Guide to the Top Nursing Specialties
You can choose to focus your studies in dozens of nursing specializations, from family practice to surgical care to midwifery, which are open to graduates from accredited online nursing schools and traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. Specializing in sought-after nursing niches can lead to greater job security, increased pay, and a competitive advantage over other general nursing employees.
The resource below provides a comprehensive overview of the specializations available in nursing, as well as their education requirements and online nursing certification information. It also includes tips for how to determine if a specialization is the right fit for you.
Investigate the Most Popular Nursing Specialties
Clinical Nursing Specialties
Nurses who choose clinical specialties generally work directly with patients in a clinic or hospital setting, or may supervise other nurses working with patients.
Clinical nurse specialist
Clinical nurse specialists focus on a specific disease or ailment and become experts in that area. They have earned a BSN as well as a traditional or online master’s in nursing degree with a focus on diagnosing and treating a particular illness, such as cancer, or a focus on administration, in which case they manage other nurses and medical professionals in a specific department of a hospital or clinic. They also need a Certified Nurse Specialist (CNS) credential. This specialty may be a good fit if you are interested in pathology or medical administration.
Clinical research nurse
Rather than working directly with patients, clinical research nurses specialize in conducting clinical experiments in order to determine best practices and improve the field of nursing as a whole. Most clinical research nurses hold a PhD in nursing and have experience working as RNs. While they may conduct research in hospitals or clinics, most research nurses are employed by universities and other academic institutions and spend much of their time conducting, writing, and publishing original research. If you enjoy conducting trials and studying the practice of nursing, this specialization may be for you.
Genetics nurses specialize in treating hereditary diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes. They work directly with patients who have these conditions or may be at risk to explain how diet, exercise, and other factors may affect their conditions, and to discuss treatment options. In order to become a genetics nurse, you need to complete an RN online or from a traditional institution. After five years of clinical experience as an RN, you can apply to take the Genetic Clinical Nurse certification exam. This specialty may be for you if you are interested in biology and genetics.
Infectious disease nursing
Infection disease nurses, sometimes known as infection control nurses, are specialists in communicable diseases and their prevention, particularly in hospital and clinical settings where infection rates are high. They may recommend preventative measures to patients as well as to medical staff in order to curb the spread of infectious diseases. These nurses hold an ASN or BSN, are practicing RNs, and have passed an additional certification exam from the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc
. If you are interested in pathology and public health, this specialty may be a good fit.
Pain management and palliative care nursing
Pain management nurses specialize in treating chronic pain as well as acute pain a patient may experience from a variety of causes. They are experts in pain medication use and administration, and often teach patients how to manage pain on their own. This specialization requires an ASN or BSN degree, two years of practice as an RN including at least 2,000 hours in pain management, and a passing score on the Pain Management certification exam (RN-BC). If you are interested in physical therapy and pharmacology, this specialization may appeal to you.
Oncology nurses specialize in the treatment and diagnosis of various types of cancer, and work closely with oncologists to administer chemotherapy, cancer medications, and other treatments. To become an oncology nurse, you need to have a BSN and have worked as an RN for at least a year, with at least 1,000 hours of experience in an oncology department. Then you will be eligible to apply for Oncology Nurse Certification (OCN). This specialization may be for you if you are interested in pathology and genetics.
Radiology nurses provide care for patients undergoing medical procedures and tests that require the use of ultrasound machines and MRI equipment, as well as for patients receiving radiation therapy for cancer treatments. Most radiology nurses will specialize in one of these fields, though they may receive training on various devices. RNs with an ASN or BSN need at least 2,000 hours of experience working in radiology and 30 hours of continuing education credits in the field before they can apply to take the Certified Radiology Nurse exam. This specialization may be a good fit if you are interested in medical technology and its applications in diagnosis and treatment.
Renal dialysis nursing
Renal dialysis nurses are experts in inpatient procedures requiring the use of dialysis machines, such as in the case of renal failure and kidney replacement procedures. Renal dialysis nurses are specifically trained to operate hemodialysis machines and to prepare patients for procedures. To become a renal dialysis nurse, you need to be a practicing RN with a BSN, complete 3,000 hours of experience in dialysis and 30 continuing education credits before earning designation as a Certified Nephrology Nurse (CNN). If you are interested in nephrology, pharmacology, and nutrition, you should consider this specialty.
