Published On: Fri, May 21st, 2021

Moving Up the Career Ladder in Nursing: A Guide for 2021

There is a lot of freedom in nursing. Yes, the overall goal is the same no matter where you specialize; your goal will, at the end of the day, be to help and heal. With so many different demographics, areas of medicine, and components to a successfully working healthcare system, however, how you go about helping and healing can vary drastically from one nurse to another. 

There is no reason to fall into the fold. You can stand out and make your own way and still use all that you have learned as a nurse. However, there is more than just being an RN. There are so many possibilities for your future both within hospitals and without, and the only thing holding you back is knowledge. 

This knowledge is two-fold. Going for the right MSN or DNP degree is an important part of it, yes, but before you get to a DNP degree, you will want to know something even simpler – what role is right for you. 

You need to know your options. Without knowing your options, you are doomed to be working with an incomplete set of data. Just as missing pertinent medical information can put a patient at risk, too cannot know your career options mean that your own career is at risk. However, the risk in this example isn’t life or death, but rather your own personal satisfaction and fulfillment in life. 

You deserve to find the perfect niche in nursing that combines your passion, interest and supports you emotionally and financially. In Japanese, this niche is known as Ikigai, and it is often represented as a Venn diagram. Ikigai is, quite simply, finding something to do that combines what you love with what you are good at, with what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. 

Nursing is the perfect place to find Ikigai, and this guide can help you find the perfect role that ticks all of your boxes. 

DFID—UK Dept. or International Development from Flickr Creative Commons.

The Straightforward Career Path 

Until you can start working towards your MSN and become an APRN or go even further to earn a DNP, your career path will be fairly straightforward. This is a good thing because it gives you time to actually be a nurse and understand what you want out of the career. 

Certified Nursing Assistant 

The very first tier of nursing is that of the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). These assistants provide a lot of holistic care that can greatly impact the quality of care and quality of life that a patient experiences. You can work in a hospital, in clinics, or even in care homes as a CNA, so even though you are at the start of your nursing career, you have options regarding where you end up. 

Licensed Nurse Practitioner 

The next stage is the Licensed Nurse Practitioner. It takes a few months to become an LNP, and once you do, your job role will be expanded to include additional responsibilities that allow you to perform more medical care than palliative care. Instead of changing out bedpans, for example, you will be giving patients their pre-dispensed medication, and so on. 

Registered Nurse 

As a registered nurse, you will be providing a lot of hands-on care. If you can, try to avoid earning an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). These do serve their purpose, of course, but you will need to earn a BSN at one point or another regardless. Earning an ADN can help you to become an RN sooner, but you will make less, and most hospitals and employers are looking to increase their intake of BSN nurses due to their statistically increased ability to reduce mortality rates and readmission rates. 

During this period, you will also want to try to work in different areas throughout the hospital. You don’t need specialized training to operate as an RN from one department to another, as there will be APRNs there for that job. Instead, you will want to explore your interests and see what type of medicine or even what demographic (pediatrics, geriatrics, male, female, etc.) that you will be interested in helping. 

Look to The Job Boards for Inspiration 

During this time, you will also want to start checking out the job boards. You won’t be able to legally get the jobs that you will be looking at, not yet, but they can help you learn more about what is out there and, more importantly, what expertise and qualifications that they are looking for. Of course, you don’t have to have all of them when you apply in the future, but the legal qualifications, like an MSN in a certain specialty and the state license, are essential. However, for now, just take note of the jobs that sound interesting to you so that you can create a list of MSN or even the DNP degrees that you will need to qualify for those dream roles. 

Examples of Where Nurses Can Work 

There are so many great, unique places where APRNs can work. Many of these will even accept RNs, LNPs, and CNAs as well, though your options will decrease the more junior your position is. 

The reason why APRNs are so in demand around the world and in nearly every single field is that many can act as physicians. As a result, APRNs are considered the solution for the physician shortage in the United States today. 

There is a reason why some states allow APRNs to practice independently. These APRNs can open up their own clinic and can even write their own prescription. As 5G rolls out and more people are connected to a fast internet connection, APRNs and RNs will be even more instrumental to getting quality care to those in rural areas. 

