50 most meaningful jobs in America

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April 1, 2021
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50 most meaningful jobs in America

Every job applicant is trying to find the sweet spot between two numbers: the salary they would need to take on a job they really didn’t like, and the lowest salary they could live on in order to take a job they truly loved. In a perfect world, one’s passion for a job would be matched by salary. But unfortunately, that’s not always how the job market works—ask anyone who has ever settled for a small paycheck in order to follow their dream.

Anthropologist David Graeber made headlines with a book on the “useless jobs that no one wants to talk about” (though the actual title was slightly more profane). In countries around the world, 30–40% of adults reported wondering why their jobs even existed, even though most are well-compensated for their time. Some blame the rise of technology and automation making it harder to find jobs that are high-paying, productive, and fulfilling (to say nothing of the jobs that are none of the above). Graeber argues in his book and elsewhere that people would be a lot happier if these jobs didn’t exist and if productive jobs (for example, teaching) were better paid.

Stacker considered two data metrics compiled by PayScale to find out which jobs are the most meaningful. In a 2013–2015 survey, PayScale asked more than 2 million workers if their job makes the world a better place, a metric that the company calls “job meaning.” Stacker compared this data to the national median salary to find the 50 most meaningful jobs in the country.

Read on to discover which jobs were rated the most meaningful and to decide if it might be time to consider a career change.

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#50. Middle school teachers, except special and vocational education

- Median pay: $44,100
- High meaning: 84%
- High satisfaction: 72%

Jobs in the education field appear several times on this list, starting with middle school teachers, who find playing a role in the development of young minds to be a particularly meaningful experience.

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#49. Secondary school teachers, except special and vocational education

- Median pay: $47,100
- High meaning: 84%
- High satisfaction: 76%

Though high school teachers found their jobs just as meaningful as middle school teachers did, they had a higher rate of satisfaction. One reason behind this could be because their salaries were also slightly higher.

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#48. Medical and health services managers

- Median pay: $70,800
- High meaning: 84%
- High satisfaction: 81%

The medical field also appears repeatedly on this list, indicating that medical professionals find a high level of meaning in their jobs overall. Medical and health services managers (also known as health care administrators or executives) take a lot of satisfaction from their jobs, possibly because they know they make a direct impact on others’ health.

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#47. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors

- Median pay: $36,100
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 74%

Though substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors typically make less each year than people in some other professions on this list, they still find their work especially meaningful. Like health services managers, these counselors likely find helping people better their health to be very impactful.

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#46. Recreation workers

- Median pay: $32,800
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 76%

Recreation workers design and lead activities at summer camps, parks, after-school programs and other social settings. While this job title does not tend to lead to a very high salary, the ability to help people become more active and social might be what led to a higher degree of satisfaction.

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#45. Child, family, and school social workers

- Median pay: $33,700
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 65%

Social workers found a very high degree of meaning in their work. However, job satisfaction was a bit lower than other professions in this section of the list. It’s possible that the dramatic nature of this work could have something to do with those results: Although social workers can have an incredibly positive impact on families, they also often witness tragic circumstances.

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#44. First-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers

- Median pay: $65,500
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 82%

First-line supervisors of fire fighting and prevention workers have an extremely important job: coordinating the activities of firefighters and other emergency personnel. The significance of their day-to-day duties might have driven these workers to report finding their jobs so meaningful.

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#43. Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers

- Median pay: $37,100
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 74%

Like first-line supervisors, emergency dispatchers who answer emergency calls and send first responders out to emergencies found their jobs extremely meaningful—even though they are paid a much lower salary than the former.

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#42. Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors

- Median pay: $39,800
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 71%

Like other professionals in the health and fitness industries, fitness trainers and aerobics instructors find lots of meaning in their work. People who seek out these careers are often very dedicated to their own health and likely enjoy helping others become healthier.

