In nursing school, you got a taste of what’s out there. You had a week of surgical nursing, made your way through pediatrics, managed not to faint during obstetrics, and fumbled through critical care. These brief experiences gave you an idea of what nursing could be like in each area, but did you know there are nearly 100 more to choose from?
Being a nurse doesn’t mean doing just one thing, and a nursing degree affords you the education and training to enter all kinds of specialties. From sprawling metropolitan hospitals to small rural clinics, from working with children to tending to the elderly and advocating for victims of abuse, the opportunities for specialization in nursing are nearly endless. If you’re ready to begin your nursing career, but you’re not quite sure which path to take, this guide can help you match your education, skills, needs, and interests to the nursing specialty that’s right for you.
8 Questions to Narrow Your Search
Before you decide on a nursing specialization, it’s smart to understand the details of the job and how they align with what is most important to you. There are several major factors to consider as you contemplate all of the nursing roles out there. To help you narrow down your nursing specialty options, start by answering the following questions.
Question 1 / 8
Depending on the specialty area and location of your nursing job, you can encounter different types of workplaces and levels of intensity. While all nursing professions can be stressful at times, some specialty areas are more demanding because of the fast-paced environment. For example, ER nurses experience much faster paced work on a daily basis than home health nurses or diabetes nurses. Fast-paced roles are often best for those who perform well under pressure, can think and act quickly, and thrive in active environments.Depending on the specialty area and location of your nursing job, you can encounter different types of workplaces and levels of intensity. While all nursing professions can be stressful at times, some specialty areas are more demanding because of the fast-paced environment. For example, ER nurses experience much faster paced work on a daily basis than home health nurses or diabetes nurses. Fast-paced roles are often best for those who perform well under pressure, can think and act quickly, and thrive in active environments.
Do you want a nursing career with a fast pace?
Another factor to consider is how closely you would like to work with patients on a daily basis. While most nursing professions have a significant patient-facing component, not all nursing jobs will play out that way each day. For those who wish to work closely with their patients and develop a strong bedside manner, careers as home health nurses or domestic violence nurses can give you that opportunity. Specialties such as a nursing author or nurse researcher don’t require much patient involvement. In fact, some of these professionals rarely come in contact with patients if they are conducting research on their own or working remotely.
Do you want to work with patients regularly?
Where do you see yourself working on a daily basis? Nursing professions can take you to a variety of environments, from hospitals and clinics to out-of-hospital roles in specialists’ offices and patients’ homes. Hospitals, emergency rooms, operating rooms, and nursing homes, for example, all present different types of challenges. You could find yourself in an ambulatory role where you employ your nursing specialties on-the-go. Whatever the work environment, it can significantly affect your quality of life on a daily basis depending on your personal needs. It’s important to think critically about this aspect of your nursing career as you consider a specialty area.
Do you want a specialty that takes you outside of a traditional medical setting?
Salary & Compensation
For many professionals, nursing can be a lucrative career. Your salary and compensation will vary depending on several factors, including your level of education. According to studies by Medscape, Advisory Board reported that RNs with a master’s degree earned an average annual income of $88,000 in 2017, compared to associate degree- and bachelor’s degree-holders who made an average of $74,000 and $81,000, respectively.
You should also factor in the average cost of living in the region you plan to work. Medscape’s study reported that professionals in the Pacific northwest region earned the highest annual income at $102,000. The region with the lowest average income for RNs was the South East of the U.S. at $69,000, which included Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Is earning a high salary in nursing important to you?
Management & Leadership
Depending on your interests and strengths, a specialized career in nursing can also position you for management and leadership roles. Mid-level nursing management positions typically involve administrative duties, building budgets, hiring new nurses, and tracking facility inventory. With some work experience under your belt, you can move on to positions such as head nurse, patient care director, chief nursing officer, or even CEO of a hospital. Nurse administrators also handle many of these important management duties. They typically need some years of work experience and a Master of Science in nursing with a focus in administration. Nurses can also pursue additional certifications from institutions like the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) to bolster their credentials for management and leadership positions.
Do you want a nursing career with management or leadership potential?
Like many professional roles, nurses working in specialty areas will develop some kind of regular routine on the job. Discussing routines might seem like you’re going to be “stuck in a rut,” but there’s certainly some serious benefits to following a structured schedule. For one thing, routines and structured healthcare professionals maximize their organization’s efficiency. Depending on the person, some nurses really thrive in this type of environment. Some specialty nursing areas offer more of a routine or predictability than others. For example, a nurse who specializes in dermatology or diabetes may be able to maintain a more regular schedule and workload than an ambulatory or ER nurse. What seems like a good fit for you?
