Ask Yourself 6 Questions Before Choosing a Nurse Practitioner Specialty

Thinking about a future nurse practitioner career? Your options for specialties are almost limitless. You may consider working in cardiology, dermatology or neurology. Perhaps you want to focus on a procedure-based career and secure employment with a surgical group. One of the great things about becoming a nurse practitioner is that you have a number of options when it comes to your practice area and can transition among them throughout your careerDespite the flexibility NPs enjoy, students would be wise to think through their interests before enrolling in a nurse practitioner program. 

If you are considering going back to school to become a nurse practitioner, intentionality as you select your specialty is a must. It dictates your job outlook and opportunities for the future more than you might realize. Acute care nurse practitioners, for example, often graduate dumbfounded they are not qualified to work in most emergency departments. EDs treat children which is outside of the ACNP scope of practice. So, emergency departments prefer to hire family nurse practitioners. This may seem like a disconnect, but workplace realities don’t always match up with the visions of NP programs and nursing organizations.

To avoid making a detrimental mistake in preparing for your NP career, ask yourself these six questions before deciding on your nurse practitioner specialty.

Do I prefer to work in the inpatient or outpatient setting?

The specialty you choose doesn’t always dictate whether you work in the inpatient or outpatient setting but it can make you more likely to find yourself in one over another. If you prefer to work exclusively in the clinic environment then becoming a family or pediatric nurse practitioner is caters best to your interests. Do you enjoy working in the hospital environment? Life as an acute care NP might be more up your alley.

Specialty positions such as cardiology or neurology to name a few may include responsibilities in both inpatient and outpatient settings. So, choosing one degree over another doesn’t automatically preclude you from employment in either type of facility. You can have it both ways.

What patient populations do I enjoy working with?

Evaluate your past nursing positions, education, job shadowing and volunteer experiences as you weigh your NP specialty options. This may seem intuitive however many prospective NP students don’t put enough stock in the process. On a sheet of paper, write down what you liked and didn’t like about the types of patients you have worked with in the past. If ortho isn’t your gig, working in trauma won’t be for you. If you find primary care a bore, an FNP program may not be the best fit.

Having trouble with your list? Job shadow! Firsthand insight into what life as a nurse practitioner looks like day to day is hands-down the best way to hone your interests.

Are there job opportunities in my field of interest where I plan to live?

Begin your NP education with the end in mind. In a few short years, you’re going to need a job. Where will you work? Some areas of the country may not be able to accommodate nurse practitioners with specific interests of highly specialized practice areas. If you’re looking to live in a one-horse town 200 miles from the nearest hospital, an acute care nurse practitioner certification won’t get you very far. Check out job boards, clinic and hospital websites to get an idea of who might be hiring in your area. Will you be employable in the location where you plan to live?

How competitive is the job market in the specialty I am considering?

I talk to a lot of new grad NPs dreaming of a position in dermatology. But, there isn’t enough Botox to go around. Neonatal nurse practitioners are few and far between, as are job opportunities. How competitive is the specialty you are considering? Practicing NPs can usually clue you in as to the local job market. Set reasonable expectations for your first few years of practice. Gaining some experience may be in order to land your dream job. Which NP educational path will best help you achieve your goals? 

Will the ability to treat children be required?

This one’s a biggie. Many nurse practitioner students mistakenly become adult NPs because they don’t enjoy pediatrics. This decision substantially limits future employment prospects. Primary care clinics, emergency departments, urgent care clinics and even specialty clinics often sustain a small population of pediatric patients. These employers hire family nurse practitioners over adult nurse practitioners to avoid the hassle of navigating a limited scope of practice – even if caring for kids is an insignificant part of the job. Becoming a FNP doesn’t mean you have to treat children, it simply gives you the option.

Which types of nurse practitioner degrees match with my vision for my future?

Nurse practitioner degrees cover a broad range of medical specialties. Family nurse practitioners might find themselves working anywhere from primary care clinics to the emergency department. Acute care NPs find themselves with options ranging from settings such as outpatient urology practices the the ICU. NP programs, however don’t typically offer highly specialized program tracks. Select the program option that encompasses your interests best. 

Once you identify the specialties in which you are most interested, do your homework. Make sure your professional goals are attainable given scope of practice limitations and the location in which you plan to practice. Choose the NP degree that fits best.

Nurse practitioners – what do you wish you would have known before selecting your specialty?


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