Advanced Practice Nursing

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Staff Nurse

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Staff Nurse
Staff nursing is the entry point for registered nurses working in hospitals. Image from Unsplash
Mary Kearl profile
Mary Kearl November 20, 2019

Pro: Staff nurses earn more than RNs.

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If you know a nurse, chances are they’re a staff nurse: The majority of the nation’s 2.7 million registered nurses (RNs) work as staff nurses in hospitals across the country.

On the front lines, staff nurses make sure patients aren’t overlooked or suffering in pain. They attend to patients in rehab, critical care, psychiatric care, and outpatient facilities—anywhere in a hospital where a patient needs care or information.

Staff nurses handle much of the routine care of hospital patients. Some common tasks of staff nurses include:

  • Assessing patients
  • Providing medications and other treatments as needed
  • Tracking vital signs and keeping logs of patient care up-to-date
  • Creating discharge papers for patients with at-home care instructions
  • Managing nursing attendants, including assigning schedules and tasks

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Kinds of staff nurse careers
  • The pros and cons of becoming a staff nurse
  • The educational commitment to become a staff nurse
  • Licensure and accreditation to become a staff nurse
  • Further accreditation or education for staff nurses
  • Typical advancement path for staff nurses
  • Resources for becoming a staff nurse

Kinds of staff nurse careers

The term “staff nurse” is a generic term describing any nonsupervisory nurse on the staff of a hospital clinic or ward. Depending on where they work, they may also be called a:

  • Clinical nurse
  • Geriatric nurse
  • Long-term care nurse
  • Mental health nurse
  • Neonatal nurse
  • Pediatric nurse
  • Women’s health nurse

No two staff nursing jobs are exactly alike. Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow explains that staff nurses can work in a range of hospital settings, including:

  • Emergency departments
  • Intensive care units
  • Labor and delivery
  • Medical-surgical units
  • Operating rooms/recovery rooms
  • Outpatient services
  • Pediatrics departments

Note: the term “staff nurse” is most often applied only to subordinate nurses who work in hospitals, but in some cases—and in some job listings—it is also used to describe nurses who serve on the staff of long-term care facilities, clinics, ambulatory care units, and public health agencies. In this article, the term refers to hospital nurses.

Pros and cons of becoming a staff nurse

Pros of becoming a staff nurse

  • Higher compensation than RNs as a whole: All staff nurses are RNs, but not all RNs are staff nurses. Staff nurses earn more than RNs earn in aggregate. According to PayScale.com, staff nurses earn to $35.04 per hour, compared with the average RN hourly pay of $33.67.
  • Flexibility and versatility: RNs who earn staff nurse positions get the chance to work as either generalists or specialists. You can seek out opportunities in intensive care units, general surgery, or other areas.
  • Job stability: As a staff nurse, you’ll have a permanent position at a hospital. Unlike travel nurses, you won’t be constantly looking for your next gig or shopping for a better staffing agency to represent you.

Cons of becoming a staff nurse

  • Working long, tiring hours: According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), hospitals have increased their use of “mandatory overtime” as a staffing tool. This can have negative consequences for patient well-being and on staff morale.
  • Staffing challenges: When hospitals aren’t sufficiently staffed, staff RNs shoulder the burden. This can impact a staff nurse’s overall health, stress, safety, and job performance, reports the ANA.
  • Demand for physical stamina: Staff nurses spend the majority of their long shifts on their feet, which can be a physical challenge and can lead to pain and injury.

Educational commitment to become a staff nurse

The minimum education requirement for becoming a staff nurse is a two-year associate’s degree in nursing. This degree qualifies you to take the NCLEX-RN exam and earn your registered nursing certification.

Completing additional education for a nursing degree, such as a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing and a two-year master’s degree in nursing (MSN), is not required. However, these degrees will certainly help you advance your career, should you aspire to supervisory, management, administrative, or advanced practice roles. If you have no desire to advance beyond the staff nurse position, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is probably all you will need.

MSN degree programs can help you move onto nurse specialist positions, such as nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist. If you currently hold an associate’s degree, you’ll need to complete your bachelor’s before you can earn your master’s. The entire process will take at least five years, but when you’re done, you should see a significant books in pay. According to Glassdoor.com, nurse practitioners earn an average of $128,000 annually.

Nursing programs are widely available online at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. Be careful: especially at the associate’s level, some online programs will charge significantly more for the same degree you could earn at your local community college. If you already have your associate’s degree, look into RN to BSN programs, which can save you time and money.

The following schools offer an online MSN or similar degree:

  • California State University – Chico
  • Duquesne University
  • Stony Brook University (Master of Science in Nursing Leadership)
  • University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
  • University of San Francisco (RN to MSN)

You don’t have to wait until graduating from high school to start pursuing your career in nursing. If you’re interested, some hospitals will allow you to shadow a staff nurse to learn more about a career in nursing and gain experience in a healthcare setting.

Licensure and accreditation to become a staff nurse

All states require RNs to earn a license, although requirements vary from state to state. To be eligible in all states, you must:

  • Graduate from an accredited nursing program.
  • Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Your nursing program needs to be approved by your state board to qualify for the exam.
  • Complete additional steps such as passing a background check and meeting state-specific requirements

Further accreditation or education for staff nurses

A nurse’s education doesn’t stop when they earn an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. Many states require RNs to meet continuing education requirements as a precondition of renewing their licenses.

You can improve your skills and your résumé by earning certifications in nursing specializations. Certifications can help you meet your continuing education requirements, another plus.

Typical advancement path for staff nurses

Depending on your level of experience, nursing degree, staff nurse certifications, and leadership skills, you may gravitate toward senior roles such as a nurse manager, nurse educator, nurse researcher, nurse practitioner, or clinical nurse specialist. Nursing leadership skills are critical to those who want to get ahead and manage a nursing staff.

Within the larger field of nursing, the U.S. is facing a nursing shortage. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a job growth rate for nursing of 12 percent between now and 2028.

Most of the top-paying cities for staff nurses is within California and those metro areas include:

  • San Jose, CA, where average pay is $197,780
  • Napa, CA, where the average pay is $184,740
  • Vallejo, CA, where the average pay is $180,380
  • SF Bay Area, where the average pay is $177,160
  • Yuba City, CA, where the average pay is $159,260

Some of the top-paying cities for staff nurses outside of California include:

  • Duluth, MN-WI, where the average pay is $146,740
  • New York, NY, where the average pay is $141,010
  • Trenton, NJ, where the average pay is $140,190
  • Atlantic City — Hammonton, NJ, where the average pay is $139,820
  • Medford, OR, where the average pay is $138,080

According to PayScale, the following types of experience can help boost your pay:

  • Recovery/post-anesthesia care unit experience can increase pay by as much as 8 percent
  • Critical care experience can increase pay by as much as 3 percent
  • Telemetry experience can increase pay by as much as 2 percent
  • Intensive care unit experience can increase pay by as much as 2 percent

Resources for becoming a staff nurse

What’s life really like as a staff nurse? Get some behind-the-scenes insights from these resources:

Plus, as you plan for your education and beyond, check out these additional program and career resources from Noodle:

Staff nursing is the entry point for registered nurses working in hospitals. Some use the role as a stepping stone to advanced degrees and management roles. Others, however, enjoy the personal interaction with patients and the hands-on experience of working the hospital floor, and they build careers as staff nurses. Whichever path suits your preferences, working as a staff nurse is an excellent introduction to the world of hospital nursing.

(Updated on January 24, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Advanced Practice NursingNursing Administration & LeadershipNursing & Healthcare