Urology nurses treat patients with problems stemming from the urinary tract, such as kidney or renal stones or bladder infections. In order to become a urologic nurse, you need to be a practicing RN with an ASN or BSN, and have at least one year of experience working in urology before you can receive the status of a Certified Urologic Registered Nurse (CURN). You should consider this specialty if you want to work directly with patients and have an interest in nephrology and preventative care.
Community Nursing Specialties
Community nurses not only treat patients as individuals, they work with an entire community to improve public health as a whole.
Community health nursing
Community health nurses work with public institutions, schools, and community clinics to improve the health of an entire community rather than individual patients. They often collaborate with educators and other public figures to promote proper nutrition, immunization, and disease prevention techniques in a community. Community health nurses have an ASN or BSN and are RNs with at least 500 hours of experience in public health, and often have passed a voluntary public health nursing exam. This specialty is for nurses interested in public health and education.
Correctional nurses are nurses with general nursing knowledge that work in jails, prisons, or juvenile facilities and often treat acute injuries as well as chronic illnesses. They often provide ongoing treatment to patients recovering from drug addiction or those with mental illnesses. In order to specialize in correctional nursing, you need to be an RN and have worked in a correctional facility for at least a year, after which you can apply to take the Correctional Health Professional certification exam. If you are interested in mental health nursing or public health, you should consider this specialty.
Home health nursing
Home health nurses care for patients within their own homes, taking daily vitals and administering medications or treatments. Many home health nurses work with elderly or disabled patients. In order to become a home health nurse, you need to be a practicing RN with an ASN or BSN and then take the Home Health Care Nurse certification exam through the American Nurses Credentialing Center
(ANCC). This may the specialization for you if you are interested in physical therapy or geriatrics, or if you would prefer to work outside of a clinical setting.
Hospice nursing is different from every other type of nursing in that rather than helping patients recover from illnesses or injuries, hospice nurses treat patients who will not recover and strive to make their lives as comfortable as possible. To become a hospice nurse, you need at least two years of experience in a hospice or similar institution, after which you can apply to take an exam to become a Certified Hospice and Palliative Licensed Nurse (CHPN). This specialty may be for you if you are interested in geriatrics or genetic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Military and uniformed services nursing
Military nurses differ from every other branch of nursing in that they are active members of a military branch, such as the Army or Air Force, in addition to being RNs. Many nurses choose to become military nurses to pay for their associate’s or bachelor’s education, after which they spend several years working for the military. To become a military nurse, you need to enlist in your desired branch of the military, either before or after you have completed your nursing education. You should become a military nurse if you are interested in trauma medicine and physical education, and if you are in good physical health.
Public health nurses focus on the health and quality of life of an entire community, and not just individual patients. They often work as educators to spread information about disease prevention, immunization, and proper nutrition to the community. Most public health nurses have earned a traditional or online associate nursing degree or a BSN, have experience as RNs with at least 500 hours in public health, and have passed a voluntary public health nursing exam. This specialty will appeal to you if you are interested in education and the prevention of infectious diseases.
Rural nurses treat patients in rural or agricultural communities who may not have access to regular healthcare facilities. They are generalists with a broad range of skills and experience in everything from acute illnesses and injuries to labor and delivery to emergency care. Often, rural nurses are the only medical professional a community has access to, so they must be very well trained and prepared for any situation. Most rural nurses have advanced degrees such as an MSN in addition to an RN and are Certified Nurse Practitioners with a specialty in rural nursing. This specialty should appeal to you if you like to work independently and are interested in health education and general practice.
School nurses treat children and teenagers with a variety of ailments, treating allergic reactions and administering daily medications. They must be comfortable working with children and be able to explain treatments to young patients. To become a school nurse, you need to be an RN with at least three years or 4,000 hours of experience working in an academic setting before you can take the National Certification Examination for School Nurses through the National Board for Certification of School Nurses
. This specialty is for you if you are interested in pediatric care and general practice.
Telemetry nurses are experts in using electrocardiograms and similar machines used to measure a patient’s heartbeat and other vital signs. Telemetry nurses are often experts in heart health and typically work in the cardiology departments of hospitals and clinics. To become a telemetry nurse, you need to be an RN with at least 1,750 hours of clinical experience in a progressive care unit, after which you can apply to take the exam to become a Certified Progressive Care Nurse (PCCN). You should consider this specialization if you are interested in cardiology and operating medical equipment.
