Job Options, Salary, and Degrees for RNs and Beyond

Nursing Careers

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The nursing profession is growing by leaps and bounds, opening doors to a range of career choices. If you're considering a career in nursing, it's important to understand the various types of career paths available to you, the salaries and opportunities you can expect, and the education and certifications required to reach your goal. Read on to learn more about this dynamic profession and how you can become a part of it.

Career Paths for Nurses

The nuts and bolts of bedside nursing may not be the most glamorous; wound care, catheters, death and dying, and body fluids are not everyone's cup of tea. Bedside nursing, however, isn't the only option when it comes to a career in nursing. Nurses account for the largest percentage of healthcare workers in the world. They can have a meaningful and significant impact on patients during very vulnerable moments, making this a rewarding career for those who want to make a difference in the lives of others. Take a look at some of the different career paths available to nurses.

Entry-Level Careers

There are several viable entry-level careers in nursing. It is entirely possible to enter the world of nursing without a college degree; however, it should be understood that there are limitations in terms of job mobility and scope of practice for nurses without a two- or four-year degree.

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CERTIFIED NURSING ASSISTANTS

Nursing assistants, also known as nurses aides, provide basic patient care under the supervision of nurses, usually in nursing homes, memory care units, assisted living facilities, and hospitals.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 9%

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of a state-approved training program, which is generally offered by high schools, community colleges, vocational schools, and some hospitals. A competency exam is required in most states.

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LICENSED PRACTICAL NURSE/LICENSED VOCATIONAL NURSE

Becoming an LPN/LVN is a rapid and direct gateway to a nursing career, offering robust hands-on training and clinical skill development that can be leveraged when seeking further education and professional advancement. Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), also known as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) in Texas and California, provide basic care to patients in a variety of settings. LPNs/LVNs generally work under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician, but not in all circumstances. They engage in patient assessment, wound care, medication administration, and the provision of various forms of treatment.

LPNs/LVNs care typically employed in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, memory care units, home health agencies, and physician offices. Fewer hospitals currently employ LPNs/LVNs. LPNs/LVNs serve as "Charge Nurses" or nurse leaders in certain facilities.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 11%

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of a state-approved certificate or diploma program in practical/vocational nursing, generally offered by community colleges and vocational schools. Graduates must pass the national licensing exam for LPNs/LVNs prior to obtaining a license to practice.

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REGISTERED NURSE

Nurses with an Associate or Bachelor of Science in Nursing are both referred to as "Registered Nurses". RNs enjoy a greater breadth of employment opportunities in hospitals than LPNs and are allowed a wider scope of practice, as well as the ability to move into broader areas of management and leadership.

Registered nurses can find employment in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living and memory care facilities, physician offices, surgical centers, home health, and hospice. RNs may hold titles such as "Charge Nurse" in a hospital or nursing home unit or as "Nurse Case Manager" in home health or hospice. Acute care hospitals employ RNs in units such as telemetry, emergency, medical-surgical, labor and delivery, ICU, and CCU. An increasing number of registered nurses are pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, including private duty and concierge nursing, consulting, coaching, writing, and varied forms of private practice.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 12% (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between RNs with a BSN or ADN)

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of an accredited Associate of Science or Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Graduates must also pass the national licensing exam for RNs prior to obtaining a license to practice.

Mid to Senior-Level Careers

At the mid- to senior-level, there are several career directions for nurses, including research, education, and academia, as well as clinical positions with high levels of responsibility and a broad scope of practice.

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CLINICAL NURSE SPECIALIST

This Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) generally focus on acute care settings, often serving as expert patient care consultants. They also provide direct care to patients in various specialty areas.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 26% (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between various types of APRNs)

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of an accredited Master of Science in Nursing, including courses in chosen clinical specialty. Graduates must pass a national licensing exam prior to obtaining a license to practice.

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NURSE ANESTHETIST

Also a type of APRN, nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia - and related care - before, during, and after medical procedures. These professionals stay with patients throughout a procedure to monitor vital signs and make any necessary anesthesia adjustments.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 26% (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between various types of APRNs)

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of an accredited Master of Science in Nursing. Graduates must pass a national licensing exam prior to obtaining a license to practice.

