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The Résumé Rx

24 Different Nursing Career Paths (+Alternative Options)

Amanda Guarniere

Whether you are just starting your nursing career or have completed a nursing diploma, ADN, or BSN degree, you will need to familiarize yourself with the different career paths available to you. 

Fortunately, we’ve taken care of the heavy lifting and created a list of top nursing career paths that you can choose from depending if you’re an entry-level nurse, or are already more advanced in your career

Table of Contents

Entry-level nursing career paths 

You may have a license after finishing high school or you may have completed an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree. Regardless of your education, there are multiple paths to start your nursing career.

Here are some of the most common entry-level nursing positions…

Medical Assistant (MA)

  • Annual Salary*: $39,105
  • How to Become: To become an MA, you need a CMA certification or an associate’s degree in medical assisting. Certification takes about one year, while an associate’s degree requires two years of school. You will need the Certified Medical Assistant credential from the AAMA. 
  • Job Description: MAs perform many of the basic tasks in a clinic and hospital. Duties include recording patient history, taking vitals, helping with exams, and scheduling appointments. 

Nursing Assistant (NA)

  • Annual Salary*: $32,600 
  • How to Become: You can become an NA in 4 to 16 weeks, making this one of the fastest options for entry-level nursing careers. You will need to complete a CNA program and 75 hours of training, including 16 hours of supervised practical training. 
  • Job Description: Important responsibilities in this position include helping patients stay comfortable, maintaining patient hygiene, supporting physical movements, and assisting with eating and drinking.

Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

  • Annual Salary*: $36,550
  • How to Become: This career starts by completing the EMT certification followed by passing the National Registry Emergency Medical Technician (NREMT) exam. 
  • Job Description: EMTs provide immediate care for patients at the scene of an accident or before taking sick patients to a hospital. They are often the first responders who assess and manage a patient’s immediate condition. Skills include medical care, communication, and driving an ambulance. 

Paramedic

  • Annual Salary*: $47,684
  • How to Become: Specific requirements vary by each state, but most require an EMT certification followed by an associate’s degree. Paramedics need state or national certification.
  • Job Description: After becoming an EMT, you can move into the role of a paramedic. These professionals lead the response team and determine the best course for immediately treating the patient.

Phlebotomist

  • Annual Salary*: $38,800
  • How to Become: Each state has unique requirements. To work in this profession, you need to complete a phlebotomy-training program and then take a phlebotomy certification, which is offered by many organizations.
  • Job Description: Phlebotomists are experts at drawing blood and keeping blood samples. They prepare patients, perform punctures, finger pricks, and other blood-drawing steps, and observe patients during blood draws. 

Licensed Practical or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)

  • Annual Salary*: $52,100
  • How to Become: To work as an LPN, you need to complete an LPN program, pass the NCLEX-PN exam, and obtain licensing through the state. It takes about 2 years to become a licensed practical nurse. 
  • Job Description: These nurses provide basic patient care under the supervision of RNs. Duties include monitoring vitals, examining wounds, giving medication, and recording patient records.

Registered Nurse (RN) career paths

To become a registered nurse (RN), you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam. But once you are licensed, you can work in a wide variety of settings. 

Here’s a list of common nursing career paths for RNs, including the annual salary and duties associated with these roles.

Critical Care Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $82,600
  • How to Become: The pay is much higher, but the requirements are higher as well. To become a critical care nurse, you need an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which can take four years or more. You’ll need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam as well. 
  • Job Description: Critical care nurses, also known as ICU nurses, provide care to patients in Intensive Care Units (ICUs). They coordinate patient care, assess treatment plans, administer medication, and help determine a patient’s condition. 

Operating Room (OR) Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $84,310
  • How to Become: This specialization requires a bachelor’s or associate’s in nursing and successful completion of the NCLEX-RN. It may not be needed but you can become certified through the Competency & Credentialing Institute (CCI).
  • Job Description: Operating room nurses prepare patients for surgeries and other operations, ensure equipment is working and ready for doctors, and sterilize rooms and tools. They may assist with surgeries or care for patients during the operations. 

Emergency Room (ER) Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $76,363
  • How to Become: First you need to become a registered nurse by completing a degree (ADN or BSN) and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Then you can gain specialized experience and eventually sit for the Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN) exam. 
  • Job Description: These nurses work in emergency rooms. They monitor vital signs, respond to various medical emergencies, work with people who visit the ER, and record care plans. They also document issues and communicate with doctors and families. 

Pediatric Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $77,400
  • How to Become: Pediatric nurses are registered nurses with specialized skills in child health. They must meet all RN requirements (A degree and NCLEX-RN exam) and can boost their career through certifications like the Pediatric Nursing Board Certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. 
  • Job Description: Pediatric nurses work with children from infancy through 18 years of age. They use specialized, kid-focused communication and nursing skills, and work with patients and parents to promote a healthy childhood. 

Oncology Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $82,900
  • How to Become: This career requires a nursing associate’s or bachelor’s degree followed by the NCLEX-RN exam to become a registered nurse. You can then complete certification through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. 
  • Job Description: Working with cancer patients, oncology nurses monitor patient progress, update records, administer cancer treatments, and educate patients on treatment options. They may also provide emotional support to patients and families. 

Informatics Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $80,663
  • How to Become: You need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and an RN license. You’ll then need two years of experience. Although not required, many informatics nurses improve their careers through RN-BC certification. 
  • Job Description: These nurses specialize in information and data within the nursing profession and healthcare system. They develop data, analyze information, and take a high-level approach to healthcare. 

