Nursing as a Second Career: How to Make a Career Change to Nursing

Three nurses standing with medical icons above.
Three nurses standing with medical icons above.

The U.S. health care system is experiencing a nursing shortage. The combination of an aging population, nurse retirements and nurse turnover has resulted in a widened gap that’s left ample opportunity for those interested in the nursing profession.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the need for 195,400 new registered nurses between 2021 and 2031. This projection may indicate that nursing as a second career may be a good option for those looking to switch to a new profession. It’s a move that involves helping others or becoming part of an organization’s strategies aimed at improving patient outcomes.

It’s a noble pursuit. However, before you take the leap of a career change to nursing, it’s important to understand the steps behind the transition, the benefits and the goals to pursue as a nurse.

What Is a Registered Nurse?

In many ways, registered nurses (RNs) are the ultimate team players on a health care team. They act as patient care coordinators, serve as health educators, collaborate with physicians and health care specialists and can even provide comfort for patients and their families. It’s a complex role that consists of many moving parts, and it can potentially serve as a springboard for graduate degrees that can lead to more advanced nursing roles, such as nurse practitioner. It will also help you establish some of your key goals for a nursing career, such as playing a role in improved patient care.

Job Duties

RNs perform a wide range of duties every day. Some duties fall directly within the patient/caregiver dynamic, like patient assessment and observations, recording patient medical histories and administering patient treatment and medication. Additionally, they can provide psychosocial support in managing, coping with, and addressing health care needs.

RNs can also assist in running diagnostic tests and analysis, which can require them to operate and monitor medical equipment. RNs often collaborate with other health care professionals to set up and adjust patient care plans. They can take on an educational role, teaching patients how to manage their ailments and what to do at home post-treatment.

Work Environments

A vital member of the health care team, the RN can work in several different settings. Most RNs work directly in health care environments, such as doctor’s offices, hospitals, long-term care facilities or nursing homes. In addition, there may be opportunities to work in other unique settings, such as prisons or private residences.

Median Annual Salary

The 2021 median annual salary for an RN is $77,600. Several factors may influence the precise amount an RN is paid. These include education level, years of experience and job location.

Nurse Specialties for BSN Graduates

RNs that have honed their knowledge and skills with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree can pursue specialized nursing roles that focus on a specific aspect of nursing. These specialized nurses typically earn a higher median annual salary compared to general RNs.

Some of these nursing career paths include:

  • Labor & Delivery (L&D) Nurse – Nurses that specialize in providing care to mothers before, during and after childbirth. They’re also known as obstetric nurses.
  • Operating Room (OR) / Surgical Nurse – Nurses specializing in care delivery before, during and after medical invasive surgical procedures.
  • ICU / Critical Care Nurse – Nurses that provide care to patients suffering from life-threatening situations or illnesses.
  • Emergency Room (ER) Nurse – Nurses specializing in the stabilization, revival and resolution of patients with life-threatening conditions before the patient can get further care.
  • Progressive Care Unit (PCU) Nurse – Nurses that provide care to patients that need immediate care until they are ready to leave a facility and return home.
  • Private Duty Nurse – Nurses that specialize in delivering one-on-one, long-term patient care in the patient’s home.
  • Quality Assurance Nurse – Nurses that ensure consistent, quality care within a facility or department via evaluation.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Whether or not you’re pursuing nursing as a second career, gaining experience as an RN can lay the foundation for you to pursue advanced nursing roles. These roles typically require the completion of an advanced nursing degree along with experience. They also usually offer the opportunity to perform more tasks and earn a higher salary. Some of these opportunities include:

  • Nurse practitioner (NP) – Also known as an advanced practice registered nurse, these nurses provide primary care through advanced nursing practices. This can include prescribing medication in states that allow full practice authority.
  • Nurse Anesthetists – These nurses specialize in administering anesthesia before, during and after various surgical, obstetrical, therapeutic and diagnostic procedures.
  • Nurse Midwives – These nurses provide specialized care to expectant mothers, including baby delivery.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist – These nurses have advanced expertise in a specific area of nursing practice, including the diagnosis or treatment of chronic or acute illnesses.

BSN Nursing Skills

Nursing can require competencies such as teamwork, communication, technology and detail-oriented skills, along with characteristics such as empathy and stamina. Earning a BSN will deepen these skills, as it broadens an individual’s nursing knowledge base. It will also help cultivate new skills, including more advanced nursing skills such as patient assessment, injury treatment, medication administration and management competencies.

nurse with patient

Why Choose Nursing as a Second Career?

Switching over to the nursing field from a different career path is a bold step. There are numerous advantages to pursuing nursing as a second career.

