Nursing Careers Job Options, Salary, and Degrees for RNs and Beyond

Keith Carlson Expert & Author View bio

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.

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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 17%

  • 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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 16%

  • 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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 16%

    (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.

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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 31%

    (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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 31%

    (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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 31%

    (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between various types of APRNs)

  • Minimum enlistment 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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 31%

    (BLS job outlook data does not differentiate between various types of APRNs)

  • Minimum enlistment 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.

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 (2014 to 2024): 35%

  • Minimum enlistment requirements:

    Satisfactory completion of an accredited Master of Science in Nursing.

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:

Physical Therapist
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 34%

  • Education and Training:

    Doctoral degree in physical therapy

Occupational Therapist
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 27%

  • Education and Training:

    Master’s degree in occupational therapy

Speech-Language Pathologist
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 21%

  • Education and Training:

    Master’s degree in speech pathology or a related field

Social Worker
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 12%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree in social work, sociology, or psychology

Radiologic and MRI Technologist
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 9%

  • Education and Training:

    Associate’s degree in radiography or radiology technology

Pharmacist
  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 3%

  • Education and Training:

    Doctoral degree in pharmacology or related

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

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.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

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

Median
Salary
  • Late-Career +18%
  • Experienced +11%
  • Mid-Career +4%
  • National Average $58,000
  • Entry-Level-10%

How Certain Skills Affect RN Salaries

  • Recovery/Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) +9%
  • Critical Care +6%
  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU) +5%
  • Case Management +4%
  • Oncology +3%
  • National average $58,000

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 include 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:

Can you handle the training?

Even if you eventually want to be a nurse researcher, entrepreneur, or academic, your early training will have you engaged in direct patient care in clinical settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.

Do you understand the breadth and depth of the nursing profession?

Many people do not fully comprehend the dizzying array of opportunities within the nursing profession. Do you have a realistic vision of what a nurse can actually do in the course of his or her career? Are the possibilities within nursing aligned with your personal goals and interests?

Are you detail-oriented and organized?

When working in most clinical settings, nurses must pay great attention to detail and be extremely organized. Nursing often involves multitasking and the management of complex sets of tasks, the success of which may directly impact the well-being, health, or mortality of patients.

Do you have a collaborative nature?

Most nurses will find themselves working collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams, whether as registered nurses, practical nurses, or nurse practitioners. Providing care alongside physicians and other healthcare professionals is central to the practice of clinical nursing. Nurse researchers and academics will also participate in high levels of collaboration.

Are you prepared to witness humans at their most vulnerable?

In clinical settings, nurses are faced with human suffering, death and dying, and patients in extreme pain (including children and the elderly). As a nurse, you must be able to function in this type of emotional environment while still being empathetic, caring, and professional to patients.

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:

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.

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.

Clinical skills

Depending on the nursing specialty or area of practice, nurses may need facility with 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

Diploma or Certificate in Nursing

A diploma or certificate program in nursing allows for relatively rapid entry into the field and helps prepares students to provide basic patient care under the supervision of a registered nurse. Students take a series of nursing courses and hands-on labs and are typically eligible to sit for the NCLEX-PN exam after graduation. Example course titles are:

  • Human Biology
  • Anatomy
  • Principles and Practices of Nursing
  • Nursing Skills Lab
  • Nursing of the Adult
  • Pharmacology
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An associate degree in nursing helps prepare students for an entry-level career as a registered nurse, with opportunities in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical settings. Curriculum is a mix of academic classes and hands-on learning in clinical settings or laboratories. Students learn the basics of bedside care, health promotion, and illness prevention, and also develop communication skills for working with and caring for a wide range of people. Courses typically include:

  • Informatics Essentials
  • Introduction to Nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Complex Patient Management
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A BSN is the most common academic path for becoming a registered nurse. In fact, a nationwide movement is seeking to make the BSN the entry-level educational requirement for registered nursing. As a result, some facilities are now closing their doors to nurses with ADNs who are not pursuing a baccalaureate education. ADN nurses wishing to advance their education, can pursue a “bridge” program, wherein the nurse with an ADN can use associate degree credits towards a BSN. Bridge programs typically require students to complete additional study in community health, management, leadership, statistics, and research.

Many hospitals seeking so-called “Magnet” status (a highly sought after mark of nursing excellence for hospitals willing to undergo a rigorous certification process) will only allow nurses with a BSN to hold management and leadership positions; thus, the BSN is a key that can unlock many doors for the earnest nurse building a long-term career.

