Linda Perez-Beller earned a degree in communications while working part time. Then she decided to go to law school. Then she changed her mind. It took Phong Pham three years to make up his mind.

Today both Perez-Beller and Pham work as pharmacy technicians at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and both have made the leap to go back to school to earn their Pharm.D. degrees.

Although not always an easy choice, going back to school often pays dividends in the form of higher salaries and better career opportunities. Some allied health pros hit the books to switch from one health care field to another. Others—such as Perez-Beller and Pham—earn a more advanced degree in the same field.

Whatever the reason for returning to school, opportunities in allied health are plentiful, and perhaps more than ever before, schools and hospitals are actively recruiting people of color to these fields.

“[This area] desperately needs minorities,” says Carolyn Baum, Ph.D., director of the occupational therapy program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “The aging population and people with disabilities are disproportionately minorities…. We just don’t have enough minority practitioners to work with minority populations.”

Inexperienced? No Problem!

While Perez-Beller and Pham are finding success moving from pharmacy techs to advanced degrees, pharmacy isn’t the only area where employees can start out working as techs or assistants before going back to school. According to Baum, students in Washington University’s occupational therapy program worked as counselors at camps for disabled kids, as personal assistants and as aides in nursing homes before becoming graduate school students.

But what if you don’t have any health care work experience? You’re not alone. The vast majority of graduate students in programs from pharmacy to dental hygiene are not moving up from tech to pro. Many are recent graduates with science majors while others are going back to school after working in an unrelated field.

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Those with bachelor’s degrees in non-science subjects may have to return to school to take prerequisite courses. For example, at Washington University students in occupational therapy typically have a bachelor’s degree in biology or psychology, but anyone—even an English or history major—can take the necessary prerequisites and have a shot at getting into this prestigious school.

Sometimes a non-science educational background is even encouraged. At Washington University’s physical therapy program (also part of the School of Medicine), those with degrees in other areas may even have an advantage.

“We are really trying to get people with liberal arts backgrounds,” states Jennifer Stith, Ph.D., division director of education in the Program of Physical Therapy. “We want them broadly prepared; the curriculum depends on that.”

Perez-Beller is actually an example of a non-traditional education background. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications and is currently taking pharmacy prerequisites before she begins grad school. At the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, students entering the dental hygiene program—an undergraduate program—must have completed two years of college or an associate’s degree in addition to specific prerequisite courses.

Many technicians, dental hygienists and others in the allied health field hold an associate’s degree. Often this means they have to enroll in night classes while working full-time jobs to complete a bachelor’s degree before they even fill out their first grad school application.

Students such as Perez-Beller, who must take night classes for several semesters just to get into grad school, say the payoff is worth long the days and nights. Despite her interests and studies in journalism and law, Perez-Beller always loved her part-time job at the pharmacy. But she wanted more interaction with patients, more responsibility and better pay.

“I want to move up,” says Perez-Beller. “Being a pharmacist gives me more control over how much I can help people. I love being a tech, but there’s only so much you can do.”

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Pham also continued his work at Northwestern Memorial while he attended classes. Eight years ago, Pham took a job as a pharmacy tech to see if he liked the work. After three years, he decided to make the move and continues working as a technician, even during his rotations. Like Perez-Beller, Pham saw going back to school as his ticket to a better life, one he didn’t have available to him in his native Vietnam.

“In my country, we didn’t have the opportunity to earn more education,” adds Pham. “So that’s a big motivation. I see that the more education I have, the better I can work together with other people.”

Other professionals may want to move into management positions or switch to another specialty or field. According to Mary Burritt, Ph.D., of the Mayo School of Health Sciences in Rochester, Minn., one example is radiographers who go back to school to earn a four-year degree in radiation therapy or a certificate in diagnostic medical sonography.

Bringing Home the Big Bucks

In addition to being able to do more, professionals with advanced degrees can earn more as well. Desi Kotis, Pharm.D., is a pharmacy manager at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. According to Kotis, pharmacy technicians earn $13.80 per hour, $18 per hour if they are certified. Pharmacists can earn more than twice that, from $36 to $43 per hour. Likewise, physical therapists average about $41,000 in earnings per year, while physical therapy assistants typically earn about $30,000 per year. According to Baum, a recent doctoral graduate of Washington University’s occupational therapy program got a consulting job earning $100,000 straight out of school.

