Nurse specialists and nurse generalists are both common within the nursing profession and  21st-century healthcare, and both serve important purposes in patient care as well as non-clinical settings. What does it mean to choose to be a specialist or generalist? What are the repercussions for your nursing career? And how can one accomplish both?

In both medicine and nursing, generalists and specialists both serve many important purposes. Choosing which one to be can be difficult but it’s not out of the question, and sometimes it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. Why does this choice matter and how does one make the most prudent choice for nursing career growth and satisfaction?

Nurse specialists have a crucial purpose: those in ICU, flight nursing, OR, ER, and other critical areas are absolutely necessary for the saving of lives. Pediatric nurses, dialysis nurses, school nurses, and others also play their parts in specific areas of clinical focus and patient care.

We always need a certain percentage of nurses and other clinicians to specialize — how else would those ICU and OR patients receive the highly specific care they need? Specialization is life-saving and central to the full function of any healthcare facility, and those who serve in such positions are often in high demand.

Nurse specialists are born of extensive clinical experience, high-quality education, and certification processes that determine a nurse’s knowledge and expertise. Some nursing specialty certification pathways are extremely rigorous, molding enrolled nurses into high-level clinicians with a plethora of skills and intellectual/clinical rigor.

Why would a nurse choose to specialize? Why would the process of specialization and acquiring expertise be appealing to a professional nurse clinician? I believe the following to be compelling reasons to do so:

  • Specialization can lead to increased earning potential
  • Being a nurse specialist lends credibility to the nurse’s personal/professional brand
  • Many positions are reserved for nurses with specific training and expertise
  • A nurse’s professional standing and credibility are elevated by specialization and certification
  • Personal self-esteem can also be positively impacted by the knowledge that one has gone above and beyond in accumulating relevant training and expertise

While specialization is not required nor necessary in order to have a successful and satisfying nursing career, it does bestow certain benefits as noted above. At the same time, being a skilled generalist nurse is also a respectable career choice, and generalists can accomplish a great deal on the twin engines of their professionalism and skill.

In the end, each nurse must make their own decision when it comes to choosing to move beyond generalist practice to specialization. The world will not end if a nurse decides to remain a generalist, nor will her life change dramatically once she’s certified and ensconced in her area of specialty.

If nothing else, every nurse can be a specialist in doing the job they are called to do, whether that position is of a clinical nature or not. Specialization is a path that can be chosen or not, and there is no judgment in my mind of nurses who forego that journey. Every nurse is valuable, and no one can take our worth away from us, individually or collectively. Choose your path, own your path, and approach your personal nursing career trajectory with pride and the knowledge of your stellar contribution to  a society that daily relies on courageous and intelligent nurses to be the veritable backbone of the complex 21st-century healthcare system.


This episode of The Nurse Keith Show is brought to you by Rasmussen College and their online RN to BSN nursing program, which is designed for working registered nurses who want to earn their BSN while balancing family, work and school.

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Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BCIn case you didn’t already know, Nurse Keith is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, keynote and motivational speaker, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses.

From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.

Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram—as well as at NurseKeith.com.