Though not the full list of options, these few suggestions should give you a hint as to what you can do as a nurse with a BSN, MSN, or DNP degree: 

Traditional Workplaces 

Hospitals, clinics, and even schools will always have a place for a nurse. They are easy to get into and easy to progress, making them a great place for nurses to start their careers. They are not, however, the only option available to you. 


Telehealth is the future of healthcare. This doesn’t just mean taking appointments via a secure video connection, either. With new tools, patients will be able to send test results and updates electronically to their medical professionals. This way, we can monitor their health and provide better and more personalized treatment on the go. 

Telehealth is set to change things forever for those with chronic conditions and those who live in rural areas. You can be part of the change, especially as an APRN nurse. 


You can work at big events. Sports events. Live music events. Once cases go down and the world resumes, there will be openings for medical teams to come and cover the event in case an attendee is injured or otherwise in need of care. 

You can even work on movie or TV sets. Nurses and doctors are hired on standby when someone is injured, especially when they are filming stunts. 


There is a massive nursing shortage, which means that a hospital will feel their absence when someone is sick. That is where travel nurses come into play. Rather than working in one setting, they pick up jobs on a day, week, or even monthly basis to cover shifts as necessary. 

Travel nurses are particularly popular in NLC states, where they can easily transfer their license from state to state without retaking the exam. 


Many nurses that want to slow down, but still want to work and make a difference become interested in education. This doesn’t mean becoming a school nurse, though this is certainly a great role. Instead, it means being becoming a nurse educator. You will be on the faculty to teach the next generation. 

This is a very, very important role. Currently, there are too few faculty members for students, which means that you should be patient when you are looking to enroll. Depending on how popular the degree you want is, it may take a while before you are accepted. So just take that time to further your professional qualifications and keep trying. 


Nursing administration roles are not secretarial. However, the Director of Nursing or Head Nurse is one of the most important players in any hospital setting. It is them that directly influences the quality of care and the quality of support that their nurses receive. A good leader can improve everything from the ground up, allowing you to help on a hospital scale rather than on a patient-by-patient basis. 

You don’t need a DNP degree to become a healthcare administrator, but it is one of the best ways to get that highly coveted role in the first place and to even negotiate a higher salary because of it. Those with a DNP earn, on average, around 20% more than their non-DNP counterparts. 


DNP nurses are leaders in their field. They combine everything they know from working directly with patients with essential leadership and organization skills. This makes them excellent in healthcare administration roles, but that is just the start of what a DNP nurse can do. 

You can also work directly in policy. The work you do here will help improve the quality of care that patients around the state or even country receive from their healthcare professionals. You can even work to implement more support, better pay, or more fair benefits for nurses when you work in policy. 

You won’t be saving lives directly with your hands, but you will be improving the quality of care that will make a significant difference for generations to come. 

Networking as a Nurse 

Nursing is a very in-demand career. The industry is expanding, and there are over a million nurses set to retire very soon. What this means is that you should not have a problem with getting a job as a nurse. In fact, they are almost begging for more nurses. 

That does not mean that networking is not important for your career. As you get further up the nursing career ladder, you will notice that the top jobs don’t have a lot of empty openings. For example, there can only be one Director of Nursing, and similarly, you won’t find many openings for nursing roles on big blockbuster movies or other unique opportunities. 

That is where networking comes into play. There are few good ways to network, including: 


  • Keeping in Touch with Those You Already Know 


You already have a network; the only thing you need to do is leverage it. Try to stay in touch with those that can help you with your career. You don’t need to be friends, but you do need to be friendly. If they need help, help them. If they need advice, give it. By helping your network, you can later look to them when you yourself need a leg up for your career. 


  • Going Out of Your Way to Attend Events, Conferences, Etc. 


Conferences and other work events are a great way to stay on top of your career as a nurse and meet others. Try to attend all the socials you can and choose a method to stay in touch. Social media, even sites like LinkedIn, make it easy and comfortable to stay in touch with your network without going out of your way. 


  • Being Flexible with Where You Work 


Finally, the last way to network is to simply take the plunge and change jobs. You won’t become the Head Nurse without being in a leadership position, so if you find you are being passed over or the Head Nurse at your hospital does not seem to be retiring or leaving any time soon, look elsewhere. You can go up the ladder while still taking a step back from your career, and that is okay. This is how you both showcase you can do the job, and how you can meet more people that will help you reach your goals. 

Author: Carol Trehearn

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