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Top 15 Recession-Proof Degrees and Majors

Whenever talk of a recession hits the headlines, we worry about job security. And for good reason. A recession means mass layoffs, fewer openings, and fierce competition for the remaining jobs. 

During the last recession, the Great Recession from 2007-09, unemployment hit a high of 10%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And the Congressional Research Service reports that during the height of the pandemic, unemployment rose to 14.8% — the highest on record since such data collection began in 1948. 

It’s scary stuff. No one wants to lose their job. If you’re in school or thinking about getting a degree, you can get a leg up on a recession-proof career before the next one hits.

Top Recession-Proof Degrees

A higher education degree won’t guarantee a job in a tight market. However, specific career fields take less of a hit during tough times and are sometimes even in high demand during economic downturns.

Read on for the degree programs that lead to the best recession-proof jobs. These college majors are listed in order of job growth, starting with the major most likely to add the greatest number of jobs to the workforce over the next decade, according to BLS statistics.

While by no means a guarantee, it’s the closest assurance you’ll be able to find a job post-graduation.

Salary figures are sourced from Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 data unless otherwise noted.  

1. Finance

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Financial manager, credit counselor, personal financial advisor, loan officer, financial planner, financial analyst, investor relations associate, budget analyst, actuary, credit analyst
  • Median Annual Salary: $76,570

In times of financial stress, those with expertise in finance are critical. Businesses need financial experts to analyze their budgets and tell them where they can cut back. And individuals dealing with financial crises need credit counselors to help them manage their debts or loan officers who can extend a helping hand. 

While it’s true that the big banks made massive layoffs during the 2008 recession, there’s plenty of opportunity for finance majors during financial downturns, as long as you know where to look. 

Most finance jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree can help you advance or give you a competitive edge. However, sometimes you can enter the financial industry with only a two-year degree.

2. Information Technology

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Computer support specialist, computer network specialist, computer systems analyst, database administrator, computer and information systems manager
  • Median Salary: $97,430

More than ever before, we depend on technology. Thus, computer support specialists will always be in high demand, whether we need them for computer repair, troubleshooting, or building network or information systems.

In fact, businesses rely on technology to reduce overhead costs by cutting down on their human workforce. Thus, there’s an even greater demand for IT specialists during economic downturns. And because technology is always changing, employers are constantly looking for recent grads with experience in the latest tech, including smartphone apps and cloud computing.

It’s possible to enter this field with only a two-year degree, and most community colleges offer this major. But you’ll find more job opportunities with a four-year degree.

3. Computer Science

  • Level of Degree Required: Bachelor’s or Master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Software developer, quality assurance analyst, software engineer, machine learning engineer, computer and information systems manager, video game designer, computer animator, computer and information research scientist, information security analyst, network and computer systems administrator, computer network architect
  • Median Salary: $97,430

Since nearly every industry uses software of some sort, a recession won’t curb the need for employees with computer skills.

A computer science or software development degree gives you similar skills to an IT major, but it adds the coding skills you need to succeed in developing new apps, programs, and systems. Thus, this degree can lead to an even more lucrative career in the continually expanding tech field.

Most jobs for computer science majors require a bachelor’s degree. But you’ll need to acquire various certifications to advance in your career. The more credentials you have, the more you’ll stand out in a competitive job market.

4. Nursing

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s, Bachelor’s, or Master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Licensed practical nurse, licensed vocational nurse, registered nurse, nurse practitioner, nurse educator
  • Median Salary: $70,000 (salary data from 2021 New York Fed figures)

No matter what’s happening with the economy, people will get sick. Thus, nurses will always be in constant need. In fact, as of 2022, there’s a nursing shortage in most areas of the U.S. So there are likely to be plenty of job opportunities for those interested in a nursing degree.

While most nurses are registered nurses (RNs) with a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing, you can become a licensed practical or vocational nurse with just a two-year degree and passage of a licensing exam. A master’s degree can help you advance your career and become a nurse practitioner.

5. Education

  • Level of Degree Required: Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Ph.D. degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Preschool teacher, K-12 teacher, school administrator
  • Median Salary: $57,220

Schools don’t close during economic recessions. Children need an education no matter the state of the economy, as evidenced by the low unemployment rate for education majors reported by the New York Fed

In fact, the U.S. is currently facing a nationwide teacher shortage. Though teachers are notoriously some of the lowest paid professionals — hence, the national shortage — they can typically count on job security during economic downturns.

