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Top 10 Jobs with Most Student Debt Regret

We did a survey of over 3,000 readers in August 2020 to answer a simple question: Do you regret your career choice because of your student debt? Here's what we learned about the most regretted professions.

Overall, we found these results:

  • 43% said they wished they had chosen a different career path because of their student loan burden
  • 57% said they were happy with their career decision

This survey is representative of high-debt young professionals. Overall, about 70% had more than $100,000 of student loans and made over $50,000 per year in income. About 62% of the respondents were female, and 84% were in their 20s or 30s.

Within this group, we found large variability in what groups of professionals were the most and least likely to be happy with their career choice. We'll also list the average student debt among clients of our student loan consulting business, which tends to be 10% to 50% higher than the average student debt for all members of a profession.

In total, respondents belonged to 389 different professions. And to make it to this top 10 list, the career category must've received at least 30 responses.

We'll include a couple of comments from readers in our survey in each category to give you more context about the regret that people are feeling, whether it be from the cost of their college degree, low pay or other job-related concerns.

So, here's the top 10 most regretted professions due to student loans.

10. Optometrist

Percent of optometrists who said they had career regret from student loans: 50%

Average student debt among our optometrist clients: $265,208

Optometrists tend to go to school for four years after undergrad for their OD degree. This usually results in a similar debt load compared to medical school, yet they earn far less than ophthalmologists.

Typical earnings we've seen for our optometrist clients are around $80,000 to $120,000 per year.

That makes a typical optometrist student debt load unable to be paid back without extreme financial sacrifice.

The lower income ceiling with comparable debt to medical school makes optometrists come in at number 10 on the list.

Average income for an optometrist in the Midwest is 100K and has remained that way for five to 10 years even though tuition has increased dramatically in that time period. I would’ve gone to PA school— three years versus four, high income, significantly less loans.

I feel like my income to debt ratio isn't ideal. If I had become something like an engineer, or computer science where I only needed four years of undergraduate schooling, I could have gone into some industry field and made the same income I do now, but with MUCH less student debt. My boyfriend is an electrical engineer, did two years at community college, then two years at university. He makes double I do now. It's crazy. He has no school debt.

9. Pharmacist

Percent of pharmacists who said they had career regret from student loans: 52%

Average student debt among our pharmacist clients: $229,832

Pharmacists have been undergoing a slow-boiling career crisis. However, the pandemic stopped some of these trends and, in some cases, even reversed them, as pharmacists were in the top three most stable jobs of the pandemic recession, according to a previous survey we did.

Pharmacy schools have proliferated at an incredibly fast rate and have been producing far more graduates than could be absorbed into full-time roles. This has created high competition with limited job opportunities in many areas.

The downward pressures on income, along with the fact that newer grads are more likely than previous grads to have attended a high-cost private pharmacy school, contributed to pharmacists showing up at the ninth spot.

Pharmacy school is too expensive for the value proposition — the ceiling for income is not high enough given the cost of school.

When I first started college in 2003, the pharmacist job market was great. Huge demand and signing bonuses to match. About the time I started pharmacy school, the schools got greedy. Too many new schools and ballooning class sizes overshot the demand. Now I’m stuck saddled with $350,000 in loans and working for a chain pharmacy that I worry will get rid of me in a heartbeat for a new grad they can pay half as much. The future of pharmacy looks bleak.

8. Teacher

Percent of teachers who said they had career regret from student loans: 52%

Average student debt among our teacher clients: $100,275

Teachers, on average, have student debt similar to that of people with an undergrad degree. However, thousands of teachers have far more debt than that and were perhaps more likely to be represented in this survey.

I think the public is unaware of how many teachers pursue master's degrees in their fields. Often, this leaves teachers with more student debt than they earn in salary.

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The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program theoretically could help most teachers manage their student debt. However, it's proven needlessly complex and even conflicts with teachers who pursue the far less generous and unfortunately named “Teacher Loan Forgiveness” program (because it usually forgives only a fraction of someone's debt).

Add on all of the stress teachers have due to COVID-19, and the burden that teachers face is incredible. If you know a teacher, share a word of encouragement for a teacher in your life.

Student loans have been one of the biggest stresses in my life. My wife and I considered not getting married because of them and what getting married would do to my payments. My current job does not recognize my increased value because of my education, but I do love my career.

Loan forgiveness programs are a joke ! Haven't worked for me and I've been in education over 25 years at low-income schools where kids have 60% to 70% of free or reduced lunches.

7. Public health professional

Percent of public health professionals who said they had career regret from student loans: 53%

Average student debt among our public health professional clients: $120,000

Public health professionals don't go into the field because of the high-paying salary.

