20 Best Nursing Career Specialties
Healthcare careers continue to offer unprecedented growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15% increase in healthcare employment, which translates to 2.4 million positions through 2029 — more than any other occupational category. The demand for healthcare services has ushered in an expansion of specialized nursing careers for registered nurses (RNs) and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).
These nursing careers provide fulfilling work experiences and competitive salaries. The emergence of multiple specializations has enabled nurses to focus on a particular area of practice or patient population by gaining work experience and meeting certain educational and certification requirements. Nurses who pursue these in-demand specialized certifications benefit from employment possibilities with more responsibility and autonomy, higher levels of compensation, and opportunities for career advancement.
1. Neonatal Nurse
Neonatal nurses work in intensive care units that care for infants at risk for complications and in need of specialized care. These include premature newborns and those born with cardiac or other birth defects, genetic conditions, or drug dependency. Neonatal nurses typically care for these infants until they leave the hospital but in some cases will provide care beyond the newborn phase.
How to Become One: The basic requirements for a neonursing career include a valid RN license and at least an associate degree, although the more competitive positions require a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). All neonatal nurses must obtain the Neonatal Resuscitation Program certification. Most pursue other credentials such as the Low Risk Neonatal Nursing and Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing certifications.
2. Nurse Midwife
Advanced practice registered nurses who specialize in pregnancy, prenatal care, childbirth, and postpartum recovery can earn certification as nurse midwives. Nurse midwives care for patients from labor through delivery and provide postpartum assistance. While primarily focused on pregnancy care, these nurses may also offer general services for women, including gynecological reproductive and preventive healthcare.
How to Become One: Nurse midwives can pursue several pathways to licensing. Prospective nurse midwives who already have their bachelor of science in nursing and an RN license may enroll in a master of science program or a doctor of nursing degree. Some MSN programs admit RNs without a bachelor’s degree. Direct-entry MSN programs admit students with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees. After completing their graduate training, nurses must earn the Certified Nurse Midwife credential administered by the American Midwifery Certification Board.
3. Clinical Nurse
This type of APRN needs a master’s or doctor of nursing degree in a specialized area of nursing practice. Clinical nurses can choose focus areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, critical or emergency care, specific disease care (such as diabetes or cardiovascular illness), rehabilitation, mental health, or pain management and wound care.
How to Become One: Most clinical nurses enter an MSN program after obtaining their RN license and some work experience. Like other APRNs, clinical nurses may select from several educational paths depending on their previous degree and training. While the field does not require specialized certification to practice, many clinical nurses pursue specialized credentials to advance in their careers and earn higher salaries. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers several certifications in gerontology, cardiovascular disease, oncology and other practice areas.
4. Infection Control/Prevention Nurse
Infection control and prevention nurses are typically registered nurses who can identify, surveil, and manage infections, diseases, and viruses. Infection control and prevention nurses have filled a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic, as healthcare systems need specialized workers to focus on patient case reporting and widespread infection prevention. They work at hospitals, clinics, and community health centers.
How to Become One: To pursue this specialty, candidates need to obtain the Certification in Infection Prevention and Control (CIC) from the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology. The CIC credential first requires: an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, at least two years of RN experience, and sufficient experience — about two years — working with infectious diseases.
5. School Nurse
School nurses work in elementary, middle, and high schools in a crucial but underserved role. Among many other duties, they see students who feel ill and provide first aid for students who are injured. School nurses also provide acute care, collect health data, administer health screenings, and help students with chronic diseases.
How to Become One: School nurses need RN licensure before they can work in schools. Although they can earn this qualification with an associate degree, the National Association of School Nurses recommends they obtain a BSN instead. Although school nurses don’t necessarily need specialty certification, they can earn credentials from the National Board for Certification of School Nurses to enhance their qualifications.
6. Dialysis Nurse
Dialysis refers to the medical process of cleaning the blood of patients who suffer from kidney-related diseases. These disorders inhibit their kidneys from filtering out unwanted waste and fluids from their blood. Dialysis nurses operate the equipment that cleans a patient’s blood, assess the vital signs of patients before and after the dialysis procedure, and provide education about medications and aftercare.
How to Become One: Dialysis nurses must hold a nursing diploma, associate, or bachelor’s degree in nursing and an RN license. Dialysis nurses who earn an MSN degree may move into better-paid APRN positions. Obtaining certifications in nephrology, which is the field of kidney function, disease, and treatment, may also advance career opportunities. RNs may acquire either the Certified Nephrology Nurse or the Certified Dialysis Nurse credential offered by the Nephrology Nursing Certification Committee.
7. Family Nurse Practitioner
Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) work with patients from childhood to adulthood in clinical and family practice settings. Over 65% of nurse practitioners hold FNP certification, making it the most popular of all APRN categories. FNPs examine, diagnose, and treat patients throughout the lifespan from childhood to old age, with a particular focus on preventive care.
