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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| March 29, 2019
Sometimes the best career path is the one you blaze yourself. Self-employment affords you the opportunity to take full control of your work life: You can make your own hours, set up shop where it best suits you and pick your projects. But with all that power comes great responsibility: You have to build and keep your own schedule, manage your workspace and equipment and develop and maintain a stable of clients and projects. You also have to handle more complexity when it comes to start-up costs, cash flow, health insurance, saving for retirement, taxes and other financial matters.
Whether the pros are worth the cons really depends on your personal priorities and preferences, but certain jobs work better for the self-employed than others. To help you find which lines of work are best for being your own boss, we ranked 773 popular occupations from best to worst based on number of current positions, median pay, projected job growth and educational requirements (favoring jobs that don't necessarily call for a huge investment in education to get started). Then, we scoured the top of our job rankings for occupations with above-average rates of self-employment. After all, if a large share of the profession is making it work, chances are better that you can, too. The following 12 jobs offer generous income potential, bright prospects and a good shot at being a successful boss.
Unless otherwise noted, all employment data was provided by Emsi, a labor-market research firm owned by Strada Education. Emsi collects data from dozens of federal, state and private sources, including reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau. The total number of jobs listed for each occupation is for 2017. Projected 10-year job growth figures represent the percentage change in the total number of jobs in an occupation between 2017 and 2027. Annual earnings were calculated by multiplying median hourly earnings by 2,080, the standard number of hours worked in a year by a full-time employee.
Total number of jobs: 393,399
Share who are self-employed: 7.1% (All jobs: 6.4%)
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 13.7% (All jobs: 9.7%)
Median annual salary: $200,774 (All jobs: $43,992)
Typical education: Doctoral degree
Health care coverage may be a hotly debated issue in the U.S., but the need for quality health care is universally acknowledged. And physicians are still considered the top dogs for diagnosing and treating patients, especially when it comes to more specific health issues. Some specialties included in this group of doctors are allergists, cardiologists, dermatologists and radiologists.
Whatever your area of focus, expect to spend many years—and tuition dollars—on studying it. From the start of college, more than a decade will have passed before you finally become a board-certified practicing physician. And in that time, plenty of people pile on the student loans. In 2016, medical-school graduates carried a median $190,000 in debt, according to the American Medical Association. Going into private practice can pile six figures onto your career start-up costs, but it also affords you a lot more independence and flexibility. Some things you need to keep in mind if you’re hoping to practice solo: developing and maintaining an electronic health records system, medical billing issues, malpractice and other types of insurance and keeping up with healthcare regulations.
*Bolded data at top refer specifically to physicians whose specialties are not included in detail by the Department of Labor. It does not include anesthesiologists, family and general practitioners, internists, obstetricians and gynecologists, pediatricians or psychiatrists.
Total number of jobs: 850,0660
Share who are self-employed: 20.0%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 14.2%
Median annual salary: $76,221
Typical education: Bachelor’s degree
These workers are so boss, they figure out how other workers and companies can be more boss themselves. Management analysts, or consultants, help organizations identify and seize opportunities to increase efficiency. They do that by analyzing data, interviewing personnel, observing workflow policies and procedures and conferring with managers. And they often work on contract, meaning that while they are beholden to their clients, they are their own bosses. So part of their job is to secure work for themselves. That means seeking out potential projects and bidding on them with carefully crafted proposals.
A bachelor’s degree in business, management, finance or other field is typically required to get started as a management consultant, but a master’s in business administration may give you a competitive edge. You can also get a Certified Management Consultant designation from the Institute of Management Consultants USA to further your professional credence, which may be especially useful if you’re self-employed. The certification process can take as little as two months. To qualify, you need to submit an application, including references and client evaluations, pass online examinations, do a panel interview and pay the required fees ($550 for the initial certification application and assessment for non-members).
Total number of jobs: 165,155
Share who are self-employed: 20.3%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 17.2%
Median annual salary: $58,409
Typical education: Associate’s degree
Why become a web developer? For the answer, look no further than this screen—or any other screen you have open on all your web-enabled devices. The proliferation of online content and ecommerce is driving demand for site development—and the people who provide such services—across industries and even for personal use.