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NURSE MIDWIFE

Midwives provide family planning services and care to women who are pregnant or just gave birth, and they also provide care for the newborn baby during the first few weeks of life. In addition to delivering babies and managing any emergencies that may occur during labor, midwives also help their patients make healthy lifestyle and reproductive choices.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 26% (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between various types of APRNs)

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of an accredited Master of Science in Nursing, including specialty coursework in nurse midwifery and related topics. Graduates must pass a national licensing exam prior to obtaining a license to practice.

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NURSE PRACTITIONER (NPS)

NPs serve as primary and specialty care providers. They assess patients and come up with the best way to improve or manage health. Scope of practice can vary by state, but many NPs are able to work autonomously, prescribe medication, and order lab tests. Nurse practitioners can also choose to focus their work on specific demographics such as elderly patients, children, or those with mental illnesses.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 26% (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between various types of APRNs)

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of an accredited Master of Science in Nursing, including specialty coursework. Graduates must pass a national licensing exam prior to obtaining a license to practice.

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NURSING INSTRUCTOR/EDUCATOR

Nurses who want to take their skills and knowledge to the classroom to teach aspiring nurses can work towards a career as a nursing instructor or educator. Nursing instructors can teach courses in specialty areas or general nursing, or they can teach leadership courses and discuss topics such as teamwork and conflict resolution. These nurses can find employment at colleges, universities, and medical and surgical hospitals.

JOB OUTLOOK (2018 TO 2028): 24%

MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS:
Satisfactory completion of an accredited Master of Science in Nursing.

Related Occupations

In researching the nursing profession, you may decide that your interests are indeed focused on healthcare, but not necessarily on a nursing career. There are many opportunities within healthcare, nursing being only one of numerous potential paths. Here are a few alternative career options that are related to nursing:

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PHYSICAL THERAPIST

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JOB OUTLOOK(2018 to 2028): 22%

EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
Doctoral degree in physical therapy

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OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST

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JOB OUTLOOK(2018 to 2028): 18%

EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
Master's degree in occupational therapy

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SPEECH-LANGUAGE PATHOLOGIST

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JOB OUTLOOK(2018 to 2028): 27%

EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
Master's degree in speech pathology or a related field

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SOCIAL WORKER

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JOB OUTLOOK(2018 to 2028): 11%

EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
Bachelor's degree in social work, sociology, or psychology

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RADIOLOGIC AND MRI TECHNOLOGIST

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JOB OUTLOOK(2018 to 2028): 9%

EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
Associate's degree in radiography or radiology technology

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PHARMACIST

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JOB OUTLOOK(2018 to 2028): ~0%

EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
Doctoral degree in pharmacology or related

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Annual Earnings for Nurses

Nursing salaries differ based on many factors, including educational achievement, extent of clinical skill or certification, area of nursing practice or specialization, type of employer, and geographical location. To illustrate, the graph below highlights national salaries for various types of nursing careers.

Experience and skill can also influence salaries throughout a nurse's career. Nurses specializing in certain areas of clinical practice can earn more than their colleagues in other areas, and nurses who pursue a higher degree will generally find increases in earning potential and career opportunities.

For example, according to Payscale.com, the median income for a non-specialized registered nurse with a BSN and 5 years of experience in Las Vegas, Nevada is $58,934, whereas 10 years of experience will earn that same nurse $63,652 per year. At 20 years, this nurse's median income increases to $67,042. Take a closer look at how experience and skill can affect salaries for registered nurses.

How Experience Affects RN Salaries

  • Experience
    Salary
  • LATE-CAREER
    +19%
  • EXPERIENCED
    +12%
  • MID-CAREER
    +3%
  • NATIONAL AVERAGE
    $63,393
  • ENTRY-LEVEL
    -12%
How Certain Skills Affect RN Salaries
  • Skills
    Salary
  • Telemetry
    +2%
  • Critical Care
    +2%
  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU)
    +2%
  • Labor & Delivery
    +2%
  • Emergency Room
    +1%
  • National average
    $63,393

Source: PayScale.com

Is Nursing Right for Me?