You can start teaching with just a bachelor’s, though many school districts require you to advance to a master’s degree after a certain number of years. And a master’s or Ph.D. in education can help you land a job in the more lucrative field of education administration, where you can earn six figures as a school principal

6. Engineering

  • Level of Degree Required: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Chemical engineer, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, civil engineer, power plant engineer, wastewater engineer 
  • Median Annual Salary: $79,840

During recessions, utility workers remain essential because we always need people to keep our lights on, our water running, and our internet working. Many of these jobs are in the field of engineering. 

And now, with the passage of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 infrastructure bill, the U.S. will need more engineers than ever — especially those with expertise in green energy. Energy is likely to be one of the most expansive industries over the next several decades, as green initiatives radically change many energy sectors and create numerous new job opportunities.

To become an engineer, one typically needs a bachelor’s degree in a specific engineering specialty like biomedical engineering, computer engineering, or mechanical engineering. A master’s degree is often required to advance in some fields.

7. Health Care Administration

  • Level of Degree Required: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Hospital administrator, nursing home administrator, physician’s office manager, home health care services manager
  • Median Annual Salary: $104,280 (salary data from 2021 U.S. News figures)

Health care will always be an in-demand industry, recession or not. So any health care field is a safe bet. But if you don’t like working directly with patients, never fear; you can still enter the job-secure health care industry as a health care administrator. 

A bachelor’s degree in health care management gets you started. But master’s degrees are common in this field, so a grad degree, such as an MBA in health care management, gives you an edge and helps you advance in your career. It also gives you valuable knowledge of the business side of health care.

8. Accounting

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Bookkeeper, accounts payable clerk, internal auditor, financial analyst, accounting manager, tax manager, controller
  • Median Annual Salary: $75,000 (salary data from 2021 New York Fed figures)

As Ben Franklin is often reputed to have said: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Every single business and individual pays taxes. Thus, no matter which way the economy turns, we will always need accountants to do them.

But that’s not all. Businesses also need accountants to run budgets, keep the books, pay employees, and oversee accounts. Accountants keep the financial wheels of companies turning.  

A bachelor’s degree in accounting is typically the primary requirement. But some jobs, such as bookkeeping, are doable with just an associate’s degree. A master’s degree is required in most states to become a certified professional accountant or CPA. CPAs must also be licensed.  

9. Social Work

  • Type of Degree Required: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Medical social worker, school social worker, hospice social worker, foster care social worker, community outreach specialist, therapist or counselor, substance abuse counselor 
  • Median Annual Salary: $60,000 (salary data from 2021 New York Fed figures)

Like physical health, mental health needs don’t stop just because the economy slows. In fact, mental health professionals are even more needed during times of economic uncertainty. 

A social work degree gives you access to all kinds of mental health jobs, including working as a therapist or counselor in addition to becoming a social worker.

Some jobs in this field are open to those with only a bachelor’s degree, but most with this major will need to add a master’s degree to their resume before they qualify for the vast majority of mental health job openings.

10. Law

  • Level of Degree Required: Doctorate
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Attorney, investigator, legal instructor, agent, contracts administrator, human resources professional, financial officer, compliance officer, mediator, judge
  • Median Annual Salary: $127,990

The courts don’t stop operating when the economy sours. A recession may mean an even greater demand for lawyers specializing in specific areas like bankruptcy, divorce, and criminal law. 

So choose your specialty with care because not all are recession-proof. For example, during the recession of 2008, legal professionals who worked for big corporate law firms in the financial industry were laid off in droves.   

That said, any attorney who opts for corporate law (whether in the financial sector or otherwise) will earn a much higher salary than one who goes into nonprofit or government work. For example, public defenders make an average of $60,000 per year, but a corporate attorney‘s average annual salary is nearly double, according to 2022 PayScale data.

You also want to weigh your field choice against your student loan debt. Opting for a higher paying speciality can help you tackle six-figure law school debt and pay it off faster. But those who work in the public or nonprofit sector have the option of public service loan forgiveness.  

It may also help that not all law school graduates necessarily become attorneys. Instead, you can put your expertise to work in other areas like human resources, which requires dealing with contracts. Or you can become a sports, entertainment, or literary agent, which equally requires knowing your way around a legal agreement.

11. Paralegal Studies

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s or bachelor’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Paralegal or legal assistant
  • Median Annual Salary: $56,230

If you can’t swing a law degree, no worries. Lawyers aren’t the only ones with recession-proof skills in the legal field. 

Paralegals are needed to support the work of attorneys by doing administrative work like drafting legal documents, pleadings, and correspondence. They also summarize depositions and testimony and attend the execution of wills, real estate closings, and court hearings along with the attorney they work for.  

