The demand for nursing careers is on the rise and is expected to continue to accelerate over the next decade. The recent pandemic in particular has placed tremendous strain on frontline workers, helping to fuel the growing demand for nurses at all levels. Those with proven skills and qualifications have the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of patients and the efficiency of the healthcare system itself.
This article shares key details about nursing careers and potential career paths to help nursing graduates and practicing nurses fulfill their passion for helping others.
Highest Paying Nursing Jobs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 1, a career in nursing can bring in an average salary of over $75,000. Look more closely, however, and it becomes clear that specialization is everything; the top-paying nursing positions involve specialist expertise and bring in upward of $90,000 per year. Some of the highest paying nursing jobs include the following:
Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners manage patient care, and many roles in these fields focus on the provision of primary and specialty healthcare. Examples include:
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist: Certified registered nurse anesthetists work with surgeons and other qualified medical specialists (such as dentists) to safely prepare and administer anesthesia to patients.
- General Nurse Practitioner: General nurse practitioners provide advanced RN primary or specialty care. One step below an MD, they are trained to provide diagnoses, order and interpret tests, and prescribe treatments.
- Certified Nurse Midwife: Certified nurse midwives specialize in treatment relating to pregnancy and birth, including prenatal care, obstetrics, and labor.
- Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner: Psychiatric nurse practitioners specialize in working with patients suffering from mental health and/or substance abuse issues.
- Family Nurse Practitioner: Family nurse practitioners have job specifications similar to general nurse practitioners: they provide diagnoses, order and interpret tests, and prescribe treatments within family care settings.
With an average salary of around $117,670 per year, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners also enjoy an excellent job outlook, with data from the BLS2 predicting growth of around 45% over the next 10 years.
Clinical Nurse Specialists
A clinical nurse specialist earns an average of over $91,300 per year3. Like a general nurse practitioner, a clinical nurse specialist can provide diagnoses, order and interpret tests, and prescribe treatments. However, they do so within specialized hospital units or clinics, where they use specialist expertise to conduct research and improve care. The BLS1 predicts 9% job growth for all registered nurses, including clinical nurse specialists.
Neonatal Intensive Care Nurses
According to data from PayScale4, professional, qualified neonatal nurses can earn salaries of up to $104,000 per year. Their area of specialty is caring for newborn infants, especially those born prematurely or with birth defects. The BLS1 predicts 9% job growth for neonatal nurses.
Pain Management Nurses
Averaging salaries of $60,000 per year according to PayScale5 data, pain management nurses work with patients who have undergone surgery or who experience chronic pain. They both diagnose the causes of pain and formulate appropriate treatment plans. The BLS1 predicts 9% job growth for pain management nurses.
Nursing administrators manage the operational processes associated with nursing. This can include everything from budgeting and schedule management to training and human resources. According to BLS6 data, medical and health services managers, including nursing administrators, can expect salaries of up to $104,280 per year, with job growth predicted at an impressive 32%.
Registered Nurse First Assistants
According to data from PayScale7, registered nurse first assistants can expect to earn an average of approximately $98,000 per year. They specialize in providing assistance to other medical practitioners during surgical operations. The BLS1 predicts 9% job growth for all registered nurses.
Popular Career Paths With a Nursing Degree
Many people pursuing a degree in nursing imagine themselves working in a hospital or medical practice. However, many other popular career paths exist for nursing degree graduates. The following represent just six of the options out there.
Nursing Informatics and Healthcare IT
Careers in nursing informatics and healthcare IT offer nurses the opportunity to make a measurable impact on the healthcare industry without getting hands-on with patients. From telehealth medical data management technologies to the latest research and diagnostic technologies, opportunities are growing for individuals with nursing expertise to manage data and technical systems to improve patient care.
Medical Financial Services and Insurance
Not many nurses also develop expertise in financial management, but for those who do, career opportunities in health organization management, health insurance, and healthcare policy abound. In these roles, nursing graduates can help determine hospital and facility budgets, influence insurance models, and shape policies concerning the cost and pricing of healthcare for consumers.
For nursing graduates who want to put their business acumen to the test, nursing entrepreneurship offers an increasingly popular career path. Nurse entrepreneurs use their nursing expertise to develop their own independent healthcare ventures to provide unique solutions to the healthcare issues and problems that elude established, traditional healthcare organizations. Nursing entrepreneurs typically focus their efforts on promoting genuine change in healthcare contexts.
