Types of Nurses, Nursing Careers & Specialties
When it comes to the field of nursing, there are countless options for where you can take your career. The education and nursing career path you choose depends on whether you’re looking for an entry-level position, an executive role, or something in between.
What’s more, there are many different nursing specialties you can choose to pursue. Options include working with specific types of patients, focusing on certain conditions, and working in specific facilities or locations.
So, what kind of nurses are there? Use the guide below to learn more about the types of nurses and nursing specialties available, as well as the potential outlook for this in-demand career.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
Job duties: As the most entry-level position within the nursing field, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) provides basic care that puts a focus on patient comfort. Following the instructions of senior nurses on staff, CNAs perform duties such as taking vital signs, helping patients with daily activities like eating and getting dressed, and cleaning rooms.
Where they work: CNAs typically work in hospitals and long-term care facilities, reporting to an RN or LPN.
Education: CNAs are not required to hold a college degree, but you must complete education through a state-approved diploma or certificate program. These typically take between 4 and 12 weeks and involve both classroom instruction and clinical experience.
Licensing and certification: After successful completion of your program, you must pass a certification exam through the state where you plan to work. Each state has its own requirements for the hours of education needed to sit for the exam, as well as what you need to do renew your certification.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)
Job duties: A licensed practical nurse (LPN) often performs the same duties as a CNA, but with additional responsibilities. Known as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) in Texas and California, the role involves more direct interaction with patients. Additional duties might include dressing wounds, assisting with tests, administering medication, and filling out medical records.
Where they work: Reporting to an RN, LPNs typically work in hospitals and long-term care facilities, though you might also find them in physicians’ offices or working in private homes.
Education: LPNs aren’t required to hold a college degree, but the education they need is more in-depth than for a CNA. The role requires training in a state-approved program, which typically lasts between 12 and 18 months.
Licensing and certification: Before you can begin working as an LPN, you need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Once you begin working as a nurse, you’ll need to periodically apply to renew your license. Your state might also require continuing education or practice hours to maintain your credential.
Registered Nurse (RN)
Job duties: RNs provide the most extensive level of front-line nursing care, with duties that include running diagnostic tests, analyzing test results, determining treatment plans, and providing emotional support to patients and their families. They might consult with other nurses on complex cases, and often manage CNAs and LPNs.
Where they work: You can find RNs in many different settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, schools, research centers, government facilities, and more.
Licensing and certification: Like LPNs, RNs must pass the NCLEX exam and apply for periodic renewal according to their state’s guidelines. Many opt to gain additional certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) in areas like family nursing, gerontology, pediatric nursing, and more. You can read more on that in the Nursing Specialties section below.
For some RNs, their nursing careers take them outside the traditional settings and put them out into the community. Several of these different fields of nursing are outlined below.
Home health nurses
Home health nurses pay visits to patients in their private homes and help them with tasks like bathing and managing medication. Patients are typically elderly or disabled, though sometimes you’ll come across people recovering from accidents or serious disease.
School nurses help optimize the mental and physical wellness of their students. They collaborate with faculty and parents on school- and community-based programs that promote health, safety, and academic success.
Occupational health nursing
Occupational health nurses serve in a workplace setting and promote best practices for health and safety. They might work as clinicians, educators, or consultants.
Public health nursing
Public health nurses strive to maintain the health and wellbeing of their communities. They educate community members in areas such as safety standards and disease prevention. They also identify common health problems in their area and work to create intervention plans.
Parish nurses serve within a religious organization. They provide counseling for health-related issues, organize support groups, and coordinate holistic health programs for members of their faith-based community.
Legal nurse consulting
Legal nurse consultants act as independent counselors on medical issues involved in legal cases. They evaluate these aspects to make sure they’re handled correctly and may sometimes appear as an expert witness in court.