Unlike other hot tech jobs, web developers can often get started without having to invest in a costly bachelor’s degree. While the typical education requirement is an associate’s degree, some gigs call for just a high school diploma. What’s most important is that you have a deep understanding of HTML, other programming languages and multimedia publishing tools. And like with any tech job, you must keep learning throughout your career, staying on top of new tools, computer languages and other advances.
Total number of jobs: 141,107
Share who are self-employed: 8.3%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 16.0%
Median annual salary: $189,738
The health-care field has long been lauded as a solid source of many prosperous careers. After all, no matter what happens in politics, the economy or the overall job market, people always need medical attention at various points throughout their lives. As generalists, family practitioners are able to perform regular checkups and care for an array of everyday afflictions such as sinus and respiratory infections in patients of all ages. That can translate into a steady stream of patients—just what the doctor ordered for a successful private practice.
You need to endure many years of schooling before you can get started on this path. After first getting your bachelor’s degree, typically in the sciences, you have to get into medical school, which typically requires four years to complete. Then, you spend another three years training in an approved residency program. Finally, after you become board-certified, you can officially become a practicing family doctor.
Total number of jobs: 249,909
Share who are self-employed: 18.0%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 12.0%
Median annual salary: $86,711
We swear this is a totally unbiased ranking, but we at Kiplinger obviously believe in the value of expert financial guidance. This is especially true as pensions become a thing of the past and Americans are compelled to take responsibility for building their own wealth. Baby boomers, in particular, are ripe to seek out more professional financial help as they plan for and enter retirement in droves.
You usually have to be a college grad to get on this career path. A bachelor's degree in finance, economics, accounting or a similar field would best prepare you for dealing with money matters, but most employers don't specify a required major. Certification from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards—which requires you to earn a bachelor's degree, have at least three years of relevant work experience and pass a rigorous exam on a wide range of financial issues—adds to your credibility, which can be especially useful if you’re self-employed. Licensing is required to sell certain types of insurance and investment products.
Total number of jobs: 143,243
Share who are self-employed: 20.9%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 13.9%
Median annual salary: $154,901
The link between oral health and overall health has been proven strong, pushing more Americans to regularly seek dental care and giving dentists ample opportunity to work. Their career prospects also benefit from the aging population, with people increasingly keeping their real teeth longer (rather than opting for dentures) and needing plenty of help combating their deterioration.
On top of being comfortable spending your days poking around other people’s mouths, you have to endure many years of schooling to become a dentist. You typically need a bachelor’s degree to apply to dental school, which generally takes four years to complete. If you want to be a specialized dentist—such as an endodontist, who performs root canals, or an oral pathologist, who focuses on cancer and other oral diseases—you also need to complete a two- to four-year residency program.
Total number of jobs: 80,712
Share who are self-employed: 11.8%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 18.5%
Median annual salary: $87,199
Americans are increasingly becoming pet owners and spending more on their furry (and scaly, slimy and feathery) family members. In fact, 68% of U.S. households, or 84.6 million homes, own a pet, according to a 2017-18 survey from the American Pet Products Association (APPA). That’s up from 56% of U.S. households in 1988, the first year of the APPA National Pet Owners Survey. And spending on pets is expected to rise to $72.1 billion in 2018 from $69.5 billion in 2017 and $43.2 billion just ten years ago.
The veterinary services industry is an obvious beneficiary. And on top of providing classic care to more pets, vets are offering many new services as medical advances are expanding to treat species beyond humans. That includes cancer treatments, kidney transplants and other complicated procedures.
To become a veterinarian, you must earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, which typically takes four years after getting a bachelor’s degree. Expect to take many science classes, including biology, zoology and animal science, as well math, humanities and social science courses. You must also be licensed to practice in the U.S.; requirements vary by state. And if you open your own veterinary practice, just like self-employed people doctors, you have to build into your business plan: developing and maintaining an electronic health records and medical billing system, malpractice and other unique types of insurance you’ll need and ensuring you are always in compliance with healthcare regulations.