However, visions of earning the big bucks can be damped when the reality of skyrocketing tuition costs sink in. At the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, the estimated cost of tuition plus living expenses for a dental hygiene student is $100,000 per year. At Washington University, tuition for a year in the occupational therapy program is $19,300, and $24,900 for a year in its physical therapy program.

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Other programs—especially those at state universities—can cost much less, however, with the above examples at the high end of the cost spectrum. And keep in mind, savings can be found at even the most expensive schools, especially for minority students.

Developing Diversity

Because of a dearth of minorities in allied health fields, schools are working hard to attract minorities to their programs.

“We’d love to recruit more minority students here,” says Burritt. “Our patient population is diverse and it’s really important that our student population be diverse.”

At USC, a high number of international students in the dental hygiene program means the number of minorities is higher than programs at other schools. But according to Kelly Spradlin, admission coordinator for dental hygiene and post-doctoral programs, few African Americans attend the program, a group the school is currently actively recruiting.

To bring more people of color into their allied health programs, schools are offering scholarships targeted specifically to minority students. Washington University offers the Ben Vereen Scholarship for an entering African-American student and the Brendan Feely Book Scholarship to qualified minority students, in addition to its regular research and clinical assistantships. According to Baum, 80% of students receive significant levels of assistance in the form of scholarships, minority fellowships and assistantships. Similarly, the University of Southern California School of Dentistry offers a scholarship for African Americans.

In addition to scholarships, student loans can help finance a graduate school career. Loans are cheaper than ever with rock-bottom interest rates one of the only benefits of the current economy.

Just as schools lack diversity in their student population, so to do hospitals and other employers in the health care industry. Employers, like schools, are eager to attract minority workers to their fields. Patients at these institutions are as diverse as the general population, and hospitals and other employers want to match that diversity among their staff.

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Current Shortage = Good News for You

In fact, allied health employers are struggling to fill positions in general—not just with minority workers. “The shortages are really becoming acute,” says Mary Burritt, Ph.D., of the Mayo School of Health Sciences.

Burritt states that in rural areas, some 40% of positions remain unfilled in certain allied health fields. Burritt and others attribute the shortage to an aging work force and the closing of educational programs by hospitals that could no longer afford funding rotations.

“The job market is wide open as long as people have training in health care,” adds Burritt.

A labor shortage means salaries—even in a lackluster economy—are increasing. Some hospitals are even offering signing bonuses. Of course, the level of opportunity and salary depends on the field you go into. Some fields are stable, while others are expanding. One example is occupational therapy.

“Occupational therapy is really a growing field,” says Baum. “There’s more of a demand than there is a supply. Salaries in this field always follow the supply/demand curve.”

Radiology is another field that is constantly growing, with some radiologic technologists opting for more education—including studying for a certification exam—to go into high-demand specialties within radiology, such as nuclear medicine or stenography. “The entire field is growing at such a rapid rate,” states Anne Schletty, a staffing specialist at Mayo Clinic who hires for the radiology department. “There’s opportunity everywhere in this field.”

Burritt and others say projections show the trend continuing with openings in allied health outnumbering workers at an increasing rate over the next few years.

Staying on the Cutting Edge

Although better pay and more job choices are common motivators for those considering a return to school, in certain fields, an advanced degree is required by employers more now than in previous years. For example, physical therapists used to be able to get into the workforce with a bachelor’s degree. Now nothing less than a master’s will get you your first job. The same is true in pharmacy.

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“The technology has gotten more advanced,” agrees Burritt, “and there’s a feeling (in hospitals) that students need more advanced training for the positions.” According to USC’s Spradlin, dentists are increasingly requiring hygienists with BAs, especially on the West Coast. In fact, USC is even beginning to develop a master’s program in dental hygiene.

Making the decision to go back to school or to continue your current education to earn an advanced degree can be overwhelming. Both graduate school and college are expensive, time-consuming and require a great deal of hard work. The good news is that a higher level of education affords more than just better pay.

In occupational therapy, for example, some graduates take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities, such as consulting.

“There are so many places where people can break out into new areas, such as consultation, private practice, driver’s training, industry…” says Baum. “It depends on what the person’s goals are.”

For those with an associate’s degree, degree completion can mean opening doors to management opportunities. For others, a degree—whether undergraduate or advanced—may mean a chance to advance in one career or switch to another. Today, perhaps more than ever before, allied health workers have their pick of jobs and advancement opportunities. Couple the flexibility an advanced degree affords with a job market that continues to demand increasing numbers of workers—particularly minorities—and you have the makings of a great career.

“It’s a wonderful time to be in health care,” Burritt states.

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