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More than an assistant

Nurses may be doctors' assistants, but they provide much more than just support to their M.D. counterparts. Registered nurses (R.N.s) not only care for their patients' physical condition, but they are often the sole source of comfort to people in times of trauma, such as after an accident or just before going under the knife. Nurses spend more time with patients than doctors; sometimes they even spend more time with patients than the patients' families. Because of this close relationship with patients, there is immense physical and emotional strain associated with being a nurse, as well as many rewards.

With over two million jobs, nursing is the largest occupation in the field of health care. Generally speaking, registered nurses promote health, prevent disease, and help patients cope with illness. In more specific terms, this entails assisting physicians during treatments and examinations, administering medications, and assisting in rehabilitation. R.N.s also provide instruction in health care and manage nursing care plans.

Different strokes

Nurses generally fall into several main groups, depending on where they work: in hospitals, in private practice, in private homes, etc. Hospital nurses, the largest group, are staff nurses who provide bedside nursing care and carry out the medical regimen prescribed by physicians. They also supervise licensed practical nurses and aides. Hospital nurses are typically assigned to one area such as surgery, maternity, pediatrics, emergency, ICU, or oncology, but they sometimes rotate among departments.

As opposed to hospital nurses, office nurses work in private practice, clinics, surgicenters, emergency medical centers, and HMOs, serving as right hands to doctors in these medical facilities. Home health nurses provide periodic services, prescribed by a physician, to patients at home. They also provide support to patients and their families, and at times work independently.

Nurses who work in nursing homes manage care for elderly residents. They spend most of their time on administrative tasks, but also assess the medical condition of residents and work in rehabilitation units, assisting patients recovering from strokes and injuries.

Public health nurses work for government and private agencies in clinics, schools, and retirement communities. They are professionals in disease prevention, proper nutrition, and prenatal care. Occupational health or industrial nurses provide care at work sites to employees, either in the case of injury, or for general wellness. Nurse practitioners are the most advanced nurses, with the power to write prescriptions and independently diagnose and treat patients.

Weird hours

It is common for hospital nurses to maintain long, irregular hours, often working double shifts or staying on call 24 hours a day. Occupational health and office nurses work more conventional 40-hour weeks. Nursing can also be a dangerous occupation, as nurses are sometimes exposed to highly infectious diseases and handle sharp objects, needles, and blood.

Career Path  

After graduating from an accredited nursing school and passing a state licensing examination, an entry-level registered nurse will have graduated from one of three programs: the associate degree of nursing (A.D.N) program, the bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.) program, or a two-year nursing program from a community or junior college. An enrolled student in one of these programs can expect courses in such subjects as anatomy, microbiology, and nutrition, as well as nursing. In addition, students receive supervised clinical experience in hospitals, ambulances, or nursing homes. A bachelor's degree is generally necessary for administrative positions in hospitals and for positions in community nursing or teaching.

Experience and a good performance record brings a promotion to management, assistant head nurse, or head nurse. The next advancement level is assistant director of nursing, then director, and vice president. Increasingly, management-level nursing positions require a graduate degree in nursing or health services administration. Graduate programs that prepare nurses for executive positions are one to two years long. If nurses want to advance within patient care positions, a one- to two-year graduate education is also needed to become a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or a certified nurse anesthetist. Another career option is to become a consultant for health care corporations in health planning and development, marketing, and quality assurance.


Wide variety of career options;Satisfaction from helping people


Long hours;Erratic schedule

Personality Match  


Personality Miss  

Lazy;Easily tired;Squeamish


Averages about 55 per week


Median salary: $41,000


Degree from an accredited nursing school;Nursing license

Our Survey Says  

The pay in the nursing field is "very good but it's never enough," according to several nurses. "Most of the time we are underpaid and overworked," and it is common for nurses to "get pulled to another unit, like ICU" at any moment. Patients and "especially family members" of patients can be "difficult"; as a result, many hospitals and retirement homes are requiring nurses to take "psychological counseling" classes as part of their curriculum to help them "deal with that kind of patient." Other complaints include the contention that the health care field is "too unstable" and there is an "overabundance of nurses." Many complain that it is "an employer's market" and that the result is "some of the worst benefit packages imaginable."

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