If you are not in the healthcare sector, you may think that there is only one type of nurse or that any registered nurse (RN) can take any nursing job. In reality, the nursing field has many different specializations and there are nurses who train for years and attain postgraduate degrees so that they can practice certain types of nursing.
Whether you are considering becoming a nurse or you just want to learn more about the healthcare system, this list is for you. We have broken down all the most popular RN specializations available in the nursing profession and explained the differences between nursing postgraduate degrees.
Medical science is constantly (and quickly) evolving and as medicine evolves, so too does the need for highly trained professionals who are able to competently administer new treatments. The demand for well-trained, experienced, and competent nurses has been high for the last few decades and continues to this day.
Below are just a few of the many different nursing specializations which interested nurses can choose to pursue to follow their interests, increase their career prospects and work in a particular field.
Registered nurse (RN)
Registered nurses are nurses who have earned a degree in nursing, such as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), and who have passed their board certification exams. These nurses have not specialized and instead are able to work in many different clinical environments and roles.
The daily schedules of RNs vary widely depending on the hospital and location of the particular RN role, but RNs will typically provide patient care, educate their patients on their health conditions and provide support to family members.
Many RNs choose to take roles that are directly tied to the public sector and work in public health. Working in public health is not for everyone, but many people were inspired during the Covid-19 pandemic to start working in that field in order to counter the rampant medical misinformation that they saw everywhere. RNs are able to work in public health in a range of roles, including those that involve communicating health advice to community members.
Most RNs work in a team that includes a medical doctor and other healthcare professionals, such as physician’s assistants and nursing assistants. An Associate’s degree is incredibly versatile and provides an ideal stepping stone for those who want to move on to other nursing specializations or careers.
The Associate’s degree is ideal for those who are looking to work in a team to coordinate care for patients and who would like to begin working as a nurse after only about two to four years of education. The difference between the Associate’s and the BSN degree is that the BSN degree is a slightly higher level of education which results in a higher pay grade and increased opportunities.
There are many options for nurses who want to gain a BSN degree, or convert their Associate’s degree to a BSN. For example, Elmhurst University offers a range of BSN accelerated programs online which enable students to kick-start a second career in nursing in just 16 months. This type of course also provides students with a degree of flexibility as to when they study, without compromising on the excellent level of support those studying in-person can expect.
Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
If you are interested in pursuing a career in hospital leadership or public health, the clinical nurse specialist (CNS) career path could be for you. CNS nurses are specialized advance practice registered nurses (APRNs) who work with other nurses and healthcare staff in order to improve patient care.
These nurses often work in leadership roles and advise other nurses on working dynamics, new nursing innovations, and how to provide patients with optimal, compassionate care.
Oncology nurses are specialized in the care of cancer patients. They will typically work in hospitals and clinics which are specialty Cancer Treatment Centers. These nurses administer cancer drugs, but they also educate their patients on their treatment and remission status; this is easier said than done as the treatments are usually long, complex, and difficult, and the patients and their families are understandably confused, frightened, and worried.
The oncology nursing specialization is difficult because many of the patients are very sick and suffering immensely. However, oncology nurses can make a world of difference to their patients and greatly improve their time spent in the hospital.
Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CNRA)
Anesthesiology is one of the most interesting fields in medicine and also an incredibly complex, nuanced field, which is why healthcare professionals who specialize in anesthesiology tend to have very high salaries. Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) tend to work in hospitals, surgical centers, and specialized doctor’s offices and they need to pass the RN board exams along with the CRNA certification.
CRNAs are trained to assist anesthetists during surgery, and they are among the highest-paid of all nursing professions. This is because CRNAs pass additional exams, complete a postgraduate degree, and are in high demand around the world.
Mental health nurse
Psychiatric or mental health nurses are hugely in demand at the moment as the need for mental health services skyrocketed during the pandemic. It is a great job market right now for mental health nurses, who can be found working in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and psychiatric facilities.
These nurses will typically assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients suffering from various psychological disorders and provide counseling services. This is a varied and at times intense nursing role, which is ideal for nurses who want to develop meaningful connections with patients and care for their emotional and psychological needs.
Critical care nurse
Nurses with an Associate’s degree or BSN degree can pursue a career as a critical care nurse (CCN). Unlike RNs, CCNs are trained specifically to provide care during emergencies. These nurses work in stressful situations and tend to patients with serious and sometimes life-threatening wounds.
While the critical care path is certainly not for everyone, it is a great specialization for nurses who want to assist patients when they are needed most, such as during major traumatic events, serious injuries, and life-threatening illnesses.
Heart disease is one of the growing concerns in American medicine as it is one of the leading causes of death across the country. This means that there has never been such a serious need for cardiac nurses. Clinics and hospitals across the country are continually hiring specialized cardiac nurses.
Cardiac nurses are highly trained and perform several different roles on the floor. They work with patients and their families, and they communicate important information and prepare them for upcoming procedures such as operations. Nurses provide critically important care before and after surgery; as many cardiac surgeries are extremely intense and invasive, caring for healing patients requires a great degree of skill.
Depending on their training, many cardiac nurses are also able to assist with surgical procedures, such as bypasses, pacemaker insertion, or angioplasty surgeries. This is an intense career path and can lead to a career with difficult shift hours as the procedures most often require a great amount of in-patient care.
