In terms of career opportunities, there's never been a better time for aspiring nurses — nursing is easily the fastest growing occupation in the healthcare field. But while the demand for nurses continues to grow, the training and coursework required to become a nurse is only getting more stringent.
Today's most in-demand nurses are also the most highly trained and specialized. That's because as the costs and demands of care rise, nurses are taking on expanded roles that include many of the duties traditionally fulfilled by physicians. Nurse Practitioners, for example, can provide routine checkups, diagnose patients and write prescriptions. Specially certified nurses are also more often called upon to serve in high-level positions for administration, research, consultation or education purposes.
Nursing students should take this under consideration and carefully explore the highest-demand specializations and certifications before choosing a program. Choosing a rigorous program now will likely have major payoffs later in your nursing career in terms of what you do and do not qualify for.
Regardless of the nursing education program chosen, students can expect to take extensive coursework in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, and other social and behavioral sciences. Writing-intensive courses are also required in the four year BSN option. And since the nursing field is undergoing such dramatic transformation, more and more programs are requiring nurses to study public health administration and policy. Prospective nursing students can get a taste for the curriculum by exploring open online courses in the physical sciences or in public health.
There are over 100 nursing specialties to choose from, so students who are interested in entering this field have a lot to think about. The BLS explains nursing specializations in terms of these broad focus areas:
- A specific health condition, such as diabetes management or cancer treatment
- A specific part of the body, such as cardiovascular or ophthalmological care
- A specific group of people, such as neonatal care or geriatrics
- A specific workplace, such as in an E.R. or an I.C.U. environment
These categorizations are useful for understanding just how many subspecialties nurses can choose from. Other nursing specialties are in critical care, school, genetics, addiction, obstetrics, nephrology or rehabilitation. It is common for nurses to pick up more than one specialization while in school or to take the courses and complete licensure for an additional specialization later in life. Often, nurses will choose additional sub subspecialties that relate to their primary field. For instance, an oncology nurse who would like to work in a children's hospital or clinic may take additional coursework in pediatric oncology, nutrition or anaesthesia.
An associate's degree in nursing can help many students gain a foothold into their healthcare careers. An ADN usually takes 2-3 years to complete and will prepare the candidate to take the national licensing examination, the NCLEX-RN. Courses in Anatomy, Physiology, Biology and Nutrition will all be required. Once you've completed this exam and any additional specific state requirements, you'll be able to work as an entry-level RN.
While you can become a certified RN through the ADN program, a four year degree in nursing will earn you a position with more responsibilities, higher pay and greater career mobility. Beyond the basic ADN requirements, students completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing take extensive coursework in both hard sciences, hands-on nursing and liberal arts. Clinical practice will be incorporated into your curriculum.
Earning your MSN will put you in high demand in the field. The degree typically takes three years to complete and requires incoming nurses to hold a bachelor's degree, an RN license, clinical experience and a minimum GPA and GRE score. Nurses who complete their master's degree usually choose from one of four advanced areas: Nurse Practitioner, Certified Nurse Anesthetist, Clinical Nurse Specialist or Certified Nurse Midwife. All four of these specialist nurses work with a great amount of autonomy and are in high demand.
In nursing, a DNP is different from a PhD program. Spending the additional three to five years to complete a DNP will greatly advance you in your clinical career, but it will not prepare you to teach or perform research. DNPs often work in administrative positions, maintaining contact with patients by managing their own teams of nurses or, alternately, representing nurses at the executive level. If you are interested in receiving the PhD equivalent in nursing, the degree is known as the Doctor of Nursing Philosophy. It is an important degree right now, as nursing schools are experiencing a shortage of qualified nursing professors.
Ideal Candidates for Nursing
Even if you're an ideal candidate, a nursing career is one of the most emotionally and intellectually exhaustive jobs out there — nurses frequently work long hours, manage the care of multiple patients, and remain on-call in their off hours. As mentioned, nurses are providing more and more care autonomously, without a doctor's direction or supervision. With this increased level of autonomy, nurses need to be able to make careful and intelligent care decisions quickly.
The best nursing candidates will be dedicated to lifelong learning of new techniques in patient care, as well as highly attuned to patient needs and feelings throughout their careers. That's because, in addition to coordinating and providing patient care, nurses also get the most contact with a patient and their families. They need to be able to empathize, communicate clearly and handle any questions. If you have a passion for direct care, medicine and counseling, you're probably one of the ideal and rare individuals who will find the challenges of nursing fulfilling, rather than exhausting.
The rising demand for specialized nursing professionals is linked to several major shifts in U.S. healthcare. These shifts include an increased focus on preventative care treatment and health education, rising rates of chronic disease among aging baby boomers, and the expanded level of healthcare access granted under the Affordable Care Act.
Now more than ever, students looking to enter this field can expect to be in high-demand once they receive their diploma. The BLS forecasts a growth in the number of new careers in this field at 19% by 2022, a figure much higher than the national growth rate of 11%.
According to the same job outlook report, the median annual wage for nurses in May 2012 was $65,470. Nurses that worked for the government earned the highest median wage at $68,540 and nurses working at the offices of physicians earned the lowest median wage of nurses nationally, at $58,420.