Advancing Your Nursing Career: Exploring Your Options
Nursing isn’t a “one-and-done” type of career. Nursing is an evolving, ever-changing field of practice. That’s part of what drew you to it in the first place. You’ve already accomplished a lot—earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), landing your first registered nurse (RN) job, and making a difference in so many patients’ lives.
But you’ve never been one to get too comfortable. Now that you’ve gained some valuable experience, you’re starting to get the itch to take your career to the next level and increase your impact even more.
There are several ways to go about advancing your nursing career. But before we get to the practical steps you can take, it’s important to understand what’s driving your decision.
Reasons for advancing your nursing career
When it comes to nursing career advancement, most nurses are driven by one of three primary motivations: new job roles, greater pay, and increased job satisfaction.
1. Pursuing new job roles
Many BSN-holding nurses are interested in pursuing new nursing positions, especially leadership roles.
“Nurses with baccalaureate education often step into leadership positions early in their career,” Hawkins says. This can include RN jobs in different or more specialized departments, management positions, educator roles, or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) titles.
Here are some common examples of advanced nursing jobs:
As you can see, there are many different advancement opportunities for you based on what you’re looking for. Whether you want to narrow in on a specific clinical component with a specialty role or move away from clinical responsibilities and into the administrator or educator realm, there are ways you can achieve the change you’re seeking.
2. Increasing earning potential
The types of nursing positions listed above all come with greater responsibilities than your current RN role. And with greater responsibilities comes greater compensation – another enticing motive for advancing your nursing career.
So what does an advanced nursing job salary look like? Keep in mind that earning potential can vary greatly based on the type of healthcare facility – and the geographic region – where you’re employed. Let’s use our home state of Kentucky as an example.
Consider the following 2017 median annual salaries for advanced nursing positions in Kentucky:
Nurse practitioner: $95,450
Nurse midwife: $96,760
Nurse anesthetist: $185,040
Nurse manager: $90,050
Nurse educator: $71,250
For the sake of comparison, the 2017 median annual salary range for RNs in Kentucky was $61,530. You can see that regardless of which route you take, advancing your nursing career will likely have a positive effect on your compensation.
3. Improved job satisfaction
One of the less tangible, but just as important, reasons to advance your nursing career is to achieve greater job satisfaction. It’s not uncommon for registered nurses to experience burnout after years of serving patients. As you know, there are a number of reasons for this, including working long shifts, dealing with high-stress situations, having high patient volume, and feeling “compassion fatigue.”
It’s not to say that these characteristics are not found in advanced nursing positions, but sometimes a change of pace is just what nurses need to feel reinvigorated in their careers. It can also be incredibly rewarding to know you’re helping fill a role that is desperately needed.
For example, APRNs are playing an increasingly crucial role in helping ease the growing primary care physician shortage. Nurse educators, on the other hand, have the vital responsibility of training future generations of nurses. Nurse administrators can have a significant impact on improving patient outcomes on a large scale.
Regardless of which route you take, there is a rewarding opportunity for you to answer the call to advance your nursing career. “We need nurses who can rise to the occasion and lead nurses, interprofessional teams, hospitals, universities, and other healthcare organizations,” Hawkins urges.
4 Ways to advance your nursing career
How can you step up to the challenge and advance your nursing career? There are plenty of ways to work toward your professional development – some come with bigger commitments than others. Let’s walk through some practical advancement opportunities.
1. Find a nurse mentor
Day-to-day, nurses experience tricky situations that the average 9-5 worker just doesn’t understand. Finding someone you can consult with, ask advice of, and learn from can prove invaluable in navigating your career. This can mean finding someone to help you avoid burnout or discover new career options.
“Identifying a mentor can provide a newer nurse with a guide who can navigate them through the multitude of options that baccalaureate prepared nurses have in their careers,” Hawkins explains. “This can vary from bedside expert, manager, administrator, educator, advanced practice and other options.” A mentor may also be able to connect you with their network or provide a professional reference for your next job or graduate program applications.
If you’re interested in finding a mentor, try looking into formal mentoring programs run by your employer, professional nursing organizations, or your state’s professional nursing group. If you run out of luck there, it doesn’t hurt to ask your employer’s human resources office, reach out in a nursing-focused social media group, or simply ask your coworkers if they know of anyone who might be interested in being a mentor.
