Clinical

Choosing A Nursing Specialty: 20 of the Most Popular Career Tracks for Nurses

Osmosis Team
Published on May 10, 2021. Updated on May 7, 2021.

Graduating your nursing program is just the start of a long, exciting career journey, with many opportunities for growth and advancement. Choosing a nursing specialty allows you to focus more on a specific area of nursing you find interesting, work with a specific client population, earn a higher salary, and more. Read on to learn more about the 20 most popular nursing specialties.

One of the great things about becoming a nurse is the potential diversity of the job. You might start your career in a medical-surgical unit, spend some time working in the ICU, and end your career in a pediatrics private practice. Nonetheless, you’ll probably be happiest on the job by choosing a nursing specialty that most closely matches your skills, personality, and preferences. 

Here, we break down 20 different nursing specialties for registered nurses (RN), providing you with information about the average salary, required education and certifications, and what a day might look like for that type of nurse. 

What is a Nursing Specialty?

If you’re wondering how to choose a nursing specialty and the process feels daunting, that’s probably because there are over 20 different nursing specialties. Each specialty defines an area of client care where a nurse has expertise and advanced knowledge gained through education, certifications, and/or experience. 

In this article, we’re going to focus on specialties for RNs. RNs need to have at least an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), and many have a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)—we’ll be defining these below in more detail. 

RNs also need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination® (NCLEX-RN®) to be able to work as an RN. Eligibility and requirements to sit for the NCLEX vary by state. 

We’ll also feature a few specialties that require further education, such as certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) and nurse practitioners (NP). These types of nurses are called advanced practice nurses (APN, APRN, or ARNP). 

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How to choose a Nursing Specialty

Some prospective nurses feel a calling toward a specific specialty, while others need to weigh their options and spend some time determining what’s right for them. If you’re here, you’re probably in the latter group. 

Many new nurses, and many experienced nurses can attest, that starting your career on a Medical-Surgical (Med-Surg) inclient unit is a great way to gain experience as an RN. These units typically provide care to many different types of clients which provides opportunities to do procedures, work with a multidisciplinary team, juggle a diverse client team, and more. However, while Med-Surg offers great learning opportunities, it is important to select a type of specialty or job that excites you, enhances your great attributes, and makes you happy.

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Questions to ask before choosing a nursing specialty

Some questions to ask yourself before choosing a nursing specialty include:

  • What are my strongest qualities as a nurse?

  • Are there specific populations I enjoy working with more than others? 

  • Do I have any personality traits that make me a better fit for certain specialties? 

  • How much money do I want to make? 

  • Am I willing to travel or relocate? 

  • Am I willing to work night and weekend shifts? 

  • Do I want to pursue further education or certifications? 

  • Are there any nursing duties I’d like to avoid? 

  • Do I want to be client-facing, or do I want to focus on education or management?

  • Do I want to work in a hospital or in a different setting? 

This list is just a starting point that gives you an idea of some things to think about when choosing a specialty. Your answers can help you pinpoint the perfect specialty. 

Osmosis illustration showing Mo thinking about factors important to their chosen nursing specialty.

Job growth in the nursing field

Regardless of what specialty you choose to pursue, it’s comforting to know that the job outlook for RNs is expected to grow 7% through 2029. At least for the foreseeable future, nurses can expect excellent job stability. 

List of Nursing Specialties

Registered Nurse 

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Registered nurses (RN) provide care directly to clients. RNs are typically compassionate people who can confidently care for clients and educate them and their families. They also work alongside a multidisciplinary team to continuously monitor and assess clients while communicating with and educating clients and their families. An RN can work in a variety of specialties and settings.

Education requirements

A RN must first obtain a degree in nursing either through a diploma program, Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Next they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX®-RN) to obtain licensure and officially become an RN. 

Salary expectations

The median pay for RNs in the United States is $73,300, and depending on where you work and what specialty, pay can range from $53,410 to $116,230.

Osmosis illustration showcasing a registered nurse's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

ADN Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

A nurse with an ADN has an Associate's Degree in Nursing. Nurses with an ADN can work in a variety of specialties, such as a medical-surgical unit or in an outpatient clinic, for example. Some of their daily job duties include recording medical history, preparing clients for procedures, and providing medical education to clients. Regardless of the setting they work in, a nurse with an ADN should be empathetic and committed to providing the best possible care for clients. 

Education requirements

They need to earn their associate’s degree, which typically takes two to three years in school. They can then take the NCLEX-RN to become an RN. 

