Different Types and Roles of Nurses

18 Nursing Careers and What the Jobs Entail

Female nurse with male patient

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There are many different types of nurses and many ways to categorize the various nursing roles. If you are thinking of becoming a nurse, it may be helpful to understand the options available to you once you complete your education and certification process.

Categorizing Nursing Roles 

The nursing career you choose will ultimately result from a combination of education and experience you obtain early in your career. Factors include:

  • Degrees and certifications: One way to categorize nursing roles is by the level of education required for the position, including the degree and type of certification needed.
  • Population type: Some nurses specialize in a particular segment of the population. For example, pediatric nurses specialize in children's health, while others may choose to focus on women's health or geriatrics (eldercare).
  • Medical specialty: Nurses may also choose to specialize in a particular field of practice, such as surgery, gastroenterology, OB/GYN (obstetrics and gynecology), or emergency medicine, among others.
  • Location or department: Location may also play a role in your career choice. For example, you may choose to be a school nurse, flight nurse, hospice nurse, or hospital-based nurse. Additionally, you decide to work in a specific department, such as the emergency room (ER), intensive care unit (ICU), operating room (OR) or neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

While education and certifications ultimately direct the career path you take, it is equally important to know what type of role appeals to you personally before investing the time and money to obtain a nursing degree.

Types of Nurses

These are some of the most common types of nurses, drawing from a mix of the different methods of categorizing their roles. They are not mutually exclusive. For example, registered nurses (RNs) can be found in many different setting and roles.

Registered Nurse

Registered nurses (RNs) are nurses with an associate's or bachelor’s degree in nursing. They assist physicians in hospitals and a variety of medical settings as well as provide direct care to patients with illnesses, injuries, or chronic medical conditions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 2,995,200 RNs licensed in the United States in 2018 who made a median salary of $71,730 per year.

Licensed Practical Nurse

Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) perform a variety of tasks under the supervision of an RN. They are qualified to administer medications, check vital signs, and give injections. LPNs are licensed and must complete a state-approved educational program, which takes around one to two years to complete.

According to the 2018 Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department of Labor, LPNs earned a median salary of $46,240.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice nurse (APN) proficient in diagnosing and treating illness within a specific realm of expertise. A clinical nurse specialist may focus on patients and their families, nurse management, or administration.

To become a CNS, you must complete a master's program in nursing or doctoral degree program if you want to focus on research.

Nurse Practitioner

While some nurse practitioners (NPs) work under the supervision of a physician, more and more are gaining autonomy and taking on the role of a physician. Nurse practitioners can diagnose diseases, prescribe medications, and initiate treatment plans. Educational requirements also include a master’s or doctoral degree. 

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, NPs help lower the cost of healthcare, as people who use them as their primary care provider have fewer emergency room visits and shorter hospital stays.

Nurse Case Manager

Nurse case managers coordinate long-term care for patients in hopes of keeping them healthy and out of the hospital. They can choose to specialize in treating people with diseases like cancer or working with a specific age group, such as the elderly. This is a career well suited for people who enjoy coordinating and scheduling and who get satisfaction from ongoing, one-on-one relationships with patients.

Intensive Care Unit Registered Nurse

These RNs work in the intensive care unit (ICU) of hospitals, providing complex care to those with very serious illnesses or injuries. ICU nurses may work in specialty hospitals or choose to work with specific types of patients (such as children in the pediatric ICU).

Due to the difficulty of the position, most hospitals require special training, certification, and continuing education before allowing an RN to allowed to work in an ICU.

Travel Registered Nurse

A travel nurse works on an on-call basis locally, nationally, and internationally, often on a daily basis but also on longer-term contracts. Travel nurses perform many of the same duties as standard RNs but, instead of hospitals or doctors, work for one or more agencies that supplement staff to facilities in need. This could be a great position for someone who enjoys travel and desires flexibility in their schedule.

