If you like a little variety in your life, registered nursing might be an ideal career. RNs are the largest single profession in health care, largely because they can be trained to work in almost any setting. That makes for a varied and interesting career, but the sheer volume of specialties and certifications can be a bit overwhelming. Most of those credentials fall into a few broad categories, so it's not as daunting as it might seem at first.
The first credential any RN needs to work on is her nursing license. Each state's board of nursing has slightly different requirements, but every aspiring RN has to earn at least an associate degree in nursing, and preferably a bachelor's degree. After graduation, you'll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, or NCLEX-RN. That's a national certification exam, recognized by all states. After you've passed, you can apply for and receive your state nursing license. Some states might have other criteria, including drug testing or a criminal records check.
Most registered nurses begin their careers as generalists, serving wherever they're needed. If you have a special interest in one area of nursing, such as surgery or obstetrics, you might begin to specialize in that area. Several professional organizations offer these certifications, in areas including critical care, palliative care, obstetrics and gynecology, geriatrics or pediatrics, oncology or cardiology. Some nurses also benefit from skills-based certifications such as phlebotomy, radiology, ultrasound or medical records management. These are separate professions in their own right, but you can cross-train and cross-certify in them to make yourself more marketable.
If you want to push your career to the limit, think about becoming an advanced practice nurse. These are nurse-midwives, nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists. You'd have to go back to school for a master's or doctoral degree in your chosen field, and pass another certification exam when you graduate. Once you're certified, you can practice at a doctor-like level of care. Some states require advanced practice nurses to be supervised by a physician, but others don't. Like regular registered nurses, advanced practice nurses can earn specialized certifications in areas such as oncology or cardiology.
Not all advanced degrees for nurses lead to advanced practice. Nurse educators must earn a master's or doctoral degree, and then pursue certification through the National League for Nursing. If you have a computer degree or an IT background, you can be certified in nursing informatics, the management of computerized patient records and clinical data. Nurses with a doctoral degree can work in pure research, or find employment in the corporate sector with pharmaceutical companies. If you're supremely ambitious and have a take-charge personality, you can take an advanced degree in business or health care administration and move into a management position.
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