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20 Best Cities to Start a Career

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With graduation season upon us, a lot of young folks will be looking ahead to another goal: a good launching spot for the careers they’ve been studying so hard for. has checked 100 cities across the country, drawn from metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with populations above 250,000 and per capita GDP levels of above $40,000, looking for the ones that provide that sweet spot for the beginning of a career. They considered five groups of factors that go into making a city a good spot to embark on a lifetime of work: job prospects, pay potential, quality of life, social opportunities and career advancement. Examining 18 different variables within those categories, they then evaluated how each city placed relative to the others.

Lest you think every factor was something dead serious, like crime rate, air quality and the cost of living, bear in mind that other aspects of a city’s livability came into play: its weather, whether or not it was in or near mountains or a coast and such amenities as bars, restaurants, arts and culture services. But there were plenty of serious considerations, too, such as the price of capital, wages, the tax rate and productivity.

For quality of life information, Bankrate used research results that were published in a 2015 paper by David Albouy, titled “What Are Cities Worth? Land Rents, Local Productivity, and the Total Value of Amenities.” All other data, it said, came from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since today’s grads saw first hand the effects of the Great Recession, Bankrate figured that one of their chief concerns would be financial security, and all the factors that contribute to that — so economic aspects of each area weighed heavily in the evaluations. Other considerations included a “city’s employment rates in occupations likely to require a bachelor’s degree and/or likely to offer a clear path of advancement,” and the occupations examined included STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the media, the arts, education, service occupations (police and fire services), and management positions.

(When grads land a job, how much can they expect to earn on average? Check out 30 Best Paying College Majors: 2016 and 30 Worst Paying College Majors: 2016 to find out.)

Here’s a look at the 20 cities Bankrate rated the best for launching that long-awaited career:

Portland Rose Festival Dragon Boat Race in Tom McCall Waterfront Park. (Photo: AP)

20. Portland, Oregon

Portland scored within the top 20 places in the country with a number of strong positives. It ranked 16th in the nation for quality of life — an important factor when you consider many young grads will be leaving home for the first time in their pursuit of professional opportunities — and also placed 20th in pay potential: something that’s sure to be important, if not the most important, consideration when choosing a starting place.

Wisconsin State Capitol.

19. Madison, Wisconsin

Madison’s pay potential is higher than Portland’s, at 16th, but even better, it’s 5th in the country for job prospects.

It also placed 17th in quality of life, and while it finished lower on the scale for social opportunities (40th) and career advancement (44th), it’s in a strong position for new grads looking for a jumping-off place.

Hartford skyline.

18. Hartford, Connecticut

Ranking 8th in pay potential, Hartford also placed 16th in the career advancement category and 36th when it comes to job prospects.

For quality of life it lands pretty far down the scale, at 75, and at 80 for social opportunities, but that might actually serve as a focus on their profession for those serious about “making it” in their chosen fields.

The World of Coke in Atlanta. (Photo: AP)

17. Atlanta

Beware the distractions if you head to Atlanta upon graduation — or else figure out how to parlay the city’s social opportunities into professional ones and a strong support network. Atlanta finished 8th in the social opportunities category, while ranking 12th in career advancement (maybe it’s who you know?) but only 45th in pay potential.

Quality of life only came in at 66 and job prospects aren’t the best, with the city finishing just out of the bottom fifth at 81.

Boulder, Colorado

16. Boulder, Colorado

Ski aficionados, rejoice — you have an excuse to move to ski country! Boulder came in at 7th in the country for pay potential and a delightful 12th in quality of life.

While it’s not brilliant in career advancement (38th), social opportunities (also 38th) or job prospects (43rd), you can enjoy life as well as work in pleasant surroundings.

Sign post in Anchorage, Alaska.

15. Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage offers a 9th-place finish in pay potential and finishes respectably in all the other categories, at 24th for quality of life (although you’d probably best be fond of winter sports to fully appreciate this), 27th for both social opportunities and career advancement and 50th for job prospects.

Baltimore Inner Harbor.

14. Baltimore

A 10th-place spot for pay potential is definitely a strong lure for this city, which also offers a 14th-place ranking for career advancement and a 22nd-place finish for social opportunities — maybe over crab cakes at the Inner Harbor or elsewhere on Chesapeake Bay.

For job prospects it finished at No. 45, while quality of life came in at 57. If you like boating, railroads, history or football, you may rank the city even higher.