Travel nurses are general practice nurses who work in a variety of environments, many times overseas. They may travel to third-world countries and work in various treatment facilities, often in adverse conditions. They need to have a broad knowledge of nursing as they may deal with everything from acute trauma to chronic illnesses such as malaria or AIDS. To become a travel nurse, you need to be an RN with at least a year of experience, after which you can apply to a nurse placement agency that places nurses in overseas facilities. This is the specialty for you if you enjoy travel and are interested in general practice nursing outside of traditional clinics.
Emergency Nursing Specialties
Emergency nurses typically work in the emergency rooms of hospitals or clinics or on emergency vehicles and assist patients who need immediate medical attention due to trauma or accidents.
Ambulatory care nursing
Ambulatory care nurses work outside of hospitals, often providing medical screenings and educating patients who may not have access to proper care facilities. To become an ambulatory care nurse, you need to be an RN with at least 2,000 hours of ambulatory experience and 30 hours of continuing education before applying to take the exam to become an Ambulatory Care Nurse (ACN). This specialty may be for you if you are interested in public health and health education.
Burn nurses are specially trained to treat trauma and injuries resulting from fire and other types of burns. They typically work in the burn and trauma departments of hospital ICUs. To become a burn nurse, you need to be a practicing RN and receive certification from the American Burn Association
. You should consider this specialty if you are interested in trauma care and pain management.
Cardiac nurses are experts in treating patients with a variety of heart ailments, from patients with heart disease to those recovering from a heart attack. They may advise patients on proper nutrition and exercise routines for prevention or recovery, and often monitor electrocardiogram equipment and other devices. To become a cardiac nurse, you need at least two years of experience as an RN, with 2,000 hours in cardiovascular nursing, and 30 hours of continuing education before you can take the Cardiac-Vascular Nursing certification (RN-BC) exam from the ANCC
, which you need to retake every five years. This specialty is for you if you are interested in cardiovascular health and intensive care nursing.
Critical care nursing
Critical care nurses often work in the emergency or ICU departments of hospitals and treat critically ill or injured patients. To become a critical care nurse, you need to be a practicing RN with at least two years of experience and take continuing education courses in critical care. The amount of credit needed is determined by each hospital or clinic. Afterwards, you can apply to take the exam to become a Certified Critical Care Nurse (CCRN). This specialization is a good fit if you are interested in trauma care and pain management, as well as life support systems.
Emergency nurses often work in high-stress, critical situations where time is a very important factor in the survival or recovery of a patient. They may work in hospital emergency rooms or on ambulances and other rescue vehicles and often treat serious traumas. To become an emergency nurse, you need to be an RN with two years of experience before you can apply to take the certification exam from the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN). You should consider this specialty if you are interested in trauma nursing and pain management.
Forensic nurses work directly with law enforcement personnel and the legal system in order to produce medical evidence that may be relevant to a crime, such as in the case of a sexual assault or accidental death. To become a forensic nurse, you need to be an RN with several years of experience before you can apply to take the Pediatric or Adolescent/Adult Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner certification exam. This specialty may be a good match if you want to work with victims of crimes as well as law enforcement workers.
A pulmonary nurse is an expert in respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis or asthma. They may work in special treatment facilities or the critical care units of hospitals. To become a pulmonary nurse, you need to be an RN with 1,750 hours of experience in critical care before you can apply to take the exam to become a Certified Pulmonary Function Technician (CPFT). This specialization is a good fit if you are interested in the respiratory system and chronic condition care.
Family Nursing Specialties
Family nurses treat very young and very old patients for a variety of illnesses stemming from age as well as acute conditions.
Geriatric nurses care for elderly patients suffering from illnesses and conditions that are common in old age, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. They may work in hospitals or nursing homes, or often in home care. To become a geriatric nurse, you need to be an RN and have at least two years of clinical experience, 2,000 hours in geriatrics, and 30 hours of continuing education before you can take the Gerontological Nursing certification exam through the ANCC
. This specialty is for you if you are interested in geriatrics and long-term care.
Neonatal nurses treat newborn babies who are premature or otherwise ill. They often work in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a hospital. To become a certified neonatal nurse, you need to be an RN with several years of experience working with newborns before you can apply to take the critical care neonatal nursing certification exam through the American Association of Critical Care Nursing
. You should consider this specialization if you are interested in intensive care as well as pediatrics.
Pediatric nurses treat children with a variety of acute and chronic illnesses as well as trauma. They may work at the pediatric department of a hospital or clinic or at a children’s hospital. To become a pediatric nurse, you need to become an RN, after which you can earn continuing education credits in a specialization within pediatric nursing such as primary care or mental health before taking the Pediatric Nurse certification exam through the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board
. This specialization is for you if you enjoy working with children and are interested in pediatrics and childhood psychology.