How to Become One: An MSN serves as the minimum educational requirement for FNPs. While most nurse practitioner programs, including those offered online, require a BSN, some schools admit students without a bachelor’s degree. Prospective FNPs may enter bridge programs with associate degrees in nursing or direct-entry programs designed for holders of non-nursing bachelor’s degrees. After finishing their graduate training, FNPs pursue family practice certifications from various nurse practitioner certification boards.
8. Public Health Nurse
Public health nurses work with particular populations or communities, educating people on health and safety issues and assisting them with access to healthcare. Rather than providing individual patient care, they focus on prevention. They identify health concerns and prioritize safety issues within communities, prepare and implement safety plans, and serve as healthcare advocates.
How to Become One: Public health nurses need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam in order to acquire their RN license and acquire work experience in community or public health nursing. The only certification available to public health nurses, the Certified Public Health credential, requires a bachelor’s degree, at least five years of public health experience, and successful completion of an exam administered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners.
9. Informatics Nurse
Many organizations, including hospitals, nursing homes, insurance agencies, and public health agencies, use the services of informatics nurses to manage healthcare data and communications. These nursing specialists, trained in computer science, information technology, and nursing, manage data integration among all healthcare providers to help these organizations increase efficiency and improve patient care.
How to Become One: These specialists typically enter the field after earning a BSN degree and receiving their RN license. After completing a BSN, RNs interested in nursing informatics sometimes earn a general MSN degree or an MSN in health informatics. Some RNs acquire graduate degrees in information science or computer science. While not required by all employers, obtaining specialized certification in nurse informatics through the American Nurses Credentialing Center can enhance career prospects.
10. Nurse Anesthetist
These APRNs administer anesthesia and pain medication, observe vital signs, make adjustments, and monitor patients during surgical procedures and in recovery. Nurse anesthetists work with patients of all ages in scheduled surgical operations or emergency procedures. Prior to surgery, they record patient histories and provide information about the types of anesthesia used in the procedure.
How to Become One: This field requires a BSN degree, an RN license, and at least an MSN degree with a specialization in nurse anesthesiology. Nurse anesthetists must hold specialized certification to practice. Requirements for the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist credential include over 3,000 hours of clinical experience and a passing score on the national examination administered through the National Boards of Certification and Recertification of Nurse Anesthetists. They must also apply for state licensure as ARPNs with prescriptive authority.
11. Nurse Educator
Nurse educators are registered nurses who have completed advanced graduate training preparing them to teach nursing students in academic institutions or hospital nurse training settings. In addition to teaching nurses enrolled in diploma or degree programs, they also offer continuing education and refresher courses for nursing professionals. Other duties include advising students, creating and evaluating nursing curriculum, conducting research, and writing grants.
How to Become One: Like all nursing career paths, becoming a nurse educator involves completing several educational requirements, beginning with a passing score on the NCLEX-RN. Then, candidates must complete an MSN and gain additional clinical experience in an APRN practice area. Nursing schools increasingly prefer to hire nurse educators who have earned either a doctor of nursing practice degree or a Ph.D. in nursing. These specialized nurses must also pass the National League of Nursing exam to receive the required Certified Nurse Educator certification.
12. Nurse Advocate
Nurse advocates provide assessment, education, and representation for patients, coordinating between patients and their doctors. They review patient concerns and consult with doctors to ensure quality and cost-effective healthcare. Their roles consist of educating patients about their conditions, treatments, and available healthcare procedures and representing patients by communicating their preferences and mediating conflicts with their doctors.
How to Become One: Nurse advocates begin their training by earning a BSN degree and successfully passing the NCLEX-RN exam to receive RN licensure. While working as RNs, prospective nurse advocates should take advantage of continuing education courses and work experiences that expose them to advocacy methods. Although nursing advocacy certifications do not currently exist, organizations such as the Patient Advocate Certification Board offer credentials for healthcare professionals working in this area.
13. Nurse Researcher
These highly specialized nursing professionals conduct scientific studies, analyze data, and report their findings about illnesses and improving healthcare. They work in a variety of settings including hospitals and research laboratories. While nurse researchers do not provide direct nursing care to patients, they perform important healthcare functions, focusing on topics that impact the field of nursing and save peoples’ lives.
How to Become One: Most nurse researchers have completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree and hold a valid RN license. A growing number of nurse researcher positions require doctoral level training. While nurse researchers do not need specialized certifications, they can boost their career potential by earning the Certified Clinical Research Professional certification through the Society for Clinical Research Associates or pursuing other research credentials administered through the Association of Clinical Research Professionals.
14. Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse
These APRN nurses assess, diagnose, and treat patients with mental disorders. Psychiatric mental health nurses offer services to people who have mood disorders, phobias, depression, or dementia, as well as those struggling with substance abuse issues or other addictions. In addition to administering medication and therapy, their duties include crisis intervention, mental health assessment and evaluation, and patient assistance.
