We offer a baker’s dozen of professions that promise income growth, work-life balance and social impact. By Marty Nemko, Contributing Columnist January 1, 2010 Few decisions are more important than choosing a career. And especially in these uncertain and changing times, no decision may be more difficult.U.S. companies, saddled with increasingly onerous costs of employing people, are downsizing, cutting employees’ hours, hiring temps, automating jobs and sending work offshore. Meanwhile, technology is redefining existing jobs and demanding new skills from an aging workforce, and new competition for jobs looms in the form of 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants likely to get legalized in the years ahead. Perhaps most potent, the U.S. is experiencing the largest transfer of gross domestic product from the private sector to the government sector in history -- and shifting jobs along with it. In these roiling times, what are smart career choices? Of course, the best career for one person can be the worst for another, but I believe these 13 are particularly worthy of attention. From among thousands of occupations, I selected the 13 that rank best overall based on these criteria: • Likelihood of sustaining at least a middle-class income. This subsumes three factors: likely job growth, income potential and being under the radar (so there's less competition for jobs). Advertisement •Socially redeeming. There may be jobs, for example, as casino managers and tobacco executives, but such occupations were immediately excluded from consideration. •Quality of life. Reasonable work hours, freedom from toxic or noisy work environments, and so on. •Status. Most Kiplinger readers will not, for example, be attracted to owning gas stations, even though some gas-station owners make a great deal of money. Federal-government manager Advertisement Especially in homeland security, energy and the environment, health care, veterans affairs and defense. Common job titles: program analyst, program manager and director. Also needed are country experts, especially on China, India and Middle Eastern countries. The federal government will be the largest source of new jobs, with 300,000 hires expected within the next two years. And those jobs will not be just in Washington, D.C., but all over the U.S. and across the world. Federal job security and benefits are nonpareil, and salaries are more competitive than is widely believed. Learn more: Partnership for Public Service Higher-education administrator Even in tough times, and despite annual beyond-inflation price increases, many people continue to pursue higher education. So manager types may find the job market better in higher education than in corporate America. Plus, colleges offer a felicitous work environment and generous vacation time. Neat niche: student-affairs administrator. (No, I'm not talking about assignations.) Learn more: The College Administrator's Survival Guide Program evaluator Advertisement Is Head Start really worth the taxpayer dollars? Is it wise to train lab technicians online? What should the next-generation teen-pregnancy-prevention program look like? Program evaluators address such questions. Learn more: Basic Guide to Program Evaluation Corporate executive specializing in global business development or managing global workforces Speaking Mandarin, Hindi, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic or Farsi is a plus. Learn more: Cognitive-behavioral therapist Advertisement The Mental Health Parity Act requires that mental health now be covered as fully as physical health, but many insurers will cover only cognitive-behavioral therapy because it">Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Immigration expert President Obama has promised amnesty or "a path to citizenship" for the U.S.’s illegal immigrants. Experts will be needed to figure out how to integrate millions of people who are typically poor, speak little English and have high health-care needs. Learn more: Department of Homeland Security, National Council of La Raza Researcher Expertise in two or more of these subjects: physics, math, molecular biology, engineering and computer science are in high demand. Key specializations and examples of work in each area: •Energy: Developing space-based solar power, in-vehicle hydrogen fuel generators, algae that's genetically engineered for maximum net energy yield, efficient insulators (such as nanolevel-designed coatings), batteries with long cruising ranges for electric vehicles. •Genomics: Determining what gene clusters affect what phenotypes, developing safe, effective methods of gene knockouts and transfers. •Neurophysics: Understanding the physics of depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, retardation and so on. •Diagnostic imaging: Developing molecular-level medical imaging. •Pollution control: Nuclear-waste neutralizers, nanolevel pollution filters. Warning: After getting that PhD in hard science and math, you may need a one- to two-year postdoctoral position. Learn more: Career Guide for Scientists, The Science Careers portal from Science magazine Health-informatics specialist Health-care providers are switching to electronic medical records, using computerized expert systems to guide diagnoses and treatment recommendations, and collecting more data to evaluate quality of care. Learn more: American Medical Informatics Organization, American Health Information Management Association Optometrist This career offers a high patient success rate, good income, status and shorter-than-MD training: four years post-bachelors or seven years in a BS/OD program. Learn more: Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11: Optometrists Genetic counselor With personal DNA sequencing ever more informative and affordable, people face many more gene-related decisions. For example, if your genome doubles your risk of breast cancer, should you have a prophylactic mastectomy? Or if you're pregnant and a test reveals your baby has the gene for a disease that has a 50-50 chance of being serious, should you abort? Genetic counselors help people decide what to do. A master's is the terminal degree. Learn more: National Society of Genetic Counselors Patient advocate Help ensure the patient gets to see the right specialist, do research so the patient is better informed when talking to the doctor, educate family members on how to support the patient during a hospital stay, sort through the mountains of bills and, if necessary, negotiate fees. Learn more: About.com’s guide to Becoming a Patient Advocate Physical therapist This career scores high on job-satisfaction surveys, thanks to one-on-one interaction that lasts longer than physicians' average of 12 minutes per patient, tangible patient progress and reasonable work hours. Plus, as aging boomers sustain more weekend-warrior injuries and worse, the job market could strengthen, although cost-control pressures are resulting in increased use of physical-therapy assistants, who have less training. A three-year Doctor of Physical Therapy is becoming the standard degree. Learn more: Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11: Physical Therapists, American Physical Therapy Association Veterinarian This career offers advantages over an MD career: shorter training, qualification to do a wider range of procedures, less paperwork and freedom from the uncertainties of health-care reform. Of course, your patients can't describe what's wrong with them. Learn more: About.com's veterinary career portal Now what? If one of those careers piques your interest, well, keep reading -- beyond the relevant resource provided here. Be sure to examine the profession’s profile in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Or do a Web search of the career's name along with the word "careers" -- for example, "biophysicist careers." If the career remains appealing, speak with or, better yet, visit people who work in that field to get a genuine sense of what it's like. Finding people can be as close as your Yellow Pages, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or a professional association membership list. After the above exploration, if a career still rates at least a 9 on a 10-point scale, congratulations are probably in order. You might finally have a good answer to the question, "So what are you going to do?" Be careful about holding out for the perfect career match at this stage. Otherwise, you may well be waiting for Godot. Most people discover they love their career only after they've become a go-to guy or girl in that field or end up with a great boss and workplace. Plus, a career may have pluses and minuses for you that are indiscernible until after you've entered the field. Marty Nemko is a contributing columnist for Kiplinger and has been named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Find more than 500 of his other published writings free at www.martynemko.com.