Home Care Registered Nurse

A home care RN works with patients in their home. Often times, these patients will be in geriatric care or have developmental or mobility issues. This is an ideal position for someone wanting to work with patients outside of a traditional hospital setting and who enjoys working on a one-on-one basis with people in need.

Operating Room Nurse

Operating room nurses, also referred to as perioperative nurses, care for patients before, during, and after surgery. They work as part of a surgical team and act as a liaison between the surgeon and the patient’s family.

Perioperative nurses also prepare patients and their families for postoperative care. This is a good position for someone who is empathetic to the stresses surgery can place on individuals and families.

A 2016 study in the Journal of Perianesthesia Nursing found that patients who interacted with a perioperative nurse before surgery experienced less stress about anesthesia, complications, or the operating room environment than those who didn't.

Staff Nurse

Staff nurses work in a variety of settings including rehab, critical care, psychiatric, and outpatient facilities. They provide direct patient care, administer medications, perform intravenous (IV) therapy, and more.

Staff nurses often have the opportunity to advance and supervise other nursing staff. Those with strong leadership skills may want to consider this career option.

Emergency Room Registered Nurse

An emergency room RN treats patients experiencing acute trauma or injury. They will encounter a variety of urgent situations and are responsible for stabilizing patients as part of the emergency room team. This position could be rewarding for someone who can handle high-stress scenarios and has the skills to provide calm, clarity, and order in times of crisis.

Labor and Delivery Registered Nurse

Labor and delivery RNs assist with all phase of labor, delivery, and post-delivery care. A labor and delivery RN may aid in inducing labor, administering epidurals, timing contractions, and educating the mother about breastfeeding and postnatal care.

A nurse wanting to focus on labor and delivery must be prepared to work at all hours and have the ability to reduce the stress expectant mothers can feel.

Nurse Supervisor

Nurse supervisors, also known as nurse managers, oversee the team of nurses caring for patients. As a nurse manager, you will wear many hats and handle a lot of administrative duties. Nurse supervisors are often responsible for the recruitment and retention of nurses and may directly collaborate with doctors on patient care and protocols.

This is a great option for those wanting to step away from direct patient care after gaining experience in practical nursing.

Oncology Registered Nurse

Oncology nurses provide care for cancer patients and those at risk of the disease. They monitor the patient's condition during treatment, administer chemotherapy and palliative care, and respond when side effects occur. This is a good fit for someone with a positive attitude who can help people cope with the stresses that cancer invariably brings.

Oncology nurses must be fully appraised of treatment protocols, including ever-advancing targeted therapies and immunotherapies as well as investigational drug trials their patients are eligible to enroll in.

Critical Care Registered Nurse

Critical care nurses ensure their critically ill patients get optimal care for their illnesses and injuries. They have in-depth knowledge of the human body and the latest technologies to stabilize a patient following a severe injury, emergency surgery, or life-threatening diseases

Critical care nurses are most often employed by hospitals but may also work in outpatient facilities, nursing homes, or military units.

Neonatal Intensive Care Registered Nurse

Neonatal intensive care RNs care for premature and critically ill newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a hospital. They care for infants needing immediate medical attention, connecting them to life-giving technology and comforting them when they are in distress.

A high degree of clinical competence is needed to work in a NICU. Critical thinking, strong interpersonal relationships, and active engagement with developing research are considered key to a successful NICU nursing career.

Dialysis Registered Nurse

Dialysis RNs, commonly referred to as nephrology nurses, administer dialysis treatments to people with kidney failure. They can work in dialysis clinics, transplant units, and even patient's homes, performing both hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis and monitoring for side effects and abnormal kidney function.

Hospice Nurse

Hospice nurses provide medical care and support to people at the end of their life. The primary role is to ensure the patient is as comfortable as possible while attending to the emotional needs of the family and loved ones.

Hospice nurses are often responsible for coordinating care between the different team members, including doctors, therapists, and dietitians. In addition to having extensive knowledge about terminal diseases, a hospice nurse must possess unflagging empathy for those dealing with end-of-life situations.

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Article Sources

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  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook: License Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor; 2018.

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