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#41. Veterinarians

- Median pay: $70,600
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 70%

Pursuing a career in veterinary medicine can feel very meaningful for any animal lover, as it gives them the priceless opportunity to heal cats, dogs, and other animals. 

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#40. Orthotists and prosthetists

- Median pay: $50,200
- High meaning: 85%
- High satisfaction: 79%

Orthotists and prosthetists design and fit patients for artificial limbs, braces, and other medical support devices. Professionals who chose this career path also found it very meaningful, likely because they relish the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.

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#39. Physical therapist aides

- Median pay: $24,100
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 74%

Although they receive the lowest median pay of anyone on this list, physical therapist aides feel their jobs are extremely meaningful. This could be due to the gratification they feel after helping a patient recover.

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#38. Military enlisted tactical operations and air/weapons specialists and crew members, all other

- Median pay: $38,400
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 68%

Members of the military with this job title often work in data collection and intelligence gathering, which helps the military plan missions and defense. The importance of this work is likely what makes these specialists find such a high degree of meaning in the job.

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#37. Marriage and family therapists

- Median pay: $47,900
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 75%

The day-to-day work of marriage and family therapists is directly tied to their patients’ happiness. It can be rewarding to see a couple or family have a breakthrough after working with them for months or years.

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#36. Optometrists

- Median pay: $102,000
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 81%

Putting on glasses after living with poor vision is a revelation: The world suddenly looks sharper and brighter than one ever thought possible. Helping their patients achieve perfect vision is optometrists’ way of making the world a better place, one pair of glasses at a time.

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#35. Dentists, general

- Median pay: $129,000
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 82%

Dentists take a lot of satisfaction and meaning from their work—perhaps because a smile is one of the first things that is noticed about someone else. Dentists are also often their own boss, so they generally have control over their work lives. 

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#34. Physical therapist assistants

- Median pay: $50,800
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 82%

Although this job is similar to physical therapist aides, physical therapist assistants also need an associates degree from an accredited program. The higher level of education required translates into a higher median pay, perhaps leading to higher overall job satisfaction.

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#33. Occupational therapist assistants

- Median pay: $52,300
- High meaning: 86%
- High satisfaction: 81%

Occupational therapist assistants help their patients recover and build the skills needed for daily life and work—things like learning to climb the stairs again or finding ways to shower independently after a surgery. Because of their ability to help people in their day-to-day lives, occupational therapist assistants say their jobs are very meaningful.

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#32. Recreational therapists

- Median pay: $30,900
- High meaning: 87%
- High satisfaction: 74%

Recreational therapists plan and coordinate treatment programs for people with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. Their work can be lighthearted and fun—treatments often take the form of art projects, games, or outings—but it also has the potential to dramatically improve their patients' lives. 

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#31. Funeral directors

- Median pay: $44,800
- High meaning: 87%
- High satisfaction: 68%

Funeral directors see their clients on one of the saddest days of their lives: They have just lost a loved one and have to navigate the often confusing process of planning a funeral. In that dark moment, funeral directors can provide some dignity, comfort and kindness.

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#30. Health educators

- Median pay: $55,600
- High meaning: 87%
- High satisfaction: 75%

Health educators teach various communities about health and wellness; they cover everything from safe sex to proper nutrition. The effect that this work has on the wellbeing of others must make health educators feel their jobs are extremely important.

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#29. Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators

- Median pay: $40,800
- High meaning: 87%
- High satisfaction: 72%

Water and liquid waste treatment plant and system operators manage machines used to treat water and wastewater. Though this might not seem like the most glamorous job, it is undeniably important to the health of society.

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#28. Health diagnosing and treating practitioners, all other

- Median pay: $91,200
- High meaning: 87%
- High satisfaction: 81%

This category includes all health practitioners not included in PayScale’s other categories, such as acupuncturists, naturopathic physicians, and orthoptists. Like dentists and doctors, professionals in this field likely find a high degree of meaning in their work because of the influence they have on their patients’ health.

