By Liz Wolgemuth

A college degree was once a kind of insurance against high tides of unemployment, but this downturn took plenty of white collar, degree-necessary jobs with it. What's more, it's no longer a given that an advanced degree will launch you into the upper echelon of earners.

Consider that a student could invest in a master's degree in anthropology, reasonably expecting to make the median wage for an anthropologist, about $54,000. The middle 50 percent of anthropologists and archeologists earn between $39,200 and $70,980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another student could invest in an associate's degree in radiation therapy and expect to earn a radiation therapist's median wage of $72,900 (the middle 50 percent of radiation therapists earn between $59,050 and $87,910.)

It's true that many workers do not choose their occupations based on the money they expect to earn from the investment in education, training, and time. They follow their interests and passions, and see their career as a calling. But the recession has turned many dreamers into pragmatists. For those who feel pressure to make the most of their education, here are some careers that offer major bang for the buck.

Radiation therapist

-- Most common degree: Associate's

-- Median pay: $72,910

More than half of cancer patients are treated with radiation therapy, which involves high doses of radiation aimed at killing cancer cells, and, according to the National Cancer Institute. (Radiation is also used in lesser doses to capture images of the body through an X-ray.) Radiation therapists don't prescribe doses for patients, but they give patients the treatments -- putting them in the proper position and running the machine. Employment in the occupation is expected to grow by nearly a third between 2008 and 2018, as advancements make radiation safer and more widely prescribed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest paid 10 percent of radiation therapists made more than $104,350 last year.

Dental hygienist

-- Most common degree: Associate's

-- Median pay: $66,570

It's no surprise that the healthcare field is home to several careers that offer the best pay and opportunities for the education required, given that the healthcare industry has faced steady increases in demand despite the recession. Dental hygienists examine patients' gums, perform cleanings, take X-rays, and in some states even administer anesthesia. Most of the 301 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States grant associate's degrees. As with other healthcare occupations, dental hygienists need a state license to practice, so exams are also part of the deal.

Respiratory therapist

-- Most common degree: Associate's

-- Median pay: $52,200

Few jobs have the kind of growth projections as the respiratory therapist occupation. Employment is expected to jump more than 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Respiratory therapists help care for patients with lung or heart disorders, most often working in hospitals, but they are increasingly in patients' homes, medical equipment supply companies, or skilled nursing facilities, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care. Part of the reason earnings are high in the profession has to do with respiratory therapists' ability to constrain costs, says Sam Giordano, chief executive of the association. The healthcare system puts a lot of value on a respiratory therapists' ability to treat patients and help physicians determine when a treatment is no longer called for -- increasing the quality and timeliness of decision-making, Giordano says. Respiratory therapists can also help patients avoid ventilator-associated pneumonia by weaning them off the ventilator more quickly.

Powerhouse electrical repairer

-- Most common degree: Vocational training

-- Median pay: $61,040

This category includes electricians who work on electrical equipment in generating stations, substations, and relays. Job titles might also be relay technicians or power transformer repairers. Most repairers work for utility companies, where the average wages are $61,330. For many of these jobs, an associate's degree in electronics and some professional certifications are preferred.

Air traffic controller

-- Most common degree: Long-term, on-the-job training

-- Median pay: $111,870

This may be one career where high stress equals high reward. Controllers work in traffic control towers, radar rooms, or en route centers, handing off your flight as it passes through their airspace. While employment growth should exceed 13 percent between 2008 and 2018, there will be many more job opportunities as about half of the nation's controllers are expected to retire this year, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Petroleum engineer

-- Most common degree: Bachelor's

-- Median pay: $108,020

When it comes to jobs for which the typical degree is a bachelor's, only airline pilots earn more than petroleum engineers. For one thing, engineers' salaries reflect the technical skills required, says Margaret Watson of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. But the salaries are also a result of supply and demand, as there are relatively few graduates in petroleum engineering -- some enter the field with degrees in other engineering disciplines, as well -- and demand is expected to increase as more engineers reach retirement age. The job also comes with a great deal of responsibility, as engineers may work on multimillion dollar projects. Petroleum engineers have options, according to the Society of Petroleum Engineers: They can help design and oversee drilling operations; work on optimizing production processes; and become reservoir engineers. While some petroleum engineers work for energy giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron, others may consult or work for the government.

Nuclear power reactor operator

-- Most common training: Long-term, on-the-job training

-- Median pay: $73,320

Nuclear power reactor operators might start their careers as plant equipment operators while they become familiar with the operations. In fact, reactor operators need at least three years of experience working in a power plant -- including at least one year in a nuclear plant. To earn the right to control the equipment as reactor operators, they must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Employment of nuclear power reactors is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018.

Transportation inspector

-- Most common training: Work experience in a related occupation

-- Median pay: $55,250

Transportation inspectors make up a broad group, including aircraft inspectors, cargo inspectors, and motor vehicle emissions inspectors. Employment for this group is expected to jump more than 18 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Aircraft inspectors often get their start as aircraft mechanics, and while mechanics can learn their trade on the job, it's more common to attend an FAA-certified Aviation Maintenance Technician school for one to two years.

Subway operator

-- Most common training: Moderate-term, on-the-job training

-- Median pay: $53,220

Subway and streetcar operators generally work for public transit agencies. Very often, the first step for operators is to work as bus drivers within that transit system. Training programs for subway and streetcar operation can last as long as six months and are followed by exams. Employment of subway and streetcar operators is expected to jump about 19 percent between 2008 and 2018.


-- Most common degree: First professional

-- Median pay: More than $166,400

Prosthodontics has come a long way since George Washington's wooden teeth. Today, prosthodontists use sophisticated techniques and materials to replace missing teeth or restore damaged ones, as well as work on jaw and joint problems. The prosthodontics education starts with dental school and tacks an extra three years in an ADA-accredited graduate program. The educational requirements are of a similar breadth as those for physicians, but employment of prosthodontists is expected to jump nearly 28 percent between 2008 and 2018. (You might make more focusing on teeth, too. Consider that the median income for family and general practitioners is $157,250.)

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