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How To Find Your Path: Explore Top 6 Nursing Career Pathways


Some prominent nursing careers may include licensed practical nurse, registered nurse, nurse educator, nurse practitioner, and nurse researcher. These specialties offer high pay, excellent career growth, and job stability opportunities.

Nurses can also explore nontraditional roles, including travel and prison nurses, beyond conventional healthcare settings, where they are only found in hospitals. Many have two questions: Can I be a nurse, and which nursing career should I choose? This article examines the nursing career pathways students can choose while pursuing their dreams.

A photo showing different Nursing Career Pathways
Examples of Different Nursing Career Pathways

Different Types of Nursing Careers

  1. Registered Nurse – this is the basic foundation of nursing practice. Registered nurses (RNs) administer and organize medical care while educating patients and the general public about various health concerns. They work in hospitals, medical offices, home healthcare services, and nursing homes. Others work in outpatient facilities and schools.
  2. Licensed Practical Nurse – A licensed practical nurse (LPN) performs essential healthcare duties, including monitoring vital signs and feeding patients. They also ensure that patients, their families, and their caretakers communicate effectively. LPNs follow the orders of registered nurses (RNs) and doctors.
  3. Nurse Practitioner – This nurse has received extensive clinical education and training. NPs have many of the same responsibilities as doctors. They perform physical exams, diagnose and treat diseases and other health issues, and write prescriptions. A nurse practitioner must have a graduate degree in education.
  4. Nurse Educator – While registered nurses (RNs) form the backbone of healthcare, nurse educators lay the foundations. Nurse educators primarily teach nursing students clinical skills, patient care procedures, and best collaborative practices. However, they also take on various extra responsibilities relating to the profession’s academic and research sides, such as instructing hospital research.
  5. Nurse Researchers investigate many health, illness, and healthcare elements. By planning and implementing scientific studies, they look for strategies to improve health, healthcare services, and healthcare outcomes.
  6. Nurse Administrator—Nurse administrators are licensed registered nurses (RNs) who manage or supervise other nurses. They often hold advanced degrees. Nurse administrators ensure that healthcare facilities are efficient and safe. Typically, a nurse administrator has minimal to no direct interaction with patients.

Educational Requirements For The Different Types of Nursing Careers

As much as there are several nursing career pathways students can pursue, every career is unique and may have different educational requirements. This section looks at the level of education required for various nursing career pathways.

  1. Registered nurse – You must have a bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN) and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).
  2. Licensed Practical Nurse – to become an LPN, you must have a diploma program or Associate Degree in Nursing (AND) and pass the NCLEX-PN exam.
  3. Nurse Practitioner—A nurse practitioner must have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree focusing on the NP program and national certification exams.
  4. As a nurse educator, you need an MSN degree, and you could go for a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to gain more leadership opportunities.
  5. Nurse researcher – to become a nurse researcher, you may be required to have a DNP or MSN degree, depending on your specialization.
  6. A Nurse administrator – You must have a DNP or MSN degree to be a nurse administrator. Some leadership positions will require a Master of Business Administration in healthcare management.

Different Areas of Specialization in Nursing

There are different areas of specialization in nursing career pathways, as you will discover from this section:

  1. Critical care nursing – Critical care nurses specialize in the most seriously ill or injured patients in intensive care units and emergency services. They are highly qualified and skilled safety-critical specialists who work in a multidisciplinary team.
  2. Pediatric nurses care for children, infants, and adolescents in various settings, such as schools, clinics, or hospitals.
  3. Oncology nursing is a career option specializing in caring for cancer patients, supporting them in treatment, and monitoring any side effects.
  4. Geriatrics nursing – this specialization offers care for older adults by addressing their healthcare needs and general well-being.
  5. Psychiatric nursing: These nurses treat patients with health conditions and offer therapy in community centers, hospitals, and outpatient clinics.

Nursing Job Duties and Responsibilities

These are the typical duties and responsibilities in these nursing career pathways:

  1. Critical care nurses offer intensive life-saving care to injured or critically ill patients. Their core duties are conducting patient assessments, administering treatments and medications, operating medical equipment, and monitoring vital signs. They have to be quick in decision-making and able to manage emergencies effectively.
  2. Pediatric Nursing: These nurses provide medical care to adolescents and children. They document patients’ records, administer medication, and collaborate with other practitioners to enhance treatment plans.
  3. Oncology nurses’ responsibilities include caring for cancer patients. They assist with chemotherapy treatments, educate patients and their families, manage symptoms, and offer emotional support.
  4. Geriatrics nurses help and offer support to elderly patients. They monitor crucial signs, manage chronic conditions, and administer medication to the elderly. These nurses also coordinate administrative roles such as staff supervision.

