A nurse provides patient care in a medical facility, such as a hospital or doctor's office. Nurses coordinate with doctors to treat patients from birth through end-of-life care. Earning a nursing degree prepares graduates for a variety of rewarding, lucrative careers. With a bachelor's degree, graduates can work as pediatric nurses, nurse supervisors, or ER nurses. Nursing professionals with a master's degree qualify for advanced practice roles, such as nurse practitioners.
Nursing careers are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that more than 500,000 new job openings for registered nurses (RNs) and advanced practice registered nurses will be created between 2016 and 2026. Prospective and current nursing students benefit from engaging in career planning and job search preparation before completing their degrees. This guide covers the process of becoming a nurse, the salary potential for professionals in this field, and other critical information for current and prospective nurses.
Skills Gained in a Nursing Program
Nursing students gain strong clinical skills, learn best practices in healthcare, and build medical knowledge. Nursing students also develop valuable skills that they can apply throughout their careers. For example, nursing students strengthen their critical thinking and organizational abilities while earning a nursing degree, preparing to thrive in multiple nursing specialties.
- Critical Thinking
Critical thinking skills help nurses analyze information and make decisions based on that information. In nursing, strong critical thinking abilities can save lives as nurses assess the health status of their patients, monitor patients for changes in their conditions, and determine what care to provide.
- Organizational Abilities
In order to provide exceptional care, nurses must possess strong organizational skills. Nurses coordinate with physicians and other care providers in medical settings. In addition, nurses often care for multiple patients each day.
Nurses care for patients with acute medical conditions, chronic pain, and mental disorders. They also provide end-of-life care. When interacting with vulnerable individuals, nurses must be caring and empathetic to provide optimal patient care.
- Communication Skills
Nurses must communicate with patients to understand their health conditions and provide education related to treatment. They must also communicate patient concerns to physicians and carry out the instructions of doctors.
- Detail Oriented
Nurses must ensure that patients receive the correct treatments and take medicines at the appropriate time. Nurses often provide care for multiple patients every day, requiring a detail-oriented personality to meet patient needs. This skill is especially important for nurses working at the managerial level.
Why Pursue a Career in Nursing?
Nursing careers offer advancement opportunities and high salary potential. Nurses can work in a variety of specialties, and nursing students often have the opportunity to choose a concentration that appeals to their interests and strengths. For example, nurses who thrive in a fast-paced environment can pursue emergency nursing, while those who love working with children can choose pediatrics. In addition to a variety of career opportunities, nurses enjoy above-average salaries and opportunities for professional growth.
While professionals can become registered nurses after earning an associate degree or nursing diploma, RNs can qualify for more advanced positions with a bachelor's degree. Many nurse supervisors, for example, hold a BSN. At the graduate level, nurses can become nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists, increasing their salary potential and professional responsibilities significantly.
How Much Do Nursing Majors Make?
Nursing careers pay above-average salaries, which increase as professionals earn more advanced degrees and gain job experience. Entry-level registered nurses earn more than $50,000 a year, according to PayScale; this can increase to nearly $70,000 after several years of experience. Nurses with graduate degrees earn even higher salaries, with experienced nurse practitioners earning more than $100,000 per year. In addition to education and experience, other factors, such as location, job title, and industry, affect nursing salaries.
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Interview With a Professional
Anne Rowley graduated with a BS in nursing from Washington State University. She started her career by completing a nurse residency in the cardiovascular intensive care unit. After working for a year and a half, Anne obtained her Critical Care Registered Nurse certification from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. This year, she got a Cardiac Surgery Certification and has also taken on a leadership role as the chair of the hospital's Unit Based Council, which aims to improve patient outcomes and nursing practice.
- Why did you choose to pursue a career in nursing? Did this field always interest you?
Both of my grandparents were nurses so I grew up knowing about nursing, but during high school I was much more drawn to English and the arts. College is when I started to seriously consider my career options. What drew me to nursing was the call to help people, opportunities for upward mobility and career flexibility, and options to further my education. At first I was unsure how I would like nursing, but I started to fall more in love with the art and science of nursing as I went through school.
- What would you say are some of the most crucial skills you gained in your nursing program? How do those skills apply directly to your day-to-day work?
