10 Common Career Changes for Nurses

Morganne Skinner, RN
Updated May 10, 2024
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    Explore 10 common career changes for nurses and other job opportunities beyond traditional nursing.
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    Are you a trained nurse interested in a new career path? Nurses can use their existing medical knowledge, communication and interpersonal skills, and experience working with patients in a new career.

    Discover some of the most common career changes for nurses.

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    The 10 Most Common Career Changes for Nurses

    Nurses may be drawn to different careers based on their clinical experiences, life transitions, and financial and professional goals. However, as you may have guessed, most career changes are still within healthcare.

    According to data from the American Community Survey, these were the most common career changes for nurses and nurse practitioners from 2021-2023:

    • Therapist
    • Respiratory, Occupation, and Physical Therapist
    • Speech Language Pathologist
    • Social Worker
    • Medical and Health Services Manager
    • Radiation Therapist
    • Postsecondary Teachers and Professors
    • Pharmacy Technician

    Some career paths require a specialized master’s or doctoral degree, training program, or licensure. Be sure to check with your state for your exact requirements.

    1. Therapist

    A therapist is a trained mental health professional who uses therapeutic techniques and interventions to treat mental health concerns, emotional challenges, and behavioral challenges. Typical duties include teaching coping skills, establishing trusting therapeutic relationships, discussing personal problems, and helping clients recognize cognitive distortions.

    Therapists often work in private offices, hospitals, schools, universities, clinics, and government offices. A career in this field offers fulfillment, flexibility, and the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Some challenges include emotional exhaustion, heavy workloads, and challenging cases.

    This career may attract nurses interested in focusing more on emotional and mental well-being and providing holistic care.

    • Education Requirement: A master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, social work, or counseling. Supervised clinical hours and licensure exams may also be required.
    • Median Annual Salary:$90,400
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 15%

    2. Physical Therapist

    Physical therapists are licensed healthcare professionals who treat patients by supporting and restoring function of the musculoskeletal system. A typical day involves diagnosing patients, creating treatment plans, and educating patients about exercises and recovery.

    Physical therapists often work in hospitals, clinics, private offices, patients’ homes, and long-term care facilities. This career offers strong job security and pay. However, becoming a physical therapist requires a substantial investment in time and tuition to complete the doctoral program.

    Nurses may find physical therapy appealing because it allows them to specialize in one body system and positively impact patients’ lives with fewer responsibilities.

    • Education Requirement: A doctoral degree in physical therapy, including clinical rotations and an examination to become licensed.
    • Median Annual Salary:$99,710
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 15%

    3. Occupational Therapist

    Occupational therapists are licensed healthcare professionals who help patients improve their ability to complete everyday activities, like getting dressed. Typical job duties include assessing patients’ functional capabilities, creating treatment plans, and instructing patients about adaptive tools promoting independence.

    Common workplaces include hospitals, outpatient centers, assisted living facilities, rehabilitation centers, and private practice. This career offers the opportunity to enhance patient independence, but it can also be emotionally exhausting with heavy caseloads and insurance limitations.

    Nurses who want to promote patient independence, specialize in rehabilitation, enjoy greater autonomy, and work in less acute settings may be drawn to this career.

    • Education Requirement: A master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy, including clinical practice hours and licensure examination.
    • Median Annual Salary:$96,370
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 12%

    4. Speech Language Pathologist

    Speech-language pathologists help people overcome or learn to function with speech, language, voice, and fluency conditions. Their responsibilities include assessing and diagnosing a person’s language issues, creating a plan that details treatment methods and goals, and educating patients and their families on how to cope with communication disorders.

    Most speech-language pathologists work in education, while others are employed by healthcare offices that provide physical, occupational, and speech therapy, hospitals, and nursing and residential care facilities.

    All states require speech-language pathologists to be licensed. Speech-language pathologists may also need to obtain a certificate of clinical competence in speech-language pathology offered by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

    5. Respiratory Therapist

    A respiratory therapist is a licensed healthcare professional specializing in the care and treatment of patients’ respiratory systems. Typical duties include administering breathing treatments, managing ventilators, assisting with intubation, and providing emergency care.

    They often work in hospitals, specialty clinics, nursing homes, home health agencies, and rehabilitation centers. This career can be very fulfilling due to making a meaningful impact on patient’s lives and healthcare outcomes, while it can also include irregular work hours and exposure to infectious diseases.

    The respiratory therapist career is an excellent choice for nurses who enjoy caring for critically ill patients and managing a particular body system.

