Gerontology investigates the physical and mental challenges of aging individuals. The field also examines societal shifts as older people continue to comprise more of the population and explores programs and policies to address these changes.
Gerontology professionals advocate for older adults and help them maintain their quality of life. The aging U.S. population will continue to create more opportunities for gerontology professionals. The U.S. Census anticipates older adults will outnumber children for the first time in American history by 2035. This large group of older adults will result in increased demand for healthcare, social services, and other gerontology professionals.
Graduates with a degree in gerontology can find diverse career opportunities across many industries. Opportunities for gerontology careers vary by experience and degree. Potential career paths include social work, research, occupational therapy, education, healthcare management, nursing, and administration. This guide outlines how to pursue a gerontology career, covering degrees, career paths, and potential salaries.
Skills Gained in a Gerontology Program
Gerontology programs prepare students to understand the aging process and the unique challenges that aging individuals confront. Gerontology programs also explore the impact of an aging population on society. The knowledge that students receive from studying these issues helps give them a more compassionate outlook. They also gain interpersonal, problem-solving, communication, and organizational skills.
- Interpersonal Skills
Gerontology professionals work closely with people from diverse backgrounds. They frequently collaborate with other medical, social service, and administrative professionals. Therefore, they should possess strong interpersonal skills that allow them to appropriately navigate professional interactions.
- Problem-Solving Skills
Workers in the gerontology field need to find solutions to medical, emotional, financial, and social problems that older adults face. They must identify various problems after talking to clients/patients and come up with practical and effective responses.
- Communication Skills
Gerontology professionals benefit from excellent communication skills. They need to interact with clients/patients, client/patient family members, and service providers to explain complex issues and situations. They also need good listening skills to understand the issues facing their clients/patients.
Gerontology professionals often work with individuals in stressful and vulnerable situations. For this reason, empathy and compassion for older adults and their families proves crucial for individuals seeking gerontology careers.
- Organizational Skills
Gerontology professionals need strong organizational skills to fill out, file, and keep track of paperwork so that patients/clients receive the help and treatment they need. Disorganization can result in older adults missing vital treatments and services.
Why Pursue a Career in Gerontology?
Earning a degree in gerontology can open the door to many rewarding and lucrative job opportunities. Graduates can pursue careers in diverse industries, including healthcare, administration, academia, research, and consulting. They can find positions as research analysts, social workers, and medical and health services managers.
Professionals who devote themselves to helping older adults can expect increased opportunities for career growth. As Americans live longer, there will be a greater need for professionals who offer medical, social, financial, and other types of support to the aging population.
How Much Do Gerontology Majors Make?
Potential salaries for gerontology majors vary by industry, job function, location, experience, and education. For example, although caregivers earn low salaries, occupational therapists make significantly more than the average occupation in the U.S. The table below outlines a sampling of careers available to gerontology graduates.
|Job Title||Entry-Level Employees
|Early Career Employees
|Geriatric Social Worker||$40,000||$43,000||$48,000||$45,000|
|Mental Health Therapist||$40,000||$41,000||$47,000||$49,000|
Interview With a Professional
Marlena del Hierro
Marlena del Hierro brings over 10 years of experience to the senior care industry and is a founding member at Seniorly Inc. -- a national senior living marketplace. She was a part of the National Association for Professional Gerontologists and was selected as a scholar for the LeadingAge California EMERGE program. Marlena has spent a number of years working in assisted living communities where she has exhibited skills in care management, community advocacy, and RCFE license preparation through the Community Care Licensing Division.
- What led you to pursue a career in the senior care industry? Was this something you always knew you wanted to do?
My interest in the senior care industry has always been rooted in my relationship with my family -- specifically my grammy who had always been a guiding light for me. In addition, when I was in high school my weekly volunteering at the Buena Park senior center influenced my passion to pursue a career in the senior care industry.