Salary expectations

An ADN nurse makes $70,439 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration of an ADN Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

BSN Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

A nurse with a BSN has a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing. Nurses with a BSN can work in a large variety of specialties, and typically have more job opportunities available to them when compared to a nurse with an ADN. 

A nurse with a BSN might work directly with clients, or they might work in nursing education or administration. Like all nurses, they should be confident in their ability to provide quality care for clients, which might include inserting IVs, consoling clients and families, assisting with procedures, and running tests on clients. 

Education requirements

They need to earn their bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years in school. BSN programs typically provide more theory classes compared to ADN programs. After obtaining their degree, they can then take the NCLEX-RN to become an RN. 

Salary expectations

A BSN nurse makes $86,091 per year on average

 

PRN Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

A PRN nurse is a nurse who works as the need arises. The acronym is latin for “pro re nata.” These nurses do not have a set schedule, instead they often work on-call, filling in at any department that needs help. They can work for a variety of hospitals or facilities. This type of nurse should be able to adapt quickly to a new environment and have basic knowledge and skills in a large range of nursing specialties. Someone who does well with change and doesn’t feel the need for a strong routine would be a good fit for this job. 

Education requirements

In addition to passing the NCLEX-RN, a PRN nurse typically needs to have a BSN and at least one year of experience as an RN. 

Salary expectations

A PRN nurse makes $68,870 per year on average, with a potential to make much more particularly for PRN nurses who are willing to travel.

Osmosis illustration showcasing a PRN nurse's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

Charge Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Charge nurses act as managers or leaders in healthcare settings. They are (not surprisingly) in charge of the other nurses on the unit. This might include assigning nurses to clients, ordering supplies, serving as a mentor for other nurses, and taking care of clients. They can work in a variety of different nursing departments from the intensive care unit (ICU) to assisted living. Charge nurses should have strong leadership and organizational skills to effectively lead the unit. 

Education requirements

Charge nurses can hold either an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. They need to have nursing experience before they can move into this leadership role; most jobs require at least three years of experience. 

Salary expectations

A charge nurse makes $71,933 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration showing a charge nurse's responsibilities, education requirements, and salary expectations. 

Labor & Delivery Nurse (L&D)

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Labor and delivery (L&D) nurses do a lot more than cuddle newborn babies (although it’s a perk). They provide care to expectant parents during labor and delivery. They also assist in surgery for c-sections and provide postpartum care. Labor and delivery nurses need to be flexible and make adjustments quickly as labor can change rapidly. They should also be confident and reassuring as they support new parents through an extremely emotional time. 

Education requirements

Labor and delivery nurses can hold either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, pass the NCLEX-RN exam, and have at least one year of experience as an RN before working in labor and delivery. 

Salary expectations

A labor and delivery nurse makes $65,414 per year on average

Osmosis illustration showcasing a labor and delivery nurse's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

Emergency Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Emergency department (ED) or emergency room (ER) nurses need to be ready for virtually any situation. They typically work in the emergency department of a hospital providing care to clients. This might include continuously monitoring and assessing critical clients, educating families, and assisting emergency physicians with procedures. 

ED nurses need to think and act quickly while having a wide variety of skills and assessment abilities. Many ED nurses also need to be adept at caring for clients’ and family members’ psychosocial well-being as clients in the ED are typically very scared and tense.

Education requirements

ED nurses need to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and pass the NCLEX-RN to become a registered nurse. Most emergency nurse positions require two years of experience working as an RN.There are typically multiple certifications such as Advanced Cardiopulmonary Life Support (ACLS) and Pediatric Advanced Life Supports (PALS) that ED nurses will have to obtain when working in an ER.  

Salary expectations

An emergency department nurse makes $68,796 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration showcasing an ER nurse's responsibilities, salary expectations, and education requirements.

Neonatal Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Neonatal nurses provide care for newborn babies; they often work in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They provide basic newborn care for babies as well as more intensive care for premature or ill babies. Because they work with such small clients — sometimes weighing less than a pound — neonatal nurses need to be gentle and pay close attention to detail. 

Education requirements

Neonatal nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN, have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and in some cases, a master’s degree, and have at least two years of experience in a critical care neonatal setting before being eligible to sit for the CCRN (Critical Care Registered Nurse Neonatal) exam. Not all jobs will require neonatal nurses to obtain a CCRN certification, though it is common. 