BSN curriculum is a mix of clinical labs and classroom education. Example course titles are:

  • Introduction to Professional Nursing Practice
  • Essentials of Pharmacology
  • Applied Pathophysiology and Pharmacology
  • Community and Health Health Nursing
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing
  • Clinical Labs (typically a series throughout the program)
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

The MSN degree allows the nurse to provide high-level patient care with varying levels of autonomy. At this level, nurses can also pursue a concentration area. Positions in nursing leadership and management – including those at the executive level – are typically open to nurses who hold a master’s degree. Careers in research and academia are also possible. Course examples in an MSN program include:

  • Foundations of Nursing Practice
  • Health Assessment
  • Biostatistics for Evidence-Based Practice
  • Health Promotion
  • Leadership for Professional Nursing
  • Maternal and Newborn Health
Doctor of Nursing Practice or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing

At the doctorate degree level, nurses can pursue one of two options: A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which is a practical degree that teaches nurses how to apply knowledge gained through nursing research into real world practice, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD), which is a research-based degree that helps prepare nurses to conduct complex research that furthers nursing science. In a DNP, curriculum usually focuses on leadership, advanced specialty practice, and translating evidence into practice. The PhD, on the other hand, focuses on research and theory development in a particular area of nursing, such as trajectories of health care systems. The DNP typically requires the completion of clinical hours and a capstone project, while the PhD requires a dissertation and defense.

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 Nurse Credentialing Corporation (ANCC) 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.

For CNAs

For those graduating from a diploma or certificate course as a Certified Nursing Assistant, each state requires the graduate to pass a state-administered competency exam. Twenty five states utilize the National Nurses Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP).

For LPNs

For students completing a course in practical/vocational nursing, all graduates must pass the National Council Licensure Exam for practical nurses (NCLEX-PN). Similarly, graduates of a Bachelor or Associate of Science nursing degree program must pass the National Council Licensure Exam for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN).

For NPs

Nurse Practitioners must successfully complete the competency-based American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program national certification exam.

For Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical Nurse Specialist candidates must pass the appropriate certification exam for their chosen area of specialty through the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

For Doctors of Nursing Practice

Certification for Doctors of Nursing Practice is provided through an exam administered by The American Board of Comprehensive Care.

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:

Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, memory care centers, and skilled nursing facilities

Nurses working in these types of facilities cater to the elderly and disabled. Nurse Practitioners provide primary care similar to that of physicians, while practical nurses and registered nurses provide more basic care appropriate to their education and expertise. LPNs and RNs also assume roles of management, leadership, and supervision of other nurses and support staff. Nurses aides assist nurses and work under their supervision.

Home health and hospice

A growing number of RNs and LPNs are employed in home health and hospice, administering care to patients living at home.

Physician offices, medical centers, urgent care centers

Nurses are employed by independent and group physician practices, as well as private and public urgent care centers. LPNs and CNAs are widely utilized in such settings.

Schools

LPNs and RNs in this setting provide care to students, from elementary schools to university health centers.

Academia

Nurses serve as professors of nursing or clinical preceptors in programs educating students pursuing careers as CNAs, LPNs, RNs, or masters- and doctorally-prepared nurses.

Corporate settings

Nurses find employment with private companies seeking on-site nursing support for employees. Nurses are widely employed by insurance companies, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, clinical research organizations, various healthcare organizations, and other companies and agencies in need of nurses’ expert knowledge and experience.

Entrepreneurship and self-employment

Nurses at all levels of experience may create their own career opportunities as Legal Nurse Consultants, Nurse Expert Witnesses, Nurse Life Care Planners, Nurse Coaches, and as owners of independent home health/nursing agencies.

Hospitals and affiliated ambulatory care facilities

Some nurses are employed by acute care hospitals, health systems, and facilities run by hospital systems, such as ambulatory care centers, cancer treatment centers, and outpatient surgical suites.

Miscellaneous

A small percentage of nurses are employed at completely different places. For example, correctional facilities hire nurses to provide nursing care to inmates and prisoners. Nurses may also be employed by cities and municipalities to serve as public health nurses or nurses who manage specific populations (e.g., patients with addiction or communicable diseases). The Indian Health Service (HIS) utilizes nurses for the provision of nursing care on Indian reservations.

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.