High Job Satisfaction

A nursing career has one key goal: To provide care that helps people improve their health and wellness. Helping patients get better through holistic, compassionate care can provide a rewarding feeling of satisfaction that other industries can’t quite emulate.

High Salary

Nursing is generally a well-paid profession. BLS’s 2021 median salary of $77,600 for RNs indicates a solid starting point for a nursing career. This salary can be even higher for nurses who pursue a specialization or an advanced practice nursing role. For example, as of 2021, nurse anesthetists earn a median annual salary of $195, 610, nurse practitioners earn $120,680 and nurse midwives earn $112, 830, according to the BLS.

Work Flexibility

Nursing careers typically offer flexible work schedules due to the on-demand nature of health care. This can make it easier for you to integrate your work with the demands and obligations you may have in your personal life. In some cases, you may also be able to transition back and forth from full-time work and part-time work schedule as needed. For example, some nurses may choose a two day on, one day off schedule. Others may prefer three days on and four days off in a row.

Opportunities for Career Growth

The nursing field offers RNs plenty of growth potential in the form of specialization, diversity of practice environment, and advanced practice nursing roles. The latter category’s opportunities are particularly vibrant – BLS projects 40% job growth for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives between 2021 and 2031.

Peer Recognition

The nursing licensure process distinguishes your skills and knowledge among other health care professionals. Nurses often enjoy professional recognition for their work from those inside and outside the nursing field, and nursing has been rated the most trusted profession for over two decades.

Opportunities for Career Specialization

The broad nature of the nursing field makes it possible to concentrate on a specific area of health care, such as surgery, obstetrics or long-term care. These specializations can also place you in specific or specialized work environments, such as a long-term care facility or a hospital.

Reasons to choose nursing as a second career from top to bottom.

Changing your career path to nursing is an important choice. It can also be richly rewarding. Those that make the switch may experience the following benefits, according to Indeed: High job satisfaction; high median annual salary; flexible work schedule; opportunities for career growth; peer recognition; and opportunities for career specialization.


The following resources can provide you with more in-depth information about this dynamic field, how to make the transition and the benefits of doing so.

Tools You Need: This resource guide from the American Nurses Association (ANA) provides detailed information on nursing roles, licensure requirements and RN specialties.

Nursing Career Resources: This page from Incredible Health issues tips and strategies on how to pursue a nursing job, including resume building and interview preparation.

Free Nursing Resources: This resource repository from Lippincott NursingCenter connects you to newsletters, journals, podcasts and articles devoted to the nursing profession.

What to Consider When Making a Career Change to Nursing

A career change to nursing is likely to be more successful and fulfilling if you start with specific goals that you want to achieve. Your goals for a nursing career can provide you with additional guidance as you transition to nursing as a second career. They can keep you motivated in your pursuit while also helping  you improve your quality of care once you’ve entered the field.

Gain Certification

Earning a nursing certification provides you with additional validation of your nursing skills. It can also demonstrate a high level of knowledge and skill to prospective employers. Certifications typically hone in on a specialized element of nursing care.

Improve Your Skill Set

A realistic and valuable goal for an early-career nurse is to deepen and refine a broad, diverse skill set as you go along. Essential nursing skills typically go beyond clinical competencies. The influx of tech-driven systems and devices in the field makes developing strong tech skills critical. It’s also vital to curate a solid palette of soft skills, such as communication.

Find a Mentor

Transitioning to a nursing career isn’t something you should do alone. Seeking a nursing mentor can help make your entry and growth in the field more manageable. You don’t need a formal program to seek out a mentor, but some medical facilities do have mentorship programs in place for you to consider. The ANA also offers a mentorship program for new RNs.

Strive Toward Specialization

Striving to pursue a nursing specialization can help to shape your nursing career in a way that best suits your skill set and interests. Additionally, specialization within the nursing field can commonly lead to higher paying roles.

Commit to Lifelong Learning

Health care constantly evolves through technical innovation, new discoveries and progressive methodologies. This makes it crucial to commit to learning about the latest in nursing. Doing so will keep your knowledge current and your skills sharp, which can help you build a reputation as a trusted leader in health care.

Achieve Work-Life Balance

The nursing field is flexible, but it can also be demanding. It’s important that you adhere to leading a balanced life, taking advantage of the time away from work to engage in self-care strategies that keep you mentally, physically and spiritually restored.

These goals function as guideposts to help make the move to the nursing field as smooth as possible. They apply to everyone, regardless of age, because they focus on how a person can cultivate their knowledge and skills in a way that aligns with their own values and capabilities. As the adage goes, “You’re never too old to learn something new,” and these goals demonstrate ways you can commit to learning and growing not only when you start pursuing the field, but when you’re a practicing professional.