    • Education Requirement: Complete an accredited respiratory therapy program, including clinical rotations, and pass the licensure exam.
    • Median Annual Salary:$77,960
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 13%

    6. Social Worker

    A social worker works with clients, families, and communities to enhance their quality of life. They often advocate for client’s rights, connect clients to local resources, implement crisis intervention, and coordinate services.

    They typically work in government offices, community organizations, counseling centers, private practice, prisons, and schools. Having a career in this field can be incredibly rewarding and provides the opportunity to create social change. Some potential drawbacks are emotional burnout, navigating bureaucratic systems, and managing complex client situations with limited resources.

    Nurses may transition to this career to build long-lasting client relationships, address clients’ social and mental health, promote health equity, and effect broader systemic change.

    • Education Requirement: Social workers need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, sociology, or psychology and state licensure. However, many states may require a master’s degree.
    • Median Annual Salary:$58,380
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 7%

    7. Medical and Health Services Manager

    A medical and health services manager oversees medical facilities and ensures they run efficiently. Typical job duties include hiring and training employees, organizing recordkeeping, monitoring facility finances, and ensuring compliance with laws and regulations.

    They typically work in hospitals, clinics, outpatient facilities, nursing homes, and public health departments. This job offers the ability to positively impact patients and healthcare facilities through decision-making and implementing new initiatives.

    Health services managers can earn lucrative salaries and work in various settings. Common challenges include working long hours, being on-call, balancing patient care and staff management, and navigating complex regulations and policies.

    Nurses may be drawn to this career because health services managers can make impactful decisions on facility operations and patient outcomes.

    • Education Requirement: A bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration or management is usually needed. Licensure may be needed depending on work place and role, such as a nursing home administrator.
    • Median Annual Salary:$110,680
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 28%

    8. Radiation Therapist

    A radiation therapist is a healthcare professional who specializes in administering radiation treatment. They collaborate closely with oncologists, educate patients and their families about their treatment plans, deliver radiation therapy to treat cancer and monitor patients’ response to treatment.

    They often work in hospitals, cancer treatment centers, academic medical centers, and outpatient clinics. Some perks of this career include helping patients, competitive salaries, and high job satisfaction, while some drawbacks include being physically and emotionally demanding.

    Nurses drawn to oncology and want to specialize in this field and population may enjoy this career, as well as the ability to work with technological equipment and implement specialized care.

    • Education Requirement: A bachelor’s degree in a health-related field is needed, which many nurses may already have. You must also complete a radiation therapy program, including clinical rotations, and pass the licensure exam.
    • Median Annual Salary:$98,300
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 2%

    9. Postsecondary Teachers and Professors

    Postsecondary teachers and professors teach courses beyond the high school level. Typical job duties include teaching academic classes, conducting research, mentoring students, and writing scholarly articles.

    They often work at community colleges, universities, or vocational schools. While this career can be intellectually stimulating and allows opportunities to contribute to research, it can also be stressful due to competition to secure a tenure track and difficulty balancing teaching, administration work, and research.

    Some nurses enter nursing because they desire to provide quality education, but they don’t have as much time for education in their nursing job as they imagined. A change to a teaching career may be more meaningful.

    • Education Requirement: A doctoral degree is usually needed for college-level professors, although a master’s degree may be sufficient for some community colleges.
    • Median Annual Salary:$84,380
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 8%

    10. Pharmacy Technician

    A pharmacy technician is a healthcare professional who works alongside pharmacists dispensing medications. Typical duties include preparing prescriptions, educating patients about medications, managing inventory, and collaborating with other healthcare team members.

    They often work in hospitals, commercial pharmacies, pharmaceutical companies, long-term care facilities, and retail stores. Perks of this job include the shorter educational requirements, job stability, and wide variety of work settings, while challenges include a fast-paced environment, high stress levels, and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

    Nurses who excel in math and dosage calculations, desire a change from hands-on care, and want less direct responsibility in patient care may find this career appealing.

    • Education Requirement: Complete a pharmacy technician program, including fieldwork in a pharmacy setting, and pass the licensure exam (requirements vary by state).
    • Median Annual Salary:$40,300
    • Employment Change (2022-2032): 6%

    Frequently Asked Questions About the Most Common Career Changes for Nurses

    Nurses have various options for changing their careers, including administrative, clinical, and education jobs. While nurses may need additional licensing or certification for certain positions, they have other options where they are qualified solely by their nursing background and experience.

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