The traditional and most general definition of a nurse is simply a professional who provides physical and emotional care for patients who suffer from an illness or injury. While this definition is still technically correct, the profession has changed significantly in recent years. As medical technology has improved and education has become more formal, the role of nurses has become more complex and specialized.
The top nursing careers do not always involve direct patient care but can also include research, education, clinical management, medical administration and much more. However, while the best career no longer has to include caring for individual patients, most nurses do continue to work with sick and injured people in a healthcare setting.
For RNs who want to work with patients, their options for careers are incredibly diverse. There are dozens of specialty sub-fields that focus on specific body systems like cardiology or neurology as well as sub-fields that focus on specific diseases like cancer or AIDS. However, whichever sub-specialty you think might be the best career for you, you will still probably end up working in 1 of the following 5 general fields:
Adult and family nursing
Many jobs with a nursing degree as a requirement will lead you into a sub-specialty within the larger field of adult and family nursing. This can include any specialization that primarily treats physically mature patients who are usually between the ages of 16 and 65.
Family nursing is also usually included in this category since reproductive maturity is a critical aspect of adult nursing. The best careers for RNs who work with families and adults will often include specialized RNs like home health nurses, women’s health nurses, critical care nurses and infectious disease nurses.
Jobs for students who are especially interested in children, pregnancy and motherhood will usually fall into 1 of the following 3 categories:
RNs who enter careers in obstetrical nursing provide care to women who are trying to become pregnant, are already pregnant or have recently given birth. As an obstetrical nurse you will have a wide range of duties. This can include performing routine tests on both mothers and their unborn babies, educating mothers-to-be and assisting during childbirth. Obstetrical nurses often work together with physicians, nurse practitioners and midwives in a variety of healthcare settings.
Neonatal nursing is a relatively new field that focuses on providing care to newborn babies up to 28 days old. Neonatal nurses typically work in hospitals since this is where the majority of births take place.
In the U.S., there are 3 levels of neonatal nursing. The first level cares for healthy newborns, the second works with newborns who are born prematurely or have minor illnesses and the third cares for severely ill or mentally retarded babies. Although newborn babies at each care level will usually be in different parts of the hospital, neonatal nurses do not need to have different licenses to be allowed to practice at each level.
As a pediatric nurse you will provide healthcare to infants, children and adolescents that range from about 1 month to about 16 years old. Pediatric nurses have specialized knowledge about the developmental stages that children go through on their way to adulthood. Additionally, they must be able to recognize and respond to the various physical changes and health problems that are associated with each stage of development.
Jobs in the field of pediatric nursing can lead you to a large variety of workplaces, including hospitals, schools, physicians’ offices, clinics and even emergency rooms. Finally, if you think that a career as a pediatric nurse might be right for you, you should be sure that you have some natural skills for communicating with children. Most pediatric nurses agree that traditional degrees and online training alone cannot provide you with all the skills that you need to be able to work with children.
Geriatric nursing specializes in providing care for old and aging patients. Just like pediatric nurses must know about a child’s developmental stages, a geriatric nurse must have the skills and understanding that are needed to deal with the complex physical changes that aging patients experience. This often includes providing preventative care that helps patients live longer and more pleasant lives. However, it can also mean giving palliative care, which ensures that chronically ill and dying patients are as comfortable as possible.
The field of geriatric medicine is now 1 of the fastest growing branches of medicine in the U.S. This is because of the aging baby-boomer generation as well as recent advances in medical technology that have made it possible for aging patients to live longer. As a result, the demand for geriatric nurses in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes is growing more quickly than other specialties.
However, you should not rush into the career simply because the job prospects are good. Providing care for the elderly can be very difficult both professionally and psychologically. In addition to giving basic healthcare services, a career in geriatric nursing will also require you to support your patients emotionally. As a geriatric nurse, you will often work closely with family members to educate them on their loved one’s condition and provide them with emotional support.
Community and public health nursing
In contrast to other fields, public health nurses do not usually care for individual patients but instead promote health in large groups of people. Careers in the field of community health focus on how factors like lifestyle, environment and genetic makeup can positively or negatively influence the health of entire populations.
Careers in the field of public health will require you to work as a health educator for communities. This can involve creating disease awareness programs for at-risk groups or setting up workshops to educate people about available healthcare services. And if you are still in school, community health projects like these often provide volunteer jobs for majors that can give you the chance to experience firsthand what community health nursing is really like.
School nurses are probably the most common type of public health nurses. In addition to treating individual students, school nurses also promote the general health of their school’s student population and must always be on the lookout for disease outbreaks.
Finally, even the best public health nurses cannot treat an entire population of patients alone, and they often need the support of other specialized nurses. For instance, genetic nurses and ambulatory nurses often help community health nurses research and carry out their projects.
Psychiatric-mental health nursing
Unlike the other general fields that focus mainly on treating a patient’s physical needs, this specialization will require you to care for the mental health of individuals, families, groups and communities.
Your exact responsibilities as a mental health nurse will depend on your degree and level of expertise. For instance, the duties of an RN in a psychiatric hospital will differ significantly from the duties of a psychiatric advanced practice nurse (APRN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP). However, all psychiatric nurses care for patients who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder.
The science of mental health is very different from other branches of medicine, and psychiatric nurses receive specialized training in how to recognize, assess, diagnose and treat patients with mental disorders. And although some psychiatric nurses work in general hospitals, it is more likely that you will find a job in a specialized psychiatric hospital or mental health clinic.
It is also important to remember that even very distinct fields like psychiatric nursing often overlap with other branches. For example, community mental health nurses and community rehabilitation nurses must combine the knowledge and skills of different specializations to treat specific individuals and populations. And within these fields there are even more specialized professionals, such as forensic mental health nurses. These specially trained RNs care for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes and try to integrate them back into their community.
Special fields of nursing
There are numerous universities, community colleges and online degrees that will give you with the general knowledge and skills that you need to begin a career in 1 of these general fields. However, before you finish your program and start your RN career, you should start thinking about which specialty you would like to pursue.
There are literally dozens and dozens of specialties within each general field. A few examples of these include forensic, radiology, trauma and critical care, uniformed services, oncology, cardiac, orthopedic and even space nursing.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is 1 of the fastest growing professions in America, and there is a demand for RNs and APRNs in almost every specialization. Be sure to research every specialty field that interests you. Be sure to look for important information about what each type of nurse does, where they work, how much they earn and what kind of educational requirements they need.