The most crucial skill I gained in nursing school was to be an independent learner. Critical thinking comes with time and experience, but nursing school taught me how to be curious and ask questions, seek out the answers, and find the right resources. By being an independent learner and continuing to pursue knowledge, I have more to contribute to the healthcare team and I am able to better advocate for my patients.
- Did you complete a clinical experience as part of your bachelor's program? If so, how did that inform your subsequent career choices?
I had many different clinical rotations in a variety of specialties while in nursing school. I am grateful I had the opportunity to experience so many different types of nursing, and it definitely helped me to identify my areas of interest. I had rotations in labor and delivery, pediatrics, medical/surgical, and operating room, but the intensive care unit was the only area that sparked my excitement. I was drawn to the autonomy, critical thinking, and compassion that critical care nursing required, so much so that I accepted a nurse residency program in a cardiovascular intensive care unit straight out of nursing school.
- Why did you decide to pursue your Critical Care Registered Nurse Certification? Was this something that has helped advance your career?
After finishing my residency program and a year of work experience I knew I wanted to keep learning and growing, so I decided to obtain my certification in Acute/Critical Care Nursing. Not only did I gain personal growth from studying for the exam, but I also obtained a certification that validates my knowledge and is a mark of excellence as a critical care nurse. In the spirit of continuing education, I recently obtained my certification in Adult Cardiac Surgery Nursing since my patient population is mostly postoperative, open-heart surgery patients. Obtaining these specialty certifications has opened doors for leadership roles, professional growth, and graduate school.
- Overall, what are some of the greatest challenges you face in nursing?
Communication is the greatest challenge in this high-stakes and intense profession. As a nurse, your greatest privilege and responsibility is to be a patient advocate first and foremost. There are so many different moving pieces in healthcare. It is the nurse's responsibility to be a voice for the patient, to coordinate care with the entire healthcare team, and to advocate for the highest quality of care.
- What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a career in nursing?
I would tell those interested in nursing that it will probably be the hardest and most challenging thing you have ever done, but it will be one of the most rewarding. There are days when you cry on your way home because you are grieving for the family who just lost a loved one, but there are also days when someone gets a surgery that gives them a second chance at life. I am continually amazed by the intricacies of the human body, the fortitude of the human spirit, and the resiliency and strength of nurses who seek to care for the most vulnerable.
How to Become a Nurse
Earning a nursing degree is the first step in becoming a nurse. Registered nurses must hold a bachelor's degree in nursing, an associate degree in nursing, or a nursing diploma. During undergraduate nursing programs, students gain foundational knowledge and hands-on experience.
Nurses who pursue a master's degree in nursing expand their clinical assessment and management skills. An MSN also trains nurses in a specialty, preparing learners for roles like nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists. Nurses can also specialize their training by earning a nursing graduate certificate. At the doctoral level, nurses strengthen their clinical and research skills, preparing for academic, managerial, or research positions.
Nurses must complete supervised clinical experiences as part of their training. During a clinical internship, nursing students provide patient care, complete rotations in different hospital departments, and apply classroom training under the supervision of a preceptor. During their clinical experiences, nurses may complete rotations in pediatrics, surgery, the emergency room, and other hospital departments. Nursing programs incorporate supervised experience that meets their state's RN licensure requirements. However, because clinical experience requirements vary by state, prospective nurses should look into the minimum number of clinical hours needed for licensure where they live.
Practicing nurses in every state must hold a nursing license. To become a registered nurse, individuals must attend an approved nursing program and earn an associate degree, a nursing diploma, or a bachelor's degree. Nurses must then pass the NCLEX-RN examination and complete clinical training requirements. After meeting these requirements, nurses can apply for a state nursing license. Because each state sets its own licensure requirements, prospective nurses should research the licensure process in their state.
Advanced practice nurses must obtain a specialized license. Nurse practitioners, for example, must pass a national certification exam and apply to their state's Board of Nursing for a license. As with the RN license, advanced practice nurses must hold a degree from an approved nursing program, complete the certification process, and apply for a state license.
Professional associations offer nursing certifications in specialized fields, such as gerontology, pediatrics, and emergency nursing. Nurses who pursue specialized certification can demonstrate advanced training and experience within their specialty; these credentials can help nurses stand out in the job market.