Nursing is generally not for those who shy away from body fluids, illness, and the suffering of others. While nurses can pursue career paths that do not entail these particularly challenging human experiences, the educational path to those careers still includes clinical experiences that will expose you to these aspects of the profession. Before enrolling in a nursing program, ask yourself the following questions to ensure this is the right fit for you:

Required and Preferred Skills

Certain core skills are absolutely mandatory in the provision of nursing care and some skills are preferred in today's healthcare environment. Nursing is demanding, requiring both task-based skills, critical thinking, and comfort under pressure. Below is a look at some of the required and highly preferred skills for nursing professionals:

Skills

1

Communication

Nurses are clinicians who must educate, coach, and communicate with patients and their families; collaboration and clear communication with other clinicians is also central to nursing practice.

2

Time management

In many clinical settings, nurses are responsible for the relatively precise timing of the administration of medications and other treatments. When caring for multiple patients, effective time management is paramount.

3

Clinical skills

Depending on the nursing specialty or area of practice, nurses may need the capability to perform venipuncture, physical assessment, and other specialized tasks. Individuals who choose clinical nursing as a career path must be willing to learn a large array of skills, and consistently improve those skills over time.

4

Technology

In the 21st century, nurses must be willing to adapt to constantly changing technologies, including computer systems, electronic medical records, robots, and bedside patient care devices.

Tools / Technology

1

Electronic medical records (EMRs)

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities utilize an array of EMRs; nurses must adapt to these technologies as they develop and change.

2

Patient care devices

Technological innovations in healthcare continue to bring new devices to the bedside; nurses must engage in ongoing learning and adaptation to these devices.

3

Robotic technologies

Robotics play a larger role in healthcare with each passing year, including robotic surgical systems and robotic medication administration devices with which nurses must be conversant.

4

Computers, databases, spreadsheets, mobile devices, and cloud-based technologies

Most nurses now perform the documentation of patient care using computers, smart phones, and tablets. Even in home health, nurses use Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices to access patient data and document care. Nurses must be comfortable and confident accessing databases and utilizing spreadsheets and other important cloud-based technologies.

How to Become a Nurse: Degree Programs in Nursing

Academic and certification requirements for all levels of nursing are dictated by various national certifying bodies. Each state licenses nurses independently, although there is streamlined licensing reciprocity for RNs between approximately 50 percent of states; licensing reciprocity for NPs is less efficient.

Basic educational steps for becoming a nurse include:

  • Earn entry-level certification and/or licensing by pursuing a career path as a Certified Nursing Assistant or Licensed Vocational/Practical Nurse
  • Pursue further education and licensing as a Registered Nurse by way of either an Associate of Science or Bachelor of Science in Nursing
  • Deepen your education by earning a Master of Science in Nursing for a career track as a Masters-prepared nursing clinician (Nurse Practitioner or Clinical Nurse Specialist) or as a nurse researcher or academic
  • Pursue a terminal doctoral nursing degree to become a researcher or educator, or as a Doctor of Nursing Practice

Here are some common degree programs in nursing:

Nursing Certificates

For those seeking a basic - and relatively immediate - entry-level path into nursing, a certificate or diploma in practical/vocational nursing or as a nursing assistant is the simplest and most affordable path of education and training. Such programs can be ideal for career changers who are looking to enter the healthcare field but cannot afford to pursue a four-year degree.

Concentration Areas

After entering the nursing profession and successfully navigating the first few years of a new career, nurses may choose from a seemingly endless list of potential specializations and certifications. While some nursing specializations must be pursued through formal education (e.g., Nurse Practitioner or Nurse Anesthetist), a number of specialties can be achieved through individual study, on-the-job training, and certification exams. Below are just a few examples of specialty areas:

  • Oncology Nursing
    Nurses focusing their careers on cancer can choose from a number of specializations within oncology nursing. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) provides certification exams, including Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN) and Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse (CPON). According to the ONCC, there are currently 29,724 Oncology Certified Nurses in the United States.