Most paralegals have at least an associate’s degree in paralegal studies. But in some cases, law firms may hire a bachelor’s degree graduate with no legal experience and train them on the job.

12. Marketing

  • Type of Degree Required: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Marketing assistant, marketing manager, sales manager, public relations specialist, market research analyst, brand manager, fundraiser 
  • Median Annual Salary: $75,000 (salary data from 2021 New York Fed figures)

Recessions happen when there’s an overall decline in economic activity. In other words, people spend less money. That’s a problem since businesses need money to keep the lights on. That’s where someone with a marketing degree comes in. They get consumers to buy what businesses are selling.

Moreover, that’s a primary reason those with marketing degrees will always be in demand. Every business, from small businesses to large corporations, needs marketing professionals to generate brand awareness and revenue — making marketing a rare degree that translates to virtually any industry.

You can get started with just a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree helps you climb up the corporate ladder to a management position and an even more lucrative income.

13. Medical Science

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s, bachelor’s degree, or doctorate 
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Doctor, physical therapist, community health worker, paramedic, health educator, medical claims specialist, histology technician, clinical research coordinator, medical sales representative, clinical liaison, clinical data manager, physician’s assistant, medical manager, research scientist
  • Median Annual Salary: $68,000 (salary data from 2021 New York Fed figures)

Whether you opt to become a doctor, physician’s assistant, physical therapist, or research scientist, a job as a health care professional never goes out of style. People will get sick, babies will be born, and appendixes will burst even during a recession.

There is a job in the medical field open to just about any education level, including those with only a high school diploma who can work as home health aides. But a bachelor’s degree in medical science opens you to a world of health care jobs. And if you have the drive to keep going to the graduate level, medical school allows you to become a doctor, giving you access to the most lucrative health care jobs. 

For example, a family practice physician averages $235,930 while the average for an anesthesiologist is as high as $331,190, according to 2021 BLS data. But you’ll need that six-figure salary to manage your med school debt, which averages over $200,000 per borrower, according to 2021 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

14. Dental Hygiene

  • Level of Degree Required: Associate’s degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Dental hygienist, dental office manager, dental sales representative, medical assistant 
  • Median Annual Salary: $77,810

The field of dentistry is somewhat recession-proof as people still need dental care during a recession. However, it’s less recession-proof than physical or mental health because many often see dental care as a luxury in hard times, especially if they’re without insurance.

However, unlike preventative dental care, a dental emergency will likely bring patients to the office regardless of their budgets. Thus, dentistry will still be needed. 

But when it comes to dental profession jobs, the job market may already be oversaturated with dentists, as the BLS reports lower than average job growth. However, thousands more dental hygienist jobs are expected to open up over the next decade.

And fortunately, it’s a far easier profession to enter into. You can become a dental hygienist with only an associate’s degree and state licensing.

15. Psychology

  • Level of Degree Required: Bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degree
  • Types of Jobs You Can Get: Psychologist, school psychologist, trainer, private health care educator, career counselor, human resources professional, social worker
  • Median Annual Salary: $58,000 (salary data from 2021 New York Fed figures)

Those with a background in psychology are likely to be in high demand during a recession, as mental health tends to take a hit during times of financial stress. 

You can work in various capacities with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, including working as a career counselor and helping those who’ve lost their jobs during a recession get back on their feet.

But to work directly with patients tending to their mental health needs, you need a master’s or doctorate. 

Final Word

If you’re planning to shell out a bunch of money for a college degree, it makes sense to opt for one that seems recession-proof. But if you have a passion for a specific subject that isn’t recession-resistant, you don’t necessarily need to give up on your dreams.

The best career path — during good and hard times — aligns your talents and skills with the current job market. And fortunately, there are ways to do that with nearly anything. It simply requires a little adaptation.

For example, if you opt for a liberal arts degree like English, you can put your creativity and communications skills to work in the high-demand tech field helping programmers make their chatbots, apps, or AI more human.

Similarly, if you have a yearning for arts and design, you can use your skills to help companies develop content for the web or even put your talents to work in marketing or advertising. 

Regardless of your college major, there’s almost always a way to adapt to current market trends. That’s because higher education equips students with soft skills like problem-solving, communication, interpersonal skills, project management, and analytical thinking. And those are highly transferable to nearly any job or career field.   

Thus, your best bet to recession-proof your career is to focus on the in-demand transferable skills your chosen industry requires over laser-focusing on landing a specific job post-graduation. The economy will always be in flux, so your career goals should be similarly flexible.

Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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