How to Become One: These nurses must have at least an MSN and a valid RN license to qualify for APRN licensure. Aspiring nurse practitioners (NPs) can follow several pathways to a graduate degree, including RN-to-MSN programs for RNs with associate degrees and direct entry MSN programs for holders of non-nursing bachelor’s degrees. Graduates of an NP program with a psychiatric mental health population focus seeking state licensure must obtain the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner certification available through the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
15. Trauma Nurse
While working in emergency rooms, critical care units, or as part of emergency medical response teams, trauma nurses help take care of patients in critical, unstable, and life-threatening conditions. These RNs have received specialized training to work with physicians to stabilize and treat traumatized patients. They administer wound care, emergency medications, and IV fluids or blood transfusions; operate life-saving equipment such as defibrillators, and monitor vital signs.
How to Become One: Trauma nurses usually begin their careers by acquiring an associate or BSN degree, and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Nursing students should take advantage of field experiences or internship opportunities in trauma-related areas. After two years of work experience as an RN, these nurses need to pursue Certified Emergency Nurse credentials or other related trauma certifications through the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing.
16. Travel Nurse
These RNs travel from one healthcare facility to another across the country, and sometimes internationally, to fill staffing needs for varying periods of time. Travel nurses may specialize in a particular practice area or perform the gamut of general RN duties such as recording patient histories, assessing symptoms, making diagnosis, and administering treatment and medicine. Whether self-employed or placed through an agency, travel nurses take contracts anywhere from one month to two years.
How to Become One: The minimum educational requirement for travel nurses consist of an associate or BSN degree and a current RN license. Most employers and agencies that hire travel nurses look for approximately two years of nursing experience. While national certification does not currently exist for travel nurses, certain RN specialties can improve employment prospects. The most commonly sought-after certifications include Certified Pediatric, Certified Critical Care, and Certified Emergency Nurse credentials.
17. Pediatric Nurse
This popular nursing specialty focuses on the healthcare needs of children from birth through adolescence. Depending on their level of training, pediatric nurses provide both primary and preventive healthcare, conduct physical exams, manage chronic and acute illnesses, perform diagnostic tests, and provide treatment plans. help children in a variety of settings. They also provide healthcare education to patients and families.
How to Become One: Pediatric nurses can begin their careers with an RN license and certification. While most nurses enter the field with an associate or BSN degree, APRNs with a pediatric focus who have their MSN or doctor of nursing degree will find the highest demand for their services. The American Nurses Credential Center administers the pediatric nursing certification program. RNs may qualify for this national exam after completing two years of work experience with a minimum of 2,000 hours in pediatric nursing.
18. Geriatric Nurse
As the baby boomer population ages, the demand for geriatric nurses has expanded. These RNs must complete broadly focused training to understand and treat the needs of the elderly population. They work closely with primary care physicians, social workers, families, and other caretakers to manage the healthcare issues of their patients and also help to educate them about their conditions and treatment options.
How to Become One: An RN without an advanced graduate degree can become a geriatric nurse, although APRNs with advanced training in a geriatric specialty at the master’s or doctoral level will experience better employment prospects. RNs who hold APRN licenses may obtain the APRN Gerontological Specialist – Certified (GS-C) through the Gerontology Nursing Certification Commission.
19. Acute Care Nurse
Acute care nurses provide treatment to patients in need of immediate assistance for severe or life-threatening issues, such as heart attacks or sudden complications from chronic illnesses like diabetes. This highly versatile nursing specialization offers 15 certifications in fields ranging from neonatal and pediatric acute care to adult cardiac and gerontology acute care.
How to Become One: A valid RN license and an MSN or doctoral degree that leads to licensure as an acute care nurse practitioner opens up the best paying career opportunities. Although certification requirements vary by state, acute care NPs must obtain specialty certifications based on their practice area. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers certifications with varying clinical practice, licensure, and degree requirements for both RNs and APRNs.
20. Oncology Nurse
Oncology nurses care for patients receiving treatment for various stages of cancer. They typically specialize in subfields such as pediatric cancer, geriatric cancer, breast cancer, or hematology. These nurses administer chemotherapy, identify symptoms, and monitor progress. Oncology nurses also play a crucial role in creating a comfortable and supportive environment for cancer patients.
How to Become One: Educational requirements include an RN license and an associate or BSN degree. A graduate degree from an NP program that offers an oncology specialization will prepare nurses for advanced clinical roles and better paying career opportunities. Although not all states require these nurses to obtain oncology certification, this credential and graduate training can provide a competitive edge. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation offers the Oncological Certified Nurse credential and several specialized certifications.
Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC
Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC, is the founder of Nurse Evolution, a resource center established to educate all nurses on how to expertly use technology, data, and innovation strategies to advance the profession. Carroll graduated from Walden University with a master of science in nursing with a nursing informatics focus, and holds board certification in informatics nursing from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She is currently a senior editor at the Online Journal of Nursing Informatics (OJNI), for which she regularly writes about big data-enabled emerging technologies.
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