Competition for entry-level work is starched-shirt stiff right now.
But grabbing the first minimum-wage, dead-end gig that comes along won't serve you well in the long run. After all, you don't want to live in Mom and Dad's basement forever. A better strategy is to pursue a career that allows your responsibilities -- and your income -- to grow year after year.
Here are eight of our top picks for those who are just starting out, and their median annual salaries, according to PayScale.com.
Have a bachelor's degree in engineering? You're in luck! According to the U.S. Department of Labor, environmental engineers make among the highest starting salaries of all college graduates. Entry-level positions in the field are similar to "an apprentice situation," says workplace expert Alexandra Levit, whose latest book is "New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career." "As you get more senior, you receive more independence to work on your own, eventually supervising your own staff."
Median annual salary: $68,628.
Network systems/data communications analyst
Not a computer science major? Not to worry. In information technology, getting field certification is often more valuable than a formal education, Levit says. Once you cultivate an area of expertise, such as network security or enterprise software, "You can very quickly become the go-to person in the organization and eventually the head of IT," she says. "And you can make a very, very good living."
Median annual salary: $61,949.
Marketing research analyst
From high-tech and biotech to retail and hospitality, consumer-driven industries rely on market data to make smart business decisions. If you have a business marketing or statistical background, you may be able to analyze data from the get-go in this field rather than starting as "a [low-paid] telemarketer," says Laurence Shatkin, author of more than 20 books for job hunters, including "200 Best Jobs for College Graduates," which he co-wrote with Michael Farr.
Median annual salary: $58,423.
Fancy yourself the next Don Draper or Peggy Olson from "Mad Men"? Why not try your hand at writing ad copy? "Here's something for the English major to be doing, now that journalism doesn't seem to be such a prospect," Shatkin says. Although you might start by contributing text to lower-profile agency projects, in time "you can be involved to the point where you're developing entire ad campaigns," Shatkin says.
Median annual salary: $53,288.
The beauty of sales is that you can enter the field even if you majored in art history, Shatkin says. "With a lot of products, you can learn what you need to know from a short training program," he explains. "And sometimes you'll work with a more experienced salesperson your first few days out." To boost your income, he says, you can transition into selling bigger-ticket items, or you can move into management.
Median annual salary: $45,656.
"There are all sorts of places where lobbyists exist: lobbying firms, public interest groups, trade organizations," Levit says. "You can start with an unpaid internship and move within a couple years to making six figures." To get your feet wet, Levit suggests volunteering for a political campaign or interning on Capitol Hill for a few months to see what causes interest you.
Median annual salary: $66,929.
Public relations assistant
"PR and digital marketing are hot hot hot," Levit says. "Everyone is switching their traditional marketing to online, and they can't fill positions fast enough." Expect to work your hide off at a PR agency, a field with a high burnout rate, Levit warns. On the plus side, she says, annual promotions are the norm, with the path from peon to supervisor fairly short.
Median annual salary: $42,810.
Yes, the financial sector took a beating during the past year, but finance jobs are starting to bounce back, Shatkin says. So if you're looking to put that business, finance, or statistics education to use, consider analyzing financial data for a living. "Analysts contribute to the decisions that financial managers make," Shatkin explains. Specifically, financial analysts make investment recommendations to the banks, insurance companies, securities firms, and other businesses employing them. From this starting point, Shatkin says, the sky's the limit -- all the way up to company controller, CFO, or CEO.
Median annual salary: $60,952.