Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system. They are an unstoppable force that’s here to stay. With 3.8 million+ registered nurses across the nation, nursing remains the single largest healthcare profession in the US and among the highest paying large occupations as a whole. There will always be an insatiable demand for nurses, so there’s no risk of this career becoming obsolete and any point in the future.
If you’re thinking of pursuing a career as a nurse, you’re probably wondering what you can do with a nursing degree. The truth is – the possibilities are endless. The nursing profession delivers a wide array of healthcare services. These extend from preventative and primary care to specialized care in fields like gerontological and pediatrics. Here’s everything you need to know about nursing degrees to help point you in the right direction.
The first step toward becoming a nurse involves understanding the different levels of nursing credentials and what each one of them entails. It extends beyond simply enrolling in a nursing program and earning a degree. It’s not a one-size-fits-all affair. There’s a specific path you need to follow and specific requirements you need to meet before you can fulfill your dream of working as a registered nurse.
Right off the bat, there are four main levels of nursing degrees and certifications you need to pursue, particularly if you dream of rising through the ranks in the course of your career.
Nursing assistants, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), or nursing aides represent the starting point for many individuals looking to pursue a career in the field. It’s important to mention at this point that a nursing assistant isn’t technically a “nurse” in the strict sense of the word. These individuals, however, play a critical role by bridging the gap between patients and medical staff.
A nursing assistant’s work involves helping patients perform day-to-day activities that they’re otherwise unable to do for themselves. This may involve bathing them, dressing them, helping to eat, use the bathroom, and a variety of other activities to make their lives easier. They also perform certain clinical tasks, including measuring patients’ vital signs, listening to their health concerns, relaying this information to the healthcare practitioners, and transferring patients from the beds to their wheelchairs and vice versa.
They are the primary caregivers in residential care facilities and nursing homes. They usually have more direct contact with the residents of these facilities compared to other members of staff. Depending on the state in question, some nursing assistants can dispense medication.
To become a nursing aide, you need to go through a training program and pass a state-approved exam that tests your competency before you can start practicing. If you pass, you’ll become a state-certified CNA.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for nursing assistants is $30,830 per annum.
A licensed practical nurse (LPN), also referred to as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN), is responsible for a wide range of patient duties. Some of their tasks may include but are not limited to administering basic care and monitoring patient health. This involves changing bandages, inserting catheters, taking patients’ blood pressure, and in some states, starting IV drips.
State regulations may vary when it comes to the clinical tasks LPNs can perform without supervision. Part of their job also includes communicating with both patients and their family members on the most appropriate healthcare plan.
To become a licensed practical nurse, you first need to complete a practical nursing diploma program. These are usually available at most career, community, and technical colleges. Once you graduate, you’ll need to obtain a state license before you can kick-start your nursing practice. To do this, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN).
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an LPN is $48,820 per annum.
When most people use the term “nurse,” they’re usually referring to this group of professionals. Registered nurses, or RNs for short, take on a wide range of roles regarding patient care.
Their day-to-day tasks involve working closely and collaboratively with doctors, performing diagnostic tests, coming up with or contributing to a healthcare plan, monitoring patients’ symptoms and the equipment they use, recording patients’ medical history, and so forth. A registered nurse manager may also be responsible for supervising the activities of CNAs, LPNs, and other healthcare staff.
The specific duties, responsibilities, and titles of registered nurses may vary depending on where they work and the specific patients they’re charged with caring for. As an RN, you can specialize and limit your work to catering to specific patient populations. Some of these specialties include psychiatric nursing, neonatal nursing, emergency nursing, and pediatric nursing.
Additionally, you may opt to work outside of direct patient care. Several RNs work as staff of the health clinics in educational institutions, run blood drives and health screenings, promote public health, and lots more.
To become a registered nurse, you would first need to go to nursing school and complete one of two levels of nursing education. You can earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or earn a bachelor’s degree. The choice of one over the other ultimately boils down to the type of work you want to do in your nursing practice.