Concentrations Available to Nursing Majors
Nursing students can specialize their education by pursuing a concentration. Nursing programs offer many concentrations depending on the program and degree. For example, BSN students can specialize their degree by completing concentrations in emergency nursing, gerontology, or oncology, while MSN students can pursue nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist specialties.
- Emergency Nursing: An emergency nursing concentration prepares students for nursing careers in emergency care. Students study triage procedures, trauma treatments, and acute conditions. Nurses also learn about infectious diseases, mental health disorders, and injuries.
- Nurse Anesthetist: A nurse anesthetist concentration trains master's-level nursing students to give patients anesthesia. Students learn how to monitor vital signs, administer anesthesia, and oversee patient recovery. This concentration prepares graduates for one of the most lucrative nursing roles.
- Pediatrics: During a pediatric concentration, nursing students learn how to care for children from birth through adolescence. This concentration emphasizes common conditions and medical treatments for children -- including immunization -- and trains nurses in the best practices for young patient care. Within a pediatrics concentration, nursing students may further specialize in an area such as neonatal care, oncology, or cardiology.
- Gerontology: Nurses who pursue a gerontology concentration learn how to work with older patients, including how to treat chronic and acute conditions. The concentration covers common conditions and medical treatments for aging patients. Nurses may also study hospice treatment and end-of-life care.
What Can You Do With a Nursing Degree?
A nursing degree prepares graduates for diverse roles. With a bachelor's degree, for example, nurses can work in pediatrics, oncology, cardiology, and other fields. A BSN meets the qualifications for most entry-level nursing positions.
Nurses can also pursue graduate degrees to expand their career opportunities. A master's in nursing prepares graduates for leadership roles like nurse practitioners, nurse educators, and nurse midwives. In these areas, nurses have more responsibilities and higher salaries. With a doctorate in nursing, nurses qualify for many top positions in the field, including nursing professors.
Nursing careers offer lucrative salaries at all degree levels. With a BSN, nurses earn an average salary of more than $80,000, which increases to above $90,000 for individuals with a master's degree. Professionals with more advanced degrees see an increase in their earning potential, as demonstrated below.
Average Salary of Nursing Majors by Degree Level
Bachelor's Degree in NursingA bachelor's degree in nursing prepares graduates to become registered nurses. While nurses with an associate degree can become RNs, hospitals and healthcare facilities increasingly prefer candidates with a BSN for a variety of positions, including ER nurses, pediatric nurses, and operating room nurses. With experience, nurses with a BSN can move into management roles, such as RN supervisors. The degree leads to nursing careers in diverse specialties that offer above-average salaries. Prospective nursing students can learn more about BSN programs.
- Registered Nurse
Registered nurses work in many healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and doctors' offices. They provide patient care, coordinate with physicians and other nurses to treat patients, and educate the public. Nurses also provide advice, resources, and support for patients. RNs typically specialize in a nursing field.
- Emergency Nurse
Emergency nurses typically work in ERs, though they may also work in ambulances or medical evacuation helicopters. ER nurses perform triage on patients to provide timely medical treatment. They also interview patients and provide information to physicians and other medical professionals. They may work independently or as part of a team.
- Operating Room Nurse
Operating room nurses care for patients before, during, and after surgery. They help maintain a sterile environment in the operating room, assist surgeons during procedures, and monitor a patient's condition during surgery. Operating room nurses typically work in hospitals and medical facilities, often on a schedule outside of typical business hours.
- RN Supervisor
RN supervisors oversee a team of nurses, ensuring they provide high-quality patient care. They schedule shifts, provide patient care, and develop procedures aligned with internal policies and external regulations. RN supervisors work in hospitals and long-term care facilities, and most possess a bachelor's degree and several years of experience.
- Pediatric Nurse
Pediatric nurses care for children from birth through adolescence. They work in hospitals, clinics, and doctors' offices. Some pediatric nurses specialize in a field like cardiology, neonatology, or trauma. Pediatric nurses take vital signs, interview parents and patients, and assess patient needs.