What to consider when making a career change to nursing from left to right.

Setting clear goals can make the transition to a career in nursing easier and more productive. For successful nurses, the pre-set array of goals often looks like this, according to Indeed: Gain nursing certification; improve skills associated with nursing; work with a mentor; develop a nursing specialization; commit to lifelong learning; and achieve work-life balance.

4 Steps to Pursuing Nursing as a Second Career

Nursing is integral to delivering quality health care. To make the transition to nursing as a second career, you’ll need to take specific steps to prepare for the responsibilities involved and to demonstrate your professional qualifications.

Education Requirements

A college degree in nursing is the educational benchmark for pursuing a role as an RN. You can either pursue an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. While the ADN can typically be completed in less time, the BSN is more likely to meet employer preferences or mandates as it provides a more in-depth education that can yield higher quality care.

Gaining Experience via Clinicals

The typical BSN program will require clinical hours to help you apply your skills in controlled practice settings. These opportunities will allow you to demonstrate a full understanding of the theories and principles learned in the classroom and, most importantly, gain the experience needed to become a confident nurse.

Passing the NCLEX Exam

Once you earn your degree, you’re required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Issued by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), this test is designed to confirm your knowledge of nursing fundamentals. You can retake this test up to eight times a year if you don’t pass the first time, although you must wait a minimum of 45 days before retaking the test.

Obtaining State Licensure

After you pass the NCLEX, you’re eligible to apply for a nursing license in the state you plan on practicing. Each state has its specific requirements and process to gain licensure, so it is wise to read up on what these requirements are while you’re in training.

Accelerate Your Education with a Hybrid ABSN

Pursuing nursing as a second career requires a time commitment. However, there is a way to shave off some time in the educational step of the process if you’re planning on pursuing a BSN degree. Some schools offer an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program, which allows you to earn your degree in less time than the traditional BSN – usually less than two years.

Unlike a BSN program, which is designed for students without prior college experience, an ABSN program is typically designed for those who already have a bachelor’s degree outside of nursing. The ABSN curriculum helps to dramatically cut the time needed in school since the coursework fully focuses on nursing (leveraging the general education courses completed in previous degree). Typically, an ABSN will take between 12 and 24 months to complete – much less than the four years required to complete a BSN.

An ABSN program offers several unique benefits. The primary advantage is the speed of the program, which allows you to transition your career into nursing quickly, within one to two years.

Hybrid ABSN programs have been growing in popularity, featuring online coursework, hands-on clinicals and on-campus residency. In a hybrid ABSN program, the student can study from home or anywhere within the program’s authorized states while gaining local clinical experience. Some ABSN programs also offer clinical placement services in their students’ area. This means a clinical placement team helps secure clinical sites in their area as well as preceptors who will mentor them professionally. This service allows students to focus on staying on pace with their studies and gain valuable experience with potential future employers in their community.

These programs offer flexibility for students who have other jobs or obligations while allowing them to gain hands-on experience locally.

nursing student

Is Nursing the Right Career for Me?

Making a career change to nursing is a big decision, and it should not be taken lightly. While nursing offers ample opportunity and is a uniquely rewarding profession, it’s important to take some time to reflect on this decision.  

One of the best ways to discern whether or not you want to be a nurse is to build out a pros and cons list. The pros will probably correlate with the benefits of becoming a nurse, such as job stability, a high-paying salary, and the satisfaction that comes with making a difference in the lives of others. The cons, on the other hand, reveal the challenging nature of the role, such as potentially difficult patients or stress levels associated with certain specializations. It is important to weigh these challenges against your values and personal goals.

If the pros outweigh the cons for you, it may confirm that the goals for a nursing career align with your values and personal goals. It’s important to take the time to consider which specialized nursing career path you may like to pursue. There are many types of nursing roles with unique benefits that require different skill sets. Understanding your skills and goals can help you decide what type of nursing career to pursue.

Take the First Step Toward Nursing as a Second Career

The impact of the nursing shortage resonates throughout health care. If you’re considering changing your career for a role in nursing, now is the right time. By becoming a nurse, you can do more than reduce the impact of the nursing shortage. You can place yourself in a position to make a big difference in the lives of others. This can ultimately make your switch to a nursing career a supremely satisfying decision.

Infographic Sources:
Mini IG #1:
Indeed, 15 Advantages of a Nursing Career

Mini IG #2:
Indeed, 15 Nursing Professional Goals (With Tips)

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