The Best Nursing Careers and Specialties

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The nursing shortage continues, and demand for nurses is expected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages and the nurses that are part of that generation retire.

Nurses who specialize in various areas are often in even higher demand. The 20 specialties listed here were chosen based upon a combination of demand, salary, and settings.

Over 100 different nursing specialties exist, each of them with different demands, settings, and schedules. Nevertheless, the specialties listed in this article were chosen to cover a wide range of nursing interests. If you’re into nursing, there’s something here for you!

A Word About Salaries

ER NurseThe salaries listed here come as much as possible from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though some are also drawn from other sources.

No matter what the median salary for a specialty, nursing salaries vary widely based on where the jobs are located. If you live in one of the less-populated states, your salary may be about half of the median. If you live in a very populous state, it may be higher. When making any employment decision, take the time to find out what the salary ranges in your particular geographical area are.

All of our financial and other statistical information is taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unless otherwise indicated.

So, without further ado, in alphabetical order, here are the 20 best nursing specialties:

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The 20 Best Nursing Specialties

Certified Nurse Midwife

certified-nurse-midwifeCertified nurse midwife is one of the “advanced practice” specialties which require extra schooling and/or experience and formal certification.

What they do: As a certified nurse midwife, you will work alongside obstetricians seeing patients. When low-risk pregnancies are involved, you will follow your patient throughout her pregnancy, provide routine check-ups and educate her on prenatal care.

In some states, you even can deliver babies by yourself. You certainly will help deliver babies, whether you are allowed to do it solo or not.

After the birth, you will continue to educate your patients in how to care for their newborn, and continue with routine exams as needed.

How to get there: To become a certified nurse midwife, first earn your RN license, then work for between two to four years in obstetrics. After that, you will need to complete a nurse midwife education or direct entry program, and then apply for your certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives Certification Council, or a similar group.

Growth outlook: The demand for certified nurse midwives is expected to increase by 22% through 2018.

Salary: The median salary for a certified nurse midwife is $92,229.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical Nurse SpecialistWhat they do: Clinical nurse specialists are authorized to work with patients in a clinical setting. They are able to diagnose and treat patients who are suffering from one or more of the “normal” health problems people go to the doctor for. They also prescribes medicine.

How to get there: A clinical nurse specialist is another advanced practice specialty, so your RN license is only the beginning. In addition, you will need a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing, with an emphasis in clinical practice.

Remember that once you are a registered nurse, you can work while you are going to school, if necessary. Once your schooling is complete, pass your National Nurses Licensing Exam, as well as your certified nurse specialist certification exam, and you are ready to go.

Growth outlook: Job demand for clinical nurse specialists is expected to increase by 19% through 2018.

Salary: The median salary is $93,901.

Critical Care Nurse

critical care nurseWhat they do: A critical care nurse works in what many of us think of as the ICU---the “intensive care unit.” However, many hospitals these days have ICUs that specialize in particular health problems, such as cardiac issues, neurological problems, and burns.

Critical care nurses will have a wide variety of venues to choose from in order to practice their skills. Critical care nurses work with a team to make sure the sickest patients in the hospital (or nursing home or hospice) get the best care possible. They will spend their time in the ICU checking on each patient, watching for signs of looming problems, and using their medical knowledge to guide them in the care they give the patient while working with the doctor.

How to get there: Critical care nurses do not need additional formal schooling beyond their initial RN program, but they do need to take various continuing education courses established by the hospital or organization they work for. They will also need to work for a minimum of two years in a critical care unit as an RN before they can apply to take the critical care certification exam.

Once they have passed the exam, they receive the certification. To keep it current, they may need to take more continuing education courses, depending on the requirements of his hospital and state.

Growth outlook: Job demand for critical care nurses is expected to increase by 26% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary for a critical care nurse is $75,000.

Diabetes Nurse

Diabetes NurseWhat they do: A diabetes nurse works with patients who have diabetes. When people have diabetes, their body is no longer producing enough insulin to break down the sugars in the food they eat to provide energy. As a result, their body is not receiving the nutrients they need and their blood is becoming saturated with sugar, which leads to a host of problems.

