Registered nurses (RNs) are an incredibly important part of the US healthcare system. From helping patients avoid serious future health problems to helping them recover from health challenges, RNs often make or break a patient’s experience with the healthcare system. It is no surprise that the demand for RNs, in both general and advanced practice, is expected to rise in the coming years. As the effects of the pandemic continue to impact all age groups, the need for qualified individuals is unlikely to drop any time soon.
Are you interested in becoming an RN? Nursing is an incredibly flexible field that utilizes a diverse range of skill sets. The medical field is very varied, and there are a wealth of opportunities for specialization available to registered nurses. From general to specific nursing roles, to research-based positions, there is something for just about every interest or passion. This article will take a look at some of the different roles a registered nurse can take on, and the different paths to reach them.
The first category of registered nursing paths we’ll explore is focused on different leadership roles. Given the importance of nursing and the positive impact effective nurses can have on their patients, as well as the wider community, it might come as no surprise to find out that responsibilities often vary depending on experience and seniority. As nurses become more experienced, they will better understand the positive ways they can impact the community. They might then decide to expand their responsibilities in order to widen their influence. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the positions of authority registered nurses can assume in the medical field.
- Nurse practitioner
An increasingly popular path for registered nurses in the US is advanced practice positions. The most common of these is the nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners handle many of the same tasks as registered nurses and often work in the same environments such as outpatient clinics, physician’s offices, and hospitals. Despite these similarities, there are clear differences in the roles.
First, becoming a nurse practitioner requires advanced education beyond that required to obtain a nursing license. Nurse practitioners tend to have at least a master’s degree, with some professionals even possessing more advanced degrees such as a Ph.D. This means for those wondering how many years of school it takes to be a nurse practitioner, you can expect to go through an additional two-to-five years of school on top of an undergraduate degree.
The next, and most marked difference between registered nurses and nurse practitioners, is their ability to treat common conditions without a doctor’s input. Registered nurses follow instructions from physicians when it comes to addressing health concerns, but nurse practitioners are typically able to provide primary care without a doctor’s input.
- Nurse educator
Who better to teach new nurses than an experienced nurse? Nurse educators work in both educational (classroom) and practical (clinical) environments and instruct students about the best nursing practices and techniques. They are responsible for sharing their knowledge, for example, they might be tasked with explaining proper patient care methods and procedures, teaching students how to evaluate work, and guiding student lab work and research. Nurse educators do their best to ensure that graduates have the knowledge they need to succeed.
Note that some nurse educators also conduct personal research. This helps them stay current on industry trends and emerging best practices, develop better care solutions, and improve their teaching strategies.
- Nursing manager
Nursing managers are a step above the other entries on this list as far as authority is concerned. They hold leadership roles in a variety of healthcare settings including nursing homes, medical practices, and hospitals, among others. These high-level coordinators are often situated in administrative offices rather than on the floor and are responsible for directing the everyday organizational activities of their respective workplaces.
Nursing managers are often responsible for overseeing:
- Technology adoption
- Compliance policies
- Database management
- Departmental goals
- Workflow processes
Not every manager will be responsible for all of the above, of course. The specific duties each nursing manager carries depend largely on the environment in which they work.
- Nurse administrator
Nurse administrators are similar to nursing managers, but typically have fewer responsibilities. Effective nurse administrators will spend much of their time working with a healthcare organization’s administrative staff rather than helping patients on the floor directly. They affect change by providing specialized human resources and management support.
Nurse administrators are typically responsible for recruiting, training, and hiring staff.
- Chief nursing officer (CNO)
The Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) sits at the top of the nursing hierarchy. Also known as Chief Nursing Executives (CNEs), CNOs typically work with the CEO of the agency/hospital/clinic/etc. and possess both supervisory and administrative roles. They are responsible for all nursing services in the healthcare facility in question and typically have at least a master’s degree.
If you are interested in helping to shape the way nurses that function in a given healthcare organization, the CNO or CNE position might be the right fit for you. These professionals have the opportunity to decide how services are delivered and how any changes should be implemented from the top down.
Different areas of expertise
The next section of registered nursing paths we’ll explore focuses on different areas of expertise. This refers to nurses who typically work one-on-one with patients in different areas. From neonatal care to geriatric care and beyond, nursing professionals can work with patients with a variety of healthcare needs.
- Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
A family nurse practitioner (FNP) has a specific role. These professionals work with patients of all ages and are responsible for providing primary care such as performing exams, prescribing medications, and creating treatment plans. They often work closely with other healthcare teams to ensure consistent care throughout the course of a patient’s life.
Preventative care is often prioritized by FNPs, but they can also offer care for patients with serious illnesses. Their responsibilities include diagnosing patients, ordering and interpreting lab tests, and managing treatment plans.
- Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), also known simply as nurse anesthetists, are responsible for safely administering anesthesia to patients preparing to undergo operations. They are responsible for administering both local and general anesthetics to meet the needs of the patient’s treatment.
CRNAs are highly educated and from 2025, will be required to possess a doctoral degree to become qualified, rather than a master’s degree, which is the current requirement. CRNAs work in a wide variety of different locales, including ambulatory surgical centers, hospitals, physician’s offices, dentists’ offices, pain management clinics, ketamine clinics, and plastic surgery clinics.
- Certified nurse midwife (CNM)
Certified nurse midwives (CNMs) primary roles revolve around women’s healthcare specifically during the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum period. They work in a variety of settings, including community clinics, hospitals, and birthing centers. CNMs also often provide more routine primary care, family planning services, and gynecological care for women. Likewise, patients both pre and post-menopause can benefit from an effective CNM.
