Nursing Careers : Tapping Into Endless Opportunities
To become a nurse, you must have a genuine interest in the wellness of others, and it is a career that requires giving time and attention to people, according to Nyuma Harrison, nursing careers services specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore.
“It’s a people business. Sometimes, the customer isn’t always right, but it’s about how you meet their needs, how you take the time to educate him or her and how you make them feel,” she says.
Nursing jobs, no matter what level, involve being hands-on healthcare professionals who have an opportunity to help someone feel better. Nurses can promote good health habits, prevent disease, and teach better living for longer lives. They can lend an understanding ear and a shoulder to cry on when a devastating illness threatens the strength of a family. Nurses also are advocates of health in their own communities.
The field of nursing is booming, and there will be nursing jobs available for the foreseeable future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the demand for registered nurses in the United States will climb by 19 percent by 2022, 25 percent for licensed practical nurses, and 31 percent for nurse practitioners. The need for more nurses results from the millions of aging Baby Boomers and the surge of more people in the health care system due to the Affordable Care Act.
Many educational and career paths to choose
Depending on your nursing career goals, finances, and time commitments, you can choose a nursing degree that's the right fit for you. Here’s a look at the different levels of nursing skills and what it takes to get there.
Licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN)
This qualification takes the shortest amount of time to complete, sometimes as little as one year, and usually at a community college or technical school, according to the BLS. After completing a state-approved educational program, students must pass the National Council Licensure Examination – Practical Nurse (NCLEX-PN). Nearly 81 percent of first time, U.S.-educated students taking the test pass, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).
Many LPNs are expected to retire over the next decade, creating a big jump in job openings. These jobs most likely will be in rural and medically underserved areas. However, there has been a push for three decades to move all nurses to the baccalaureate level.
“A few hospitals took the lead on that. Then again, the need for more nurses has always been there,” Harrison says. “Most hospitals, even Johns Hopkins, still hire LPNs and associate degree nurses. But when they get hired, the administration tells them that in a year or two they will need to get an advanced degree.”
LPNs ranked #19 in the Best Health Care Jobs for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report, and #41 for The 100 Best Jobs.
Registered Nurse (RN)
There are two different routes to becoming an RN. Programs options include a three-year, hospital-based nursing school program (where you receive a diploma), or two- or four-year college program. Graduates from two-year programs earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN). Those completing a four-year college programs earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Successful completion of any of the programs means you must take the licensing exam, called the NCLEX-RN. After passing, you apply for a license to practice in your particular state. About 85 percent of all U.S.-educated RNs pass the exam the first time, according to the NCSBN.
Registered nurses ranked #6 in the Best Health Care Jobs for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report , and #9 overall for The 100 Best Jobs.
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
This profession is also referred to as advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Nurse practitioners have a lot more autonomy than regular registered nurses. To pursue this nursing career, someone must already be a registered nurse, preferably with a bachelor’s degree. But according to the BLS, some schools offer bridge programs for RNs with an associate degree or nursing diploma. Graduate level programs are also offered for those who have a related health science field degree. Many APRNs choose to earn their doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or PhD.
“Nurse practitioners can lead clinics. They can see patients,” Harrison says. “They...can have assessment and advanced practice skills along with the nursing compassion and understanding. They fill the space between a nurse and a doctor.”
She says that Johns Hopkins frequently receives job inquiries from doctors, and nine out of 10 times they are looking for nurse practitioners to staff their offices.
Nurse practitioners ranked #2 in the Best Health Care Jobs for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report , and also ranked #2 overall for The 100 Best Jobs.
Getting to the Next-level Opportunity
Once someone has been in the nursing field for a while, at any level, they may want to acquire new skills and responsibilities and opportunities for increased pay. There are always “next level” opportunities to aspire to in the nursing profession.
For instance, LPNs who want to become RNs can find a bridge program at their local college or online to help them achieve that goal. Program lengths vary, and some have minimum requirements for how long someone should have been a practicing LPN before entering the program.
Registered nurses with an associate degree wanting to complete a bachelor’s degree can find a bridge program to help them get there, Harrison points out. Those who have family and work commitments, can find flexible options to help them succeed.
“There is a growing national movement to require all nurses to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree ,” Harrison says.
The demand for more highly skilled and educated nurses is pushing nursing schools to offer more accelerated bachelor's and master's degree programs . And for those interested in going from RN to Master of Nursing or Doctorate of Nursing degrees, there are plenty of those to choose from now, too.
“Nursing is the only profession where you are not required to have an advanced degree,” Harrison says. “Pharmacists all have doctorate degrees. Doctors have doctorate degrees. Physical therapists have doctorate degrees. More and more, as our profession grows, the goal is to have more nurses with more advanced degrees.”
But she says the good news is that there are plenty of jobs for everyone at all levels of education in nursing.
“We need nurses to take care of people,” she says. “It’s that plain and simple.”
Nursing Specialties in Demand
Once you are a professional nurse, you might choose to focus on a particular specialty. There are numerous specialty options -- each with its own education/certification requirements and related professional network or organization.
You aren’t restricted to working in a hospital or doctor’s office. You can work in places such as camps, schools, emergency rooms, military bases, colleges, infection control departments, corporations, or prisons. It depemds your preferences and skills.
Some of the top specialties in demand, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, include:
Perianesthesia (recovery room) nurse: The demand for these nurses is expected to jump up to 48 percent as doctors open their own outpatient surgical clinics.
Diabetes nurse: The demand likely will jump 39 percent since the disease is one of the fastest growing.
Medical surgical nurse: The growth outlook is expected to increase 30 percent through 2020.
Critical care nurse: Job demand will increase 26 percent in the next five years.
“There are 101 things you can do in nursing. You just have to sift through all the options that fit you,” Harrison says. “For instance, I fit well into the emergency room because I’m very comfortable with change, and can really dig deep in some project and then let it go.”
Technology advancements through the years have helped nurses do their jobs smarter, faster, and more efficiently.
“But you can never lose that human interaction that nurses do so well. You don’t nurse the monitor or the computer. You nurse the patient,” she says.
Before plunging into becoming a nurse, remember that it is a very demanding job. You can be on your feet for many hours a day caring for patients, and taking orders from others. But it can be a very satisfying career -- assessing patients, collaborating with doctors and other medical staff, supporting families, and helping to educate those you care for about their health.
It’s not a job that everyone could do or wants to do. If you have the compassion, toughness, and a teamwork attitude, it might just be the one for you.
Lee Nelson of the Chicago area writes for national and regional magazines, websites, and business journals. Her work has recently appeared in Realtor.org, Nurse.org, Yahoo! Homes, ChicagoStyle Weddings, and a bi-weekly blog in Unigo.com.
Nurse.org's Popular Guides and Resources
Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses
Read about the top student loan forgiveness programs for nurses and find out if you qualify.
15 Highest Paying Nursing Jobs in 2021
You know all nursing jobs aren’t created (or paid!) equally, but do you know which nurses are making the most money in 2020?
Earn CEUs Online!
Need to renew your license soon? Check out our favorite free online CEU courses.
2021’s Best Nursing Schools
We’ve looked at programs nationwide and determined these are our top nursing schools.