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Find the best route to your career destination


Nurses can take many different professional-development routes to get to their ultimate career destination. Before you decide which route to take—or whether to take a new route at all—you’ll need to consider many factors. Do you know exactly what you want to do? Is this the right time for you to alter your journey? Do you have the support you’ll need? If your choice means you’ll need to get more education, do you have access to the right academic program? If, on the other hand, returning to school isn’t an option, what nonacademic career destinations are desirable and available? To help determine which professional development route to take, see Career self-assessment quiz by clicking the PDf icon above.

Going the academic route

For many nurses, going back to school is desirable or even required.

Bachelor’s degree

Today’s nurses need more skills and preparation to care for patients with complex problems, so nurses with bachelor’s degrees have become more desirable to employers. The current trend is for entry-level nurses to hold bachelor’s degrees; nurses with associate degrees are being encouraged to return to school.

Master’s degrees

A master’s degree in nursing allows nurses to broaden their scope and take on more advanced roles. These degrees include master of science in nursing (MSN), master of nursing (MN), and master of arts in nursing (MA). Nurses also may obtain master’s degrees in non-nursing areas, such as master of business administration and master in education.

Doctoral degrees

Doctoral degrees in nursing include the following:

  • Doctor of philosophy (PhD). Deemed the research doctorate, it prepares graduates to be nurse scientists, researchers, or educators.
  • Doctor of nursing practice (DNP). This degree prepares nurses with advanced skills for an aggregate, systems, or organizational focus related to direct practice.
  • Doctor of education (EdD). This role focuses on nursing education.

Advanced nursing practice and advanced practice RN roles

The two main categories of advanced practice roles are advanced nursing practice (ANP) nurses and advanced practice registered nurses (APRN). ANP nurses perform nursing interventions that influence healthcare outcomes for individuals or populations. APRNs, in contrast, have a high level of expertise in delivering direct care to individuals, families, or communities within a specialized clinical area of nursing.

ANP roles include nurse educator, nurse administrator or nurse manager, nurse researcher, and clinical nurse leader (CNL).

  • Nurse educators may serve as clinical-based educators or nursing faculty members. Clinical-based educators provide education to staff or patients. The future for nurse educators is bright: The nursing shortage has brought a growing need for academic educators.
  • Nurse administrators and nurse managers work at many levels within healthcare systems. At all levels of administration and management, the requirement for advanced degrees is increasing.
  • Nurse researchers are in demand because of the emphasis on evidence-based practice and the need to create new nursing knowledge and discover methods to improve quality and care outcomes.
  • The emerging CNL role is likely to grow over time. Currently, CNLs work at the unit level and are considered clinical process experts. They commonly assist with management functions as well.

Four APRN roles exist—nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, and nurse midwife. Each role has a different focus. Salaries are competitive and rising. The job market and future for APRNs are bright.

“But I don’t want to (or can’t) go back to school”

Some nurses choose to develop professionally in ways that don’t involve academic coursework. Many options exist. Some might fit easily into your work life; others might take you to new venues along your professional-development route. (See Other professional-development options.)

Many nurses seeking professional development begin by becoming certified in a specialized clinical practice area. Certified nurses can contribute significantly to positive patient outcomes; many report increased job satisfaction.

For instance, in your current workplace, you could champion a particular initiative, such as skin care or fall prevention. Or you could choose a special population on your unit that particularly interests you (such as an ethnic group or the homeless) and become your unit’s expert in their care.

Beyond your own unit, you might prepare educational sessions for your facility, write articles for a facility-wide newsletter, or nominate peers for awards. You could become active in professional organizations, attend conferences, and bring back ideas to your unit. Many professional organizations also offer career-development options, including guidance to strengthen leadership skills, write grants, give presentations, and influence public policy at the local, state, or national level. Mentors can provide valuable support in choosing a professional path, as well as in coaching for specific skills, such as writing for publication.

Your community may offer avenues for professional development, such as working in a local clinic and learning new skills useful for novel populations. You could be a key contributor to community wellness events by providing education and health assessments. Through networking, you could build relationships and be invited to serve on community task forces.

Travel small or large distances

As you make decisions about your career development, look around for professional colleagues whom you respect, and recruit them to serve as resources for you. Meet with them to discuss your personal and professional values, mission, dreams, and resources.

After you’ve pondered and researched your options, start traveling on your selected route. Travel small—or perhaps bold—distances and give yourself the freedom to change your mind along the way. Eventually, you’ll find the best route to the career destination you seek.

Visit www.AmericanNurseToday.com for a complete list of references and information on academic degrees for nurses, advanced nursing practice roles, and advanced practice registered nurse roles.

Debra Siela is an associate professor of nursing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Renee Twibell is an associate professor of nursing at Ball State and a nurse researcher for IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie. Karrie Osborne is a staff nurse in the coronary intensive care unit, and Ann Taylor is a nurse manager of the progressive care unit at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Sophia Schild, EdD, MSN
    September 29, 2013 2:08 am

    Fantastic article about the career options. A must read for all RNs. Thank you for the research on this timely article.


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