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#27. Audiologists

- Median pay: $69,500
- High meaning: 88%
- High satisfaction: 72%

Audiologists identify, diagnose, and treat hearing and auditory disorders. Similar to optometrists, audiologists have the power to restore their patients’ senses, opening up a whole new world of sounds.

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#26. Fire fighters

- Median pay: $43,100
- High meaning: 88%
- High satisfaction: 83%

There’s a reason why so many kids want to be firefighters when they grow up: This job has a huge effect on the safety of communities nationwide. Firefighters themselves also found a lot of meaning and satisfaction in their work.

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#25. Music directors and composers

- Median pay: $46,500
- High meaning: 88%
- High satisfaction: 80%

Though conductors and composers don’t make an especially high median salary, they still find a very high degree of meaning in their work. People who choose this field often feel a deep, emotional connection to music and relish the chance to pursue their passion.

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#24. Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists

- Median pay: $60,800
- High meaning: 88%
- High satisfaction: 78%

These types of psychologists diagnose and treat learning disabilities, mental disorders, and cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems. Whether they work in schools, outpatient care centers or other offices, psychologists know that their work can hugely benefit their patients.

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#23. Pediatricians, general

- Median pay: $149,000
- High meaning: 88%
- High satisfaction: 89%

Pediatricians diagnose and treat children, something that many find extremely rewarding. People in this profession had a very high degree of meaning, high satisfaction, and a high median salary—the professional trifecta.

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#22. Mental health counselors

- Median pay: $40,700
- High meaning: 89%
- High satisfaction: 70%

Mental health counselors use cognitive therapies to help their patients deal with difficult life events or manage mental disorders. Similar to psychologists and marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors likely find their job very meaningful due to the lasting effects their work can have.

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#21. Physicians and surgeons, all other

- Median pay: $225,000
- High meaning: 89%
- High satisfaction: 80%

Like other professionals in the medical field, physicians and surgeons find their work very meaningful. They are also well compensated for their work, bringing in the second-highest median pay on this list.

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#20. Education administrators, preschool, and child care center/program

- Median pay: $33,200
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 81%

Education administrators at preschools or other child care centers work with preschool teachers to plan and coordinate activities for children. Though they don’t make a very high salary compared to some of the jobs on this list, these administrators still took a lot of satisfaction from the job.

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#19. Physical therapists

- Median pay: $73,400
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 79%

Since physical therapist assistants and aides also appear on this list, it’s no surprise to see licensed physical therapists rank higher. Physical therapists likely find great meaning in their ability to help patients recover after an illness, injury, or surgery.

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#18. First-line supervisors/managers of police and detectives

- Median pay: $69,200
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 85%

Supervisors of police and detectives have some extremely important responsibilities: It’s their job to coordinate shifts and directly oversee the actions of the police force. This line of work is one that has considerable weight in public safety.

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#17. Medical appliance technicians

- Median pay: $37,900
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 78%

Without the complex medical devices they need, doctors wouldn’t be nearly as effective at treating their patients. Medical appliance technicians know how essential their work is to patients’ treatment and recovery, which likely leads them to find their jobs so meaningful.

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#16. Family and general practitioners

- Median pay: $165,000
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 78%

Family and general practitioners treat everything from the common cold to chronic health conditions. Because they often see the same patients for many years, general practitioners and family doctors also forge strong personal connections with their patients.

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#15. Counselors, all other

- Median pay: $34,000
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 77%

This category includes counselors who weren’t listed by their specific area of focus. Although the median pay for these jobs is rather low, counselors still rated their job meaning very highly.

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#14. Speech-language pathologists

- Median pay: $65,700
- High meaning: 90%
- High satisfaction: 79%

Speech-language pathologists (or SLPs) assess, diagnose, and treat disorders related to speech, language, swallowing, and communication in patients of all ages. Like other professionals in the medical field, SLPs have a significant influence on their patients’ day-to-day lives, perhaps leading them to rate their jobs so highly on meaning.

