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  • Career Planning for Nursing

    Career Planning for Nursing

    by Dr. Mary Williams, R.N. D.C.

    Nursing is a great employment field; not only is the employment outlook generally quite positive for coming years, there are also a number of different career entry points and clear paths within the field. It's possible to find the right niche in nursing, whether you're interested in jumping in as soon as possible, or want to pursue advanced post-secondary education in nursing before beginning clinical work. Once you are practicing, there are still a number of career advancement opportunities, including choosing a specialty, a practice setting, and pursuing additional certifications.

    Where to Start?

    If you're considering a new career in nursing or a practicing nurse considering your advancement options, carefully consider your clinical interests and educational goals. Nursing has a career ladder based licensing, certification, post-secondary education, and clinical experience, so your career goals must be in line with your educational goals. Nurses also work in number of different settings including hospitals, private care facilities, schools, combat zones, and more.

    There are also different specializations within nursing. Nurses provide healthcare services at every level, from direct treatment to case management and diagnosis. While you may have a specialty preference before beginning clinical work, many nurses find the right specialty through on the job experience.


    Nursing candidates can enter the field at a number of different educational levels. A Licensed Vocational Nurse or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) can provide care to a wide range of patients, while working under the supervision of a doctor or registered nurse (RN). In order to become an LPN, you need a high school diploma or GED and must pass the NCLEX-PN. If you are interested in pursuing post-secondary education, an associate's degree or bachelor's degree make you eligible to become a registered nurse upon passing the NCLEX-RN. You may also take the NCLEX-RN after a three year hospital program.

    A registered nurse has added responsibilities and an increased number of specialty certification options as compared to an LPN. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommends that registered nurses pursue the designation through a bachelor's degree as it prepares nurses for broader responsibilities and the general employment advantage it provides due to hospital preference. Not only are bachelor's degrees preferred, employment prospects are even better for nurses with graduate degrees.

    As the healthcare industry changes, there is demand for Advanced Practice Nurses (APN) who can offer additional services to patients. Nurses who pursue this career path have a master's degree or Ph.D. in nursing. These degrees allow them to function as Nurse Practitioners (NP), Clinical Nurse Specialists (CN), Certified Nurse-Midwives (CNM), and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA). These nurses can provide an extended level of primary care services that are increasingly in-demand.

    Planning a Nursing Career

    Given that the nursing career ladder is based on a post-secondary degree and certification system, carefully research the responsibilities of different roles within the field and consider what additional education or clinical experience you need to achieve those goals. Some specialties also require additional certification via exams and continuing education. If you're currently a student, decide whether you want to work on your degree goals first or do clinical work before pursuing appropriate further education. Speak with nurses currently working within that specialty or setting in order to determine if it's a good fit for your skill-set and personality. You may also consider joining a professional organization or taking continuing education classes to learn more about the specialty.

    Advancing a Nursing Career

    Once you've determined your interests and long term career goals, work on short term goals that are necessary to meet your larger career goals, from applying to school to gaining clinical experience in a specialty area that interests you. If your goals involve receiving additional education, start researching schools and programs that are the right fit. Or, if you're interested in pursuing additional certifications, start studying for the exam. Part of achieving your nursing goals may involve switching hospital departments, practice settings, or even geographic locations. For nurses interested in hands-on work, becoming an APN leads to the furthest levels of advancement. There are, however, other career advancement options outside of nursing. You may instead choose to shift into academic work, health promotion or research paths, or even hospital administration.

    Additional Information

    No matter what your ultimate nursing career goals are, it's important that you take a proactive role in planning your nursing career. Having clear career goals can lead to increased job satisfaction and faster career advancement. Investing the time to research and plan will help you find a nursing career path that is both challenging and rewarding. Because nursing is a rapidly changing field, staying informed and educated will also help you spot new opportunities for advancement.