A Bachelor of Science in nursing degree (BSN) takes about 33 months on average to complete, although that number can be compressed down to 18 months if you have an existing healthcare-related degree. If spending 33 months in a BSN program is entirely too long for your liking, you can go the ADN route and get your associate degree in as little as 18 months.
However, keep in mind that some healthcare employers, particularly hospitals, prefer to hire RNs with a BSN degree. If competitive advantage is what you’re after, this path presents a better option for your career prospects. You can always start with an ADN to quickly get your foot in the door, but there’s a high possibility that you’ll eventually need to go back to nursing school later to get your BSN.
Regardless of the path you take, you still have to pass the NCLEX-RN before you can start practicing.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for registered nurses is $75,330 per annum.
To become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), you’ll need to earn a Master of Science in nursing degree (MSN), which typically takes two years to complete. Going through an MSN program affords nursing students all kinds of opportunities as far as career choices go.
APRNs have the liberty to work collaboratively with physicians or independently. The scope of their duties is also more extensive compared to that of RNs. They can, for instance, diagnose and treat ailments, order and evaluate test results, and even refer patients to specialists.
There are four main types of APRNs:
Aside from these APRNs roles, there are other notable career paths that individuals with a master’s degree can pursue. For instance, you could decide to advance into leadership in a healthcare facility and become a director of nursing. You could also become a nurse educator in a nursing program. Alternatively, you could immerse yourself in clinical research working alongside other doctors and scientists to find solutions to the issues that plague the healthcare system.
To become an APRN, you first need to be licensed as a registered nurse. Most MSN programs prefer candidates to have a BSN as opposed to an ADN. In addition to graduating from an accredited nursing program, APRNs also have to pass a national certification exam in their chosen area of expertise.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for APRNs is $117,670 per annum.
Now that you know the different types of nurses that exist, the next question that’s likely on your mind is – what are the expectations of a nurse on duty? First off, a nurse’s principal role in a healthcare facility is to care and advocate for their patients. They are required to support them through illness and health. That being said, typical nursing responsibilities revolve around:
As stated before, your primary role as an RN will be to provide nursing care to patients. This involves treating their health conditions, preventing illness, and managing their physical needs. A registered nurse must continuously monitor their patients throughout their shift and record any information they deem relevant to the treatment and decision-making process.
The nurse also has to monitor the patient’s progress and observe how well (or badly) they’re responding to treatment. That way, they’re always acting in the patient’s best interest.
Additionally, the health care provided by a clinic nurse goes beyond administering treatment, medication, or any other therapies required. They are responsible for their patients’ holistic care. They need to cater to their developmental, cultural, psychosocial, and spiritual needs as well.
The priority of an RN or a licensed practical nurse is their patient. Their roles and responsibilities also involve advocating for their best interests. They ensure that the patient maintains their dignity throughout every stage of the treatment process. It may involve suggesting or working collaboratively with other healthcare team members to establish a suitable treatment plan for the patient.
This is especially important in instances where the patients are gravely ill, incapacitated, or unable to understand the severity of their medical situation. The nurse’s role is always to represent the patient’s best interests at all times and provide the support they need, particularly when treatment decisions are being made on their behalf.
Whenever there’s a decision to be made on the treatment plan for a patient, nurses must be directly involved at every stage of the process. Therefore, it is important for them to critically assess a patient’s signs and general condition to pinpoint potential problems that may arise. That way, they can use this information to make the right recommendations to other healthcare professionals on the patient’s team.
While physicians or specialists are tasked with making the final decisions regarding the course of treatment a patient should receive, nurses are usually at the forefront of communicating all the relevant information regarding a patient’s health. They are the ones who are most familiar with the patient in question since they monitor their vital signs and symptoms continuously. Their input in the medical team ensures that the treatment plan they come up with promotes the best health outcome for the patient.