Salary expectations

A neonatal nurse makes $72,851 per year on average

Osmosis illustration showcasing a neonatal nurse's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

Pediatric Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Pediatric nurses provide care for clients under eighteen. A pediatric nurse might work in a pediatrics practice, seeing kids for well-child visits as well as sick visits. They might also work in specialized pediatric areas such as hospital inclient units. Some of the best pediatric nurses are energetic, optimistic, and friendly. Making children and parents feel at ease while receiving care can reduce their stress and anxiety. Some precision and attention to detail is important as well when caring for clients who have tiny body parts. 

Education requirements

After taking and passing the NCLEX-RN, a pediatric nurse must hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. While not necessary for all jobs, they might also obtain a Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN) credential. 

Salary expectations

A pediatric nurse makes $62,964 per year on average

Osmosis illustration showcasing a pediatric nurse's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

Forensic Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Forensic nurses care for clients who have been victims of physical and/or sexual abuse. They typically work in emergency rooms. In addition to standard nursing duties, they also need to collect evidence from and take pictures of victims. They must show the utmost compassion and professionalism when working with these clients. Forensic nurses are often called upon to testify in court cases as well. 

Education requirements

As with any RN, a forensic nurse must first pass the NCLEX-RN exam. They must hold an ADN or BSN, although BSN is often preferred. Forensic nurses might also choose to become certified as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). 

Salary expectations

A forensic nurse makes $30.61 per hour on average

Osmosis illustration of a Forensic Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Surgical/Perioperative Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Surgical and perioperative nurses assist surgeons in the operating room. They might also be asked to care for clients before and after surgery. In the operating room, they are sometimes called a scrub nurse and one of their main jobs is to pass instruments to the surgeon. They typically work in a fast-paced environment and may largely care for clients while they are sedated. 

Education requirements

 They need to have their BSN and pass the NCLEX-RN. Many positions also require some experience before becoming a surgical nurse as well as additional certifications, such as the Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR) credential. 

Salary expectations

A surgical nurse makes $83,040 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration of a Surgical/Perioperative Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Public Health Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Public health nurses devote much of their time educating communities and advocating for overall public health. They play a large role in collecting data during disease outbreaks, creating education campaigns for the general public, and influencing the health of a community as a whole. Public health nurses are often excellent persuasive and educational communicators; they also have a strong desire to advocate for people’s health. 

Education requirements

Most public health nurses have a BSN, although some have an ADN, after passing the NCLEX-RN. 

Salary expectations

A public health nurse makes $59,674 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration of an Public Health Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations. 

Orthopedic Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Orthopedic nurses care for clients with musculoskeletal problems, which might include broken bones, joint pain, or muscular dystrophy. On a daily basis, they might help place a cast, educate clients on how to recover from an injury, and play an integral role in client pain management. Many orthopedic nurses work with older populations who are more likely to develop musculoskeletal issues. Orthopedic nursing is a great specialty for someone who wants to help a large number of people, as they’ll see many clients cycle through with injuries or surgeries. 

Education requirements

Orthopedic nurses can have either an ADN or a BSN, and they need to pass the NCLEX-RN. In addition, some jobs may require orthopedic nurses to have their Orthopaedic Nurse Certification (ONC). 

Salary expectations

An orthopedic nurse makes $66,764 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration of an Orthopedic Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Oncology Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Oncology nurses help treat and care for cancer clients. Some daily tasks might include administering chemotherapy, helping to develop a treatment plan, and educating clients on their diagnosis and treatment. Oncology nurses need to be extremely compassionate and have excellent bedside manner. They often support clients and their families through the most difficult period of their lives. 

Education requirements

Most jobs require nurses to have a BSN, and you must pass the NCLEX-RN. Additionally, you can become an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) by working as an RN for one year, gaining 1,000 hours of experience working in oncology, and passing the OCN exam. This also includes learning how to administer chemotherapy to clients. 

Salary expectations

An oncology nurse makes $73,648 per year on average

Osmosis illustration of an Oncology Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Mental Health/Psychiatric Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Mental health and psychiatric nurses work with clients who are struggling with psychiatric disorders. They are sometimes referred to as behavioral health nurses. Good psychiatric nurses are able to compassionately care for clients while maintaining firm boundaries and being careful not to enable clients. Some typical job duties include evaluating and recording symptoms and helping clients manage treatment. Mental health nurses help provide access to mental health resources.  