  • Board Certified Nurse Coach
    Nurses are seeking certification as nurse coaches in order to meet increasing demand for coaching services. The American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corp. (AHNCC) offers the only coaching certification for nurses recognized by the American Nurses Association. Nurse coaches are employed by insurance companies and other entities to work directly with patients/consumers. Entrepreneurial nurse coaches serve the public through the combined skill and knowledge base of nursing and coaching.

  • Certified Emergency Nurse
    Nurses dedicated to the delivery of high-quality emergency care may seek certification as a Certified Emergency Nurse, Certified Flight Registered Nurse, or other related certifications through the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing.

Exams, Certifications, and other Credentials

RNs and LPNs/LVNs are required to pass national examinations in order to gain licensure and practice. Other types of nurses are also subject to similar requirements.

Where Nurses Work

Nurses find employment in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical facilities, agencies, and institutions. Based on level of specialization, education, and professional accomplishment, nurses will assume varying levels of responsibility, management, and leadership. Places of employment can include:

Job Hunting Resources

As of April 2016, there were more than three million active nurses in the United States alone, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. These nurses seek employment through many career and job-hunting resources, such as the following:

  • AllNurses.com
    AllNurses is a popular site for nurses seeking employment opportunities.
  • American Nurses Association
    Through the ANA's career center, aspiring nurses can browse job postings and access career articles for professional development.
  • Kaiser Permanente
    Larger, national healthcare companies, such as Kaiser Permanente, often have a career section on their websites that feature open nursing jobs, as well as openings for other healthcare roles.
  • Nurse.com
    As one of the largest nursing websites on the Internet, Nurse.com's job board is a highly reputable source for nursing positions throughout the United States.
  • NursingJobs.com
    NursingJobs.com is a widely used job board for finding nursing employment.
  • StaffGarden
    StaffGarden offers a cutting-edge online e-portfolio allowing nurses to seek employment through their free membership portal.

Starting Out as an Intern

Nurse intern and externships are offered to nursing students and working nurses in a large number of locations and specialty areas.

Children's National Health System Nursing Residency Program

Location: Washington, DC

This paid pediatric nursing residency for novice nurses provides an opportunity to develop knowledge, skills, and competencies related to pediatric nursing.

Mayo Clinic Summer Nursing Externship

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Junior nursing students learn alongside RN clinical coaches and take part in direct patient care at the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

MD Anderson Cancer Center Professional Student Nurse Extern Program

Location: Texas

The MD Anderson PSNE program gives nursing students a deep grounding in the knowledge and skills related to comprehensive oncology nursing.

St. Jude's Research Hospital Nursing Extern Program

Location: Memphis, Tennessee

Nursing students interested in pediatric oncology work closely with expert nurses in this paid externship program.

World Health Organization (WHO) Nursing and Midwifery Internship

Location: Varied

In this 8-week WHO internship program, graduate nurses learn about the WHO's policies and stances on global health in relation to nursing and midwifery.

Associations & Organizations

Professional nursing organizations provide nurses opportunities to come together to discuss common topics, learn from one another, and advance the agenda of a specific group of nurses, or the profession as a whole. Nursing organizations offer conferences, local and regional chapters, networking opportunities, and other benefits for professional and student members.

  • American Assembly for Men in Nursing
    The AAMN is a resource for men to address issues of specific concern to men working within the nursing profession.

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners
    The AANP provides information on legislation, conferences, education, and research, as well as publications and employment opportunities for nurse practitioners.

  • American Holistic Nurses Association
    The AHNA and its chapters are the leading voice for nurses interested in the intersection of mainstream medicine/nursing and holistic/complementary practices. Research and education are two areas addressed by the AHNA.

  • American Nurses Association
    The ANA provides nurses with a central location for employment opportunities, access to state chapters, information on policy and regulations, and professional resources.

  • National Student Nurses Association
    The NSNA is a powerful platform for student nurses, with information on scholarships, employment, and many other salient resources.

About the Author


expert-profile

Keith Carlson is a Board Certified Nurse Coach who helps nurses create satisfying, healthy, and enriching careers. He has been a nurse since 1996, and also writes the award-winning nursing blog, “Digital Doorway”. He is the co-founder and co-host of RNFM Radio, and also hosts his own nursing career podcast called The Nurse Keith Show.