Yet when you graduate with six-figure student debt with a mid-five-figure salary, that debt causes a lot of stress. Public health professionals also have a lower income ceiling because of inflation level expected growth in wages.

The pay in my field is simply not high enough to justify my egregious loans. Without PSLF I would drown. If only I had known sooner how precarious the student debt would feel, I would have not gone for an MPH (or at least chosen a much cheaper school).

Public health salaries are well below market rate, and public health resources (e.g., the tools you need to do your job) are underfunded. Public health as a field does not hold the respect it needs to enact effective policies in our decentralized country. This pandemic will shrink to an epidemic and we'll be one of the last developed countries still fighting COVID. As a person working in the field directly addressing COVID, there is nothing more disheartening to know that you aren't doing enough to fix the problem.

6. Counselors and therapists

Percent of counselors and therapists who said they had career regret from student loans: 54%

Average student debt among our counselor/therapist clients: $115,091

The typical salaries of our counselor and therapist clients have been around $30,000 to $60,000. With an advanced education required, six-figure student debt can put your typical counselor owing two to three times their salary.

Counselors also must deal with the tremendous emotional burden of caring for their clients. When you look at the low level of earnings paired with the high debt load, it's no wonder a majority of counselors and therapists regretted their career choice.

Society pounds on the door demanding mental health reform and support yet our hospital, clinic and insurance systems refuse to pay mental health providers (therapists, case managers, social workers) wages that are reflective of their education and knowledge. For a masters level education, I make dramatically less money than other masters level professions. Bleeding hearts don’t pay the bills.

I have a Masters degree in Marital & Family Therapy. LMFTs (Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist) starting salary is generally $34,000 to $40,000, and generally does not increase much (unless you start your own private practice or pay for two years of clinical supervision to get your “C”). A lot of work & student loans for that. Plus, it’s EMOTIONALLY expensive.

5. Non-profit employees

Percent of non-profit workers who said they had career regret from student loans: 55%

Average student debt among our non-profit professional clients: $107,600

Non-profit professionals run endowments, charities and other important community organizations.

If you work in a non-profit, you probably knew before taking the job that you weren't going to make as much money as in the private sector.

Unfortunately, though, many non-profits prefer to recruit individuals with advanced degrees, leading many workers to pursue them.

If you do that with the low incomes non-profit workers make, you'll easily end up owing multiples of your salary. Perhaps non-profit professionals would not be as high on this list of career regret due to student loans if PSLF had a better reputation.

I'm working towards PSLF and feel stifled and pigeon-holed in nonprofit work. In school, I thought for sure I'd always want to work for the gov or nonprofits, but that's changed a lot for me. PSLF feels a little bit like a poverty trap, because you want to make less so your loans are less, but then you have less for life expenses and less opportunity for things like buying a home to grow your wealth (and just reach normal life-goals).

I love working for a non-profit but the paycheck is exactly that — not profitable. I would have higher earning potential in a different industry.

4. Physical therapist

Percent of physical therapists who said they had career regret from student loans: 57%

Average student debt among our physical therapist clients: $187,295

Physical therapists used to be able to practice without a doctorate degree, but then the Vision 2020 statement pushed a doctorate requirement for all new members of the profession.

Of course, the schools didn't mind, as they got a few extra years' worth of tuition revenue from this new requirement. Unfortunately, incomes didn't increase for physical therapists even though the cost to become one soared.

My debt to income ratio is seemingly impossible to overcome. I don’t feel like PTs have the respect associated with being a doctoring profession and that combined with poor pay and high debt leads to feeling burnt out and down on the profession as a whole overall.

Don't need the level of education I received for what I do. Mostly just motivate people to move as a physical therapist in an outpatient setting, especially in the rural community where I live. If I focused more on inpatient PT then it would be important to have more knowledge of lab values, discharge planning, etc. Also, I feel trapped based on my DTI being close to two with just my student loans.

3. Chiropractor

Percent of chiropractors who said they had career regret from student loans: 57%

Average student debt among our chiropractor clients: $248,750

Our experience advising chiropractors suggests they have the highest average debt to income ratios of any profession.

It's unfortunate because the profession requires four years of chiropractic schooling. Yet, earnings are usually not much more than if they had just started a career with a bachelor's degree alone.

Most chiropractors I've spoken with also feel misled by their schools, which in many cases promised them six-figure incomes that failed to materialize.

I think the chiropractic degree is nearly worthless as it means nothing outside of the profession. It cannot be used or leveraged easily for career change or advancement in very many ways. The cost of tuition compared to future average earnings in chiropractic make it impossible for me to ever recommend people choose chiropractic as a career unless it is something they are extremely passionate about and want to be an entrepreneur.

