Overview of Nursing Careers

Nurse with elderly male patient
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Before discussing nursing careers in general, one must first know what nursing itself is! The ANA (American Nurses Association) defines nursing as:

“Nursing is the protection, promotion, and optimization of health and abilities, prevention of illness and injury, alleviation of suffering through the diagnosis and treatment of human response, and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, communities, and populations.”

Over 2.9 million strong, nurses make up the largest workforce within the clinical healthcare industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Nursing careers offer a wide variety of roles and a broad scope of responsibility. There are many different types of nurses, and several different ways to obtain nursing careers.

Nurses work closely with physicians as an integral part of the patient health care team. The doctor makes some key decisions about the diagnosis, treatment, and medication, and it is the nurse’s role to administer that care on an ongoing basis to ensure successful recuperation of the patient. Because they may actually spend more face-to-face time with a patient than doctors, nurses must be particularly adept at interacting with patients, putting them at ease, and assisting them in their recovery, and overall well-being.

Education, Training, and Certification for Nursing Careers

According to the BLS, there are three educational paths to becoming a nurse. A diploma from an accredited nursing program or hospital, an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN – a two-year program), or a bachelor’s degree (Bachelor of Science in Nursing, or BSN). Diploma tracks have become less popular over the years, as most candidates opt for associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees, due to their availability and versatility. Finally, before becoming licensed and practicing as a nurse, one must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), or for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).

Where to Work as a Nurse

Just about anywhere doctors work, nurses do too, including but not limited to hospitals, doctor’s offices, clinics, hospice, emergency rooms, intensive care, government agencies, corporations, and more. In fact, nurses also work in other areas where physicians typically do not, including home health, and schools. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of all nurses work in hospitals.

Responsibilities & Work Schedule for Nursing Careers

Nurses are involved with nearly all aspects of a patient’s care, from providing comfort and hygiene to administering injections and IV’s, updating medical records, as well as minor therapeutic and diagnostic procedures and processes. Schedules and duties vary based on the type and level of nursing role. Surgical nurses assist in the OR with equipment and supplies from pre-surgical prep to post-operative care. Nurses can be generalists or obtain Master’s degrees and additional certifications to specialize in a specific area such as pediatric, cardiac, neonatology, oncology, or just about any medical specialty.

Although there are many different types of nursing careers, each with a different set of responsibilities, there is one primary consistency among all nurses of any type, which is the “nursing process”, according to the ANA. The nursing process outlines how a nurse approaches each patient encounter and includes five steps: assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation.

Nursing Career Paths: Registered Nurses and Practical/Vocational Nurses

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN), also known as Licensed Vocation Nurses (LVN) have completed the least amount of education, with only one year of coursework required after high school. Therefore, the long-term career options are not as vast as with other types of nursing with more advanced credentials. LPN/LVN's are not Registered Nurses.
A registered nurse (RN) is a nurse who has completed either a diploma in nursing, a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) or Associate’s Degree in nursing (ADN), and who has also passed the nursing certification exam for Registered Nurses.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) are those who have fulfilled the general RN requirements, and then continue on to study at the Master’s level or beyond. APRN's will typically focus these advanced studies in a particular medical specialty, in which they obtain a deeper level of knowledge and experience, whether it be oncology, anesthesiology, pediatrics, etc.

Advanced Practice Nurses are some of the highest paying nurses, and include Clinical Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA), which are the most advanced of all nurses, Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS) and Nurse Practitioners (NP).

What’s to Like

As with many careers in the healthcare industry, nursing offers very high job stability, as well as a wide variety of options in terms of schedules, locations, and levels of responsibility. Also, many nurses like the rewarding nature of nursing work, which allows them to truly impact the lives of others who are most in need of assistance. Also, nursing can be very lucrative especially if you move into more specialized roles or move up into leadership and management roles. Another major plus for nurses is the compensation.


The average compensation for a nurse is $71,730, with the top 10% of nurses earning over $106,530, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018.

What’s Not to Like

Due to a shortage of nurses, burn-out can be an issue, caused by stressful hours, and being stretched too thin. Also, keep in mind that as a nurse, you may be working during the hours of the week when your friends and family are off work. As a nurse you may be working nights, and weekends, so even if you have a regular 40-hour workweek, you may not see much of your family at times, if they are on different schedules such as a 9 to 5 Monday through Friday situation. Also, depending on what type of nurse you become, you could be dealing with very sick people, and their families who are under duress, so you must have the type of personality and drive to deal with serious issues on a regular basis.

Nursing may be for you if: If you love helping others, you are truly passionate about the human spirit, and really want to make a difference in the lives of others. If you are very hard-working, have an excellent attention to detail, and are able to analyze data in addition to behavioral cues, nursing may be a viable option for you!

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