Salary and Compensation For Different Nursing Careers

  1. Critical care nurse—According to the Payscale, the median annual compensation for critical care nurses in June 2022 was approximately $75,000.
  2. Pediatric nurse—The median annual compensation for pediatric nurses in July 2022 was around $61,000. However, pay can vary depending on the function. According to the Payscale, pediatric critical care unit nurses earned a median annual income of approximately $81,000 in July 2022.
  3. Acute care nurse – According to the compensation website Payscale, the yearly median income for acute care nurses in August 2022 was around $83,000.
  4. Psychiatric mental health nurse—According to Payscale data from July 2022, the typical annual compensation for psychiatric nurse practitioners was over $114,000.
  5. Nurse educator – the median annual salary for a nurse educator was around $79,000 as of July 2022.
  6. Nurse administrator—According to Payscale reports, a nurse administrator would receive an annual median salary of about $89,000.

However, it is crucial to understand that these average salaries are not fixed. They may differ from one nursing practitioner to the other. Some factors affect the amount of wages nurses receive. These may include specialization, location, and experience. More experienced nurses will have a higher salary than a newbie. A nurse working from home as a private nurse could also have a higher salary than a nurse working from a hospital.

Highest-Paid Nursing Jobs:

  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist – $203,090
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse – $136,592
  • Pain Management Nurse – $124,006
  • General Nurse Practitioner – $121,610
  • Certified Nurse Midwife – $120,880
  • Health Policy Nurse – $120,333
  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner – $117,870
  • Registered Nurse First Assistant – $106,176
  • Nursing Administrator – $104,830
  • Family Nurse Practitioner – $102,107
  • Gerontological Nurse Practitioner – $96,198
  • Intensive Care Unit Nurse – $92,568
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist – $87,359
  • Informatics Nurse – $83,780
  • Nurse Educator – $78,580

Career Advancement Opportunities in Nursing

Career advancement in nursing offers numerous opportunities for professional development and growth. Aspiring nurses can pursue advanced practice roles like becoming Nurse Anesthetists or Nurse Practitioners. These roles offer increased responsibility, autonomy, and higher salaries, reflecting the required individual expertise and advanced skills.

Leadership posts in clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare organizations are also great avenues for career progression. Nurses can look up to positions such as Director of Clinical Services, Nurse Manager, or Chief Nursing Officer, where they will supervise departments, manage staff, and control healthcare delivery processes.

Specialization and further education present additional pathways for nursing career advancement. Endeavor to pursue advanced degrees such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to occupy roles in research, nursing education, or specialized clinical practice. Nurses specializing in pediatric, oncology, or psychiatric mental health may have increased responsibility and potentially higher career pay.

Different Work Environments In Nursing

In today’s working environment, nurses can work in several settings, each with unique responsibilities and roles. Below are some work settings that nurses work in today:

1. Hospitals

Hospital nurses can work in critical care units, acute care settings, and emergency services. They can also work in specialty units, such as surgical, oncology, and pediatric wards. They administer treatments and direct patient care in the hospital.

2. Clinics

Nurses could offer patients specialty, urgent, or primary care in clinics. They can assist physicians in conducting assessments, educating patients, and administering medications.

3. Nursing homes

These nurses offer long-term care for the disabled or elderly individuals. They assess their health status, coordinate care plans, and manage their medications.

4. Schools

School nurses manage students’ health in the educational setting. They treat injuries, administer medications, and assess students’ health. These nurses also develop care plans for students with chronic conditions.

5. Community health centers

Nurses in these health centers usually deliver healthcare services to marginalized populations, focusing on health education, preventive care, and disease management.

6. Home healthcare agencies

These nursing agencies offer in-home care for patients recovering from injury or illness. The nurses assist with daily living activities and provide medical treatments, emphasizing personalized care.

How to Build a Supportive Network

The nursing profession has a vast network of professional organizations and associations that offer numerous networking opportunities, valuable resources, and professional development opportunities for nurses.