Additionally, CNMs are responsible for assessing patient health, recognizing potential issues, and treating health concerns.
- Pain management nurse
Both acute and chronic pain are common concerns in healthcare. This is true for both men and women and is present in every age group. Pain management nurses specialize in recognizing pain, determining its cause, and managing it so that patients can live comfortably.
Pain management nurses are responsible for assessing pain and identifying how best to assist patients moving forward. Note that this does not necessarily mean via pharmacological aid. Many pain management nurses are increasingly turning to non-pharmaceutical methods to alleviate pain such as chiropractic medicine, acupuncture, lifestyle changes, spinal blocks, relaxation techniques, and stress management skills. Pain management nurses might work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.
- Infection control nurse
While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly highlighted their importance, infection control nurses have long been the unsung heroes of the industry. Infection control nurses work not only in healthcare settings but also for emergency preparedness and government agencies. Their exact responsibilities depend on where they work, but infection control nurses are primarily concerned with educating and training healthcare providers as well as communicating with patients and the public about infection control procedures.
- Critical care nurse
Critical care nurses are responsible for providing very skilled and specialized care. They possess the same skills as registered nurses as well as additional training or experience caring for critical and/or acute illnesses, in particular. This includes monitoring medical support equipment and helping patients with life-threatening injuries. Critical care nurses are crucial to the recovery process for extremely ill and injured patients and collaborate closely with other nurses and healthcare providers to ensure that patients receive proper care.
Critical care nurses most commonly work in hospitals but can also be found in other healthcare environments.
- Neonatal nurse
Neonatal nurses provide care to babies struggling with specific health challenges. More specifically, they work with premature newborn infants as well as older infants living with the complications associated with premature birth. Neonatal nurses care for these children until they are up to two years old, at which point they typically progress to other care providers.
Neonatal nurses most commonly work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) in hospitals, but they can also be employed in other healthcare settings. They provide everything from routine daily care such as changing diapers and bathing to comprehensive assessments such as measuring waste output and fluid intake and checking oxygen levels.
- Adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP)
An adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP) is a nurse practitioner focused specifically on elderly patients. AGNPs work in a variety of different healthcare settings and are expected to increase in number as the aging population becomes a more serious burden on the system. From clinics to hospitals and nursing homes, and even home health practices, AGNPs have an important role in the industry.
- Women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP)
Women’s health nurse practitioners (WHNPs) are registered nurses providing both primary and gynecologic, obstetric, and reproductive care to women in all age ranges. The increasing awareness of female health issues is expected to lead to an increase in WHNPs going forward. Similar to aspiring AGNPs, potential WHNPs will need to complete advanced coursework once they are licensed.
The positions we described above vary in their exact duties and responsibilities, but all focus directly on ensuring patients receive good care. Not all registered nurses provide direct care to patients or work in administrative positions in a healthcare facility. Sometimes they chose more diverse options. Our last section of nursing paths focuses on nurses whose careers focus away from conventional nursing.
- Legal nurse consultant (LNC)
Legal nurse consultants (LNCs) are nurses that function as analysts, educators, collaborators, researchers, and strategists. They help influence nursing by working within the crossroads of law and healthcare and providing expertise in healthcare, nursing, and medicine systems.
LNCs have a vast number of responsibilities, many of which are dependent on their working environment and goals. These include participating in interviews with clients, reviewing medical documentation and records, conducting literature research and searches, identifying standards of care, assembling evidence for trials, providing expert testimony in court, and assisting with depositions.
- Nurse attorney
Few attorneys have firsthand experience working in the medical industry. Nurse attorneys straddle the divide between law and healthcare. These professionals are typically licensed to practice law as well as nursing, meaning that they could theoretically care for patients in person as well as represent clients in a court of law.
Nurse attorneys are an incredibly important part of the legal system and most often represent medical professionals in court. They also work to lobby for their interests in law and legislation. Note that nurse attorneys spend quite a bit of time in school. You must first complete all requirements to become a registered licensed nurse and then move on to your law degree. This usually translates to seven to eight years of schooling
- Informatics nurse
Informatics nurses provide doctors, patients, and other nurses with healthcare data. Their responsibilities include optimizing advancing medical technologies to help improve patient care. Informatics nurses fill a large number of roles in healthcare, in both clinical and research settings. Many of them focus primarily on data collection and interpretation rather than face-to-face nursing care, although some do both.
Informatics nurses are revolutionizing healthcare by using nursing science and analytical science to define, identify, communicate, and manage data, knowledge, and information in nursing. More specifically, they use statistics to help determine what works and what doesn’t work in any given healthcare setting.
- Nurse researcher
Nurse researchers are critical to the healthcare industry and play an important role in improving patient outcomes. They typically perform research rather than caring for patients directly, although some of them work directly with patients participating in medical research of some kind. In these capacities, nurse researchers are responsible for ensuring participant well-being and upholding patient rights.
Whether they are conducting original research, administrating research studies, or helping patients involved in research studies, nurse researchers study how to improve nursing practice.
- Nurse advocates
Also known as patient advocates, nurse advocates primarily serve to guide patients through the healthcare system. Their responsibilities include upholding patient rights, advocating on their patient’s behalf, and communicating between physicians and patients. If you want to stand up for patients’ rights and make sure that they are heard by other medical professionals, a nurse advocacy position might be the ideal path for you.
As this article shows, career options for registered nurses are extremely diverse. Keep these options in mind as you study so you can specialize in a suitable role.