I realized how "odd" it was to be an 18 year old paying attention to a career out of high school that nobody talked about and I wanted to change that. Aging courses in college led me to discover gerontology. In fact, my grammy was there the moment I learned what the word gerontology meant! Less than one year before starting San Francisco State University's master's program in gerontology, my grandmother became ill. At the end of her life, as my family came together to care for her, I recognized how fortunate she was, yet how many elders don't have someone there to advocate for them and navigate a challenging aging process. I attended the prestigious San Francisco State University gerontology program because I knew the program would afford me the practical experience of working directly within senior living. During one such opportunity, I met Arthur Bretschneider. He was just beginning to form an innovative company called Seniorly.com that would focus on providing access to the best care for our aging loved ones. We shared similar beliefs for improving current aging models. After graduation, I accepted a position as a founding member of Seniorly.
- What does a typical day look like for you?
Seniorly.com -- based in San Francisco, CA -- is the fastest-growing senior living marketplace in the United States. This guarantees a busy day. Specifically, my background in gerontology affords me the chance to offer my unique skills to the different departments at the company. This includes advising our customer success team on how to help an ailing senior transition from a hospital to an appropriate care community, collaborating with our product development team on how to make our website and mobile experience better suited for seniors, and identifying the best people nationwide to serve our senior customers with the same high standards I learned in school.
My role in business partnerships is meant to ensure families have the best senior living search possible. To succeed, I use a combination of technical gerontology skills and real-world problem solving. I spend at least 50% of my day answering emails and speaking on the phone or video chatting with our valued partners. These local experts are the ones helping families in their community connect to the best senior care options. These professionals often seek out advice on the best care plan for their senior clients while seeking to collaborate on growing their business.
The last part of my day affords me the chance to collaborate with our growth team, optimizing the community listings on our website so families have access to as much information as I know they are seeking.
- What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work? And challenging?
On my first day of gerontology graduate school, my hope for changing the face of aging meant helping one person at a time. After four years at Seniorly, I have the opportunity to help and guide thousands of families a month! Working with a team that believes in a solution to healthier aging and that is focused on providing the best online senior living search experience for families is inspiring. There is nothing more rewarding than knowing the positive impact we have on the older adults we help each day. I'm given the opportunity to use my knowledge and expertise to make a direct impact on seniors who are looking for assisted living or other care. Our team collaborates on creating future innovations that challenge the status quo of aging in America. This has a direct impact on the families we work with. Can you imagine anything more exciting?!
The biggest challenge we face at Seniorly is dealing with families who simply don't have the knowledge or experience to navigate this complicated industry. They reach out to us in their time of need, but most don't even know what senior living options are available to them. For instance, many people ask about "nursing homes," but in fact what they really mean is "assisted living." No matter how easy our platform is to use, there is still a learning curve most seniors have to get over in order to take control of their needs. This can include getting family members to start talking about the hard things and planning accordingly. My education has played a crucial role in being able to inform families of their options and the road they are most likely able to take. By the way, this learning curve can also be found on the business-to-business side of things, and I'm often challenged to work with professionals who need help identifying and overcoming the barriers that lead to a lack of understanding and compassion.
- What would you say are some of the most important skills required to work in a setting like an assisted living community?
As I am afforded the chance every day to get an inside look into over 30,000 assisted living communities nationwide, I have learned some very consistent skills that are needed to succeed in that care setting. First, teamwork is everything. The communities that provide the best care are the ones with cross-department collaboration. This means they are working together to put the senior first. Second, being organized is essential. This was a trait I had to learn while training as a gerontologist, and frankly I am shocked at how many professionals lack this skill. The most successful employees are the ones who have all the records organized, calendars clearly marked and managed, and each resident's care plan understood and tracked. The final skill I have seen consistently in the most successful professionals working in assisted living is passion. This is not an easy industry to work within; let's face it, it's not a sexy tech company. For me, there is nothing more important than the passion for helping to ensure our aging loved ones are treated with respect and cared for properly. That passion will get you through the difficult times and inspire others.
- What advice would you give to someone considering a career in gerontology?
