Career Pathways & Education

How to Decide Which Nursing Specialty Is Right for You

Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC
February 12, 2020
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Are you a new graduate looking for a nursing specialty area in which to spend the next 40 years of your career? Well, this is NOT the article for you (although you may learn something about yourself), so keep scrolling. 

Are you wondering which personalities are better suited for each specialty area where you can grow, explore, and gain the confidence to take new leaps throughout your professional journey? Then you're in the right place.

I believe one of the BEST perks of being a nurse is the ubiquitous (yes, I will throw in big words here and there) nature of the nursing profession. Anywhere in the world that health care or community education is provided, there is space for nursing. 

In fact, I know many nurses who will create their own space in environments that need a nurse’s presence (we call them disruptors, and we love them). So, when you’re considering specialties, or where you can best use your nursing talent, you’re only limited by your imagination. (And your scope of practice.) But that’s another article. 

How Do You Choose a Nursing Specialty?

Now, the question at the heart of this piece: How to choose a nursing specialty? The first consideration when choosing a nursing specialty is your own personality. For example, let's take a look at the Certified Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). 

While the CRNA is one of the higher-salaried roles for advanced practice nurses after you complete very grueling and challenging coursework, you work in an environment where your patient is asleep, you usually don't interact with families, your wardrobe is predetermined for you, and you are trapped in a cold room for your entire shift. 

Now, if your personality is more introverted, you love to study, you need to control your environment and are happiest to work in a small team setting, then perhaps the CRNA specialty is very appealing. However, if your personality is more of the jump-in-jump-out-only-need-to-know-the-urgent-issues, then the emergency department (ED) is most likely a better fit.

nursing crna specialty bookshelf choosing a nursing specialty

Choosing a Nursing Specialty: Common Misconceptions

Many well-meaning nursing school instructors inform new graduates that they must complete at least two years of Med/Surg nursing or "floor nursing" before going into any specialty area to become well rounded and get a solid base of experience in nursing. While that might be the best plan for some nurses, this misinformation might discourage new graduates and could be contributing to the significantly high numbers of nurses leaving the profession within a year of graduating. 

I am here to tell you (yes, this is your permission slip) that if you feel called to a specialty such as critical care nursing, geriatrics, pediatrics, or labor and delivery (L&D), then you need to go for it. This will typically require a residency program for that area of focus, so do your homework and be prepared to put in extra time to learn. 

Once you choose a specialty, don’t feel like you have to stay in that area for the rest of your career. Whether they leave a focus area to find a better fit or to try something new, nurses can seek out unique specialties at any stage in their career. 

Sometimes, just a change in scenery can refresh a commitment to your area of expertise, which is where travel nursing comes in. Learning how other organizations manage a patient population in a specialty area gives your practice more depth and broadens your scope of knowledge. 

Many travel nurses do so in their local regions to have flexibility in their schedules and assignments. There are many benefits to the sub-specialty of traveling, including broad exposure to organizational processes, a lifetime of networking opportunities, travel (duh), the beauty of NOT getting involved with the politics of a department, and housing allowances.

nursing medical equipment choosing a nursing specialty

How Can Your Personality Assist You in Choosing a Specialty? 

Here are some focus areas and considerations when assessing your character:

  • Pediatrics: Do you like parents? It's not so much about loving kids – a pediatric nurse must be able to comfort and reassure worried parents. 
  • Critical Care: Do you like to know EVERYTHING about your patients, such as how much they peed in the last hour, what differential diagnosis could be presenting because they have a new symptom, and which meds are making the BP rise or fall?
  • Geriatrics: Are you patient? Can you slow your teaching, your thoughts, and your actions to support an elderly patient to learn how to use a new device or recognize the subtle signs of a UTI when they are “a little off today?”
  • Family Nurse Practitioner: Do you like to interact with patients of all ages, dig into the diagnosis, prescribe treatment, and provide education in a (typically) fast-paced environment?
  • School Nurse: Do you enjoy public health issues, interacting with children of all ages (and their parents), working in a team environment, and driving to cover many schools in a district?
  • L&D: Do you like a fast-paced never-know-what-will-roll-in environment balanced with an "It's SO QUIET” shift? Are you nurturing and directive at the same time? Do you want to work in tandem with the Obstetric (OB) team where it’s often all-hands-on-deck?
  • Midwife: Do you love the entire process of family planning through birthing the infant? Are you compassionate and willing to coach women through the pregnancy and during the birth? Are you willing to assume full responsibility for both lives?
  • ED (ER Nurse): Do you thrive on the adrenalin of a code? Do you like to figure out (as soon as humanly possible) what might be going on with a patient and anticipate every need the medical team will have for treatment options? Do you get annoyed if the patient needs to get up to use the bathroom (because if you can get up and pee, you DON’T need to be in my ED!)?
  • Clinical Educator: Do you enjoy teaching and influencing nurses to new processes or equipment? Do you enjoy being in a more supportive role where you can encourage nurses who are struggling to absorb the electronic health record or new infusion pump? Do you enjoy writing and creating teaching aids?

The options for nursing specialties are too many to list here, but I hope you get an idea to allow your personality to select a specialty area where you can thrive. 

However, if you choose to stay working "the floor," or any general nursing departments, that is a specialty area all on its own. Being able to manage a large group of patients, provide teaching, wound care, work with multidisciplinary team members, and try to catch the clinician to report a concern is not for the faint of heart.

Here’s the takeaway: Don't be afraid to try different nursing specialties at any stage in your career. Providing care to patients and the communities we serve is a gift no matter where you present it.

Decided on a Specialty and Now You're Looking for a Job?

Create a free Trusted profile, and let us help you find your next (or first) travel nursing contract.

Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC

In my nearly 30 years as a Registered Nurse, I have had the privilege to work and lead in numerous areas across the continuum of healthcare including informatics, clinical education, ICU, ambulatory care and clinical practice consulting. As the silver tsunami of retirements hit nursing and healthcare leaders, I strongly believe we need a plan to capture the accumulated knowledge through formal and purposeful mentoring. I created the Nurse Leader Mastermind to provide a support system to nurses leading from the middle.

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