Education requirements

 They can have an ADN or a BSN, and must pass the NCLEX-RN. In addition, they can apply for the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Certification (PMH-BC™). To be eligible to take the test for certification, nurses need to work for two years as an RN, have 2,000 hours of work experience in the psychiatric nursing field, and complete 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric mental health nursing. 

Salary expectations

A psychiatric mental health nurse makes $76,610 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration of a Mental Health Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Geriatric Nurse

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Geriatric nurses care for clients who are part of the geriatric population, which is generally considered to be people age 65 and older. Common job duties for a geriatric nurse include monitoring and assessing clients for common health concerns in the older population, organizing and administering medication, and helping the geriatric population age gracefully. Many geriatric nurses work in nursing homes, senior centers, and retirement communities. 

Education requirements

Geriatric nurses can hold an ADN or BSN and need to pass the NCLEX-RN. In addition, they can earn a Gerontological Nursing Certification (GERO-BC™). Before they can apply to become certified, they must work for two years as an RN, have 2,000 hours of work experience in the gerontological nursing field, and complete 30 hours of continuing education in gerontological nursing. Then, they can take a test to become certified. 

Salary expectations

A geriatric nurse makes $57,500 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration of a Geriatric Nurse's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Nurse Educator

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Nurse educators typically work for universities, colleges, and hospitals training new nurses or providing continuing education for current nurses. On a daily basis they might create lesson plans, teach students, and research new developments in healthcare. This is a great specialty for people who want to have an impact on the careers of other nurses. Nurse educators often work in classrooms more than they work in clinical settings. 

Education requirements

Many jobs require nurse educators to have at least a Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN), having passed NCLEX-RN, and had some experience as an RN. 

Salary expectations

A nurse educator makes $76,610 per year on average.  

Osmosis illustration of a Nurse Educator's responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary expectations.

Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) administer anesthesia and provide pain management. They evaluate medical histories pre-operatively; monitor, assess, and administer medications to clients during procedures; and counsel clients on pain control. They also discuss medical histories with clients before procedures. CRNAs must be detail-oriented and attentive as they monitor anesthesia during surgeries. Compassion is another important trait as they counsel clients and help control their pain. 

Education requirements

Before becoming a CRNA, you must have passed the NCLEX-RN and have at least one year of critical care experience (ICU or ER). Then you can apply to a CRNA program where you must obtain a master’s degree in a CRNA program and pass the National Certification Examination (NCE) from the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). 

Salary expectations

On average, a nurse anesthetist makes $174,790 per year

Osmosis illustration showcasing Nurse Anesthetist responsibilities, salary, and education requirements.

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are advanced practice nurses with specialized knowledge in a specific area, such as critical care or pediatrics. They tend to be people who are very driven and who want to impact the field of nursing. CNSs work leadership roles directing care or conducting research, and they also work directly with clients.  

Education requirements

To become a CNS, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN as well as an advanced practice certification such as the NCE or Family Nurse Practitioner Certification (FNP-BC).They must hold at least a Master’s Degree. Some states allow CNSs to practice and prescribe medication without physician supervision.

Salary expectations

A clinical nurse specialist makes $91,100 per year on average. 

Osmosis illustration showcasing a clinical nurse specialist's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Client base, care setting, and daily tasks

Nurse Practitioners (NP) often serve as primary caregivers in private practices or hospital settings. They can prescribe medication, and diagnose clients, and do minor procedures. Typically, NPs work within a specialty, such as women’s health, or mental health, or primary care. NPs need to have strong communication and critical thinking skills, as they are qualified to make many decisions regarding client care without the need to consult a physician. 

Education requirements

In addition to passing the NCLEX-RN, NPs also need to pass a certification exam according to their specialty. Some organizations that offer exams for NPs include the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), and the National Certification Corporation (NCC). They must hold at least a master’s degree. 

Salary expectations

A nurse practitioner makes $109,820 per year on average.

Osmosis illustration showcasing a nurse practitioner's responsibilities, salary expectations, and educational requirements.

Deciding on a Nursing Specialty

Choosing a nursing specialty might feel overwhelming; the plethora of options and available jobs does not make the decision-making process any easier. There’s a lot of good news when it comes to choosing a specialty, too.

Nurses are desperately needed right now, and projections show continued demand for years to come. Regardless of the specialty you choose, you likely won’t face too much trouble finding a job. Also, because you can switch specialties relatively easily, you won’t be stuck in a job you hate if you decide you don’t like what you chose. 

Armed with information about 20 of the most popular nursing specialties, you can make a more informed decision about your future and be one step closer to providing care. 

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