious U.S. occupations by Harris Interactive, which surveyed 1,010 adults in July. Although the word "prestige" is not defined for the purposes of the survey, "I like to think personally that prestige equals some kind of respect," says Regina Corso, who directs weekly surveys for Harris Interactive.

Many of the careers that top the list aren't particularly lucrative or glamorous. "If you look at the top categories, those are the ones that don't get a lot of pay," says Corso. The list is largely bottomed out by money-making industries, like real estate, banking, and entertainment industries. "If you look at the bottom, having a large salary does not equal prestige. What equals prestige is a service to others and doing stuff to help society."The reputation of some careers has changed significantly in the past three decades. The prestige of teachers has risen 25 percentage points, from 29 percent in 1977 to 54 percent this year, making it tied for the second-most-prestigious career in the country, according to the survey."People are kind of recognizing the demands of the occupation," says Corso. "They may not be the best paid and they have to spend some of their own money to do things right, and it's being recognized finally."But the prestige of almost all other occupations, including the ones highly regarded by most Americans, has fallen since the survey began. The profession of doctors, which 61 percent considered very prestigious in 1977, now gets the same rating from only 52 percent. "In 1977, we didn't have HMOs," explains Corso. "We had doctors that would make house calls."Other careers that have dropped at least 5 points since the survey started include athletes, bankers, scientists, lawyers, and entertainers. "Athletes were people who were respected," says Corso. "Now everyone looks at them and thinks about scandal and the inflated salaries." In the past year alone, the prestige of professional athletes has dropped from 23 to 16 percent.

On the other hand, military officers have seen a jump in prestige since 2001.