Specializing vs. Generalizing: How to Choose the Right Path for Your Nursing Career

Nursing Career

Nurses are tasked with providing and coordinating care for patients in hospitals and other settings, including schools and correctional facilities. However, that’s a broad job description that can look very different depending on where a nurse works and what they’re trained to do.

Nursing has come a long way in the last century, and there are now more options than ever for different career paths within the field. If you’re in the process of becoming an RN (Registered Nurse) or you’ve been working in the field for a while, then you might be thinking about where you want to take your career.

There are two main paths you can take as a nurse: specializing and generalizing. Both are critical to keep our healthcare system going. Here’s how you can choose the career progression that’s right for you.

Generalizing vs. Specializing

Generalist nurses can work in many settings, providing support for doctors and top-notch care for patients. They are effective in a variety of situations and have the adaptability to care for patients of all ages and backgrounds.

Specialists hone their skills in a certain area of practice. Those who opt for specialization can choose from a wide range of specialties, including:

  • Pediatrics
  • Labor and delivery
  • Cardiac
  • Critical care
  • Trauma/emergency
  • Forensics
  • Gerontology
  • Medical-surgical
  • Psychiatric
  • Neonatal intensive care
  • Oncology

There are also many other potential specialties within the profession. Generally, nurses identify the type of work they like to do or the patient population they prefer to work with before deciding to specialize.

What Are Your Salary Expectations?

One of the reasons some nurses choose to specialize is the income potential. In 2021, the median salary for an RN was $77,600. Level of experience and training, region, and individual placement all factor into a nurse’s salary. However, nurses can generally earn a salary on the higher end of the range with more specialization.

Generalists can earn more, however, by earning an advanced degree. Completing a family nurse master’s program or becoming a nurse practitioner will increase your earning potential and employability. Advanced practice nurses are shouldering more and more of the population’s general health needs as the industry faces a shortage of primary care providers.

Where Do You Want to Work?

If you become an RN after completing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program and taking your certification exam, you’ll have a lot of job opportunities open to you. As the population of the United States continues to age as a whole, there will be a strong market for nurses who want to provide general nursing care.

Depending on the practice area, however, it isn’t always easy to find a job in that specialty within easy commuting distance. Urban areas are more likely to have specialist openings as hospitals are larger to accommodate a large patient population.

Are You Willing to Continue Your Education?

Another factor to consider when deciding on a career path within the field of nursing is how much education and advanced training you want to pursue. If you want to specialize as a nurse, you might need an advanced degree, such as a master’s in nursing.

Continuing your education can be a great idea, depending on your career goals. Although earning an advanced degree can be a large investment, there are nursing scholarships available for some degrees that can help offset the cost.

Many people spend some time working as a nurse before jumping into a master’s program. Having some clinical experience under your belt before deciding if you want to go back to school can be a great idea.

Do You Want to Try Travel Nursing?

Travel nursing is a growing segment of the nursing industry that’s perfect for generalists. It involves taking on short assignments in hospitals with temporary staffing shortages and quickly jumping into new work environments.

Generally, nurses need a few years of experience before they can start working these short-term contracts. However, they pay well and can be a great choice if you enjoy novelty and want to live in different areas. Travel nursing also offers a lot of flexibility!

Take Some Time to Consider Your Options 

Although you might have people pushing you to specialize or generalize, it’s important to realize that neither option is more valuable or important to the field of medicine than the other. There are pros and cons to being a generalist, as there are to being a specialist.

It’s important to take some time and consider your options for your career. When you start your career as a nurse, you will be a generalist by default. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time and gaining experience before you decide on your future career path.

No matter what you choose, you’ll be making a positive difference in the world by being a nurse. Make sure you choose a path that will be fulfilling for you so you can enjoy your work and give your patients the best possible care!


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