Chiro school is the biggest trap there is. The loans are ridiculously high- the promises for great career prospects are crap. The doctors you talk to before entering school have already been established for 20 years so of course they are doing fine…. Us young guys got the shaft. $30,000 a year starting salaries. Opening a business is impossible almost because banks won't loan to chiros. Even if you do get it opened, you are a drop in the pond as chiros are underutilized because of the quacky nonsense practitioners out there giving us a bad rep. The evidence-based Chiros like myself — doing soft tissue therapies, exercise rehab, etc… we are fighting an uphill battle from day one. Anyways… Rant over.

2. Veterinarian

Percent of veterinarians who said they had career regret from student loans: 58%

Average student debt among our veterinarian clients: $276,747

It's no surprise that veterinarians take the second spot on our list. Sadly, one in 10 veterinarians has considered suicide due to student loans.

Veterinarians often get berated by clients for being “greedy” for the bills pet owners are asked to pay. Little do these customers know that typical vet incomes range from $70,000 to $120,000.

That's not a huge return for four years of school along with the detailed science knowledge required to get into vet school.

Add on the other stresses of being a veterinarian, such as needing to euthanize pets, and it's a challenging field to sign up for at such a high cost.

Vet school was brutal, and veterinarians experience abuse from our clients daily. I worked so hard, sacrificed so much, and accumulated so much debt for this career, only to be harassed and insulted by clients regularly.

I love my job but stress associated with being a vet in current society (lawsuits, social media harassment, general public entitlement, Dr. Google) and the debt burden are not worth it. There are other jobs I would have been able to find passion in without the added compromise to my well-being.

1. Occupational therapist

Percent of occupational therapists who said they had career regret from student loans: 67%

Average student debt among our occupational therapist clients: $204,846

I'm surprised that occupational therapists ended up at number one on our list of biggest regret. However, we've seen a trend toward doctoral degrees in the OT world, just as we saw with physical therapists.

Unlike physical therapists, though, occupational therapist salaries that we've seen have been lower, in the $60,000 to $80,000 range.

I would imagine that occupational therapists who attend low-cost master's programs regret their career choice less. However, we're seeing more and more pursue doctoral-level education, which is not translating into higher earnings.

The ROI is poor. I have animosity towards my profession and college at times. In graduate school, I had a professor tell us we would be starting out making $30,000 more a year than any OT I have ever spoken to (most wont EVER make what they reported). A lot of emotional and physical sacrifices for this profession for minimal payoff and it affects overall mental well being.

I wish I would have done the two year degree for an occupational therapist assistant instead of the 8 years it took to receive a masters degree to be an occupational therapist. They do not pay occupational therapist based on their degrees, but rather on experience. Assistants typically have more opportunities in the therapy world (becoming rehab managers, receiving more hours of work) because they earn less and receive better benefits. I feel that after my student loan expenses, the OT assistant ends up making more than I do.

Career regret due to student loans is higher in professions with an income ceiling

If you look at what this list of most regretted professions has in common, most require longer schooling along with a fixed level of top-earning capacity.

If you take out six figures of debt, you'd want there to be a solid chance that you could make well into the six figures of income. That's why professions such as medicine, law and dentistry didn't show up on this list despite the average student loan burdens of those professions being higher on an absolute basis.

The good news is that no student loan balance needs to hold you back. You just need to get a plan and treat your debt as a tax if you can't pay it back while living a normal life.

What do you think of our top 10 list? What should've been number one? Comment below.

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  1. Dr. Kyle Thornton December 20, 2020 at 2:41 PM

    Thank you for providing this research. Your list covers nearly every discipline.
    I don’t have much chance of paying off my student loan any faster, unless I get a windfall of some sort. I qualify for PSLF through my employer, but it’s a long haul, and I’ve just started. In hindsight, I don’t know if I’d have done things differently. I’m proud of achieving my doctorate, even though I have to work in a discipline that doesn’t require or acknowledge it. The debt is a ball and chain. It is ironic that in order to pay for a degree in educational leadership, I had to leave that profession and go into an entirely different one.
    I’m encouraged by the discussion of student loan forgiveness, but even if they subtract $50,000.00, it won’t help me.
    If the entire amount can’t be forgiven, what I’d like to see is an omission of the interest. The interest makes my debt like quicksand – it fills back up with every payment. The other action that would be huge is to lower the service requirement for PSLF from ten to five years.

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner December 31, 2020 at 2:25 PM

      The good news is that with PSLF your interest doesn’t matter. Your balance can grow and grow each month and your monthly payment will remain based on your income. Then, the remaining balance (including all of the accumulated interest) will be forgiven.

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