Do you thrive (or at least prefer) working in a more structured environment?
With some nursing specialties come high levels of independence. As a nursing author or educator, for example, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to deal with complex scheduling issues or cover shifts in a hospital setting. Additionally, while leadership and management positions can be stressful and time consuming, you would likely have more command of your daily schedule, or be able to make your own hours, than workers who are lower in the leadership hierarchy. Some nurses today even find ways to work from home and create their own schedules. Nurse advocates, for example, can help patients understand their treatment options, sort through insurance issues, and educate patients on their treatments remotely or in an on-call arrangement.
Do you want a nursing career that allows you to work more independently?
There are several popular nursing specialties with a research component. Broadly speaking, research nurses work to improve and perfect current medications and treatments. They may also work on curing diseases through research, examining previous findings, and interacting with patients. A Ph.D. in nursing can also lead you to a research-heavy career path. Ph.D. programs give you the chance to become an expert in a particular area of the field and your required dissertation will give you a taste of the type of heavy research you’ll be doing on the job.
Do you want a nursing career where research is a significant component?
Nursing Careers to Explore
Click on each specialization to learn more
- Ambulatory Care Nurse
- Camp Nurse
- Flight Nurse
- Legal Nurse Consultant
- Nurse Attorney
Nursing Specialty Breakdown
Ambulatory Care Nurse
Ambulatory nurses can work in several areas of the field, including pediatric nursing, geriatric nursing, and women’s health. Many of these professionals work outside of hospitals in urgent care facilities, telehealth programs, or home health settings directly with patients. This is a lesser-known career for nurses as many nursing schools do not cover ambulatory care as part of the main curriculum.
Burn Care Nurse
Burn care nurses specialize in taking care of patients suffering from burn injuries and related trauma. They typically treat minor burn wounds and play an essential role in helping patients deal with the psychological and emotional trauma that accompany these types of injuries. Professionals in this area should possess skills in pain management, trauma recovery, and life support.
Camp nurses usually work with younger patients in camp environments and related community facilities. They may serve as camp nurses for days or months at a time and can find themselves in work settings that are far from hospitals or clinics. Because of this, camp nurses are required to be resourceful leaders and should be able to deal with illnesses or injuries throughout their temporary tenure.
Cardiac Care Nurse
Cardiac care nurses focus on just about everything involving heart conditions or diseases. This can include anything from coronary artery diseases and heart attacks to bypass surgeries and stress evaluations. They usually work closely with cardiologists in hospitals to handle day-to-day stress test evaluations and urgent heart care matters.
Cardiac Cath Lab Nurse
Cardiac cath lab nurses perform specialized duties and typically work in large hospitals or clinics. They often work with cardiac interventionists to perform various procedures on patients with heart disease and other heart problems. They work closely with patients, administer medication, and play crucial roles in interventional and diagnostic procedures.
Case Management Nurse
Case management nurses handle long-term care plans for their patients. Working in hospitals, they often specialize in a specific area such as cancer or HIV/AIDS. They often work in teams with other medical professionals to craft personalized plans for each patient. Case management nurses may take on some research responsibilities as needed.
Certified Nurse Midwife
Specializing in women’s reproductive health and childbirth, certified nurse midwives can write prescriptions for patients, provide counseling, and perform related exams. These professionals can work in primary care facilities or assist with home births. Prospective certified nurse midwives usually need a master’s degree to pursue a career in this area.
Clinical Nurse Leader
Clinical nurse leaders can find themselves working in virtually any setting where healthcare is provided. They primarily work in managerial roles to improve the delivery of care for individuals and families. These nurses are typically responsible for evaluating risks for patients when it comes to new technologies, therapies, and more.
Clinical Nurse Specialist
Clinical nurse specialists can pursue a variety of career paths and typically specialize in multiple areas such as women’s health, pain management, rehabilitation, oncology, and emergency care. They use evidence-based practices to help diagnose, assess, and treat patient illnesses in hospitals, outpatient facilities, or home care organizations.
Correctional Facility Nurse
These professionals help take care of the underserved population of inmates and other detainees in prisons and jails across the country. Correctional facility nurses need to be prepared to perform both emergency and routine medical procedures inside the detainment facility. They may work at both government-operated and private detention centers. Correctional facility nurses may also work in temporary holding facilities or juvenile detention centers.