Total number of jobs: 45,805
Share who are self-employed: 16.2%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 16.7%
Median annual salary: $112,834
Eye doctors can look forward to a bright future. The aging population—and their growing susceptibility to vision impairments such as cataracts and macular degeneration—helps drive demand for optometrists and vision care.
To become one, you first typically need a bachelor’s degree in a biological sciences or related field. Then, you need to spend another four years completing a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree program. If you want to specialize your practice, you also must complete a one-year residency program that focuses on your desired area of expertise, such as family practice, low vision rehabilitation or pediatric or geriatric optometry. All states require optometrists to be licensed to practice. You can also boost your credibility by getting certified by the American Board of Optometry (for which the application fee costs $300).
Total number of jobs: 141,016
Share who are self-employed: 16.3%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 14.4%
Median annual salary: $62,035
Our binge-watching habit is creating more opportunities in the film and video industry. As more content—from commercials to feature films—is needed to fill the lineups of a growing number of television networks and streaming services, positions for producers and directors, as well as other related workers, are expected to increase, too.
Along with a bachelor’s degree, you typically need several years of work experience before you can take the reins as a producer or director. In theater, that work might be in theatrical management offices while in television and film, it could be in low-level studio jobs. And in all stages of your career, expect intense competition. Even as the number of opportunities continues to grow, the number of people jumping at them remains consistently higher.
Total number of jobs: 1.4 million
Share who are self-employed: 7.9%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 11.5%
Median annual salary: $67,249
Accountants and auditors may be busiest during tax season, but their services are needed all year long and should remain in high demand for the next decade. That’s in part thanks to the complexity of the tax code and other financial regulations. Even as the growth of automation threatens to take over some routine accounting tasks, human experts should continue to see opportunities in dealing with more complicated financial situations for both individuals and businesses.
Beyond the standard bachelor’s degree in business, accounting or related field, acquiring additional certifications can help add to your credibility and give you a competitive edge, either with potential employers or clients if you’re self-employed. In fact, every accountant who files a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission is legally required to have a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation. Earning your CPA requires 150 hours of college coursework (that's 30 more hours than the typical four-year bachelor's program), passing a national exam and meeting your state requirements. See the American Institute of CPAs for more information. Other potential designations to consider: Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV).
Total number of jobs: 161,432
Share who are self-employed: 32.6%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 14.1%
Median annual salary: $73,575
Rising awareness of the importance of mental health is pushing up demand for clinical, counseling and school psychologists across the nation and all demographics. For the aging population, people may seek professional help to navigate the complex emotions that accompany the mental and physical changes of growing old. For children, schools are increasingly working to provide mental-health services to help improve learning, especially for students with special needs, learning disabilities and behavioral issues.
After earning your bachelor’s degree, in order to become a psychologist, you also typically need to get either a Ph.D. in psychology of a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. For certain school and industrial organization positions, however, you may be able to get started with a master’s degree. In all states and the District of Columbia, if you practice independently, you’re also required to be licensed wherever you work. Licensing requirement vary by state but often require a doctorate, an internship, at least one to two years of supervised professional experience and passing an exam. For more information, see the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
Total number of jobs: 496,031
Share who are self-employed: 10.3%
Projected job growth, 2017-2027: 16.8%
Median annual salary: $49,347
Typical education: High school diploma or equivalent
New buildings come with plenty of new pipes, and all those drains lead to an ocean of opportunities for plumbers. Pipefitters and steamfitters (who are lumped in with plumbers for data collection purposes) specialize in systems that carry acids, chemicals and gases. The already-large pool of workers is expected to add more than 83,500 new positions over the next decade. Regular maintenance needs and remodeling projects, including those necessary to meet stricter water-efficiency standards, also give plumbers a steady flow of business.
You can dive into the work straight out of high school with a four- or five-year paid apprenticeship, in which you'll typically earn 30% to 50% of what fully trained plumbers make. As your vocational training advances, your wages will grow, too. Once your apprenticeship is complete, you'll be considered a journey worker and be able to do some tasks on your own. After you gain more experience, you can become a master plumber and work independently, which requires a license in most states. Plumbing business owners may need to get additional licenses in most states, too. Plus, they need to properly bonded and insured. Joining a local plumbing association can be a good way to build your network and seek guidance on self-employment in this field.