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#13. Epidemiologists

- Median pay: $69,000
- High meaning: 91%
- High satisfaction: 77%

Since these public health experts investigate the causes of injury and disease, their work could not only improve the well-being of a few people, but society at large.

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#12. Kindergarten teachers, except special education

- Median pay: $39,000
- High meaning: 91%
- High satisfaction: 81%

While being a kindergarten teacher is hard work, the good times involved make this a rewarding job for anyone who enjoys spending time with children.

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#11. Occupational therapists

- Median pay: $64,400
- High meaning: 91%
- High satisfaction: 77%

Occupational therapists land much higher on this list than their assistants, likely because of the difference in pay and seniority. Still, the job’s direct impression on the lives of others remains the same.

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#10. Rehabilitation counselors

- Median pay: $39,100
- High meaning: 91%
- High satisfaction: 74%

While the term “rehabilitation counselors” might bring up ideas of drug or alcohol rehab centers, these counselors don’t only work in those settings. Rehabilitation counselors often work in nursing homes, community centers, or other medical offices and help their patients overcome physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities.

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#9. Anesthesiologists

- Median pay: $273,000
- High meaning: 91%
- High satisfaction: 83%

Anesthesiologists play a crucial role in surgery: Without their expertise, physicians would not be able to safely put their patients under general anesthesia. Due to this incredibly important role in medical care, anesthesiologists feel their work is very meaningful.

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#8. Psychiatrists

- Median pay: $197,000
- High meaning: 92%
- High satisfaction: 85%

These doctors focus on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of medical, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Though the illnesses psychiatrists treat can’t be seen with the naked eye, they play a huge role in patients’ lives.

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#7. Chiropractors

- Median pay: $60,100
- High meaning: 92%
- High satisfaction: 70%

Anyone who has ever felt back pain knows how helpful chiropractors can be, as one simple adjustment can really mitigate the discomfort. These health care professionals found plenty of meaning in their work, perhaps because many sessions help their patients feel better right away.

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#6. Radiation therapists

- Median pay: $70,200
- High meaning: 93%
- High satisfaction: 86%

Radiation therapists administer treatments to cancer patients in hospitals, doctors’ offices and outpatient treatment centers. The heartbreak involved in this work is outweighed by seeing patients recover after months of treatment.

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#5. Education administrators, elementary and secondary school

- Median pay: $76,700
- High meaning: 95%
- High satisfaction: 88%

Principals, superintendents, athletic directors, and school administrators all fall under this category. Education administrators at the elementary and secondary level ranked their jobs as much more meaningful job than teachers did.

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#4. Directors, religious activities and education

- Median pay: $37,600
- High meaning: 96%
- High satisfaction: 84%

Religious activities and education directors plan and run religious programs for a particular denominational group. They might also serve as counselors and trusted advisors to their parishioners. For someone with a deep connection to their religion, it’s no surprise that this job would make someone feel as though they’re making the world a better place.

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#3. Surgeons

- Median pay: $304,000
- High meaning: 96%
- High satisfaction: 83%

Surgeons not only receive the highest median pay of any job on this list, but they also ranked as the third most meaningful job. The opportunity to save lives in their job every day must be the thing that makes a career in surgery so rewarding.

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#2. English language and literature teachers, postsecondary

- Median pay: $43,600
- High meaning: 96%
- High satisfaction: 74%

Teachers or professors who focus on the English language and literature at the college level also found their jobs incredibly meaningful. Forging intellectual connections with students makes these teachers’ work truly meaningful.

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#1. Clergy

- Median pay: $46,600
- High meaning: 98%
- High satisfaction: 90%

The most meaningful job on this list doesn’t pay much and isn’t particularly glamorous. Nevertheless, deeply religious individuals who feel called to work as clergy members feel that their everyday work makes the world a better place, and that’s enough for them.

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