What the Hottest Prime Time Jobs Really Pay

Between the clever quips, the incessant cleavage, and the convenient storeroom sex, this year's fall TV lineup makes a day at the office look nothing short of a college frat party. But anyone who's worked as a nurse, publishing assistant, or criminal investigator will tell you that the TV version of their job is far racier than the reality.

To set the record straight, we asked workers in the trenches what TV's hottest prime time shows get wrong about their jobs. We also dug up what these positions actually pay (hint: often less than their fictional counterparts) and how stiff the competition is, especially in today's tricky job market.


Hopeful crime scene investigators may be disappointed to learn that the job is 70 percent paperwork, homicides aren't the only crimes CSIs pursue, and much of the technology depicted on TV either doesn't exist or isn't in most department budgets, says Brian Stampfl, one of six CSI detectives with Seattle's police department. What's more, he says, CSIs are on call 24/7: "When the call comes in at 2:00 a.m., we have to go." Still, the competition is exceptionally stiff, Stampfl says, mainly because it's such a coveted, low-turnover gig. In Seattle, hopeful CSIs must first work the streets as a police officer -- a position that has a rigorous application, testing, and training process -- before applying anew for a CSI slot. And as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points out, application processes and qualifications can vary among states, municipalities, and police agencies.

Detective or criminal investigator, median annual salary: $54,304.

"Ugly Betty."

Other than the soap opera dramatics, this show's depiction of the New York fashion magazine world is actually "pretty true to life," says writer and editor Melissa Walker, who's spent a decade in the trenches with publications like Glamour and Teen Vogue. "Promotions happen from within, connected people get jobs, and crazies abound," she says. Assistants with good ideas do move up quickly, she adds, as long as they can fetch coffee and dry cleaning like nobody's business, keep their boss's schedule up to date, and store "a stellar pair of heels" under their desk in case of an unexpected party. Walker's biggest beef with the show: economics. "Be really, really happy if you have a starting salary above $25,000," she says. Another thing the show misses: how volatile the industry's become. According to MediaFinder, 525 magazines folded in 2008, and 279 folded during the first half of 2009. In other words, expect competition for entry-level gigs to be stiff.

Magazine editor, median annual salary: $50,488

"Law & Order."

In the real world, working as a district attorney is far less glamorous than on TV, says Dallas attorney Clinton David, who got his start in a DA's office and is now managing shareholder of a 21-lawyer firm. "It's really file pushing," he says. "You get a stack of 30 a day and you triage." As for all those cases ripped from the headlines, don't expect to work on them, David says: "The majority of the time you'll be handling DUIs and domestic disturbances." Closing arguments are far more exciting in your living room, too. In real life, he says, they're nothing more than dry, lengthy recaps. And those defendants who wilt under grueling cross-examination and confess on the stand? "That just doesn't happen," David says. Because being a DA is a big burnout position, turnover is high, he says. Still, according to the BLS, competition is tight for law school spots and legal positions.

Government attorney, median annual salary: $88,080.

"Grey's Anatomy," "HawthoRNe," and "Nurse Jackie."

Donna Jeskey, a registered nurse turned nurse practitioner who's worked in a New Jersey ER for 10 years, has a few bones to pick with these shows. "They portray all the newbie nurses as dumb," she says. "It's as if they didn't learn anything in nursing school." In reality, Jeskey says, even green RNs hit the ground running. Plus, the whole doctor-as-god thing is blown out of proportion on TV. "Nowadays it's almost an even playing field," Jeskey says. "I refer to all the doctors by their first names -- not 'Yes, Doctor; I'll be right there, Doctor.'" Then there's the matter of breaking the rules in the name of saving patients. "There are policies. You can't just do whatever you want," Jeskey says. As for the job outlook, nursing remains a good bet, despite the recession. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the country's still suffering from a nursing shortage.

Registered nurse, median annual salary: $52,143.

Next: Top 10 Jobs of 2010 >>

Source: Salary data from PayScale.com. The salaries listed are median annual salaries for full-time employees with 5-8 years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions, and profit sharing.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire."

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