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How to Choose the Right Nursing Specialty for You

One of the biggest advantages of going into a nursing career is that it has so much variety. But that aspect of it can also be intimidating if you don’t know what specialty you want to devote the next few years or even decades working in.

When you get to the point where you need to decide on a specialty, consider your skills, interests, and long-term professional and educational goals. If you need ideas on where to start looking, here are some common nursing specialties you could consider and tips on how to choose the best specialty for you.

Common Nursing Specialties & Career Paths

When you think of where nurses work, you likely think of nurses in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities like nursing homes. There are definitely many specialties that are more common than others, and not every nurse fits in or even enjoys working in every specialty.

As you go through nursing school and clinical rotations, you’ll probably get a good sense of what you like and don’t like about different specialties and if you want to further your education for an advanced career path. Here are a few common ones and what you can usually expect from working in them:

  • Psychiatrics: In this specialty, you’ll work with patients with psychological disorders. Psychiatric nurses, also known as mental health nurses, help patients with their emotional and mental needs. You could work in a state hospital, a drug rehabilitation unit, in prisons, or in special schools.
  • Pediatrics: These nurses care for infants, children, and teenagers. Pediatrics is a field with its own unique challenges as it can be very different than working with adult patient populations. You could work in a clinic or on a specialty floor in a pediatric hospital.
  • Oncology: These nurses work with patients who have or have had cancer. They observe patients’ treatments and results, prescribe medication or treatment, and educate patients and their families. 
  • Critical care: Critical care nursing is the type you’ll see in intensive care units (ICUs) and emergency rooms. It’s fast-paced, varied, and challenging, and it can be very interesting and teach you a lot of skills and about a lot of diseases you’d otherwise never hear of. 

Experience in critical care could also open a lot of doors for other interesting jobs, like an organ recovery coordinator, who works with managing the organ donation progress.

  • Nurse educator: If you love teaching and sharing your knowledge, then you could consider working as a nurse educator. This could mean working for a university or technical school as a clinical or classroom instructor. 

But you can also work in hospitals as part of an education team that focuses on educating patients, their families, and other health care professionals. You can also find jobs in the community or with non-profit organizations.

  • Nurse midwife: Midwives care for pregnant people during prenatal appointments and during labor and delivery. They help establish the details of a birthing plan, guide the mother during labor and delivery, and educate new mothers on how to care for their babies. They can work in hospitals, in birthing centers, or within patients’ homes.
  • Nurse practitioner (NP): An NP is an advanced practice nursing degree. You can enter an NP program after you’ve finished a bachelor’s degree in nursing. NPs can work in any specialty, but unlike a registered nurse (RN), they can diagnose illnesses, order medication or testing, and perform routine exams.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetics (CRNA): CRNAs are a type of NP who work with patients before, during, and after surgeries or treatments that require anesthesia. They can give anesthesia to patients, and they make sure they’re comfortable and help manage pain. You’ll need experience as a nurse in surgical or critical care units, like intensive care units (ICUs). 

Choosing the Right Nursing Specialty

There are plenty of benefits available to you that can depend on what specialty you choose to work in. That includes opportunities for higher salaries and greater job security. 

But with that in mind, it’s most important to find a specialty that fits your personality, interests you, and aligns with your goals. 

Match Your Personality Traits and Interests

Consider your personality and your interests. Are you someone who likes being around and working with children? If so, you might love working in pediatrics. Do you have strong research and technological skills? Then maybe look into nursing informatics. Is teaching something you love to do? There are many options for nurse educators that work in schools or in the community.

There are also nursing specialties for those who are both introverted and extroverted. That might seem weird since nursing is more often than not a very people-oriented profession, but introverts can still find their place in the field. If you’re more of an introvert, specialties like being a legal nurse consultant or forensic nurse could be good options.

Decide Where You Want to Work

Outside of hospital settings, nurses can work in any number of environments. You can find nursing jobs in rehab centers, schools, correctional facilities, doctor’s offices, physician’s offices, nursing homes, cruise ships, ski resorts, sports teams, or law offices. The options are nearly endless. 

Consider the type of setting that you’re comfortable working in on a day-to-day basis. Do you like consistency and being in the same place every workday, or do you like to change it up every few months or even every day? You can also consider what types of places are within your area. If you live closer to a nursing home or a rehab center, that may work better if you don’t want a long commute.

Look at Patient Demographics

Each patient demographic has its own unique challenges, knowledge, and skills. You could work in geriatrics, like in nursing homes or hospice. Or you might be more interested in working in a school where you might have elementary age populations. If you prefer working with a specific age range, this can help you narrow down where you may want to work.

Research the Educational Requirements for Each Specialty

Some specialties require you to get certain degrees or credentials. When you start to narrow down specialties you’re interested in, make sure you look if they have any additional requirements besides what you already have or are working towards. Think about whether you can commit full time or part-time to school and what you can handle financially. 

Some specialties will hire RNs with associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees. Others, like nurse practitioners, have a minimum requirement of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

If you’re interested in a specialty and career path that normally needs nurses with certain degrees, consider the time it will take to earn that certification. An associate’s degree program can take anywhere from a year and a half to two years to complete, and they’ll usually prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN exam to become an RN. 

After that, you have more advanced degrees. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can take between three to four years to complete. An MSN may take anywhere between 15 to 36 months. And you must have a BSN to get an MSN. 

Consider Benefits and Pay

Salary and benefits often depend on the specialty you’re working in as well as your educational background. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs made a median salary of $71,730 per year while NPs made $113,930 per year in 2018. 

There’s definitely an opportunity to earn an increased salary with a higher degree or additional certification, but as we stated earlier, those advanced degrees come with a higher upfront time and financial commitment to get. 

Think About Your Work-Life Balance

You’re also not just your job. Think about your schedule and availability outside of work. Think about the impact of the job on your mental health and your home life, especially if you have a spouse or are taking care of other family members, like children or elderly parents. 

Working in some specialties, like in critical care, can mean high-stress levels and long hours while working as a school nurse can give you summers off. Do you have a flexible schedule to work shifts as they become available? Do you work well in high-stress situations? Are you able to work with chronically ill patients or those who have a variety of serious conditions? Consider your availability and what you believe you can handle on a daily basis.

Look at the Job Market

For many nurses, we let the job market determine where we’ll start working. You’ve likely heard of the nursing shortage, and that’s true in many specialties as a large part of the population starts to grow old and need more medical care. Many older nurses are also retiring and leaving open long-held spots in many specialties.

Look in your area to see what fields are in need, talk with other nurses to see where there are opportunities open and available, and look around with online job searches to see what specialties are most wanted. 

And if there aren’t opportunities in your area within a specialty you’re interested in, consider relocating either permanently or temporarily to an area where that field is looking for additional employees.

Keep Looking

Lastly, if you start working in a specialty you thought you’d love, only to realize it isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere and try something new. Many of us don’t find where we belong until we’ve tried to work in places where we find out what we don’t like. And that’s okay. There’s a nursing job out there that fits every nurse. You just have to find it.

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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