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Study a Hot Concentration Today for a Future Health Care Job

Arlene Weintraub

While studying biology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Deanna Darnes considered which concentrations would guarantee expanding job choices.

With the human genome decoded and new understanding of genetics' role in disease unfolding rapidly, she reasoned, genetic counseling would let her work directly with patients and be in an arena that would "grow and evolve." So she earned a master's in the field at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston in 2010.

Darnes has already held two very different positions since: first, at Children's Hospital Colorado, helping physicians figure out the genetic causes of hard-to-identify disorders, and today, counseling expectant parents at heightened risk of having babies with Down syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities in Fort Worth, Texas.

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That role, the older and more familiar of the profession, keeps advancing along with scientific understanding and screening technology, which has developed from amniocentesis to noninvasive blood tests.

And as individual genetic makeup increasingly determines medical treatment in conditions from cardiovascular disease to cancer - where certain drugs can now successfully take aim at a tumor's mutation - the demand for experts to analyze the necessary tests and communicate their meaning to patients is on the rise.

"Genomic information is really hitting mainstream medicine now," says Rebecca Nagy, former president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and associate professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University, which will launch its master's program in the discipline this year.

The field is still tiny -- the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it at just 2,100 positions as of 2012. But job openings are expected to grow 41 percent, much faster than the health care average, in the decade ending in 2022.

Over time, opportunities will be created at hospitals, public health agencies, consulting firms and pharmaceutical companies, as well as at the firms inventing the tests and the labs processing them.

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There are now about 30 master's programs in genetic counseling in the U.S., Nagy says. Most take two years and launch grads into jobs with average salaries of $68,000, according to the society's 2012 survey of members.

"I graduated in May [2010], and by late June I had an offer," Darnes says. "There are definitely even more opportunities now."

Aside from genetic counseling, there are many new jobs emerging from the health care industry.

The rapid aging of the population, for example, has boosted demand for occupational therapists -- pros who help patients recovering from strokes and other medical events regain their ability to perform everyday tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning and moving safely up and down stairs. Occupational therapists also work in schools, helping children with developmental disabilities learn to become independent.

The BLS projects above-average growth of 29 percent between 2012 and 2022 for these positions; median pay runs $75,400 per year.

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If working with people just isn't your thing, consider a career as a veterinarian or vet technician. Roughly a third of U.S. households include at least one dog or cat, and most owners want their pets to get good medical care.

Spending on veterinary services is up more than 14 percent in the last five years, reports the American Veterinary Medical Association. The demand for vets should rise a relatively sedate 12 percent by 2022 (median pay $84,460); vet techs, who do tests and help prepare pets for treatment, should see growth of 30 percent. Their median pay is $30,290.

Job-seekers can also consider a career as a patient experience officer -- one of the newest health care jobs. Now that reimbursement is tied to quality of care, hospitals are snapping up customer-service specialists to measure patient satisfaction and improve it. One day they might be training doctors to communicate; the next, analyzing patient surveys.

The field is so new that data on positions and salaries are not yet available. But Forrester Research estimates that health care is among the top five industries employing customer-service experts. Advanced degrees in health fields are helpful.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2015" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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