My advice to anyone considering a degree in gerontology is to be open. Learn the basics, then explore beyond. You may come right back to being a gerontologist, or you might find a secondary opportunity that relies on your unique training and skill set. If you are like me, and you are driven to make a positive impact on seniors, then pursuing the study of aging is an excellent way to make a career out of your passion. Seek out internships and future employment that supports your career goals but also holds the same core beliefs you do. Even if you choose something outside of your comfort zone, stay true to your core belief. And remember this: the "longevity industry" needs people from all walks of life to contribute to a system desperately in need of improving. New products, new services, and new aging models are being developed every day. You could be a part of that!
Gerontology is a fairly new profession, but companies are learning the value of an aging specialist. I hear time and time again how much value I bring to Seniorly's vision. I am truly humbled by the opportunity and make sure to honor my education, my core belief, and my family every day. There is simply no better time to make an impact on this profession.
How to Succeed in Gerontology
Gerontology encompasses many different fields and career paths; thus, the education required for gerontology positions varies considerably. Students can earn a bachelor's, master's, graduate certificate, or doctorate in gerontology.
Gerontology bachelor's programs prepare graduates for entry-level and mid-level positions, such as social workers; social and community services managers; and substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. Gerontology master's programs give students advanced research and leadership skills. Graduates qualify for jobs like medical and health services managers, occupational therapists, and administrative services managers.
A doctorate in gerontology is ideal for experienced professionals who want to teach college classes or assume advanced researcher roles. Additionally, a graduate-level certificate in gerontology may appeal to bachelor's degree holders who want to study aging without the financial and time commitment required to earn a full graduate degree.
Gerontology career opportunities can be found in many industries. The multidisciplinary nature of this field offers opportunities for new and experienced professionals. The experience required for a position varies significantly depending on the type of career. For example, jobs that require a bachelor's in gerontology -- like health educators and social and community service managers -- typically do not require significant professional experience.
Alternatively, jobs demanding a master's or doctoral degree, such as medical health services managers or postsecondary teachers, often require years of experience. Some career paths, including social workers, physicians, and rehabilitation counselors, also require experience and licensure.
Some gerontology careers require licensure, and licensing requirements vary by state. A few gerontology careers that may require licensure include social workers, occupational therapists, and mental health counselors.
Clinical social workers in every state need a license to practice. The licensing requirements vary by state. The Association of Social Work Boards provides information about state licensure requirements.
All states require occupational therapists to hold a license; these therapists must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy Exam. Additional licensing requirements vary by state.
Mental health counselors in private practice also need a state-issued license. Although licensing requirements vary, all 50 states require these professionals to hold a master's degree and complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.
Concentrations Available to Gerontology Majors
Gerontology majors can customize their degrees to match their interests by choosing a concentration. The following concentrations are common among gerontology programs, but offerings vary by school; students should research concentration options at each of their prospective programs.
- Mental Health: A mental health concentration teaches students how to provide mental health services and psychotherapy to the aging population and their families. It may include courses like psychopathology and aging, mental health assessment of older adults, and geriatric mental health practica.
- Grief Care Management: Grief care management concentrations teach students how to help individuals manage their grief. Individuals learn how to counsel older adults -- and their families -- who are going through the grieving process with empathy and compassion.
- Health Services Administration: A health services administration concentration prepares graduates to work as administrative services managers. Participants learn to plan and manage healthcare services and operations in different settings. They may take classes like healthcare finance, healthcare risk management, and quality management in healthcare.
- Long-Term Care Administration: A long-term care administration concentration prepares students to work in administrative roles in long-term care facilities for older adults. Individuals learn how to manage patient concerns and communicate with family members.
What Can You Do With a Gerontology Degree?
Careers for gerontology majors vary depending on their experience and education level. Bachelor's graduates qualify for entry-level and mid-level gerontology positions in industries like social and community services, administration, and healthcare. They can work as social workers, social and community service managers, and community health workers.
Most supervisory and management positions in gerontology require a graduate degree. Common gerontology careers open to master's graduates include medical and health services managers, administrative services managers, and occupational therapists. Individuals with a doctorate in gerontology can become college professors, researchers, and gerontologists.
Students with a graduate certificate in gerontology and relevant professional experience may qualify for some of the same positions as individuals with a master's degree.