Diabetes nurses may work on their own to provide patient education, including nutrition and fitness information, or they may work with an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in disorders such as diabetes.

Because coping with diabetes requires a patient to make several in-depth lifestyle changes, diabetes nurses usually have a longer and deeper relationship with their patients than a family practice nurse or a clinical care nurse might.

How to get there: To become a diabetes nurse, your first step is to become a registered nurse and then work as a nurse in a facility that specializes in treating diabetes. You will need at least 500 hours of working in a diabetic clinic or facility and your Master of Science in nursing before you can apply to receive your Advanced Diabetes Management Certification through American Association of Diabetes Educators.

Growth outlook: Diabetes is one of the fastest-growing diseases in the country, so the demand for diabetes nurses is expected to grow very quickly, as much as 39%!

Salary: The median salary for a diabetes nurse is $75,000.

Family Nurse Practitioner

Family Nurse PractitionerWhat they do: Not everyone knows the name of the local surgeon or radiologist, but almost everyone knows the name of his or her family practice doctor. That is the person who takes care of the majority of our aches and pains, the person whom we trust to tell us when something needs further medical care.

Nurse practitioners are an important part of family practice. Under the supervision of the physician, nurse practitioners examine patients, diagnose illnesses, and prescribe medication. Some nurse practitioners in some states are able to have their own private practice, independent of a physician.

How to get there: In order to become a certified family nurse practitioner, you will need to earn both your bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing and pass the RN licensure examination. Remember that you can take the RN exam with only an associate degree in nursing, so after that point you will be able to work to help defray the expenses of your further education. There are some places that will even provide tuition reimbursement or other programs to encourage you in your efforts.

Once you have your master’s degree, you can apply to receive your family practitioner certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

Growth outlook: Job demand for all nurse practitioners is expected to increase by 26% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary of a family nurse practitioner is $94,407.

Gerontological Nurse Practitioner

Gerontological Nurse PractitionerWhat they do: A gerontological nurse practitioner is a nurse who has gone through the nurse practitioner certification process and who specializes in treating the elderly. Because the extremely large baby boomer generation is growing old, the number of elderly people in the country will increase, placing the field of gerontological nurse practitioner in high demand.

Gerontological nurse practitioners may work in a clinic, a nursing home, a home health service, or at a hospital. In some states, they can also have their own private practice.

In this field, you will be expected to diagnose illnesses, come up with a course of treatment, prescribe medications, including medication for pain, and do routine check-ups, filtered through the prism of special knowledge you will have about the elderly.

How to get there: Similar to other advanced practice areas, you will need to be licensed as a registered nurse; you will need a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing and need to achieve your certification for practicing gerontology from the American Nurses Credentialing Center of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

Growth outlook: Job demand for all nurse practitioners is expected to increase by 26% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary is $92,170.

Health Policy Nurse

Health Policy NurseWhat they do: Health policy nurses do not work with patients at a clinical level. Health policy nurses instead work at a societal level to create public policies that will lead to a healthier population.

They analyze laws, come up with strategies to help change public attitudes, and suggest new policies when necessary. Health policy nurses can work at a public agency, at a university, for a state legislature, or for the United State Congress. They can even use their knowledge to run for public office.

How to get there: To become a health policy nurse, you will need your RN license, as well as bachelor’s and a master’s degrees in nursing. You will also need to perform a 10-week health policy residency with an appropriate facility, such as a government agency or advocacy group.

A doctorate in nursing is not required for this profession, but to reach the higher salaried positions, as well as to increase the weight your policy recommendations will be given, it is extremely helpful.

Growth outlook: Job growth is expected to be excellent due to the Affordable Care Act, but no specific forecasts are available.

Salary: With such a wide variety of settings, it is difficult to predict accurately what the median salary will be for a health policy nurse, but the best estimate is $95,000.

Informatics Nurse

Informatics NurseWhat they do: An informatics nursing position would be a perfect fit for a nurse with a strong affinity for math, statistics and information systems. The informatics nurse’s job is to collect, interpret, and forward necessary medical data coming from and into hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes. Informatics nurses also may be required to train other nurses in the facility on new technology as it is adopted.