Denver Brocons Fans. (Photo: AP)

13. Denver

Back in the mountains, the mile-high city finished in the top 20 in every category. For job prospects, it was 11th, while quality of life came in at 12; pay potential was 14, while social opportunities and career advancement both finished at 17.

Maybe that’s not a coincidence …

Minneapolis skyline.

12. Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Twin Cities finished most strongly in job prospects, at 4th in the country, with pay potential at 11th place, career advancement at 13th and social opportunities at 14th.

Interestingly, quality of life was only 79th. Maybe some people are spending too much time at the Mall of America?

Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. (Photo: AP)

11. Houston

Houston got its highest ranking for social opportunities, at 6th in the country. But it didn’t do too badly in most of the other categories, taking 10th place for career advancement, 13th place for pay potential and 55th place for job prospects.

But then there’s quality of life — in which Houston finished dead last, at 100.

Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. (Photo: AP)

10. Philadelphia

Philly, like some other cities, tied in social opportunities and career advancement—taking 7th place in the nation for each. Pay potential was good, too, coming in in 12th place, while job prospects weren’t so hot, ranking only at 73.

Quality of life did worse, though, at 87. Maybe it’s a challenge to a grad’s resourcefulness?

Dallas Cowboys Stadium. (Photo: AP)

9. Dallas

Dallas is another very social city, finishing at 5th place for social opportunities. Career advancement followed closely on its heels at 8th place, while pay potential was somewhat lower, at 21st place, and job prospects lower yet at 31st.

Quality of life didn’t do much better in Dallas than it did in Houston — and it did even worse than the category fared in Philadelphia, coming in at 93rd in the country.

A view of Seattle's Space Needle and skyline. (Photo: AP)

8. Seattle

Seattle paints a brighter picture on several counts. It ranked 5th in pay potential, 9th in quality of life (maybe it’s all that coffee) and 11th in career advancement (could it be the coffee here, too?).

Its worst showing was in the job prospects category, which was still respectable, if not outstanding, at 53rd.

Millennium Monument at Chicago's Millennium Park. (Photo: AP)

7. Chicago

Chicago is apparently a lot of people’s kind of town, ranking 3rd for social opportunities and 4th  for career advancement.

It ranks 15th in pay potential and 33rd in quality of life, while job prospects are slightly worse than Seattle’s, at 54th.

Beacon Hill in Boston.

6. Boston

Pay is the top-ranking category in Boston, which came in 3rd for pay potential. In career advancement it ranked 6th, while social opportunities were not quite so high at 9th place. Quality of life was 19th best in the country, while job prospects were in a respectable 30th place.

San Jose City Hall

5. San Jose, California

Do you know the way to San Jose? If it’s money you’re after, you’d better get a map — this city took the top spot in the nation for pay potential, even beating out such cities as New York, Washington and Los Angeles.

It also finished 2nd for quality of life, 9th for career advancement, 31st for social opportunities and a surprising 80th for job prospects. So nail down that job before you actually go there.

Washington, D.C. Skyline.

4. Washington

The nation’s capital finished 3rd for career advancement; just ask any lobbyist. It also came in at 4th place for both pay potential and social opportunities, while dropping to 40th place for job opportunities.

Quality of life was its lowest finish, at 57th place.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. (Photo: AP)

3. San Francisco

San Francisco finished 1st for quality of life — apparently a lot of people have left their hearts in the City by the Bay. It also finished 2nd for pay potential, 5th for career advancement and 10th for social opportunities, while landing in 78th place for job opportunities.

Well, one could always run boat tours out to Alcatraz.

Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles.

2. Los Angeles

In another serendipitous tie, Los Angeles finished second in both social opportunities and career advancement (can you say schmooze?). And despite its notorious traffic, people must like living there; it finished 6th in the country for quality of life.

Pay potential was slightly worse, at 26th place, while job prospects were low, at 92nd place. Must be all those unemployed actors waiting for their big breaks.

Times Square, New York City.

1. New York

A helluva town, New York also tied on social opportunities and career advancement, taking the 1st spot over all the competition. It finished 6th in pay potential and 14th in quality of life, despite the reputation of its taxi drivers.

Job prospects? Not so much. The Big Apple finished 94th in the country when it came to that category, the lowest of any city in the top 20. Still, if you can make it there … well, you know how the song goes.

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