Becoming a Surgical Nurse: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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A medical-surgical nurse's median salary is around $66,640. Is it worth the education and licensure requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a medical-surgical nurse is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Medical-Surgical Nurse

Surgical nurses, usually called medical-surgical nurses, are generalists in a growing career field, taking care of patients with various ailments in many types of health care facilities. While becoming a medical-surgical nurse can be a viable option, it's important to know what to expect in order to make a sound decision.

Pros of Becoming a Medical-Surgical Nurse
Variety in daily activities*
Good pay ($66,640 median salary in 2014)**
High job-growth field (16% increase in employment from 2014-2024)**
Can work in any geographic area**
Can be emotionally rewarding*

Cons of Becoming a Medical-Surgical Nurse
Workload can be heavy*
Must pass licensing test**
May work night shifts, on weekends and holidays**
Possible exposure to blood, body fluids and infectious diseases**
Can be physically tiring**

Sources: *Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Medical-surgical nurses are the all-purpose players of the nursing field. They take care of patients of all ages in all types of health care facilities and must have a broad base of knowledge in order to treat the variety of conditions and situations they encounter. Medical-surgical nurses are often the medical professionals with whom the patient has the most contact. Educating patients and their families about their care often becomes part of the job.

Medical-surgical nurses work in hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, clinics, physicians' offices or long-term care facilities. Nurses who work in hospitals or long-term care facilities may encounter shift work and work on holidays and weekends. Nurses in other facilities may have more regular work schedules.

Career Prospects and Salary Information

Of the approximately 2.9 million registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S., about 400,000 are medical-surgical specialists, according to Working Nurse magazine, making them the largest group by far. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted excellent job opportunities for all types of RNs, with 16% growth in employment expected from 2014-2024. An increased emphasis on outpatient procedures and rehabilitative care means jobs for nurses will grow more rapidly in those types of facilities. The median annual salary for RNs was about $66,640 in 2014, with the bottom ten percent earning about $45,000 and the top ten percent earning about $98,000.

What Are the Requirements?

There are several educational paths to becoming a medical-surgical nurse. Most RNs hold a nursing diploma, an associate's degree in nursing or a bachelor's degree in nursing. Nursing students should have strong backgrounds in chemistry, biology and physiology. Courses in nursing programs cover topics such as health assessment, trends in medicine and disease progression and treatment. Much of their education involves gaining experience in clinical settings.

All states require that nurses pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). To maintain their licenses, RNs must keep their skills updated by taking continuing education courses approved by American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation. These courses are offered through private companies, nursing schools and nursing associations.

Useful Skills

A medical-surgical nurse should be compassionate, sympathetic and organized. Good speaking and writing skills are vital in communicating with patients and with other members of the medical team.

What Employers are Seeking

Few job postings for medical-surgical nurses mention experience as a requirement; most simply require completion of an accredited training program. With nurses being in demand, many of the advertisements promote the good working conditions and lifestyle in the area. Here's a sampling of what real employers were looking for in March 2012:

  • In Virginia, a hospital was looking for a medical-surgical nurse to provide care to medical-surgical, telemetry and pediatrics patients. This nurse would have to evaluate ECG strips and maintain telemetry services. Applicants should hold an associate's degree in nursing and basic life support certification.
  • A hospital in Florida needed medical-surgical nurses with at least one year of experience. The posting said an associate's degree was acceptable, but a bachelor's degree was preferred.
  • In Texas, a hospital was looking for medical-surgical nurses with critical thinking skills and decisive judgment. The nurse would be the primary coordinator of patient care, carrying out physician's orders and working with other members of the health care team.
  • A hospital in Nevada advertised for a medical-surgical nurse who could assess, plan, implement and evaluate care for patients. Experience in IV therapy was preferred. The posting also noted that new hires would have to complete a competency skills checklist and exam within three months of employment.

How to Stand Out

The BLS says RNs who hold bachelor's degrees may have more advancement opportunities that those with associate's degrees or diplomas. Some medical facilities will help pay tuition costs for nurses who want to return to school to get degrees. RNs who want to advance from head nurse to administrative jobs such as chief of nursing will probably need a graduate degree, according to the BLS. Many nursing schools offer master's and doctoral degree programs in nursing, which can lead to work in various specialties as well as administration.

Earn Certification

Proving your knowledge and commitment by certification through a professional organization is another way to stand out. Several groups offer certification to medical-surgical nurses who meet experience requirements and pass examinations. These certifications include the Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN) credential from the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses and the Registered Nurse-Board Certified (RN-BC) credential from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Both organizations require nurses to have 2,000 hours of experience in medical-surgical nursing. Professional credentials prove a level of competency to employers, and the BLS notes that some employers require certification.

Other Career Paths

Nurse Practitioner

If you enjoy the responsibility of being a medical-surgical nurse and want more autonomy, you might consider becoming a nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses who can order diagnostic tests, diagnose and treat illnesses and prescribe medications. You need a master's degree and clinical training beyond a bachelor's degree. Most nurse practitioners have master's degrees, according to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, which offers professional certification. All states require licensing. According to Salary.com, the median salary of a nurse practitioner was approximately $90,000 in March 2012.

Licensed Practical Nurse

Individuals who are interested in hands-on patient care, but not several years of schooling, might look into becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN), which requires only a year of career training at a vocational school or community college. LPNs take and record vital signs, prepare and administer injections and help patients with personal hygiene. They can work in a variety of health care settings, such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics and physicians' offices. LPNs must hold state licenses. The BLS expected employment for LPNs to grow by about 22% from 2010-2020, much faster than average for all occupations. The median salary for an LPN was approximately $41,000 in 2011.

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Featured Schools

Kaplan University

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  • Accelerated BSN to MSN
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American University

  • Master of Science in Healthcare Management

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George Mason University

  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

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Johns Hopkins University

  • Post-Bachelor's Certificate in Biotechnology Enterprise

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Baker College Online

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Grand Canyon University

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • M.S. in Nursing: Nursing Education
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Keiser University

  • RN to BSN
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Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Health Administration

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