Some places where a nurse informaticist might be needed include pharmaceutical research companies, hospitals, and government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Although this particular field of nursing does not have the broad demand of other fields such as clinical nursing, informatics nursing is highly specialized with few qualified nurses, making it a high demand field in its own way.

How to get there: In order to achieve the status of nurse informatacist, you need your bachelor’s degree in nursing, as well as your RN license. You then will need to spend time working as a clinical RN. While you do so, you need to take courses on how to be an informatics nurse; the required courses are usually given as CLE courses. When you feel ready, apply to the American Nurses Credentialing Center to receive your informatics certification.

Growth outlook: Job growth for medical records administrators is projected to be 22% overall; however, the field is changing rapidly, and it is not yet known how computerization will impact the demand for informatics nurses.

Salary: The median salary is $88,000.

Medical-Surgical Nurse

Medical Surgical NurseWhat they do: Working as an RN in a hospital or surgical setting providing care to patients is the task that most people envision a nurse performing. Around 17% of all nurses will work in this field, making it the largest nursing specialty.

Originally, hospital nursing positions were basic positions that were springboards to other specialties. However, someone finally figured out how extensive the breadth of knowledge and depth of caring were that were required to perform the job well. Thus, the specialty was born.

A medical-surgical nurse performs numerous jobs at the hospital, including monitoring and caring for adult patients, assisting in surgeries, and working with medications prescribed by physicians to prevent adverse reactions from mixing the wrong kinds of medication.

How to get there: In order to achieve your certification for medical-surgical nurse, begin before you complete your first RN degree by taking medical-surgical nursing electives at school. Once you have finished with your RN program, become a licensed RN by passing your licensing exam. Before you can apply to take the medical-surgical credentialing exam, you will need to complete two years working as an RN and have 2000 hours of experience in a medical-surgical nursing experience in the three years prior to your taking the credentialing exam.

Growth outlook: Job demand for medical-surgical nurses is expected to increase by 30% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary for a medical-surgical nurse is $75,000.

Nurse Advocate

Nurse AdvocateWhat they do: Have you ever had been in the hospital and experienced the frustration of feeling like no one is listening to you or arguing on your behalf? This situation requires the nurse advocate, whose job is to fight for the patient.

In less stressful situations, nurse advocates may act as a link between the patient and the doctor, taking the time a doctor may not have to be sure that patients and their families understand what is happening, the diagnosis the patient was given, and the treatment plan.

When the patient has wishes that differ from the doctor’s prescribed course of treatment, it is the nurse advocate’s job to argue for those wishes with the doctor and to help discover solutions that work for both the doctor and the patient.

How to get there: To become a nurse advocate, first earn your bachelor’s degree in nursing, as well as your RN license. You need to then gain experience as an RN in a hospital or clinical setting, and learn about aspects of illness beyond the purely medical, such as social and financial issues. With enough experience, you then can begin working as a nurse advocate.

Growth outlook: There are no statistics available for nurse advocates, but job growth for all sorts of social workers is projected to be 25% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary range is $68,000--$90,000.

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse AnesthetistWhat they do: Among nursing specialties, nurse anesthetists rank as rock stars. They require extensive education, training, and experience. It is a high-demand specialty with the good potential for growth.

Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia to surgical patients, help take care of patients in the operating room, and provide follow-up care for outpatient procedures, among many other duties.

How to get there: The first steps you take to become a nurse anesthetist will sound familiar---you need to get your bachelor’s degree in nursing and become a licensed RN. Next, you need to obtain a master’s degree in nursing. After that, you need to work for one year in an acute care facility such as an ICU or an emergency room. Once you have completed these steps, you can apply to take your certification exam. Once you have passed it, you will be a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

Growth outlook: Job demand for nurse anesthetists is expected to increase by 22% through 2018.

Salary: Nurse anesthetist is one of the highest paid nursing specialties, with a median salary of $154,390.

Nurse Attorney

Nurse AttorneyWhat they do: If you are a glutton for punishment---a highly driven individual---you can become a nurse attorney. A nurse attorney is exactly that: a nurse who has gone back to school to become an attorney.