Cardiac nurses are compensated for their hard work and their specialized training. They tend to have increased salaries in comparison to non-specialized RNs. This is a great career path for anyone who is interested in heart health-related issues and who would like to coordinate health plans with patients and assist in life-saving surgeries.
You have likely seen the work of many ER nurses on medical documentaries and television shows. ER nurses work within a team structure in the emergency room of a hospital or clinic and respond to patients who are brought in on a case-by-case basis.
ER nurses perform a wide and varied number of tasks to stabilize, calm, and prepare the patients who are brought into the ER. Aside from stabilization and communication, these nurses also review the medical charts of their patients and determine how medicine should be administered. Depending on the circumstances, they may also treat basic wounds or health issues in the ER.
Geriatric nurses specialize in caring for elderly patients. These nurses are trained in providing the best care possible to older patients, including how to manage their illnesses, treat injuries, and communicate with patients to discuss general health, such as diet and exercise.
The elderly are more susceptible to certain illnesses and injuries and they also need to care for their bodies in different ways, such as by sleeping more and eating more than they did when they were younger. Older patients can also be difficult to communicate with, so geriatric nurses tend to have excellent communication skills and a high degree of empathy.
Geriatric nurses can be found in hospitals and doctor’s offices, and they are also often found working in nursing homes with patients who have long-term illnesses, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
Nurses should choose to pursue a specialization in geriatric nursing if they feel called to help the aging and elderly in their community or if they are interested in working with patients who have serious illnesses or memory loss.
One role which is ideal for moving into hospital leadership positions is that of the nurse educator. These nurses are responsible for teaching nursing students all about how to provide the best care possible to patients. These nurses tend to teach nursing students comprehensive lessons about nursing as a general practice along with more specialized courses.
The nurse educator role is a great place to start for nurses who want to have a career in hospital leadership or even nurses who are considering pursuing postgraduate education to one day become a professor to teach nursing students at the graduate and postgraduate levels.
Perioperative nurse (surgical / OR nurse)
Perioperative nurses are also referred to as surgical nurses or OR nurses because they are the nurses who work in operating rooms during surgery. These nurses have intense jobs, and they are responsible for several very important tasks.
Perioperative nurses provide care to patients both before and after they have had surgery and they also set up the operating room for the surgery. These nurses will typically also manage the tools that are used during the surgery and apply bandages to control a patient’s bleeding.
This is a great career path for RNs who are particularly interested in the operating room and everything it involves. There is a lot more to surgery than what happens in the operating room, however, and these nurses must be prepared to provide physical and emotional support to the patients and their families throughout the surgery process.
Nurse managers have supervisory roles as they manage a clinic or hospital floor and are responsible for a wide variety of administrative tasks. Depending on the needs of their workplace, nurse managers can be found recruiting other nurses, creating and managing floor schedules, and even directing decision-making for the floor’s budget and management.
Just like the nurse educator role, the nurse manager role is a great place to start for individuals who want to move up the governance ladder in their hospital to work in a leadership role. This is also a good opportunity for nurses who may want to work in a more commercial setting, as they will gain a significant amount of experience with the commercial aspect of running a floor.
Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
Just like general practitioners or GP doctors, family nurse practitioners are trained to provide primary care to people of all ages. These nurses will typically spend their time diagnosing illnesses, helping to communicate, coordinate and enact treatment plans, performing physical exams, doing diagnostic testing, and prescribing some medications.
The FNP role is perfect for nurses who want to become intimately familiar with their community and who enjoy working with people of all ages while also providing healthcare information and resources.
Nurse midwives are the nurses who are there when women need them most – during childbirth. These nurses are trained in the care of pregnant women and they provide care through the birthing process and after the baby has been born. Their training in pre-natal, birth and post-natal care means that for many women, their nurse midwife is one of the people they can rely on throughout their pregnancy journey for support, information, and answers.
Many nurses will feel called to become nurse-midwives because they play such an important role in helping women to adjust to motherhood and to have a healthy and happy pregnancy.
These nurses specialize in helping provide care to patients who suffer from injuries and illnesses specifically affecting the musculoskeletal system. This means caring for patients who have broken bones, arthritis, joint replacements, and osteoporosis, along with other illnesses and challenges.
This is a great field for nurses to work in if they are particularly interested in casting broken bones, properly administering pain management drugs, and working with a healthcare team to develop care plans for patients who are suffering from muscle and bone problems.
These nurses specialize in providing care to patients who are children, this includes newborns all the way up to teenagers. You will typically find pediatric nurses providing care such as physical exams, diagnoses, and treatment plan development.
Nurses who feel drawn to pediatric medicine will love the opportunity to provide care to children while also helping to instill health and wellness practices and knowledge.
Changing your career path and pursuing nursing
You may have read through this list of nursing specializations and felt particularly interested in one or two of the different career paths which nurses can follow. Whether or not you have your nursing degree, you may want to consider making a career change and following your interests into a healthcare specialization.
There are now hundreds of different in-person and online degree programs which are designed to help individuals change their career path and increase their career prospects. It is never too late to follow your dreams and there are certainly many nursing jobs currently available throughout the country.