This is yet another critical role that nurses play as far as patient care and support go. An oncology nurse, nurse anesthetist, pediatric nurse, or any other kind of nurse practitioner is responsible for making sure that patients and their families comprehend the state of their health, illness, treatment options, and medications to the best of their ability. This is especially important when a patient is discharged from the healthcare facility and needs to administer medication themselves.
Nurses need to take the time to explain to the families and caregivers exactly what to expect when the patient eventually leaves the hospital and the type of care they need. The nurse’s role involves making sure that the patient receives the support they need and knows who to turn to if they need to get additional information.
Regardless of whether you choose to pursue an oncology nursing, travel nursing, emergency room nursing, or preoperative nursing career, the majority of your working hours will be spent offering direct care to patients. The hours you work will vary depending on the work setting you’re in, the type of work you do, and whether you work full-time or part-time.
The nursing hours for individuals working in private clinics, schools, and physician’s offices are generally in eight-hour daytime shifts, five to six days a week. On the other hand, full-time nursing employees working in hospitals typically work 12-hour shifts three times a week. These may or may not be consecutive.
In some hospitals, they’re required to work eight-hour shifts five days a week. Keep in mind that nurses have to work weekends and holidays, although this is usually on rotation given the round-the-clock coverage required in hospitals. The same standards apply to nurses who work in nursing homes.
If you’re willing to work unpopular shifts – weekends, holidays, and nights – you won’t have any trouble finding work. You will also be compensated a higher hourly rate compared to what you would otherwise earn working the usual shifts.
Additionally, those in administrative nursing positions usually work on a salary basis. This means that regardless of the total number of hours they work, they make a fixed sum of money every month. The majority of administrative nurses work in eight-hour shifts Monday through Friday. Some supervisory positions may also require them to pitch in with direct care work when the hospital or medical clinic is short-staffed.
Remember that these rules don’t apply to independent consultants and case managers since they determine their own working hours.
Registered nurses work in a wide range of healthcare settings. They don’t all work in hospitals. They can use their specialized skill set pretty much anywhere they’re needed. Aside from hospitals, some of the common places where RNs work include:
Nurses can also specialize in certain fields, therefore choosing to focus their trade on specific types of patient care. Pediatrics, geriatrics, critical care, case management, and treatment planning are a few examples of the specific fields nurses can specialize in. Here’s an overview of the various nursing specialties and the education requirements for each.
An ambulatory nurse is a nursing care professional that works with patients seeking routine medical care for chronic and acute illnesses or injuries outside of the usual hospital setting. As a practicing nurse in this field, the majority of patients you’ll be working with will not require an overnight stay at a hospital. Most ambulatory nurses work with outpatient individuals in private clinics and physician’s hospitals.
To become a certified ambulatory nurse, you need to have a valid RN license. This involves earning a nursing degree and passing the NCLEX-RN. You can also take an ambulatory care nursing credential administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
A family nurse practitioner is an RN whose specialty focuses on delivering advanced care for patients at all stages of their lifespan – from infants to geriatric patients and everyone in between.
They are qualified to diagnose and treat illnesses and even refer their patients to specialists. They also practice preventative care and educate patients suffering from chronic conditions on how to care for themselves. To become a nurse practitioner, you need to have graduated from a BSN program, passed the NCLEX-RN, and earned a Master of Science in nursing (MSN) degree.
A clinical nurse specialist is an advanced practice RN who holds a master’s degree or Ph.D. in a specialized area of nursing practice. Their work revolves around the usual nursing responsibilities in addition to the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, injuries, or disabilities within their chosen area of specialization. To become a professional in this field, you need to have an MSN with an emphasis on clinical nursing.
A neonatal nurse is a certified RN who works with ill babies. To become a specialist in this field, you need to hold a BSN.
A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse works with sick newborns who require round-the-clock intensive care. You’ll need to earn a BSN to become one.