Master's Degree in Nursing
A master's degree in nursing can lead to nursing management and advanced practice nursing roles. Specialized MSN programs prepare nurses to work as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives. The average salary for a nurse practitioner exceeds $100,000. Nurses who earn an MSN can also move into educational or leadership roles, such as nurse educators and nursing managers. During a master's program, nursing students gain advanced clinical skills and specialize their training. Prospective graduate students in nursing can learn more about MSN programs.
- Nurse Practitioner
Nurse practitioners can act as primary care providers, assessing patients and determining treatment plans. They may specialize in areas like family health, pediatric health, and mental health. In some states, nurse practitioners operate independently without the supervision of a physician. These nurses can diagnose patients, prescribe medication, and monitor treatment plans.
- Nurse Anesthetists
Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia to patients and care for them before, during, and after a procedure requiring anesthesia. They offer pain management services, educate patients on the effects of anesthesia, and monitor patients under anesthesia and during recovery.
- Nurse Midwives
Nurse midwives provide medical care for women, including gynecological exams, prenatal care, and family planning services. They also offer labor and delivery care, such as treating emergency situations during labor. Nurse midwives provide wellness care, promote disease prevention, and treat women's sexual and reproductive health issues.
- Nurse Educator
Nurse educators work in hospitals and medical facilities, training the nursing staff and overseeing continuing education services. They evaluate nursing staff and caregivers, set training policies, and identify educational resources for their organization. Nurse educators also work with hospital administrators and senior medical staff to identify educational programs and train employees.
- Nursing Manager
Nursing managers supervise a team of nurses, ensuring that nurses at a hospital or medical clinic provide exceptional patient care. They also monitor compliance guidelines and standards, making sure that nurses comply with regulatory requirements. Nursing managers often play a role in hiring and evaluating nursing staff.
Explore Master's in Nursing Programs
Doctoral Degree in Nursing
Nurses can earn a doctor of nursing practice or doctor of philosophy in nursing. Both degrees are terminal and prepare nurses for some of the highest-level positions in the field. A doctorate can lead to upper-management roles, such as director of nursing or chief nursing officer. Many roles, including academic positions, prefer candidates with a doctorate. A doctorate can also lead to research-heavy roles at teaching hospitals and other institutions. Doctoral programs may provide specialized options, such as a doctorate for nurse practitioners or nurse administrators.
- Nursing Professor
Nursing professors teach at colleges and universities, training nurses at the associate, bachelor's, and graduate levels. They teach classes, measure student learning through examinations and clinical performances, and mentor students. Nursing professors may also work at university hospitals and conduct research.
- Director of Nursing
Directors of nursing act as managers for a nursing unit or department. They supervise and evaluate members of the nursing staff, establish operating and compliance procedures, and ensure a high level of patient care. These professionals typically possess a background in nursing management or administration.
- Chief Nursing Officer
Chief nursing officers direct nursing activities for a hospital or healthcare organization. They manage staff levels, oversee budgets, and set safety policies to promote quality patient care. Chief nursing officers typically hold at least a master's degree in nurse administration, although a doctorate can help candidates stand out in the job market.
Where Can You Work as a Nurse?
Nurses work in hospitals, healthcare organizations, and doctors' offices across the country, providing vital healthcare services to patients of all ages. The location and industry that nurses work in can affect the availability of jobs, salaries, and the process that individuals must follow to become a nurse.
Nursing salaries and career opportunities vary by state. Nursing graduates must meet different state licensing requirements depending on where they choose to practice. Some states, like California, offer higher salaries for nurses, although these areas may also have higher costs of living. Nurses weighing career opportunities should consider factors like risk populations, environment, and quality of life. The following map shows nursing employment and salary numbers by state.
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
General medical and surgical hospitals employ high numbers of registered nurses. These professionals work in operating rooms, emergency rooms, pediatric units, and other departments. Hospital nurses typically work on shift schedules, often outside of business hours.
Average Salary: $75,820
- Home Healthcare Services
Home healthcare services provide home-based care, employing nurses who visit patients in their homes rather than at a hospital or doctor's office. Nurses may help in-home patients recover from injuries or illnesses or provide senior care.
Average Salary: $70,230
- Nursing Care Facilities
In a nursing care facility, nurses provide assistance for elderly patients or patients with disabilities. Nurses treat chronic conditions, provide long-term care, and help with rehabilitation.