Bachelor's Degree in Gerontology
Bachelor's programs in gerontology prepare students for entry-level and mid-level jobs. Most gerontology bachelor's programs take four years to complete. The best online bachelor's in gerontology programs feature an internship or practicum that gives students hands-on experience in the field. Potential careers for graduates with a bachelor's in gerontology include social and community service managers, social workers, and community health workers.
- Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers coordinate social service programs for communities. They manage social workers and other employees who offer social services to clients. They usually need at least a bachelor's degree. These professionals often work for government and nonprofit agencies.
- Social Workers
Social workers help individuals manage problems in their day-to-day lives. They work in schools, mental health clinics, and human service agencies. They assess client needs, locate community resources, and maintain records and case files.
- Health Educators
Health educators provide education and create strategies for improving community and individual health. They can work for hospitals, colleges, private businesses, and nonprofit groups. Health educators need at least a bachelor's degree and may also need certification.
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors help people dealing with alcoholism, eating disorders, drug addiction, and other behavioral disorders. They help clients modify their behavior by providing support and treatment. They need at least a bachelor's degree, and they may need certification.
- Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants
Certified occupational therapy assistants provide aid to registered occupational therapists. They help rehabilitate people with injuries or disabilities. These workers need strong interpersonal and administrative skills. They receive direct supervision from registered occupational therapists.
Master's Degree in Gerontology
Master's programs in gerontology prepare graduates to work as planners, administrators, and practitioners who specialize in meeting the needs of older adults. Gerontology master's programs typically give students more advanced research and leadership skills than bachelor's programs. Students also get more opportunities to engage in internships and other practical experiences.
Many of the top online master's in gerontology programs offer concentrations that let students gain expertise in another subject while studying aging. Possible jobs for graduates of master's in gerontology programs include medical and health services managers, administrative services managers, and rehabilitation counselors.
- Medical and Health Services Managers
Medical and health services managers plan, coordinate, and direct healthcare and medical services. They work in hospitals, group medical practices, and assisted living facilities. They may manage entire facilities or specific departments within a facility. Gerontology expertise helps these professionals understand the issues facing older adults in their medical facilities. Many employers prefer candidates with a master's-level education.
- Administrative Services Managers
Administrative services managers coordinate, direct, and plan services that support organizations. Specific duties vary by position but may include facility maintenance, office upkeep, and recordkeeping. Administrative services managers who work with aging adults benefit from a master's degree in gerontology.
- Rehabilitation Counselors
Rehabilitation counselors need at least a master's degree, and some jobs require a license or certification. These professionals help people facing mental, physical, and developmental challenges live more independently. They provide counseling, evaluate client needs, and advocate for clients. They also develop treatment plans and maintain records.
- Occupational Therapists
Occupational therapists help people with physical challenges develop the skills they need to accomplish everyday tasks. They work in hospitals, occupational therapy offices, schools, and nursing homes. They usually need a master's degree. All states require these workers to hold a license to practice occupational therapy.
- Research Analysts
Research analysts assess quantitative and qualitative data. They write reports and deliver presentations that explain their findings. They can work in the private and public sectors. Master's students gain advanced research skills that help make them excellent research analysts.
Bachelor's graduates who want to pursue a career in gerontology without investing the time and money required for a master's or Ph.D. can complete a gerontology graduate certificate program. Students can earn a gerontology graduate certificate in one year or less.
Certificate students typically complete 4-6 courses or 12-20 credits. Online gerontology graduate certificate programs provide a broad overview of the field. The types of career paths available to professionals with a graduate certificate in gerontology vary based on their experience and education.
Doctoral Degree in Gerontology
Gerontology Ph.D. programs prepare graduates for high-level careers in the field. Doctoral students gain expertise in gerontology theory and practice before pursuing a specialization. Gerontology Ph.D. students spend at least one year conducting research and writing a dissertation on their specialization. Ph.D. programs typically take 3-7 years to complete.
Graduates can go on to find careers in teaching, research, clinical practice, and administration. Potential jobs for Ph.D. graduates include postsecondary teachers and geriatric specialist physicians.