A nurse anesthetist assists with medical surgical procedures that require the administration of anesthetics. To be considered a certified registered nurse anesthetist, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing, have a valid RN license, and be a holder of a master’s degree in the field.
A nurse educator is an RN whose principal work revolves around training the next generation of individuals who wish to pursue a nursing career. Nurse educators need to be master’s degree holders.
A nursing informatics specialist works on incorporating nursing, technology, and information science to develop and maintain medical systems and data that support the nursing field. Their focus is on the development of technology that improves patient care outcomes. To become a nursing informatics specialist, you need to complete a master’s program in nursing or earn a doctoral degree.
A nurse-midwife assists expectant women through the labor and delivery of newborns. To become a certified nurse-midwife, you need to have completed a nursing program and earned an associate degree, a BSN, an MSN, in addition to passing a specialty certification exam.
An orthopedic nurse practitioner is a specialized RN whose work focuses on caring for and treating patients suffering from illnesses related to the musculoskeletal system. To become an orthopedic nurse practitioner, you need to successfully graduate from an on-campus or online MSN program with an emphasis on orthopedics.
The nursing job of a pediatric nurse revolves around working with ill children and everything that goes into their normal care and maintenance. To become a specialist in this field, you need to hold an associate degree in nursing.
A school nurse is a healthcare professional whose work focuses on providing medical treatment, support, and education within a school setting or any other kind of educational facility. To become a school nurse, you need to be a BSN holder.
A travel nurse works in multiple locations on short-term contracts to fulfill their desire to explore the world. To become a travel nurse, you need to obtain an associate degree.
Keep in mind that a bachelor’s degree in nursing traditionally takes about four years (33 months) to complete, while an associate degree takes about two years (18 months). To specialize in a specific field of nursing by becoming a nurse practitioner, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree, which takes an additional two years to complete. Earning a doctoral degree takes 1-2 years on average.
As the health care system continues to evolve, an increasing number of nurses choose to specialize in a specific area of nursing. As far as your nursing career goes, the main benefits of having a specialization include increased earning potential and career satisfaction, not to mention the enhanced respect and recognition you get since you’ll be regarded as an expert in a particular nursing specialty.
The three main questions you need to ask to determine which specialty certification you should focus your sights on are:
Every nursing field has its own unique set of pros and cons. The pace and environment in each may vary widely. You, therefore, need to choose a specialty that complements your personality and interests.
For instance, if you enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with never knowing what to expect, working in the ER or trauma department might be more up your alley. If you consider yourself a methodical and detail-oriented person, you might want to consider a career in clinical research.
If you’re an extroverted individual, some of the most in-demand nurse specialties you may be more suited to include becoming a pediatric nurse, a family nurse practitioner, an emergency nurse, an intensive care/critical care nurse, or a medical-surgical nurse.
If, on the other hand, you consider yourself an introverted individual, the most in-demand specialties that would be more your style include becoming a nursing informatics specialist, a legal nurse consultant, a clinical researcher, or a forensics nurse.
The day-to-day work of your chosen specialty also needs to tie in with your personality type. For instance, if you prefer a role that’s away from the bedside, consider pursuing a nursing career in nursing education, nursing informatics, infection control and prevention, or case management.
On the other hand, if you prefer working directly with patients in high-touch roles, consider becoming a critical care nurse, emergency nurse, geriatrics nurse, or pediatric nurse.
Finally, you need to think about the kind of environment you prefer to work in. Before choosing your nursing specialty, consider whether or not you want to work in a non-hospital setting such as a private clinic, a research lab, a rescue helicopter, an industrial job site, a corrections facility, or even the public health department.
If you prefer a traditional hospital-based nursing job, pick a clinical specialty that allows you to do this.
That being said, here’s the list of requirements you need to get into specialty nursing programs.
The career paths available to nurses are virtually limitless. It all depends on your career goals and identifying where your passions lie. In the meantime, check out our blog to find out which nursing specialty is right for you.