Management Nursing Specialties
Nurses specializing in management oversee other nurses and staff at healthcare facilities and ensure hospital department in their charge runs smoothly.
Case management nurses work with patients with chronic conditions to coordinate their long-term treatments, educate them on preventative measures, and oversee their general progress. To become a case management nurse, you need to be an RN with at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience and pass the Nursing Case Management certification exam from the ANCC
. This is a good specialization for you if you are interested in long-term care and chronic illness treatment.
Informatics nurses are experts when it comes to the software used to compile and manage healthcare data as well as the computer systems used in clinics and hospitals. Most informatics nurses have backgrounds in computer science. If you want to become an informatics nurse, you need to be an RN with a BSN, take continuing education courses in informatics, and pass the Informatics Nursing certification exam from the ANCC
. This is the specialization for you if you are interested in information technology and the use of computer systems for the management of medical data.
Nurse managers oversee other nurses and the overall treatment of the patients under their care. They are interested in quality assurance and the administrative side of nursing. To become a nurse manager, you need a BSN as well as a second major or minor in business management or administration, and an advanced degree such as an MSN or a master’s in healthcare or business administration (MHA/MBA). You also need to pass the Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) exam offered by the American Organization of Nurse Executives
. This specialty is a good match if you have strong communication skills and are interested in management and healthcare administration.
Nurse advocates work as the intermediaries between physicians and patients and are able to understand and translate a doctor’s recommendations as well as a patient’s concerns to come up with the best course of treatment. To become a nurse advocate, you need to be an experienced RN with a BSN and take continuing education classes in patient education and public health. You should consider this specialty if you have strong communication skills and an interest in health education and advocacy.
Legal nurse consultants work directly with insurance companies, attorneys, and other legal professionals, often serving as medical experts in court cases. To become a legal nurse consultant, you need extensive experience as an RN, generally five or more years, before you can apply to become a Legal Nurse Consultant Certified (LNCC), a title conferred by the American Legal Nurse Consultant Certification Board
(ALNCCB). This specialty should appeal to you if you are interested in medical law and insurance.
Psychological Nursing Specialties
Psychological nursing focuses on the mental health aspects of illnesses and treatments as opposed to the physical aspects.
Behavioral health nursing
Behavioral health nurses, also known as mental health nurses, treat patients with a variety of mental health conditions and may work in psychiatric hospitals. While most behavioral health nurses are RNs, they may also have advanced degrees such as a master’s or doctorate in advanced practice nursing with a focus on psychiatry, which allows them to become Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (APRN-PMHNPs). This specialty may appeal to you if you are interested in mental health and psychology.
Developmental disabilities nursing
Developmental disabilities nurses are also known as special needs nurses. They treat patients who suffer from disabilities such as autism or Down’s syndrome, often working directly with their families as well. To become a developmental disabilities nurse, you need to be an RN with at least two years of experience before you can apply to take the certification exam through the Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association
(DDNA). This specialization is for you if you are interested in patient education and the treatment of mental and developmental disabilities.
Psychiatric or mental health nursing
Mental health nurses care for patients with a variety of mental health conditions, often in psychiatric hospitals or the psychiatric units of hospitals. To become a specialized mental health nurse, you need to be an RN with a master’s or doctorate in advanced practice nursing with a focus on psychiatry, after which you can be certified as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (APRN-PMHNP). This specialty should appeal to you if you are interested in mental health and psychiatry.
Rehabilitation nurses help patients overcome illnesses and injuries and regain motor functions. They may also train patients in adapting to their disabilities. To become a rehabilitation nurse, you need to be an RN with at least two years of experience and take continuing education classes in rehabilitation before taking the Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN) exam from the Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board
(RNCB). This specialty is for you if you are interested in physical therapy and treating disabilities.
Substance abuse nursing
Substance abuse nurses treat patients addicted to various drugs, alcohol, or other harmful substances. They manage the pain of patients recovering from addictions and monitor them for relapses, in addition to providing mental health support. To become a substance abuse nurse, you need to be an RN with at least 4,000 hours of experience before you can apply to take the substance abuse nurse certification exam from the International Nurses Society on Addictions
. This are of specialization should appeal to you if you are interested in mental health and addiction studies.
Surgical Nursing Specialties
Surgical nursing specialists assist physicians and surgeons in a variety of procedures intended to save or improve a patient’s life.
