If you are interested in becoming a registered nurse, your mind may immediately wander to thoughts of working in an emergency room within a hospital. And while ER nurse is certainly one possible career path for you to follow (and an important one within the industry) it is by no means the only path available to you. Indeed, there are many different types of nursing careers that you can choose to pursue once you have completed your education and earned your RN license.
Below, we briefly walk through the steps required to become an RN and then explore some of the most common career paths you might consider.
In order to become a registered nurse, you will need to complete three main steps.
The first is to earn a degree from an accredited institution. Depending on the state in which you wish to practice, you may find that you can get by with earning an associate’s degree, or you might need to earn a bachelor’s degree. Even in states that only require an associate’s degree, however, many employers will only consider applicants who have earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). For that reason, it is typically recommended that you earn your BSN in order to maximize your career options.
Once you have completed your education, you will then need to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam in order to be eligible for licensure. After you’ve passed the exam, you must obtain a nursing license for whichever states you wish to practice in. (For more information about becoming an RN in Massachusetts, click here.)
All told, it can take anywhere from 16 months to four years or more to become an RN, depending on how aggressively you pursue your education. An accelerated nursing program can help you reach your goal faster.
Once you have earned your RN license, there are many potential career paths that you might choose to follow. Below is an overview of some of the most common nursing careers that you can consider, including information about the role and responsibilities as well as salary data where possible.
Pediatric nurses work primarily with children and adolescent patients. This requires them to be familiar with the common injuries and illnesses that children are likely to experience, as well as various treatments that may be unique to the population. For example, pediatric nurses are trained to administer and track childhood vaccinations, monitor growth (height and weight), and track other developmental milestones. Pediatric nurses can work anywhere that children are likely to be seen, such as the pediatric department within hospitals, as well as clinics, schools, or private practice.
Geriatric nurses specialize in providing care to geriatric patients who are typically of advanced age. As such, geriatric nurses must be proficient in identifying, managing, and treating the various conditions and illnesses (both physical and mental) that tend to impact older populations. Much of geriatric nursing is focused on helping patients increase their standard of living so that they continue leading fulfilling lives. They tend to work in hospitals, clinics, private practice, and very commonly in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
A medical-surgical nurse, also called a med-surg nurse, performs a range of duties in support of patients who are either preparing for or recovering from surgery. This involves monitoring patients, preparing them for surgery, administering medications, monitoring for infections, and performing wound care, among other duties. Med-surg nurses are most commonly employed on the surgical floor of hospitals.
Perioperative nurses are those who work directly in the operating room in order to support patients undergoing surgery. They are closely related in function and role to the med-surg nurses described above. Perioperative nurses may prepare instruments for use during a procedure, sterilize instruments and incision sites, verify surgical information, perform regular counts of equipment, and more. Logically, perioperative nurses typically are employed in hospital settings.
Outpatient nurses work specifically in settings which cater to patients who do not require an extended stay at a hospital or assisted living facility. They commonly work in a hospital, clinic, or private practice, and perform similar duties to adult-gerontology, pediatric, or geriatric nurses, depending on the populations they serve.
Home care nurses, also known as home health care nurses, provide nursing services to patients in the comfort of their own home. Very often, this is in support of patients who may have difficulty transporting themselves to a medical facility, such as the elderly or those who are blind or suffer a significant handicap. Home care nurses perform a range of duties, including, but not limited to, drawing blood or urine samples for diagnostic tests, monitoring patient vital signs, administering wound care, performing post-surgical follow up, and more. There has been an increased demand for home care nurses in recent months due to COVID-19, in an attempt to limit the number of people going into and out of hospitals.
Psychiatric nurses are also known as behavioral health nurses or psychiatric-mental health nurses. They specifically work with patients who have been diagnosed with various mental health conditions. This may include patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and other conditions. Psychiatric nurses may diagnose and treat conditions or help patients with long-term management. They can work in hospitals, clinics, and private practice, as well as mental health facilities.
Adult gerontology nurse practitioners work specifically with patients who are considered to be “adults.” This typically includes individuals ranging from adolescence through advanced age. With this in mind, nurses who work in adult gerontology will often need to be aware of chronic conditions that begin to develop during late adolescence and adulthood, such as diabetes, heart disease, and more. Adult gerontology nurses can work anywhere that nursing is required, and they are commonly employed by hospitals, clinics, and within private practice.
Becoming an adult gerontology nurse practitioner will require additional education, such as completing a master’s degree in nursing with a focus on adult gerontology.
As you can see from the list above, it is possible to work as either a nursing generalist, serving a range of different patient populations, or you can choose to specialize in working with a specific population or in offering a specific type of care. Both career paths are viable and can be incredibly rewarding.
If you find yourself becoming passionate about a particular area of nursing, you may want to consider specializing in that field by earning a related certification. Doing so can make it easier for you to qualify for a job related to your specialty. It is also possible to specialize in a given area by completing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a focus on a specific subfield of nursing.
According to Donna Glynn, PhD, RN, ANP, and associate dean of pre-licensure nursing at Regis College, it can be extremely beneficial to explore your interests in nursing school to determine whether earning a certification makes sense for you.
“That's the benefit of a program like what we offer here at Regis,” she says. “What happens during our program is that you're exposed to all of those aspects of nursing practice. In the final semester at Regis students complete a preceptorship that is 130 hours, one-on-one [with an established RN] in their area of interest.”
That being said, Glynn notes that it is extremely common for nurses to change specialties throughout the course of their careers. If you choose to specialize in pediatric medicine, for example, but eventually want to move to a new specialty after a few years, it is relatively easy to do so.