One of the oldest and largest professional nursing organizations is the American Nurses Association (ANA). The organizations represent the interests of more than 4 million registered nurses. ANA promotes high standards of nursing practice, advocates for nurses’ well-being, and empowers ethical conduct. The organization also has subsidiaries such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Academy of Nursing, offering additional resources for nursing career advancement.

Another nursing organization is the National League for Nursing (NLN). It focuses on the leadership in nursing and nursing education. The organization offers numerous opportunities for research grants, education continuation, and networking to the 1,100 institutional and 45,000 individual members.

Other specialty-specific associations, such as the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN), the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), and the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA), also consider nurses’ needs in different fields. These organizations offer certification programs, specialized resources, and networking events to help their members advance their careers and networks.

Licensing and Certification

Nurses must be licensed in the state where they practice. This usually entails graduating from an accredited nursing degree, passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) relevant to their career path (NCLEX-RN for Registered Nurses, NCLEX-PN for Licensed Practical Nurses), and completing any extra state-specific requirements.

Many nursing professions provide optional certificates to showcase superior knowledge and skills in a specific area. These certificates frequently require extra schooling, experience, and passing a certification exam.

Certification and Licenses for: 

  1. Oncology nurse—This position requires an RN license and an associate or BSN degree. A graduate degree from an NP program focusing on oncology can prepare nurses for more advanced clinical positions and higher-paying job possibilities. Although oncology certification is not required in all states, having it and completing graduate school might give these nurses a competitive advantage. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation provides oncological-certified nursing credentials and several specialist certifications.
  2. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner – To be eligible for APRN licensing, these nurses must have an MSN and a valid RN license. Aspiring nurse practitioners (NPs) can pursue a graduate degree through various pathways, including RN-to-MSN programs for RNs with associate degrees and direct-entry MSN programs for non-nursing bachelor’s degrees. Graduates of an NP school with a psychiatric mental health population focus seeking state licensure must acquire the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner certification offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
  3. Geriatric nurse – An RN without an advanced graduate degree can become a senior nurse. However, APRNs with further training in a geriatric specialization at the master’s or doctoral level have higher job prospects. RNs with APRN licenses can receive the APRN gerontological specialist-certified (GS-C) designation from the Gerontology Nursing Certification Commission.
  4. Pediatric nurses can start their professions with an RN licensure and certification. While most nurses start the field with an associate or BSN degree, APRNs with a pediatric concentration who hold an MSN or doctor of nursing degree will have the most demand for their services. The American Nurses Credential Center oversees the pediatric nursing certification program. Registered nurses can take this national exam after completing two years of work experience in pediatric nursing, with a minimum of 2,000 hours.
  5. Public health nurse – Public health nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain their RN license and gain experience in community or public health nursing. The only certification available for public health nurses is the certified public health credential, which requires a bachelor’s degree, at least five years of public health experience, and passing an exam offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners.

Challenges of Nursing Careers

  • Work-life balance—Some nurses find balancing their work and life challenging. Nursing entails shift work, long hours, and on-call duties during odd hours.
  • Emotional stress – nurses must deal with various situations, from witnessing human suffering and complex patient interactions to emotionally charged situations. All these could easily lead to emotional stress and burnout.
  • Physical demands—Nursing careers are physically demanding and may include lifting patients, long periods of standing, and other physical tasks.
  • Exposure to risks—Nurses are exposed to hazards such as workplace violence and infectious diseases. Coping with these challenges in their line of duty is one of the challenges they must face.

Strategies for Overcoming These Challenges

Handling challenges in the nursing career pathways is never an easy fit. However, with the right mindset and tips, you will navigate your way through the issues.

  • Manage Your Time Well—A healthy work-life balance is only achievable if you can manage your time correctly. Ensure you finish up your tasks in the allocated time or during your shift to have enough time to rejuvenate or bond with your family.
  • Use Stress Management Techniques—A nursing career is stressful due to the things you have to go through, such as seeing patients suffer or even die. Look for stress management hacks like relaxation techniques, seeking support from mental health professionals, and regular exercise.
  • Look for a Supportive Work Environment. Look for workplaces that care about the well-being of their staff. These workplaces could offer resources to help manage burnout and stress.
  • Continue Learning – a higher level of education will always mean a higher ranking in your career and, thereby, better pay. Ensure you take the education continuation opportunities to gain more knowledge, skills, and overall professional growth.
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