Surgical nurses work directly with physicians and surgeons in various types of operations. They are highly trained experts and perform their roles under high pressure. To become a surgical nurse, you need to be an RN with experience in an ICU or emergency room before applying to take the Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN) exam through the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board
(MSNCB). If you are interested in surgical procedures and human anatomy, this specialty is a viable option for you.
Nurse Anesthetist is one of the most in-demand and highest paying nursing specialties. Nurse Anesthetists are trained to administer anesthesia before and during surgical procedures. To become a Nurse Anesthetist, you will need an MSN in addition to experience as an RN in an ICU or emergency room, after which you can take the exam to become a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). This specialty is for you if you are interested in pain management and surgical procedures.
Operating room nursing
Operating room nurses, also known as perioperative nurses, prepare patients for surgery and provide postoperative care. They also assist surgeons during operations. To become a certified operating room nurse, you need to be an RN with a BSN and experience in surgical or emergency room nursing before you can take the Certified Nurse Operating Room (CNOR) exam offered by the Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses
(AORN). This specialty will appeal to you if you are interested in surgical nursing and pain management.
Perianesthesia nurses work in the recovery room of a hospital and help patients recover from anesthesia after surgery. They may administer additional pain medications as needed and instruct patients in home care once they are discharged. To become a perianesthesia nurse, you need to be an RN and have at least 1,800 hours of experience working with anesthesia before taking the Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse exam (CPAN). You should consider this specialization if you are interested in anesthesia and rehabilitation care.
Plastic and reconstructive surgical nursing
Plastic surgery nurses treat patients undergoing elective plastic surgery or reconstructive surgery after an accident or trauma. They usually work with surgeons in hospitals or in private plastic surgery clinics. To become a plastic surgery nurse, you need to be an RN with at least two years of experience in surgical nursing before you can test to become a Certified Plastic Surgery Nurse (CPSN). This specialization should appeal to students interested in surgical nursing and rehabilitation.
Transplantation nurses prepare patients who need to undergo organ transplant procedures, such as liver or kidney transplants, as well as provide care for their donors. To become a transplant nurse, you need to be an RN with ICU or surgical experience before you can take the certification exam offered by the American Board for Transplant Certification
. If you are interested in surgical nursing or working in operating rooms, this specialty may be perfect for you.
Women’s Health Nursing Specialties
Women’s health nurses specialize in reproductive care at all stages, including pregnancy, labor, and neonatal care, in addition to providing regular gynecological care.
Labor and delivery nursing
Labor and delivery nurses work in the maternity units of hospitals and clinics and are present during the labor stage of a pregnancy. They care for both the mother and child and monitor the vitals of both throughout delivery. To become a certified labor and delivery nurse, you need to be an RN, preferably with elective courses in pregnancy, and pass the Inpatient Obstetric Nursing
(RNC-OB) exam. This specialty should appeal to you if you are interested in obstetric health and maternity care.
Maternal-child nurses are nurses who are trained in obstetrical (labor and delivery) nursing, pediatric nursing, and neonatal care. They may be generalists with experience in all of these fields, or they may have certifications for each field individually and be able to work in any of these roles. To become a maternal-child nurse, you need to be an RN with experience and certifications in these specialties. This specialty will appeal to you if you are interested in pediatrics and obstetrics.
A nurse-midwife delivers babies in situations where a pregnancy is expected to present little risk or when a woman would prefer to give birth outside of a hospital maternity ward. Some nurse-midwives may deliver babies on their own, while others work with obstetricians or other physicians. To become a nurse-midwife, you need to be an RN with at least two years of experience in maternity care and receive certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives Certification Council
(ACNM). This specialty is for you if you are interested in delivering babies and practicing obstetric nursing.
Obstetrics gynecology nursing
Obstetrics gynecology nurses or OB/GYN nurses care for women and their reproductive health. They are specialists in women’s reproductive organs and various sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, birth control, as well as sexual health in general. To become an OB/GYN nurse, you need to be an RN and gain an Inpatient Obstetric Nursing (RNC-OB) certification. This specialization should appeal to you if you are interested in reproductive care and obstetrics.
Reproductive nurses work with families and treat patients with fertility problems, advise patients on topics such as birth control, and assist women as they go through menopause. To become a reproductive nurse, you need to be an RN and earn a reproductive nursing certification in obstetrics or a similar specialization through the National Certification Corporation
. You should consider a specialization in reproductive nursing if you are interested in family planning and fertility.