Since very few attorneys have the medical knowledge of nurses, nurse attorneys are in high demand. Nurse attorneys work in many different settings, including in firms that specialize in social security disability, hospital legal departments, or litigation firms.

How to get there: To become a nurse attorney, you first need to become a nurse by earning your bachelor’s degree in nursing and passing the licensing exam. You also need to gain some RN nursing experience. When you are ready, then you need to apply and be accepted by a law school, where you will have another three years of school. At the end of that three years, you will have to take the bar exam for the state where you want to practice. After that, you are free to open your own practice, if you wish, or seek to get on board with either a law firm or a healthcare-related company.

Growth outlook: Job growth for all attorneys is expected to be about 10% through 2020, but the nurse attorney specialization is likely to grow more quickly than the average for the legal profession.

Salary: The median salary is $110,000.

Nurse Educator

Nurse EducatorWhat they do: Currently, nurse educator is the nursing specialty in highest demand; a survey in 2010 found that 56% of nursing schools in the United States had nursing educator positions open.

Nurse educators teach people to become nurses. They can be an instructor at any of the different levels of nursing education, from the associate degree program through the doctorate in nursing program. The current shortage of nurses will not be alleviated until the ranks of nursing educators are fully staffed.

How to get there: To become a nurse educator, you will need to get a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing and receive your RN license by completing your national license exam. It is not essential to have a doctorate in nursing, but the better paid and more prestigious positions are usually offered first to candidates with doctorates. You also will need to pass a nursing educator’s certification exam from one of nursing’s professional organizations such as the National League of Nursing.

Growth outlook: Job growth for all post-secondary teachers is estimated to be 17% through 2020; however, nurse educator positions will likely grow at a higher rate.

Salary: The median salary of a nurse educator is $83,846, but salary amounts in this field vary greatly depending on the location of the school and the type of program it offers.

Nurse Manager

Nurse ManagerWhat they do: Nurse managers are responsible for supervising the nursing staff underneath them. They work as bridges between the nurses working for them and the hospital administration. Nurse managers need two sets of skills: the nursing skills that every RN is expected to have and also management skills.

Nurse managers are not always completely removed from patient care; a nurse manager responsible for a particular shift in a hospital will work beside his or her staff nurses helping patients. Nurse managers will be expected to keep up with paperwork and disciplinary matters. Nurse managers can be found starting at the floor shift level, moving all the way up to very high administrative or corporate levels.

How to get there: Because a nurse manager is required to have both nursing skills and managerial skills, you will need to earn your bachelor’s degree in nursing and then take management classes. Ideally, you will also get a bachelor’s degree in management or at a minimum, a minor in business. You need to obtain your Registered Nurse license and work in clinical nursing to gain experience. You also will need a master’s degree in nursing, healthcare, or business administration. Finally, you will need to pass the proper certification exam, which is administered through the American Organization of Nurse Executives.

As you begin your path to become a nurse manager, you will find that there are nurses who reach the level of manager without going through all of these steps, or even obtaining certification, but your extra effort in getting the certification will ultimately pay off in terms of the salary you receive and the paths of advancement available to you.

Growth outlook: Job growth for all health service managers is projected to be 22% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary for a nurse manager is $93,371.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse PractitionerWhat they do: While this article has already listed several different specialized fields for nurse practitioners, you may not realize that you can become a nurse practitioner in most areas of medical practice. Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat patients, as well as prescribe medicine, in their chosen field. They can work in a hospital, a clinic, a particular practice group, or, in some states, have their own private practice.

The advantage of being a nurse practitioner is the expanded responsibilities in care management the nurse is given, accompanied by increased pay.

How to get there: Like most advanced nursing specialties, you will need to obtain your bachelor’s and master’s degree, as well as your RN license. Once you have your master’s degree, you will need to apply to the American Nurses Credentialing Center of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners to obtain your certification.

Growth outlook: The need for nurse practitioners is expected to grow by as much as 19% by 2018.

Salary: The median salary for a nurse practitioner is $94,407.