- Physicians, Geriatric Specialists
Physicians who specialize in geriatrics work to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses in older adults. They study general medicine before specializing in geriatrics. They must complete medical school and at least three years of residencies. They also need to obtain a medical license.
- Postsecondary Teachers
Postsecondary teachers provide instruction to students at community colleges and four-year colleges and universities. They create curricula, assess student learning, and teach courses. They may also conduct and publish research.
What Industries Can You Work in With a Gerontology Degree?
Gerontology is a multidisciplinary field that encompasses diverse career paths. Gerontology graduates may work in hospitals; relief services; nursing care facilities; individual and family services; and local, state, and federal government agencies.
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
Gerontology graduates who work in general medical and surgical hospitals provide or coordinate healthcare for older adults. Potential jobs include physicians, nurses, and medical and health services managers.
- Community Food and Housing; Emergency and Other Relief Services
Gerontology professionals in this industry typically provide social services to older adults. They may work as social workers, administrative services managers, or social and community services managers.
- Nursing Care Facilities
Gerontology professionals in nursing care facilities provide medical, administrative, and social services support to older adults and their families. Possible positions include nurses, occupational therapists, and certified occupational therapy assistants.
- Individual and Family Services
Gerontology professionals in this industry provide social and administrative services to support aging adults. They may work as administrative services managers, social workers, or social and community service managers.
- Local, State, or Federal Government Agencies
Gerontology professionals employed by the local, state, or federal government can work at many different agencies that offer services for older adults. They perform administrative, social service, and healthcare tasks.
How Do You Find a Job as a Gerontology Graduate?
Students should start thinking about finding a job while they're still in school. Many university career centers offer resume writing help, mock interviews, networking opportunities, and job boards. Students can also look for job openings on the Gerontological Society of America's job board and visit the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education's careers in aging website.
High-demand industries for gerontology graduates include social and human services, healthcare, and counseling. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors to grow by 23% between 2016 and 2026.
Professional Resources for Gerontology Majors
An interdisciplinary professional organization, GSA promotes research on aging and distributes information to the public, policymakers, and scientists. Its 5,500 members include policy experts, social workers, nurses, and physicians. Members gain access to job listings, dissertation writing help, publications, and professional networking.
A membership organization for healthcare professionals in geriatrics, the AGS promotes independence, health, and quality of life for older adults. Nurses, physician assistants, physicians, and geriatricians comprise the group's membership of more than 6,000 individuals. The AGS produces publications and tools for geriatrics professionals, organizes conferences, and provides information about the profession.
Founded in 1954, ASA brings together gerontology professionals from many disciplines. Members include practitioners, researchers, policymakers, students, and administrators. ASA offers an annual conference, workshops, and web seminars. It also publishes a bimonthly newspaper and a blog.
The Health in Aging Foundation oversees this website. Older adults and caregivers can find educational materials and locate a geriatrics healthcare provider on the site. The website also provides information on medications, wellness and prevention, and other healthcare topics relevant for older people.
The AGS publishes JAGS -- a journal of clinical research on gerontology and geriatrics. Established in 1953, this peer-reviewed publication covers issues like clinical practice, geriatrics education, and public policy. Students can access JAGS through their college library or with an AGS membership.
AGHE includes more than 130 universities and colleges in the U.S. and abroad that offer gerontology programs. The organization promotes research and education in the field of aging. It educates society, trains educators, and prepares gerontology professionals to practice.
AARP aims to empower adults to live the way they want as they get older. More than 38 million people hold AARP membership. The association advocates for older adults at the local, state, and federal levels. It also promotes affordable, quality healthcare and housing for older individuals.
NCOA partners with government agencies, nonprofit groups, and businesses to help people address the challenges of aging. It offers online help, community services and programs, and advocacy. It also provides relevant news and public policy information.
One of the National Institute of Health's 27 institutes and centers, the NIA leads aging research. It aims to promote health and increase the number of active years of life. It is also the main government agency researching Alzheimer's disease.