How to Get Ahead in Nursing: The Ultimate Guide to Nurse Career Progression

Waking Times

As a busy working nurse, it can be difficult to find the time to think about career progression and your future within the healthcare industry. This is particularly true if you feel neglected and unsupported by your employers in terms of professional development.

That being said, it is ultimately down to you to make the choices needed to further your career as a nurse.

You need to get in the right mindset. You need to be proactive, and most importantly, you need to put yourself out there.

Fortunately, if this all seems a little daunting, the below guide is broken down into helpful sections that you can work through at your own pace.

From your deciding how you want to progress, to your further education options, to effective networking, keep reading to discover how you can get ahead in nursing and have the career you’ve always dreamed of.

Plus, find out which advanced nursing positions are both the most lucrative and the most rewarding!

Evaluating your career

The first step in progressing your nursing career is to think about what you really want from your professional working life within the healthcare industry.

It can be a good idea to sit down and ask yourself what it is that you need from your job.

Do you want to earn more money?

Do you want to be able to move up the career ladder?

Do you want a patient-focused role, or would you prefer to work in hospital administration?

Is a good work/life balance important to you?

All of the above are crucial in deciding how you are going to progress your career as a nurse and will help you decide what type of nursing job you want to have and what qualifications you need to get, such as a PhD or a DNP.

If you are struggling with this step, you might want to try thinking about what aspects of your current role that you enjoy and then thinking about what other roles within the healthcare industry include these types of tasks.

Researching roles

Now that you have a better idea of what you want in terms of career progression, you can then start to research different roles to see what fits both your skillset and what you want from your job.

There are several simple ways that you can do this:

Conduct an internet search

Join professional networks such as LinkedIn

Read relevant journals and industry publications

Ask your current employer for advice (if you feel you can)

Speak to your colleagues

Seek out initiatives or pilot schemes

Explore career frameworks

At this stage, it can also be a good idea to think about what soft skills you have that will help you decide upon the right role for you.

Specific soft skills that are important within the nursing profession include:







Critical thinking


Listening skills

Strong work ethic

Communication skills

Of course, the above will be dependent on the type of advanced nursing role that you want to achieve and whether it is a patient care focused role or one that is more administrative.

Considering education options

If you want to progress from a registered nurse to say a nurse practitioner, for example, you will need to undertake a DNP, Doctor of Nursing Practice, degree program. In fact, there are only two doctoral degrees within the nursing profession: a PhD and a DNP.

In the simplest terms, a PhD in nursing is a research-focused degree, whereas a DNP is a clinical practice degree.

As a general rule, if you want to become an advanced nurse practitioner, you should undertake a DNP degree, and if you want to become a nurse educator or nurse researcher, you are better suited to a PhD.

If you are unsure about which degree path to go down, you may want to take a look at the below statistics:

The average salary of a DNP graduate is between $125,000-$150,000 per year

The average salary of a PhD nurse educator is $83,160

It takes about twice as long to earn a PhD as it does to complete a DNP degree

Both nurse practitioners and nurse educators are in demand in the United States

When considering which advanced nursing degree to undertake, you also need to think about where you are going to study and how you are going to fit your studies around your current work and family commitments.

If you are worried about how you are going to balance your studies with work, you may want to think about undertaking an online degree program. The advantages of carrying out a DNP degree online include:

Can be more cost-effective than an on-campus degree

You can enjoy the same learning and career outcomes as an on-campus degree

Increased flexibility – you can choose when and where you can study

Access to a supportive online community including both your peers and tutors

You can continue to work while you study

You do not need to make childcare arrangements

No transport costs to and from campus

Analyze the job market

Although you should not let this step influence your career choices too much (if you really want a particular career, then go for it), it can be a good idea to see how much demand there is for the nursing roles that you are interested in.

The simplest way to do this is by signing up to job websites as well as signing up to receive alerts from potential employers and relevant agencies.

Specific aspects of the nursing job market that you will want to pay attention to include:

What jobs are available at the level you want?

Which specific roles are most in demand?

Are these roles in demand where you live and want to work?

What exact qualifications and skills do you need to be able to attain these roles?

Even if you are not quite ready to take the next step in your nursing career, making sure you are informed about the current job market that you are in is always beneficial.

Don’t be shy to contact employers or agencies to find out more information about a particular role or the overall demand for your preferred nursing job. You will find that most people will be happy to help you.

Start networking

When it comes to networking, people tend to fall into two categories: those that love it and those that are terrified at the prospect. If you fall into the former category, you will be pleased to know that networking is a key component in getting ahead in nursing, allowing you to make valuable connections and find out about new jobs before they become public knowledge.

However, if you fall into the latter, don’t worry, anyone can effectively network; you just need to build your confidence and learn the best networking skills.

Ways in which you can network within the nursing sector include:

Attending recruitment open days

Joining local nursing groups either online or physical meetings

Creating a LinkedIn profile and actively reaching out to other healthcare professionals

Joining online nursing forums and social media pages

Speaking to your colleague and employers

If you are worried about your networking skills, there are a few top tips that can help you to network more effectively. This include:

Start by networking with friends or colleagues you feel most comfortable with

Don’t apologize for asking for help or advice; it can come across as unprofessional

Always smile and be approachable

Practice listening

Make sure you have your business cars to hand

Use peoples’ names when addressing and introducing them

Be yourself. If you are naturally an introvert, don’t pretend to be otherwise

Remember that networking does not end at work

Seek out shadowing

Once you know what advanced nursing role that you want to eventually get into, you can now take the initiative to seek out shadowing opportunities. This can either be with your current employer or even at another hospital or clinic if you can find a mentor that is willing to help you learn more about a specific role.

The advantages of shadowing include:

You can learn more about a particular nursing role

You can gain valuable experience

You can see if you actually like the role in question

You can make valuable contacts

You can try out different working environments such as a nursing home or a private clinic

You can assess whether you are a “good fit” for the role

Alternatively, if you find yourself struggling to find a shadowing opportunity, you may want to consider volunteering. If you are already thinking, “how am I supposed to fit in volunteering when I already have an intense work schedule as a nurse?”, then it is worth evaluating how much you want to progress your career as well as what you are willing to do to make it happen.

If all else fails, try and think of volunteering as free training!

What are the career opportunities for a DNP graduate?

If you are still uncertain about whether or not you want to pursue further education in order to progress within your career in nursing, it can be useful to find out a little bit more about the types of jobs you will be able to get once you are qualified. Plus, how much they pay and what each one involves.

Below are some of the most popular career options for DNP graduates:

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

If you want a role that is heavily focused on patient care, then you may want to consider focusing your DNP degree on becoming an FNP. Working with patients, old and young, you will be carrying out duties similar to that of a physician with daily tasks including assessing, diagnosing, and treating your patients.

Family Nurse Practitioners often work in underserved communities and enjoy the feeling of getting to know their patients and giving something back to the local community.

The average salary for an FNP is $95,180.

Adult Nurse Practitioner

Similar to FNPs, but working only with adults, the role of an Adult Nurse Practitioner is one of the most commonly pursued careers for DNP graduates. ANPs typically work in hospitals or clinics for 12 hours shirts and focus predominantly on preventative care, performing assessments, and helping patients manage chronic conditions.

The average salary for an ANP is $95,000

University Professor

Although many nurses who want to become nurse educators will choose to study for a PhD in nursing, you can become a university or college professor with a DNP degree.

This role can involve carrying out research, publishing your findings, supervising graduate students, preparing teaching courses, and generally helping your students.

The average salary of a university professor of nursing is $78,300

Chief Nursing Officer

One of the key elements of a DNP degree is preparing you for taking on a more leadership-focused nursing role. As a Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), you would typically work in a hospital and be directing nursing activities based on said hospital’s policies and procedures. Day to day responsibilities include:

Managing staff levels

Developing emergency plans

Overseeing budgets

Participating in organizing nurse training and education programs

The average salary for a CNO is $124,000

Certified Nurse Midwife

Although you used to be able to become a midwife with just a BSN degree, it is now expected for candidates to have a DNP degree, and you can find DNP programs that help prepare graduates for leadership roles in midwifery.

Typical duties include:

Family planning


Gynecological care

Prenatal care

Labor and delivery care

Newborn care

The average salary for a nurse midwife is $88,990

As a DNP graduate, you can choose to work in a wide range of different fields, including:




Management or consulting

Hospitals or doctor’s offices

Private sector healthcare facilities


If you want to get your dream job, you need to be proactive in your approach to career progression. The field of nursing is not for the fainthearted. You need to be willing to work hard, work fast, and work for long periods of time.

However, if you take the time and put in the effort to ensure you get the role you really want, you will be rewarded financially, in terms of security, and most importantly, job satisfaction.

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