Forensic nurses serve unique roles that may involve legal cases, criminal investigation, or working in a correctional institution. They might investigate cases involving unexpected or suspicious death, sexual assault, or elder neglect or abuse. They might also administer care within a jail or prison, treat offenders with certain disorders, or examine witnesses who have experienced trauma.
Travel nurses move to different medical settings on short-term assignments that typically last between 8 and 26 weeks. Though assignments become available based on need, these nurses have the unique chance to choose where they want to go. Travel nursing can be a great way to combine your love for healthcare with seeing new parts of the country or the world.
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APRN – Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Job duties: As an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), a nurse practitioner (NP) has higher authority than an RN, providing additional care that may include conducting physical exams, prescribing medication, and diagnosing illnesses. Though they have more physician-level responsibilities than an RN, they still might be required to be supervised by a doctor in certain states.
Where they work: You can find NPs working in the same settings as RNs, including hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, and nursing homes.
Education: NPs must hold at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and gain additional training and certification in one of the nursing specialties of their choosing. This specialty tends to focus on a particular patient population.
Licensing and certification: The type of certification you need depends on your specialization. Adult, family, and gerontology specialty exams can be taken through the American Association of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP), while the American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification in a range of NP specialties such as acute care, family medicine, and school nursing.
Salary: According to the BLS, NPs make an average annual wage of $107,480. Along with nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives, job opportunities for NPs are expected to grow by a whopping 31% through 2026.
APRN – Nurse Midwife (CNM)
Job duties: Certified nurse midwives (CNMs) specialize in aspects relating to pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum concerns. They work with mothers to ensure healthy pregnancy, safe labor, and proper care of the child after birth. Increasingly, parents are choosing to use the services of nurse midwives in place of or along with those of an OB-GYN.
Where they work: CNMs work in hospitals, birthing centers, private practices, and as part of larger healthcare organizations.
Education: As an APRN, all certified nurse midwives must hold at least a master’s degree in nursing.
Licensing and certification: Once you’ve achieved your master’s, you must pass the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB) exam. You have 4 tries to pass the exam and you must pass within 24 months of completing your program.
APRN – Nurse Anesthetist
Job duties: Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia to patients prior to a procedure and monitor their progress through recovery. The drug is administered in a variety of ways, so people in this role must be comfortable working with machines, needles, and oral medication.
Where they work: You’ll find nurse anesthetists working in a wide range of healthcare facilities, from surgical centers to emergency rooms to dental offices.
Education: People in these roles must hold at least a master’s degree in nursing with a focus on anesthesia.
Licensing and certification: Once you hold your master’s, you’ll be required to pass the certification exam given by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA).
APRN – Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Job duties: As another APRN, a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) assesses, diagnoses, and manages patient problems within their chosen specialty. The job description is an extensive one as they might also manage other staff and resources, oversee administrative duties, and work with colleagues on new research.
Where they work: Clinical nurse specialists can work in a variety of settings but are most frequently found in hospitals and outpatient facilities.
Education: You must hold at least an MSN with a focus on one of the specialties. These specialties can be defined by patient population, medical setting, type of care, or disease.
Licensing and certification: Like NPs, you must take and pass an exam through either the AANPCP or the ANCC depending on your chosen specialty.
Salary: The BLS doesn’t list specific salary information for a CNS, and given the breadth of specialties available, wages can vary greatly. That said, you can compare the average salaries of similar positions, such as those for nurse practitioners and nurse midwives.
Job duties: A role as a nurse educator combines clinical experience with hands-on teaching. Nurse educators work directly with nursing students and are responsible for designing, implementing, and revising education programs to make sure their students receive the highest quality and most up-to-date information.
Where they work: Nurse educators typically work as faculty in colleges, universities, and hospital-based schools. You may also find them in community health agencies, long-term care facilities, or teaching courses online.
Education: Nurse educators must hold at least an MSN with a focus on at least one of the dozens of specialties available. Many, however, hold a doctoral degree and choose to pursue additional education to prepare them to develop curriculum, counsel students, and evaluate educational programs.
