Whenever Kennda Lynch tells people about her job as a NASA scientist, she often is surprised by the response she gets.
"It took me a while to understand how many people think my job is cool," says Lynch, 30, who works as an astrobiology research engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Lynch gets to travel and says it's always fun when she achieves a goal.
Scientists, firefighters and teachers often are ranked as the most prestigious jobs, according to experts and polls. And they habitually score better than professions like accounting, real estate sales and journalism. Workplace experts say the most prestigious jobs typically involve some sort of benefit to society and usually do not include a hefty paycheck.
"I think one of the really interesting things is that [the prestige is] not correlated with money," says Peter Handal, president and chief executive officer of Dale Carnegie Training and a workplace expert.
Teachers, who generally are considered underpaid, have some of the most prestigious jobs, according to a Harris Interactive survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted last year. Scientists and doctors tied for first on the list, with firefighters and teachers taking the second slot, finishing just above military officers.
High-income finance positions like accounting and stock trading rated low. Entertainers, actors and athletes also landed near the bottom for prestige regardless of their wealth or celebrity.
"It seems that one of the criteria for the most admired profession is how much impact you're having on other people's lives," says John Challenger, workplace expert and chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a consulting firm.
Respect and public service seem to be common factors in the most prestigious jobs. Nursing and police officers also score high. However, ratings have dropped for all jobs except teachers since Harris began polling on the most prestigious jobs in 1977.
Teachers have seen a 19 percent increase in the past quarter-century, possibly because education is becoming more valuable, experts say.
Other major changes since Harris began studying the issue include lawyers, whose prestige factor dropped by 19 percent; priests, ministers and other clergymen falling 9 percent to an all-time low after scores of scandals; and scientists, though still on top, have slipped 14 percent over time.
Dr. Shawn Peffall, 34, an internal-medicine physician in Overlea, says, "People are impressed when they hear the word 'physician,' but, in general, the public doesn't have any idea what the differences between physicians are."
Peffall finds his job "pretty intellectually stimulating," and likes the satisfaction he gets when people get better.
"I enjoy my job because it's what I originally wanted to do," Peffall says.
The downside: the paperwork and hassle of dealing with insurance companies, he says. And working 70 hours a week - not including on-call hours on nights and weekends - takes a lot of time away from his family. He earns about $140,000 a year.
Firefighters don't earn as much - the median salary in the Baltimore area is about $38,000 a year, according to Salary.com - but the profession also earns high marks in terms of prestige.
Rich Gardiner, 34, is a firefighter and spokesman for the Harford County Fire and EMS Association. Besides the satisfaction of saving lives, his favorite aspect of the work is the camaraderie. He believes the prestige ranking comes from a respect for the job and an understanding of the dangers, especially after Sept. 11, 2001.
'Lives on the line'
"These men and women put their lives on the line every day," Gardiner says.
Though accountants and real estate agents don't score high on prestige lists, the people in those professions point out that things may be changing.
"People for some reason perceive [accountants] as being rather boring," says Niel Jefferson, 51, a certified public accountant for Denburg & Low in Washington.
But that doesn't bother him. He says that accountants also are considered respectable and unbiased. Jefferson said he enjoys the work but is no fan of tax season, when 75-hour workweeks are common. He says he earns between $150,000 and $200,000 a year.
Corporate scandals may have lowered the opinion of some in the accounting industry during the past few years but the increased financial controls in their aftermath have led to a higher demand for those skills. Private accounting is the top job for college graduates, offering the most number of jobs, according to JobWeb.com.
Journalists also rank low as plagiarism and anonymous- sourcing scandals have led to a decline in trust of the profession.
Placing last in the Harris poll were real estate agents, whose ranks have swelled during recent years because of the housing boom. The National Association of Realtors says a record number of agents have joined the profession during the past several years. They earn an average of $52,200 a year, according to the Realtors' group.
Challenger believes the sales-driven nature of a real estate agent can turn some buyers off. He added that the real estate boom has pushed homeownership to all-time highs and, because it's one of the biggest expenditures in someone's life, "there's a little buyer's remorse if everything isn't perfect."
Katie Grove, a real estate agent and president-elect of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said more people appreciate their work now that housing is such a hot topic. And, she said, buyers need assistance in what has been a seller's market for the past several years.
Enjoying their work
"I think of real estate as a very professional and prestigious job," she says. "You get a lot of training in negotiation and you have to use a lot of psychology to be able to understand, listen and evaluate what the needs of a client are."
Regardless of the perceptions, experts said, most people enjoy their work when they find it prestigious to them.
And even those with jobs at the top of the lists may not think about it much.
"I don't consider myself a prestigious, serious scientist," says Lynch of NASA. She earns about $60,000 a year but her salary will rise when she gets her doctorate. "When I hear prestigious, I think Harvard professor drinking tea - I'm not that."
The percentage of people who said these professions held the most prestige:
Military officer 47%
Police officer 40%
Member of Congress 31%
Business executive 19%
Union leader 16%
Real estate agent 5%
The Harris Interactive poll was conducted by telephone from Aug. 10-15, 2004, and surveyed 1,012 adults. It has a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.