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Five Practical Paths in Healthcare

By Hannah Waight

The need for some healthcare fields will never go away--think: surgery, research and management, for starters.


When you think of disease, images of the flu and cancer might come to mind, but mental diseases and disorders are some of the biggest causes of ill health around the world.

Psychologists, working in hospitals, schools, clinics or private settings, study the human mind and behavior and provide mental health care. Like many other professionals in the healthcare industry, psychologists have to go through extensive training to become licensed. Most psychologists, who typically specialize in an area of the field, need a doctoral degree to practice. School psychologists require an educational specialist degree, which can be completed in three years of study and a one year internship. Almost half of all psychologists are self-employed - this means that although you'll probably get to manage your own practice and affairs, you will have to deal with all the problems that come with running your own business.

Registered Nurses

Registered Nurses or RNs make up the largest health care occupation, holding more than half of all jobs in hospitals. These individuals perform many basic duties in patient care, including treating patients, providing education about diseases and treatments, giving emotional support to the patients' families, helping to perform and analyze diagnostic tests, and assisting with patient follow-up and rehab, among other tasks. Although RNs may not have to spend as many years hitting the books as doctors do, there are years of required schooling. Three main paths can lead you to becoming an RN: Bachelor's Degree in Nursing, Associate Degree in Nursing, and a diploma from an approved nursing program (administered at a hospital). All of these different paths have pros and cons, but bachelor's degrees offer registered nurses opportunities to practice a broader scope of nursing. A common path for many RNs is to get into the industry with an associate degree and then get their bachelor's degree paid for by tuition reimbursement benefits. If money is tight, this is definitely the way to go.

Medical/Health Researchers

Without a doubt, research is essential to the healthcare industry - if it weren't for medical research, we might still be practicing blood-letting to cure the flu. Research has uncovered not only new drugs and treatments for disease, but also a better understanding about the nature of the diseases themselves. The type of research that is most commonly used in the health industry is applied research - research that tries to solve a problem and produces results that have definite application. Researchers typically work together as part of a team, focusing on a specific project. Research is done both inside and outside the lab - these scientists find it just as important to read up on the latest finds in medicine and health as to conduct experiments inside a lab. Most researchers have lots of degrees and years of education under their belts - they typically have completed at least their bachelor's degrees, if not their master's degrees and PhDs. Also, many employers prefer their researchers to complete a post-doc after completing their PhDs - a period of academic research lasting several years. If you want to be a researcher, don't be discouraged by these long years of schooling and training - maybe you'll be the first to discover a new cancer treatment or cure for the common cold.

Physicians and Surgeons

The careers placed under the category of physicians and surgeons are the most idealized careers within the health industry. Just flip through any television guide and you'll find more then enough examples of television shows centered on the lives of doctors. However, although the stars of Grey's Anatomy may make it look easy, most times this isn't the case. Many physicians and surgeons work long, irregular hours and have to go through some of the most demanding training of any occupation. Despite these challenges, thousands of college students continue to strive to go to medical school because of the high earnings and fantastic rewards that come from the work. After all, who as a kid didn't dream of being a doctor when they grew up?

There are two types of doctors - MDs (Doctors of Medicine) and DOs (Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine). DOs place more of an emphasis on the body's musculoskeletal system, preventative medicine and holistic (focusing on the entire body rather than just a specific area) patient care. Consequently, DOs are more likely to be primary care specialists. Doctors also specialize in areas like anesthesiology, family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, gynecology, psychiatry, etc. Each of the different areas has different amounts of training needed.

The road to becoming a doctor begins with being an undergraduate, where doctors-in-training designate themselves as "pre-med" and are required to take courses in physics, biology, math, English, inorganic and organic chemistry. You know the premeds when you see them - they are the ones who are most often studying in the library, trying to finish their massive amounts of work. After college, these students apply to medical school, where they must complete four years of instruction. In the U.S., med school admissions are incredibly competitive and require the submission of a transcript, MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) scores and letters of recommendation. Following medical school, doctors have to put in 3 - 8 years (depending on the area of specialty) of internship and residency before they can pass a licensing exam and become an accredited doctor. One new option that is rapidly gaining popularity for aspiring doctors is to go through a joint undergraduate and medical degree program, cutting down the years of schooling from eight to six.


Although it may seem like it's the doctors calling all the shots at your local hospital, the managers of the hospital make up a completely separate part of the organization. People involved in healthcare management work behind the scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly in healthcare facilities -- they manage finances, human resources and resource allocation, among other things. Most entry-level positions in healthcare management require at least a bachelor's degree, although master's degrees are essential for many jobs. Although some schools offer undergraduate degrees in health services management, such a degree is not required. The typical tract for aspiring managers is to get a master's degree in health administration or public health, or possibly in business and public administration with a course concentration in health services management. If you want to get into this industry, it would also be a good idea to join a professional association.

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