Licensing and certification: With an active RN license and at least a master’s degree, the next step is to pass a certification exam from the National League for Nursing (NLN) to become a Certified Nurse Educator or a Certified Academic Clinical Nurse Educator.
Salary: The BLS lists the average annual salary for a nurse educator as $77,360. However, this number is likely to vary widely depending on the institution where they work. The average wage for instructors working at colleges and universities is $79,640, while those working at surgical hospitals earn an average of $89,390.
Nurse Case Manager
Job duties: Nurse case managers work as registered nurses who coordinate the overall care for patients both in and out of medical facilities. Acting as one of the biggest advocates for their patients, their duties include identifying cost-effective treatment plans, helping their patients and families understand their options, and making sure that patients have everything they need to follow through with their treatment.
Where they work: Nurse case managers work in traditional environments such as hospitals and long-term care facilities, though you may also find them in home health agencies, private practices, and government-sponsored programs.
Education: You must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing, though to be competitive, it’s likely that you’ll need a master’s degree with a specialty in case management.
Licensing and certification: Nurse case managers aren’t required to be certified, though earning this credential might increase your chances for employment and advancement. You can pursue certification from a number of organizations, such as the American Case Management Association (ACMA) and the ANCC, among others.
Salary: The BLS doesn’t list specific salary information for nurse case managers, however, RNs of all kinds earn an annual average of $73,550.
Job duties: Nurse informaticists don’t work directly with patients but instead oversee the tools and processes that nurses use to deliver quality care each day. They analyze system data, implement technology to improve patient care, and create strategies and policies that make healthcare more efficient.
Where they work: Nurse informaticists typically work in hospitals and other large medical facilities, but you can also find them in other areas of the medical field such as pharmacology and public health.
Education: You’ll need to first become an RN by completing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program, though earning your master’s can help you advance in the field. To straddle the line between healthcare and technology, classes to take may include systems analysis, healthcare database systems, and nurse leadership.
Licensing and certification: Like all other RNs, you must pass the NCLEX exam. You can then pursue the Informatics Nursing Certification from the ANCC or 1 of 2 certifications—depending on your level of experience—from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).
Salary: The BLS also does not list specific salary information for nurse informaticists. However, in a 2018 survey conducted by the HIMSS, the average salary for all digital health professionals was listed as $109,610 per year.
Nurse Leaders & Administrators
Job duties: Nurse leaders and administrators oversee the planning and facilitating of healthcare through the management of hiring, scheduling, training, and developing staff. They must possess strong leadership abilities such as critical thinking, strategic planning, and excellent communication. These roles can range from front-line managers all the way up to executive-level positions.
Where they work: Nurse administrators can work in a variety of settings including clinics, hospitals, and long-term care facilities.
Education: You will need at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing, though master’s degrees are becoming a growing requirement. You can find master’s programs specifically in nursing administration, or you may want to pursue a dual MSN and master’s degree in health or business administration.
Licensing and certification: Those who want to pursue a role as a clinical nurse leader must become certified by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). You can also find options like the Nurse Executive Certification through the ANCC or the Certified Nurse Manager and Leader credential through the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE).
Salary: The salary for nurse leaders and administrators varies widely depending on the exact role. According to the BLS, the average annual wage for medical and health services managers is $111,680, though this number may be closer to $68,000 for a charge nurse and $125,000 for a chief nursing officer.
Job Outlook for Nurses
With an aging baby boomer population, the United States will see both an increased need for healthcare and for new nurses to fill the roles of those who are retiring. Job opportunities for RNs are expected to grow by 15% through 2026, a number that’s more than twice as much as the national average for all occupations.
Of course, the job outlook and potential salary varies based on the exact kind of nursing position you pursue. You can learn more about these individual roles by visiting the pages linked throughout this article.
Becoming a Nurse
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