What Kind of Nurse Should I Be? Exploring Nursing Specialties

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A nurse practitioner talks with a patient in a hospital room.Anyone who has ever had a significant surgical procedure, given birth or stayed in the hospital for any length of time knows just how impactful nurses can be. These health care professionals not only tend to their patients’ basic needs, but also provide encouragement and emotional support during times of weakness and vulnerability.

Nurses who assist in surgery or in the administration of medical care can play a major role in shaping patient outcomes. This is particularly true of nurse practitioners, whose advanced training allows them to provide primary care.

Nursing students who long to have this kind of impact in the lives of their patients need to ask themselves a fundamental question: What kind of nurse should I be? Different specialties and education levels, such as a master’s degree in nursing, enable nurses to support patient needs, and also advance their careers, in different ways.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are advanced-practice registered nurses. Their training empowers them to play a more direct and active role in delivering primary care to their patients. Nurse practitioners receive more training than other nurses but less training than doctors and can specialize in a specific area of care, such as family medicine, psychiatric mental health, women’s health and more.

Nurse Practitioner Duties

Nurse practitioners can provide a range of clinical services to their patients.

  • Testing and diagnostics: Nurse practitioners can perform physical evaluations, order tests and use the available data to diagnose a patient’s illness or injury.
  • Developing and administering treatment: Based on the diagnosis, the nurse practitioner can develop and implement a treatment plan, potentially involving pharmaceutical intervention, lifestyle modification or referral to a specialist.
  • Prescribing medications: Nurse practitioners may also prescribe medications to help their patients manage different illnesses or health conditions. The ability to prescribe medications independently or with physician involvement varies according to state laws.
  • Prevention and education: Nurse practitioners may also consult with their patients, educating them about ways they can prevent disease. For example, a nurse practitioner may counsel patients on sound nutritional habits to lower their risk of diabetes.

Education and Training

Nurse practitioners are characterized by their advanced training. That training qualifies them to contribute to primary care in ways that other nurses do not. After reaching registered nurse (RN) status, nurses must log additional clinical training, which may involve earning either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, often focusing on the delivery of primary, acute or long-term care.

Nursing Specialties: Deciding What Kind of Nurse to Be

Nurses who are choosing a specialty have many options, including family nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and more.

Family Nurse Practitioner

A family nurse practitioner, or FNP, is a registered nurse who has completed advanced training in family practice. Usually, FNPs work in either a private practice or clinic. They are trained to be adept at diagnosing, treating and educating adults and children alike.

Historically, many states have required that FNPs work under the supervision of a doctor. Due to a shortage of qualified medical professionals, however, more and more states are forgoing these requirements, allowing FNPs to work independently.

FNPs must receive their RN certification as a prerequisite, after which they may pursue both additional classroom hours and additional clinical hours, earning either a master- or doctoral-level degree.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, or PMHNPs, have similar training and education requirements to FNPs. The difference is that these professionals focus on helping their patients manage mental health conditions and mood disorders, which may include depression, anxiety or substance use issues.

PMHNPs may work in private practices, public health clinics, correctional facilities, addiction rehab centers or mental health care facilities. While the role of the PMHNP may sometimes involve diagnostics, it typically focuses on helping patients manage their symptoms, through measures that may include therapy, counseling or pharmaceutical intervention.

Additional Fields of Nursing

Registered nurses and nurse practitioners may also choose to focus their practice on caring for specific populations. Some examples include the following:

  • Neonatal care: Nurses who work in neonatal care treat newborn babies and help ensure they are in optimal health following delivery.
  • Pediatric nursing: Nurses who enjoy working with children may seek work in pediatric practices or in children’s hospitals.
  • Women’s health: Another option for nurses is to focus on treating women’s health issues. This may mean working at a gynecology practice or a breast cancer center.
  • Gerontology: Nurses who specialize in gerontology work primarily with the elderly, helping them manage some of the physical limitations and chronic conditions that come with old age.

Nursing Practitioner Job Outlook and Salary

For those who are considering a role as a nurse practitioner, it may be helpful to think about both the career prospects and the typical salary range.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nurse practitioner field is projected to grow at a rate of 52% between 2019 and 2029, which is considerably faster than the average for all other jobs. This massive shift is attributed largely to the higher demand for preventive care and primary care services, particularly for an aging population.

Nurse Practitioner Salary

The BLS reports that nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $109,820 as of May 2019. Salary can depend on several factors, including locale and years of experience.

Nurse practitioner salaries may also vary depending on the specialization. According to February 2021 data from the compensation website PayScale, the median annual salary for an FNP is around $96,100, while the median annual salary for a psychiatric nurse practitioner is closer to $109,900.

What Kind of Nursing Is Right for You?

There are countless ways for nursing students to make a real-world impact in the lives of their patients and focus on an area of care they find to be personally and professionally rewarding. As you think about your own nursing career path, make sure to learn more about advanced online degree options, such as the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Nursing program.

This program includes both FNP and PMHNP specializations, providing the focused training to excel in either role. Learn how you can make a difference in patients’ lives with an advanced nursing degree and contribute to the future of health care.

Recommended Readings

AGNP vs. FNP: Comparing Two Essential Nursing Roles

Career Spotlight: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

10 Stress Management Tips for Nurses


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner?”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?”

American Nurses Association, ANA’s Principles for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) Full Practice Authority

PayScale, Average Family Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

PayScale, Average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners