Travel Nurse Guide: Choosing A Nursing Specialty
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Nurses have always been in demand, but this is a great time to enter the field if you’re considering a career as a nurse. The nursing profession is currently set to experience significant growth over the next decade, and increased demand for care, burnout, and upcoming retirements — with over 500,000 nurses expected to retire by 2022. The stress and burnout caused by COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the need for more nurses.
The good news is that the growth in this field could provide a unique opportunity for registered nurses and nursing students. Experts expect that there will be a need for 1.1 million more nurses by 2022 in order to fill the nursing shortage. Travel nurses — especially those with a specialized nursing focus — are in high demand to help hospitals alleviate the pressure of finding local permanent staff nurses.
According to Health Providers Choice, there are approximately 25,000 travel nurses in the nation, and the services they provide are sought after by medical facilities across the nation. Hospitals and recruiters are willing to offer RNs lucrative compensation packages to fill shortages, and travel nurses typically make between 15% and 20% more than regular RNs. Specialized RNs are typically in even higher demand — and compensated accordingly.
If you are considering a career in this field, or if you are an RN who wants to specialize in order to work as a travel nurse, you may be unsure of where to start. This guide can help. It outlines what specialties are available for nurses, which specialties are in high demand, and offers guidance on how you can decide the specialty that works best for you.
What Is a Travel Nurse?
A travel nurse is a registered nurse who typically works with an independent staffing agency to take on temporary assignments across the nation. While it’s common for travel nurses to fill in at hospitals or other high-need facilities, there is a wide range of opportunities that travel nurses can take advantage of. Travel nurses could opt to work for a private client or fill staffing shortages in a hospital or clinic. They may also receive assignments out of state or be asked to work internationally in some cases.
There is no specific data at this time from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on what a travel nurse earns as an average wage per year. That said, travel nurses typically earn between 15% and 20% more than the average RN, a role that had an average median wage of about $75,330 per year. When calculating in the 15% to 20% wage increase for travel nurses, you can expect to earn between $86,000 to $90,000 per year on average in this role — not including bonuses and possible housing stipends, both of which are common types of compensation for travel nurses.
In order to be successful as a travel nurse, you will need to be flexible and adaptable to fulfill the job role at hand. You are expected to enter settings and situations that are unfamiliar to you in this role and will have to adjust accordingly. A typical travel nurse assignment lasts between eight and 26 weeks, though assignments abroad could last from one to two years in some cases.
Why Should You Consider a Specialty in Travel Nursing?
There are almost no limits to where you can take assignments as a travel nurse — whether you want to experience life in a small town or work in the hustle and bustle of a major metro area. Nearly all areas in the country need nurses to fill vital roles in healthcare, which means that you can pick and choose the assignments you take.
This is especially true if you specialize in an area of nursing. As the travel nursing profession grows, having an area of focus — or a specialty — could help you edge out competitors and earn more. However, you may not know what you would like to focus on initially.
This is a common problem for many nursing students, who aren’t sure what to specialize in prior to entering nursing school. It’s important to keep in mind that whatever specialty you choose, you don’t need to remain in the field for the rest of your life. As a nurse, you can always seek a different specialty at a later point in your career.
That is what Marie Johnson, APRN, a travel nurse based in Seattle, did. Johnson was recruited while working as an RN in a Florida hospital.
“I pursued respiratory nursing and eventually went for my master's degree in pediatric pulmonary care,” Johnson said.
High Demand Specialties
The following nursing specialties are some of the most sought after — especially when it comes to hiring travel nurses. These could be good specialization options for travel nurses who are looking to expand their work opportunities.
1. NICU and L&D (Labor and Delivery) Nursing
As long as babies are being born, labor and neonatal care travel nurses will be in high demand. Labor and delivery nurses work in delivery rooms, while neonatal nurses work with prematurely-born babies in the NICU who require a higher level of care.
Labor nurses assist in the delivery process as well as caring for the infants born. L&D and NICU travel nurses can expect to make between $44,190 and $95,130 per year on average, while specialized nurses with advanced degrees such as a master’s or doctoral degree will typically earn the highest wages. However, gaining experience while working as a staff nurse in a level III NICU or delivery room before applying for a graduate program might be the best route to take.
2. Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners
Psychiatric nurse practitioners are some of the most in-demand travel nurses. Projected growth over the next few years is about 45%, and this role has an average salary of about $2,300 per week.
Psychiatric nurse practitioners typically have great workplace flexibility. These types of nurses may work at a hospital mental health department, substance abuse center, private practice, domestic violence shelter, mental health center, school, social services center, correctional system or may even work remotely. Telehealth provides a good opportunity to work from home by providing mental health services online.
3. Telemetry Nurse
Technology is improving diagnostics and patient care and nurses capable of reading and operating state-of-the-art equipment will likely continue to be in demand. A telemetry nurse specializes in cardiac care for patients who are on equipment monitoring. Knowing how to read an electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG) machine is essential to work in this role.
Telemetry travel nurses typically earn between $2,700 and $3,100 per week. For RNs and travel nurses who are already certified in telemetry and want to specialize further, earning a CMC certification to care for cardiac patients who are critically ill could be the next step.
4. Emergency Department or ER Nursing
Emergency room nurses fall under the scope of registered nursing, a field with job growth of about 7% (faster than average) over the next few years. Working in an emergency room is not for everyone. It’s a fast-paced job with a high-stress load. However, some individuals enjoy the nature of the work.
Although many of the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak are starting to lessen, emergency rooms still have a shortage of medical support teams. Fastaff, a travel nursing staffing agency, has ongoing positions for an ER travel nurse, paying between $4,000 to $7,000 per week. Required qualifications include an RN degree and license, one year of ER experience and BLS, ACLS, and PALS certifications.
5. ICU Nurse
ICU (trauma intensive care unit) travel nurses are in high demand. Visit nearly any travel nurse staffing agency’s page and you will find a dozen or more job openings available for immediate hire. Aside from possible housing stipends and benefits, an ICU travel nurse position typically pays between $5,000 to $7.000 per week.
Registered nurses will need BLS and ACLS certifications to qualify for the work. In addition, most jobs require at least one year of experience in an ICU environment and two years working as an RN. For ICU nurses experiencing burnout, taking a shorter-term travel nursing position can be helpful to change up the high-stress routine with temporary placements.
6. Dialysis Nurse
A dialysis nurse works with patients who make regular trips to a center for treatment. If a patient’s kidneys can no longer filter waste effectively, dialysis filters the waste for them. Dialysis travel nurses typically earn up to $79,500 per year.
A dialysis nurse specialization can take three to six years to earn. A bachelor’s degree, followed by some experience working as a dialysis nurse, is a good route to take. If you want to further advance in the specialty, you can start by earning a master of science in nursing. The two-year graduate degree helps students qualify for Certified Nephrology Nurse-Nurse Practitioner (CNN-NP) credentials.
Which Specialty Is Right for You?
Determining what type of travel nursing specialty is right for you may take some homework. After all, you want to make sure that your personality and work preference matches the position you’re pursuing.
For example, ER and ICU positions are best suited for individuals who perform well under pressure. Acute and critical care travel nurses require a certain level of empathy and high communication skills as well.
Taking a personality test, such as the Meyers Brigg Type Indicator, can help you pinpoint how you respond and function in the world around you. There are 16 types of tests, which are broken into extroverts and introverts. The test won’t point out what type of travel nurse you would work best as, but it could at least provide you with insights into what may be a good fit.
Trusted Healthcare has a short list of travel nurse positions based on personality and preferences. A couple of the highlights include:
- “L&D: Do you like a fast-paced never-know-what-will-roll-in environment balanced with an ‘It's SO QUIET’ shift? Are you nurturing and directive at the same time? Do you want to work in tandem with the Obstetric (OB) team where it’s often all-hands-on-deck?”
- “Critical Care: Do you like to know EVERYTHING about your patients, such as how much they peed in the last hour, what differential diagnosis could be presenting because they have a new symptom, and which meds are making the BP rise or fall?”
If you do not feel inclined toward any specialty yet, working for a while, which allows you to spend time floating around units, may give you a better idea of what specialty would be your best bet. Sometimes, the best way to decide on what specialty fits with your interests and goals is by learning what fields you do not like and then moving forward from there.
How to Become a Travel Nurse
If the idea of traveling for well-paid temporary assignments sounds like a dream to you, you can follow these steps to start on the journey to become a travel nurse.
1. Get to Work
Nearly all travel nursing positions require at least one year of work experience as a registered nurse before you can be considered for an assignment. For specialized nurses, most recruiters will also want to see an additional year of work in your specialty. The sooner you get working, the faster you will have earned the experience required.
2. Float Like a Pro
Floating requires you to be adaptable and open to working in other units. Many nurses dread having to float, but it’s often a necessary part of work. Take it in stride — travel nurses are the ultimate floaters, asked to work temporarily at hospitals and medical facilities to fill shortages. Besides, floating to another unit can be a good skill on your resume, showing you have competencies that make you a valuable team member.
3. Build a Travel Nurse Resume
Having the right skills and experience on your resume can help it land on the top of the stack. There are plenty of sample travel nurse resume templates and resources available online that help you emphasize the skills most likely to win a recruiter over.
Or you can hire someone to help you write a focused resume that highlights your best experience and skills. If you don’t feel comfortable writing your own, the small cost of letting a professional write one for you could pay back in new travel assignments.
4. Apply to a Recruiter
Travel nurse recruiters and staffing agents will be your best partner to keep you happily employed. They handle all the behind-the-scenes details, such as contracts, pay, and the hiring process.
Once you have enough work experience and a solid resume ready, reach out to a few reputable recruiters or apply for positions available on their website. Some of the best-known travel nurse recruiters include:
Preparing for Your New Career and Avoiding Burnout
Burnout is a real possibility in any career, but especially when you work as a nurse. This job is demanding and tends to come with high pressure, which can leave nurses with little downtime — especially during high-need events like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, nearly one-third of nurses reported leaving their jobs because of burnout in 2018, according to a study published Feb. 4, 2021 in JAMA Network Open.
According to the study, 418,769 nurses reported leaving their jobs in the last year. Of those 418,000 nurses, about 31.5% identified burnout as a reason for their departure. Among nurses who said they considered leaving, 43.4 percent cited burnout as a contributing factor.
Other factors that contributed to nurses leaving their roles included: a stressful work environment, which accounted for 34.4%; inadequate staffing, which accounted for 30%; poor management, which accounted for 33.9%; and opportunities for better pay, which accounted for 26.5%.
The good news is that travel nurses may not suffer burnout as quickly as full-time nurses since they change locations and job roles more often. However, travel nurses still need to watch for stress overload.
Some resources that could help with burnout include:
- Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation: This resource includes programs and events that help nurses get healthy, fit, and improve their quality of life.
- Compassionate Listening Circles: This national project is hosted by the American Holistic Nurse Association (AHNA) for all nurses who want to come together virtually in need of support. Virtual meetings are held every Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST.
- The Inspiration Nurse: Donna Cardillo hosts seminars and retreats that empower nurses and motivate them to take charge of their lives.
If an ever-changing environment that provides you with challenges and opportunities for growth sounds like the ideal career track, travel nursing may be right for you. The field is expected to grow, with many opportunities for nurses to gain experience in varying environments.
Specializing in a certain area of focus could expand your options. You may have the opportunity to take on assignments in other states or even abroad, improving your professional and interpersonal skills in the process.
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