2. Earn a specialization certification
Unlike other healthcare careers, nursing allows you to change specializations throughout your career. Narrowing your focus can be a great way to increase your level of expertise and make the most of the parts of your job that you like best. Becoming certified in your desired specialty can help advance your career especially if it’s through a reputable organization.
“Seeking out advanced certifications can build the depth of expertise and expand a nurse’s ability to lead others within that specialty areas,” Hawkins adds.
There are many types of clinical specializations for practicing RNs, such as:
Adult critical care (CCRN)
Pediatric critical care (CCRN)
Cardiac surgery (CSC)
Progressive care (PCCN)
3. Join a professional nursing organization
Joining a professional nursing organization can allow you to make new connections outside of your current colleagues and former nursing school contacts. These are the types of contacts that could help you find an advanced practice nurse to shadow or help you meet a nursing mentor.
Nurses in professional organizations may also receive invitations or discounts on nursing conferences or continuing education courses. Employment assistance and other career resources may also be available to members. With more than 100 national nursing organizations, there’s bound to be one that’s right for you.
4. Further your nursing education
While going back to school is a big commitment, it can make a huge difference in your nursing career trajectory. If you have your sights set on one of the APRN, educator or nursing administration positions we highlighted above, you’ll need at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree in order to qualify. Some may even require a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).
Options for BSN nurses to advance their education
If you’re committed to expanding your impact by pursuing a more advanced nursing career, there are a few options worth considering.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
An MSN is a multifaceted degree that can prepare nurses for many different specialty positions. Most programs encompass different tracks to train future APRNs, nurse educators, or nurse administrators. There are also programs that focus specifically on different specializations depending on what type of APRN you’d like to become.
Such as the following specializations:
Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) Track: This program prepares professional nurses to provide a wide range of preventive and acute healthcare services to patients of all ages. Graduates of this program will be prepared to apply for FNP certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
MSN Education Track: This track is designed for nurses inspired to empower the next generation of nurses by providing instruction in higher education or clinical settings. This instruction could be in the form of staff development, health education or the preparation of nursing students. Some advanced positions may even require a DNP or PhD in nursing.
MSN Administration Track: This is a great next step for those interested in managerial or executive titles like nurse manager or director of nursing. This dynamic program combines elements of clinical, administrative, and evidence-based practice experiences with business skills like financial planning, organizational leadership, and human and resource management.
MSN/MBA Track: This dual-degree option is growing in popularity among nurses interested in pursuing positions in healthcare management, consulting, and administration. The MBA courses prepare students for jobs outside of direct healthcare settings while the MSN courses sharpen their management skills and keep them focused on their goal: better healthcare for patients.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
The DNP is a terminal degree that prepares nurses to practice at the highest levels of clinical expertise. These graduates are often viewed as leaders in planning and implementing strategies to improve patient health holistically.
Students in a post-master’s program can select one of the following two tracks:
Advanced Nursing Practice (ANP): This track will train students to be effective clinical leaders in the increasingly complex healthcare system. With a focus on the quality of patient care delivery and outcomes, students will learn to make improvements in the care of particular patient populations in the systems in which they practice.
Executive Leadership: This track focuses on preparing students for advanced specialty practice at the population, organization, or system level. Students will be challenged to identify aggregate health or system needs and work with diverse stakeholders to achieve health-related goals.
The BSN-DNP in Leadership is designed to prepare baccalaureate nurses to become organizational leaders in a variety of healthcare settings. The curriculum spans topics from the financial and economic aspects of healthcare to human and resource management, providing students with the specialized knowledge and skills needed to function as a nurse administrator.
Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing degree (PhD)
A PhD in Nursing is the highest level of education a nurse can achieve. The programs offering this degree are heavily research- and science-based, as opposed to the practice-based DNP. This terminal degree is for those who are drawn toward conducting important medical research that will advance the nursing field.
Plan your nursing career advancement
There’s no question that you’re ambitious and determined to become the best nurse you can be. The real question is where to focus your efforts. Now that you’re more familiar with some common advancement opportunities for nurses, you may have a better idea of where you’d like to make your impact.