Nursing Specialties: Choosing a Nursing Career Path

July 29, 2021

After completing an undergraduate nursing program and passing the NCLEX, most nurses will have to determine which field of nursing, or specialty, they would like to work in. Sometimes choosing a career path is an easy decision, based on a specific hospital, location, or job offer. Other times, it can be daunting.

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Your nurse specialty is directly related to your prior experience.

Learn more about some of the most in-demand travel nursing specialties right here:

Getting Started On Your Nursing Career Path

Regardless of travel nursing specialty, you first must graduate from an accredited nursing program and pass the NCLEX exam. Follow these steps to becoming a nurse and gaining experience.

Step 1: Attend Nursing School

To start, you’ll need to earn a nursing degree: either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing program in order to take the first steps to become a registered nurse.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN

Become a Registered Nurse by passing the NCLEX examination.

Step 3: Apply for state licensure

Apply for state licensure through the individual state board of nursing. Currently, thirty-eight states are part of the nursing compact license that can help with travel nursing licensure.

Step 4: Gain Experience at the Bedside

Generally, most travel nursing agencies and hospitals will require a minimum of two years of beside experience in a specialty prior to starting your first travel-nursing contract.

How To Choose a Nursing Specialty

When determining which nursing specialty it is important to ask yourself a few questions including:

  • Are you detail-oriented?
  • Do you thrive on adrenaline, constant challenges, and the unexpected?
  • Do you like to sit down and have conversations with people?
  • Do you want to work closely with patients in a high-touch role, or would you prefer to be away from the bedside?
  • Do you want to work in a hospital setting or outpatient?
  • Are you calm under pressure?
  • Do you have additional certifications? Are you willing to advance your education?
  • What age group do you want to provide nursing care for? Pediatrics? Adults? Geriatrics?
  • What makes you feel the most fulfilled as a nurse?

After answering the aforementioned questions and truly thinking about what aspects of nursing excite you then you’re choosing a specialization. The great thing about nursing is that you have the ability to switch to another specialty at any time.

RNs can earn up to $2,300 per week as a travel nurse. Speak to a recruiter today!

Top 10 Highest Paying Nursing Specialties

The highest-paid nursing specialties depend on a variety of factors including location, demand, and urgency of needs.

Becker’s Hospital Review completed a survey of more than 18,000 nurse positions in 2019 that identified the following nurse specialties as top paying.

1. Labor and delivery (L&D) nurse

Labor and delivery nursing is consistently one of the highest-paid nursing specialties because of the overwhelming number of births in many hospitals.

In addition, labor and delivery nurses can often work in postpartum and newborn nurseries, which increases the demand for them, and subsequently, the pay rates.

2. Operating room (OR) nurse

Operating room nurses can either function as circulating or scrub nurses during procedures. OR nurses are highly skilled and the more experience with different body systems, the more desirable you will be.

3. Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse

NICU nurses work strictly with critically ill neonates and newborns. Because of the patient population and the skills required to provide medical care for them, there are positions available constantly. With fewer nurses to fill the roles, hospitals often offer premium pay to NICU nurses.

4. Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurse

PACU nurses care for patients after surgical procedures. These nurses must be well versed in the care of a variety of post-operative care.

5. Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse

Nurses who have a specialty in the ICU have the responsibility to look after the patients who have experienced accidents, trauma, surgery, and organ failure. ICU nurses often have advanced training and certifications, which means increased pay packages.

Furthermore, ICU nurses can essentially work or float to most units in the hospital. This also increases demand.

6. Emergency room (ER) nurse

Since COVID-19, ER nurses have been in short supply. Because of the fast-paced nature as well as the overall intensity of the ER, there is expected to be an ongoing shortage of ER nurses in the future, and pay rates are high accordingly.

7. Pediatrics nurse

Pediatric nurses can often work in a variety of settings and healthcare facilities, which makes them valuable and the result is high pay packages.

8. Step-down unit nurse

Step-down nurses specifically care for patients immediately after they leave the ICU. The patient-to-nurse ratio is lower than on a medical-surgical floor but slightly higher than an ICU. Many of these patients are still sick but they no longer require the acute care they were receiving in the ICU. Oftentimes, these nurses have similar skills and nursing certifications to an ICU nurse, which means lots of demand and an appropriately high pay rate.

9. Telemetry nurse

Similar to medical surgical nurses, telemetry nurses primarily focus on patients requiring advanced cardiac monitoring.

Telemetry nurses often care for more critically ill patients than medical-surgical nurses. They monitor changes in condition, record and interpret vital data to assist with patient assessment, and are responsible for educating patients on home health care. This specialized skill set commands high pay rates.

10. Medical-surgical nurse

Medical-surgical nurses are found throughout the hospital working with a variety of patients. Medical-surgical nurses provide patient care for a variety of medical conditions and often have heavier patient assignments than in an ICU setting.

Nursing Specialty FAQ

Is it possible to change nursing specialties?

It is very possible to change specialties but that would require experience prior to traveling. Furthermore, some specialties enable nurses to work in other fields. For example, ICU nurses can be hired for a medical-surgical floor.

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