Nurse Researcher

Nurse ResearcherWhat they do: Nurse researchers work with medical research organizations to perform studies in health. Essentially, they are scientists specializing in research that affects nursing. Nurse researchers might work on improving nursing performance, improving infection control in hospital environments, discovering cures for diseases, or discovering new information in areas of microbiology.

The studies they design must meet the rigid standards applied to all scientific studies. Whatever subject they study, nurse researchers improve the field of nursing every day.

Like other scientists, nurse researchers must learn how to write grant proposals in order to apply for funding for their studies, and must know how to analyze and report data in a scientific manner.

How to get there: In order to become a nurse researcher, you will need a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing and your RN license. A doctorate in nursing is not necessarily required, but it is highly recommended, since it will expand the types of studies you can do and the places where you can do them.

Growth outlook: Job demand for all medical scientists is expected to increase by 36% through 2020, making nurse researcher one of the fields with the greatest potential for growth in all of nursing.

Salary: The median salary for a nurse researcher is $95,000, but is highly dependent on level of education and the type of organization where the research is performed.

Pain Management Nurse

Pain Management NurseWhat they do: There are many registered nurses who work with doctors on pain management issues, but pain management nurse is an advanced nursing specialty that gives a nurse more responsibility, more autonomy, and an increased salary.

Pain management is a critically important area of medicine, both because of the need to alleviate chronic pain and because of the caution that must be taken to help patients avoid addiction to narcotic pain medications. A pain management nurse examines patients to help determine the cause of the pain, consults with doctors and other nurses as to the proper course of treatment for the pain, and educates patients about pain management.

How to get there: You do not need an advanced degree such as a master’s or a doctorate degree to become a pain management nurse; a bachelor’s degree and your RN license are sufficient. You do, however, need a lot of nursing experience. Before you can apply to take your certification exam, you will need to have worked full-time as an RN for at least two years, and to have worked at least 2000 hours in a pain management nursing role during the three years preceding your application to take the exam.

Once you have the requisite amount of experience under your belt, then you will need to apply to the American Nurses Credentialing Center to take your pain management exam. Upon passing, you will officially be a pain management nurse.

Growth outlook: Job growth for all registered nurses is projected to be 26% through 2020; due to increased societal concerns surrounding pain and addiction, the rate of growth for pain management nurses will probably be higher.

Salary: The median salary for a pain management nurse is $78,000.

Perianesthesia Nurse

Perianesthesia NurseWhat they do: A layperson will recognize a perianesthesia nurse better as a recovery room nurse. A perianesthesia nurse takes care of people who have left the operating room and are beginning to come out of anesthesia. This position is critical to the care of surgical patients: A few patients will react badly as they come out of anesthesia, with effects ranging from confusion and belligerence to more life-threatening events such as difficulty breathing.

A perianesthesia nurse also needs a great deal of discretion; even those patients who wake up peacefully from anesthesia often are confused and say odd things or act unusually. For example, a patient may come out of anesthesia and begin shaking hands and thanking everyone around her. Even someone who is normally a little reserved may become extremely talkative about anything that catches his eye catches when he comes out of anesthesia. It makes one wonder if hospitals provide a soundproof room for perianesthesia nurses, since they are not allowed to laugh out loud in front of their patients!

The demand for perianesthesia nurses in all settings will continue to rise as medical research discovers new ways in which surgery can be used to cure or correct diseases.

How to get there: As with the pain management nurse, you do not need an advanced degree to become a perianesthesia nurse, just experience. The minimum educational and licensing requirements are an associate degree and an RN license. Your electives in nursing should focus on anesthesia and perianesthesia, if possible. After that, you will need to have worked at least 1800 hours in a perianesthesia setting before you can apply to take your certification exam, which is administered by the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing. There are two certifications you can obtain: one in post anesthesia and the other in ambulatory perianesthesia.

Growth outlook: The demand for perianesthesia nurses in doctors’ offices is expected to skyrocket by up to 48% more jobs as doctors open their own surgical clinics for outpatient procedures.

Salary: The median salary is $79,000.

