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Nursing is a challenging career — especially during a pandemic — but it can also be rewarding in many ways.

In 2020, nurses and other medical professionals were hailed as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people were forced to stay home, many nurses kept going to work.

However, nurses are leaving the workforce in staggering numbers, and demand is rising as fast as people are leaving.

As a profession, nursing can provide you with a reliable and lucrative career with many opportunities for advancement. Find out why you might consider becoming a nurse, and what to expect when you get there.

Salary

The salary range for a nurse can vary significantly based on several factors, such as:

  • degree or type of nurse (LPN, ADN-RN, BSN-RN, MSN)
  • geographic location
  • facility
  • experience
  • specialty
  • job status (full-time or as needed)

In the United States in 2020, the median pay for registered nurses was $75,330 per year or $36.22 per hour. This represents a range from about $53,410 per year to $116,230 per year.

When breaking this down by practice type, median wages were:

  • Government: $84,490 per year
  • Inpatient hospital: $76,840 per year
  • Outpatient or ambulatory care: $72,340 per year
  • Skilled nursing and residential facilities: $68,450 per year
  • Educational organizations: $64,630 per year

Salaries can vary based on geographic region and whether you work in a rural or urban area, too.

These figures are based on full-time positions, but nurses who work PRN (standing for “pro re nata,” on an as-needed basis) or to fill particular needs may be paid a premium rate. These nurses don’t work regular hours but are helpful when hospitals need to fill in for employees who are out on leave or when there is a spike in demand.

A good example of this is nursing pay premiums in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As different parts of the United States — and the world — were hit with surges of the virus, nursing shortages caused some hospitals offered competitive rates to attract the staff they needed. In some cases, nurses could earn $8,000 per week to care for patients with COVID-19.

Sense of purpose

While the compensation in nursing is one perk, most nurses will tell you that it’s not a profession but an art. Nursing is not a career you can do well if you are doing it for the money alone.

You are at a person’s side in their most vulnerable state, and you offer support to families in crisis situations. Many nurses say they didn’t choose their career as much as it chose them, and that nursing is a calling.

Scheduling

Nursing is a flexible profession with many schedule options.

If you work in outpatient care, chances are your schedule will be more regular — generally 4 or 5 days per week for around 8 hours at a time.

Nurses who work in acute and long-term hospitals or residential facilities tend to work longer hours to help reduce the number of caregivers for each patient. This concept is called continuity of care. In addition to this, longer shifts can help decrease mistakes made during patient handoff from one nurse to another.

Many nurses also like having more flexibility in their scheduled days. Most nurses who work 12-hour shifts work 3 days each week, allowing a few days at work followed by several days off.

Downsides to 12-hour shifts include the fact that longer shifts can be draining and contribute to a decrease in alertness or focus. Nursing is a 24-hour job, so some of these shifts happen overnight. This can be difficult to balance with your personal care needs and home life.

If you need even more flexibility, nursing can offer that, too. Some facilities may offer more flexible shift length, some as short as 4-hour blocks. Or, you may be on call for a 24-hour period, working only a small fraction of that time or not at all if your services aren’t needed.

You can also choose between working full-time, part-time, or PRN, as there are needs for nurses in all shifts and at all hours.

Need for nurses and job stability

The world will always need nurses. Healthcare means helping people live longer lives with chronic health conditions, and a large population of people are reaching their most vulnerable health years.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were predictions of global nursing shortages, with the American Nursing Association setting a goal in 2017 of adding 1 million nurses to the workforce over 5 years. Along with this increase in demand, a third of the nursing workforce aged into retirement at the same time. And no one expected a pandemic to increase needs even further.

More than 26 million Americans applied for unemployment during the pandemic in 2020, with a third of employees working from home during forced lockdowns and beyond.

Demand for nurses, on the other hand, increased during the pandemic, although not in every specialty. Some specialties, like nurses in outpatient facilities or surgery centers, were given time off, as their workplaces closed or were repurposed to serve temporarily in higher demand areas of nursing.

Meanwhile, nurses working in long-term and residential care facilities, inpatient hospitals, and home care have remained in high demand during the pandemic.

If you are considering a career in nursing, you may want to research the demands and needs in your location or desired specialty. Overall, nursing is considered a very stable career, with a need for new nurses each year. In the United States alone, demand for nurses is expected to grow by about 7 percent every year.

Travel opportunities

If the area where you live doesn’t have enough need for your specialty or if you have a bit of wanderlust, there are many opportunities for travel work in nursing.

Contract assignments are common in healthcare. This is because inadequate staffing levels can result in patient harm and unsafe care. Hospitals have to make sure they have enough people to care for all their patients, even if regular employees leave suddenly or take a medical or maternity leave.