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) career paths

An advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) is essentially an RN with at least a graduate-level degree. This can be either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Many DNPs go into a nursing specialty. 

There are many APRN career paths; here are a few options along with salaries and the common duties for these careers.

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

  • Annual Salary*: $119,710
  • How to Become: This specialized nurse profession requires an RN license, including education and exams, as well as a master’s degree or doctoral degree from an accredited midwifery program. You must then obtain certification from the American Midwifery Certification Board. 
  • Job Description: These advanced professionals focus on pregnancy, childbirth, and the first month (give or take) after birth. They work with babies and women by providing prenatal and postnatal care, assessing the baby’s and mother’s health, and providing medical treatment when needed. 

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

  • Annual Salary*: $115,923 
  • How to Become: Clinical nurse specialists need to become Registered Nurses (RNs), then enroll in a CNS program. You will graduate with a master’s or doctorate degree and then complete certification through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.  
  • Job Description: These professionals provide direct care to patients through a variety of strategies. They teach nurses, diagnose health issues, treat patients, and perform many other essential duties in the nursing profession. 

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

  • Annual Salary*: $208,829 
  • How to Become: The pay for this career is outstanding, but you need as much as eight years of school to work in this profession. You’ll need roughly four years of school to complete your bachelor’s degree, then two to four years to complete a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree. You’ll also need supervised nurse anesthetist experience. 
  • Job Description: These professionals administer anesthesia. They conduct pre-anesthesia assessments and obtain medical consent. They also monitor patients during procedures. 

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

  • Annual Salary*: $121,300 
  • How to Become: To work as a nurse practitioner, you need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, the NCLEX-RN exam, and experience as an RN. You’ll then earn a master’s degree and pass the national practitioner certification board exam. 
  • Job Description: The responsibilities of an NP vary widely, but they will need to order medical tests, diagnose conditions, prescribe treatments, and supervise the work of other clinical staff.

Travel Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $93,497
  • How to Become: To be a travel nurse, you simply need to become a Registered Nurse (RN). However, most need experience; this is rarely a beginner-level position. 
  • Job Description: Travel nurses are registered nurses assigned to different locations on a short-term basis. They fill short and long-term employment gaps and can have different specializations.

Nurse Researcher

  • Annual Salary*: $89,998
  • How to Become: Nurse researchers first need a background or education as a Registered Nurse. They will then complete a master’s, doctorate, or Ph.D. program and become certified through groups like the Association of Clinical Research Professionals or the Clinical Research Nurse Certification Council. 
  • Job Description: This position is all about science and research. You will design, carry out, and execute research projects meant to improve the nursing profession and medical care. 

Camp Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $63,228
  • How to Become: This specialty requires many skills, so a broad yet deep education is required. The first step is to become an RN, then apply for specific camp nurse positions. Experience with children and teens or outdoor training, as well as emergency trauma, will be helpful.
  • Job Description: The main responsibility of a camp nurse is to provide medical care and nursing to patients, usually kids and teens, at a camp or retreat. This is a great option for people who want to practice nursing in a fun, unique environment!

Flight Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $92,650
  • How to Become: You’ll need an RN license to work as a flight nurse, which means at least an associate’s degree and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Working in high-stakes settings like the ICU or ER can improve your chances of landing these positions. 
  • Job Description: It’s the job of these nurses to provide pre-hospital care to patients onboard an aircraft. They often work with patients being emergency airlifted to a hospital.

Forensic Nurse

  • Annual Salary*: $61,526, ($72,363 for “Forensic Nurse Examiner”)
  • How to Become: You’ll need an RN license to work as a forensic nurse, which means an ADN or BSN degree and the NCLEX-RN exam. Many in this specialty have a unique classroom education in forensic science or forensic nursing.
  • Job Description: Forensic nurses work at the intersection between medical care and criminal justice. They treat crime victims while gathering medical evidence for criminal investigations. They often coordinate with law enforcement and testify in court.

Medical Writer

  • Annual Salary*: $68,899
  • How to Become: Medical writers have education in healthcare, including nursing, although a specific education is not required. You simply need healthcare knowledge. Most complete a medical degree, take a writing course, work in the medical field, then take on writing jobs. It helps to join the American Medical Writers Association to advance this career. 
  • Job Description: Medical writers create articles on healthcare and nursing. Most write specifically for science, pharmaceutical, and medical professionals, not the general public. 

Public Health Nurse 

  • Annual Salary*: $68,460
  • How to Become: Public health nurses are Registered Nurses who have a nursing degree and have passed the NCLEX-RN exam. They also have public health certifications from groups like the Council on Education for Public Health. 
  • Job Description: Public health nurses combine nurse training and social science to build better health in a larger community. They assess community healthcare needs, identify risk factors, evaluate health services, and perform many other high-level tasks. 

Medical and Health Services Manager

  • Annual Salary*: $95,455
  • How to Become: You do not need a nursing license to work in this profession, but many medical and health services managers are former or current nurses. Some also come from administrative backgrounds. This profession usually requires at least 5 years of experience in a healthcare setting. 
  • Job Description: These highly-paid experts plan, direct, and organize medical services. They may oversee a team of nurses or an entire hospital, but their main goal is to ensure the smooth delivery of high-quality healthcare. In day-to-day tasks, they are more like a manager or corporate officer than a Registered Nurse. 

*All income data is the annual average from salary.com listed on June 5th, 2023.

 

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