Psychiatric Nurse

Psychiatric NurseWhat they do: Psychiatric nurses utilize their expertise in mental health, therapy, and crisis intervention to help their patients master or effectively deal with their mental illness so they can live productive, fulfilling lives. Psychiatric nurses help patients avoid poverty, disability, social isolation, and other problems associated with psychiatric problems.

Psychiatric nurses help patients with problems such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, addictions and substance abuse, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and psychiatric disorders. They treat patients’ mental health needs in hospitals, community mental health programs, outpatient mental health clinics, substance abuse centers, private practices, jails, and in other settings.

Psychiatric nurses, as part of treatment team, help create detailed plans to provide effective, comprehensive care for patients. During the treatment phase they typically offer counseling to help patients and their family members understand the illness.

Some psychiatric nurses teach patients to perform daily tasks such as managing their medications and grooming and dressing.

How to get there: Nurses working in the mental health field include psychiatric nurse practitioners, psychiatric registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and certified nursing assistants.

Psychiatric registered nurses typically need a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited college. Psychiatric nurse practitioners, who diagnose and prescribe medications, need a master’s degree or higher. Psychiatric nursing graduate certificates are typically for nurses with a master’s degree.

Growth outlook: The demand for registered nurses is forecast to grow by 26% through 2020.

Salary: The median pay for advanced registered nurse practitioners is $93,500.

Trauma Nurse

Trauma NurseWhat they do: Trauma nurses are always in demand. They work in emergency rooms, trauma centers, and urgent care centers. Because of the intense atmosphere that is encountered in emergency rooms, especially in larger cities, some trauma nurses need to leave the field for a period of time to recover. Of course, some trauma nurses thrive in the same atmosphere.

Trauma nurses are often the first health care provider to treat a patient in the hospital, so their role in triage is extremely important, as well. They are on the first line of defense when patients are brought in by ambulance, and can see some horrendous injuries that even experienced nurses in other fields would find difficult to handle. Because emergency rooms are never closed, trauma nurses can expect to work long and unusual hours, often on holidays.

How to get there: The trauma nurse certification also does not require an advanced degree, but does require coursework. First, you will need to have your RN license, and log in at least two years of emergency room or other similar experience. At that point, you will need to apply for your emergency nursing certification, a process administered by the Board of Emergency Nursing. After that, you will need to take and pass a “core” course in trauma nursing provided by the Emergency Nurses Association.

There are a number of trauma fields in which you can receive certification, including emergency, flight, pediatrics, and critical care ground transport. The ENA also will be responsible for issuing your final trauma nurse certification.

Growth outlook: Job growth will most likely be greater than 26% through 2020, the projected rate for all registered nurses.

Salary: The median salary for a trauma nurse is $66,307.

In addition to these 20 nursing specialties, we would---as an added bonus---like to draw your attention to a specialization that can draw from almost any of the preceding skill sets, and at the same time allow you to see the world!

Travel Nurse

Travel NurseWhat they do: This specialty does not require any additional education or experience beyond the skills acquired in one of the other nurse specialties---but it does require a spirit of adventure and a willingness to travel.

A travel nurse works for an agency that supplies nurses to facilities that have a short-term need, such as when a full-time nurse has to go out on pregnancy leave or National Guard duty. The typical term for a temporary nursing assignment is four to 13 weeks, but can be as long as one--two years.

If you enjoy working in many different areas and are not interested in settling down in one location for a while, travel nursing is for you.

How to get there: Obtain your RN license by completing an approved program and passing the national licensing examination. Then apply to agencies who supply travel nurses across the country.

Growth outlook: Job growth for travel nurses should be in line with overall projected growth for registered nurses: 26% through 2020.

Salary: The median salary for travel nurses is $70,000. Many agencies provide their nurses with employment benefits equivalent to benefits that hospitals would provide, such as health insurance and 401K’s. Normally, as part of your assignment, your housing expenses are paid by the medical provider hiring you.

This list of the 20 (+1) best nursing specialties is only the beginning.

If you want to pursue nursing as a career, and none of these specialties quite fits your individual needs, then you may want to do some more research. You are sure to find a specialty in the vast world of nursing that is tailor-made for you .

Good luck with your nursing career!

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