There are many agencies that help nurses find travel jobs that fit their experience and interests. Travel contracts usually last about 13 weeks on average and may center around the area you live — or the other side of the world.

In addition to traveling, the compensation can be a perk. Many agencies offer stipends for travel, room and board, and uniform expenses during a contract. The hourly rate averages about $51 per hour, which is much more than the median nontravel nursing position.

Finding your niche

Working a 12-hour shift in a hospital isn’t the only way to be a nurse. There are many opportunities for nurses, like:

  • bedside nursing
  • outpatient nursing
  • telehealth nursing
  • nursing education
  • nursing administration
  • legal nursing
  • nurses consulting for the health insurance industry
  • school nursing
  • long-term care
  • home-based nursing

In each of these categories, there are additional specialties you could pursue based on your interest, including:

  • general medicine and family practice
  • cardiology
  • critical care
  • pediatrics
  • obstetrics and gynecology
  • geriatric care
  • psychology
  • rehabiliation
  • long-term care
  • hospice

Room for advancement

Most nurses enter the profession with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. It generally takes 3 to 4 years to earn a nursing certificate. Nursing education is designed to support advancement.

You can earn a certificate as a nursing assistant, then go on to advance your career. Advancements include:

  • licensed practical nurse (LPN)
  • registered nurse with an associate’s degree
  • registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree
  • nursing with a master’s degree or certification in a specialty
  • doctorates in nursing practice
  • advanced practice nursing
  • nurse practitioner

Many health systems offer reimbursement for continued education as well.

As much as nursing is a rewarding and beneficial profession, it can take a physical and emotional toll. There are anecdotes about nurses giving up lunch breaks, going without bathroom breaks, and losing sleep. But the physical and emotional cost of nursing can lead to more than an empty stomach or a full bladder.

A balancing act

Working 12-hour shifts, night shifts, weekends, and holidays can be difficult to balance with home life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some healthcare workers went weeks without seeing family members out of fear of transmitting the virus.

Physically draining

Hours spent working in nursing positions that provide direct patient care can take a physical toll, too. There can be lifting, pushing, and pulling required on every shift. This is especially true when units are running short-staffed.

The increased demand for nurses can be both a blessing and a curse. The vast opportunities for jobs coupled with increased patient loads on nurses can create unsafe care environments and increase nurse burnout.

Reaching a breaking point

Unsafe staffing levels, nursing shortages, and burnout were problems even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic and with increasing nursing shortages, the problem has only gotten worse.

A 2021 study revealed that 9.5 percent of nurses in the study had left their current position, and around 17 percent of nurses considered leaving. Of those who left their jobs, 31.5 percent reported burnout as a reason. Within this group, 68.6 percent cited burnout from workplace stress and 63 percent blamed inadequate staffing. About 60 percent of nurses who considered leaving their jobs because of burnout offered the same reasons.

What if you stop caring?

Nurses can develop compassion fatigue as the result of chronic work-related stress. Compassion fatigue increased dramatically in nurses between 2010 and 2019, according to a new study, with nurses working in intensive care units demonstrating the highest levels.

In addition to decreasing job satisfaction and mental health in nurses, compassion fatigue has the potential to negatively impact the level of care patients receive as well.

Mental health and traumatic events

Nurses witness some of the most difficult moments in people’s lives. This applies to both patients and their family members. Dealing with emotionally and mentally difficult tasks is a daily occurrence in nursing, but it has also been taken a step further during the pandemic.

The nursing profession worldwide has entered a perfect storm of nursing shortages, decreased mental health, and pandemic stress, and it’s taking its toll. As many as 74 percent of healthcare workers reported experiencing some level of post-traumatic stress disorder after providing care during the pandemic.

The full toll of the heavy workloads, emotional cost, and staffing shortages from the pandemic probably won’t be fully realized for some time.

Injury risk

Physical and verbal assaults are a common experience for nurses. A 2020 review study found that among 331,544 participants who worked in healthcare, 61.9 percent reported experiencing some form of workplace violence. However, not all these events are reported or recorded.

The study also found that:

  • 24.4 percent experienced physical violence in the past year
  • 57.6 percent experienced verbal abuse

Some states have enacted laws to try and help nurses, but this problem is unlikely to go away completely, considering the situations patients can be in when nurses are caring for them.

Nursing is a rewarding career with good opportunities for advancement, stability, and compensation. It’s not without drawbacks, though. Working as a nurse can be both physically and emotionally draining, and the increased demand for nurses has caused staffing problems that increase burnout.

If you are considering nursing as a career, explore the options and career pathways that interest you most and considering shadowing a nurse to see what it’s really like. If you decide nursing is for you, there are many ways to reach your goal, and you can usually find financial assistance for your training.