Medical Legal Consultancy
Many opportunities also exist within the legal industry to put nursing expertise to good use. Licensed nurses can find work as legal consultants, expert witnesses, and SMEs, contributing their knowledge to the resolution of medical lawsuits and the establishment of effective medical laws, policies, and practices.
Criminal Justice and Social Work for Nurses
In the criminal justice industry, individuals with nursing expertise can find nursing work as expert witnesses, forensic experts and assistants, or in correctional and rehabilitative facilities. Roles can focus on care or investigation, with some nurses providing care for trauma victims and perpetrators while others provide expert medical insight for the identification, analysis, and documentation of physically traumatic crimes.
Nursing and Medical Education
Finally, nurses can enter a variety of roles in the education industry, either providing training and instruction to others within the nursing profession or providing medical instruction to the general public or within schools, colleges, and universities. A nurse educator ensures that knowledge about healthcare, nursing, and wellness is accurately and effectively disseminated.
Average Salary for Nursing Graduates
Registered nurses within the U.S. can expect to earn an average of $75,330 per year, according to data provided by the BLS1. However, it’s worth noting that the average salary for nursing graduates varies according to the degree and specializations involved, as well as by location.
As a general rule of thumb, nurses can expect a higher average salary if they hold an advanced degree or certification, such as an MSN in nursing education or a family nurse practitioner certification, or if they have specialist training in a field such as neonatal care, psychiatric care, or healthcare administration.
How to Find a Job After Graduating from a Nursing Degree
In a practical field like nursing, experience counts for everything. Newly graduated or soon-to-graduate nurses should take proactive steps to finding a nursing career post-degree by gaining as much high-quality experience as they can.
Gaining this experience may involve a lot of hard work for low or no pay, as a volunteer, member of a residency program, or intern. Training institutions and schools can provide valuable help in finding such a program: prospective job seekers can ask about internship programs and shadowing opportunities with partner institutions and, if possible, choose a degree that includes a career placement.
Prospective nurses may also seek out and make use of mentorship programs, as they provide the best opportunities for growing a professional network and gaining valuable clinical experience.
When seeking these types of opportunities, prospective nurses need to remember that competition is high. To succeed, a prospective nurse must therefore be willing to work hard, as building a good reputation with colleagues may turn out to be as valuable as any hands-on experience gained.
As well as gaining high-quality work experience, prospective nurses also need to make sure they showcase their skills and experience appropriately. Institutional career centers and private career coaches and resume writers can assist in creating professional, accurate resumes and cover letters, preparing for job interviews, and defining career goals.
Discover More About a Career With a Nursing Degree
Q. What are the prerequisites for a career in nursing?
Nursing is a highly specialized field, so prospective nurses need at least a certificate or associate degree to get started. Remember, the more specialized the area of interest and the higher the salary, the more qualifications a prospective nurse will need.
Q. Are there scholarships that can support nursing career development?
A number of specialist scholarships aim specifically to support nursing students in developing their careers, including AACN Continuing Professional Development Scholarships, the NLN Nursing Education Scholarship Award aimed specifically at nurses seeking a master’s or doctoral degree, and the ACLS Medical Training Scholarship Program8. Applicants may also consider checking with specific training institutions and schools about local scholarship and professional development opportunities.
Q. Is it possible to earn a nursing qualification online?
Students can pursue many accredited nursing programs online. These programs offer the opportunity for working nurses to increase their qualification level and advance their career paths while continuing to work professionally.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm.
 Payscale. (2021). Average Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Clinical_Nurse_Specialist_(CNS)/Salary.
 Payscale. (2021). Average Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Registered Nurse Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Neonatal_Intensive_Care_Unit_(NICU)_Registered_Nurse/Hourly_Rate.
 Payscale. (2021). Average Pain Management Nurse Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Pain_Management_Nurse/Salary.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Medical and Health Services Managers. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm.
 Payscale. (2021). Hourly Rate for Certification: Registered Nurse First Assistant (RNFA). https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Certification=Registered_Nurse_First_Assistant_(RNFA)/Hourly_Rate.
 Scholarship.com. (2021). Nursing Scholarships. https://www.scholarships.com/financial-aid/college-scholarships/scholarships-by-major/nursing-scholarships/.