There must be a way to carve out a satisfying career within a $1.7 trillion industry. Armed with a nursing degree, men and women work in a variety of health-care settings. From the emergency room (ER) to the operating room to the intensive care unit, about 60% of registered nurses were employed by hospitals in 2010, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Other nursing professionals worked in doctor's offices, schools, community outreach centers, public policy offices, outpatient clinics and surgery centers. A nursing career is clearly not "one size fits all."
"One of the best things about being a nurse," explains Eileen Fletcher, a registered nurse in Reno, Nevada, "is that it is endlessly interesting." Fletcher began her nursing career in the "float pool," where she worked in a different area of the hospital every day, gaining familiarity with the range of nursing activities throughout the facility. In time, she trained to specialize in critical care and later worked in the ER. Eventually, Fletcher moved into management, where she deepened her appreciation for the business side of health care delivery and found that she enjoyed coaching and mentoring other nurses. After 13 years in management, Fletcher realized she missed participating regularly in hands-on care so she transitioned to work in surgery. "Nursing is a field that provides incredible flexibility," Fletcher says. "If a nurse ever wants a change, simply moving to another department can provide an entirely different experience."
Health care spending accounted for 17.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and registered nurses make up the single largest health care occupation. With 19 percent employment growth forecast, the BLS projects that 526,800 new jobs could become available for registered nurses (RNs) between 2012 and 2022. Many of these positions are likely to be well compensated. Nationwide data from the BLS show the mean wage for registered nurses was $68,910 in May 2013, and those in the 90th percentile earned $96,320 that year.
A nursing degree and more: 5 secret ingredients for success
With a promising career outlook and above average pay, it is no wonder the BLS tallies 2.6 million registered nurses today. But what does it take to truly excel at nursing? Consider five critical characteristics shared by the best nurses in any setting:
1. Heart of platinum
Compassion and kindness are vitally important in health care delivery. Fletcher describes the experience that drew her to pursue a nursing career. "I had complications during childbirth that required an emergency Cesarean section. My husband and I were living far away from our families and had no local relatives to offer support during a very stressful time. Throughout my 10-day hospitalization, there was one nurse who was especially gentle and empathetic. She lifted me up with her 'you can do this' encouragement, and she taught me a great deal. When my son and I were discharged from the hospital, I had a new confidence that we would be okay and I remember thinking, 'I would love to help someone else as much as she helped me.' By the time my son was a toddler, I began to pursue my nursing degree."
2. Laser-sharp eyes
Attention to detail goes way beyond getting dosage instructions right. "Nurses are often the first to pick up on nuances and subtleties that may indicate a change in a patient's status," Fletcher says. It is essential that nurses pass this information on to other members of the patient-care team. "I can't tell you how many times a nurse has detected something that ends up being critical," she emphasizes.
3. Back of steel
Fletcher believes great nurses have a stellar work ethic. It's not just maintaining energy during long shifts. A great example is sterile technique: "If something gets contaminated, a nurse has to speak up even when it means starting all over and taking longer to get the work done." During a typical nursing career, mistakes are going to happen and problems are sometimes unavoidable. "It's about what you do when things go wrong that makes all the difference," Fletcher says.
4. Brain that bends
A flexible attitude can go a long way in a modern nursing environment. Nurses may be called upon to move from one unit to another if a colleague is on vacation or becomes ill. Or, an influx of cases "may require a nurse to work outside his or her comfort zone," Fletcher explains. Those employed in doctor's offices might need to pitch in on patient scheduling or help with administrative paperwork when other staff is unavailable.
5. Aura of professionalism
It's important to maintain coolness during health crises and aplomb during emotional outbursts, Fletcher believes. Nurses must also pursue excellence through continuing medical education (CME) coursework. After earning a nursing degree, many nurses are required to complete 30 hours of CME every two years and maintain other certifications such as advanced cardiac life support. Professionalism is so important that the National Council of State Boards of Nursing embarked on a five-year program of study in 2010 to help newly trained nurses transition into successful practitioners.
Launching your nursing career
The BLS explains there are three main educational paths for nurses: the bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN), associate degree in nursing (ADN), and the diploma. While there are hundreds of registered nursing programs that provide a BSN or ADN nursing degree, the BLS cautions that there are relatively few diploma programs.
RNs with a BSN degree may have career opportunities in administration, research, management consulting, and teaching, according to the BLS. These nurses may supervise licensed vocational nurses who have associate degrees. Individuals with diplomas may be able to obtain entry-level nursing positions and receive tuition assistance from their employers to complete higher-level training, the BLS advises.
Regardless of where an individual starts in his or her nursing degree program, the field can be gratifying and exhilarating for those who have the essential characteristics of compassion, attention to detail, work ethic, flexibility and professionalism.