Average Salary: $65,710
- Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals
Nurses in this industry treat patients struggling with mental health and substance abuse disorders. They may work on a shift schedule outside of business hours.
Average Salary: $71,290
- Offices of Physicians
Physicians' offices employ nurses to provide family care, pediatric care, and other specialties. These jobs typically offer schedules aligned with normal business hours.
Average Salary: $66,890
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
Nurse practitioners work in general medical and surgical hospitals, providing medical care. They may offer primary care, acute care, or surgical services.
Average Salary: $111,850
- Outpatient Care Centers
Nurse practitioners in outpatient care centers provide medical services that do not require an overnight stay or hospitalization.
Average Salary: $111,690
- Offices of Physicians
In many states, nurse practitioners can operate independently, acting as primary care providers. These nurse practitioners may run their own office or work in a facility with other nurse practitioners and physicians.
Average Salary: $105,730
- Offices of Other Health Practitioners
Nurse practitioners may work out of health practitioners' offices in specialties such as mental health. These nurses typically work normal business hours.
Average Salary: $106,670
- Specialty Hospitals (Excluding Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals)
Speciality hospitals treat patients with conditions that require a surgical procedure. Nurse practitioners provide treatment and care at specialty hospitals.
Average Salary: $111,100
How Do You Find a Job as a Nursing Graduate?
The demand for nurses continues to increase, with the BLS projecting 15% growth for registered nurses and 31% growth for advanced practice registered nurses from 2016-2026. When hiring new workers, prospective employers often look for qualifications like educational experience, professional experience, and certifications. As an example, earning Family Nurse Practitioner, Certified Pediatric Nurse, or Oncology Certified Nurse credentials can help professionals stand out from their peers.
Nurses can gain additional professional experience through travel jobs, which they can find at NursingJobs.com. Job seekers can also find customizable job search advice by visiting Health eCareers and NurseRecruiter. These sites offer resources like resume tips, interview advice, and job search resources.
Professional Resources for Nursing Majors
Founded in 1896, ANA is the largest professional association in the country for registered nurses. This association offers certifications in different nursing specialties, educational materials, and professional development tools. ANA also hosts conferences with networking opportunities, publishes research, and provides webinars and discounts for members.
AANP provides a career center with national job postings, scholarship opportunities, and continuing education resources. The association also hosts conferences and events, provides clinical resources, and publishes research on advanced practice nursing.
ENA represents emergency nurses at all levels of the profession. The association provides clinical practice resources, professional development tools, and online courses. Members benefit from continuing education opportunities, access to a job center, and discounts on professional certifications. ENA also offers scholarships for nursing students.
AACN hosts conferences and events with networking opportunities, grants professional certifications, and offers continuing education opportunities. The association also provides webinars, publications, and online courses.
ANN represents neonatal nurses at all levels. It hosts a professional development center that offers nursing practice resources and career advancement support. The academy also hosts conferences, publishes research, offers scholarships, and provides career information for prospective neonatal nurses.
A professional organization for nurse midwives, ACNM provides evidence-based practice guidelines, awards and scholarships, and research on midwifery. ACNM also offers career resources, including information on midwifery education programs and certification for nurse-midwives, midwives, and midwife sonographers. Members benefit from discussion groups, professional development opportunities, and career support.
An honor society founded in 1922, Sigma Theta Tau supports nursing students and professionals. Members benefit from career assistance resources, local chapters and events, and continuing education opportunities. The honor society also offers career counseling, a member job board, and publications with the latest research in nursing.
A specialized organization dedicated to women's health nurse practitioners, NPWH provides clinical resources, professional guidelines, and patient-centered information. Members receive access to an online nurse practitioner journal, continuing education opportunities, and an NP database.
Nurses can apply for certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center certification program. Specialized certifications help nurses demonstrate their expertise, with options for nurse practitioners, nurse executives, and pediatric nurses. ANA members receive a discount on certification.
Offered by ANA, this career center helps nurses identify job openings and pursue career advancement. Nurses can search for jobs, post resumes, and set up alerts. The career center also offers resume tips, job search advice, and professional networking guidance.