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Can Nurse Practitioners Switch Specialties? Yes, And Here's How

It’s becoming more common for nurse practitioners to transition to new specialties. A switch like this might feel intimidating, but it’s absolutely possible.

December 8, 2019

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After the birth of her second child, Crystal Polson, RN, MSN, NP, and blogger at Prudent Patient, felt the need to lighten her schedule with a per diem position. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find any that were in her particular specialty: Critical care. Even though she didn’t feel qualified to provide other types of care, she was left with no other option than to apply for positions in other specialties. To her surprise, Polson landed a job on a cardiac unit.

“I realize I put myself in a career ‘box’ by not immediately recognizing that my past experiences had adequately prepared me to take on new roles and work within different specialties,” Polson says.

Maybe you’re hoping to transition into a new specialty, too, but feel inadequate or overwhelmed. These feelings are totally normal, but switching specialties doesn’t have to be as daunting as you think it is.

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Can Nurse Practitioners Really Switch Specialties?

NPs can absolutely switch specialties, according to Nancy Brook, RN, MSN, NP, of Stanford Health Care.

“Many nurse practitioners choose to change the focus of their clinical practice,” Brook says. “Switching specialty areas can be done both formally or informally.”

As you can imagine, NPs switch specialties for many reasons. For example, if you’re fresh out of school, you might be realizing that the specialty you chose just isn’t a good fit for you. Or if you’re an experienced NP, you could be starting to feel lukewarm about your job. Either of these are viable reasons to make a change.

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What Specialties Are Available to Nurse Practitioners?

There are a number of different specialties that are available to NPs. They include:

  • Family
  • Pediatric (acute or primary care)
  • Women’s health
  • Adult gerontology (acute or primary care)
  • Neonatal
  • Psychiatric mental health

Within these main specialties are numerous sub-specialties, which include but are not limited to:

  • Orthopedics
  • Dermatology
  • Oncology
  • Emergency
  • Palliative care
  • Cardiology

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How Hard Is It to Change Nursing Specialties?

“It's not difficult to change nursing specialties, but it may require additional education, certification, or on-the-job training,” Polson says.

The steps you have to take will depend on your current specialty and the one you want to go into. In general, the broader the jump in knowledge or scope of practice, the more formal education or training you may need to switch careers. For instance, if you’ve been working as an adult gerontology NP and want to switch to pediatrics, you may need to get some additional education and certifications before you can start looking for jobs. However, if you want to go from being an FNP to an adult NP, then it might be as simple as getting on-the-job training. To find out exactly what’s required for your specialty change, consult your organization’s HR department, the licensing board, or your state’s Nursing Practice Act.

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Where Can I Find Courses to Change My Specialization?

If you’re pursuing a specialty that will require you to get additional education and certification, don’t panic. There are a number of “refresher” courses available that can help you get the foundation you need in order to make the switch successfully. In fact, many universities offer post-master’s certificate programs, including:

The cost and clinical requirements for programs will vary. Be sure to thoroughly research the total tuition and fees required, and make sure to ask whether or not the program assists with clinical rotation placement, especially for online-only programs.

To find out the educational requirements to obtain a new certification, consult the relevant nursing board, such as the ANCC or PNCB.

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How To Transition From One Specialty to Another in 7 Steps

As you can see, it’s entirely possible to switch from one specialty to another. But before you jump right in, it’s important to make a game plan for how you’ll go about making this transition. Though this journey will look different from person to person, there are eight key steps you can take to ensure that you’re setting yourself up for success.

1) Do your homework before you commit to one particular specialty.

Before you hone in on one field, do your research and get to know all the options that are available to NPs. You may discover a previously unknown area of practice that you’re innately more passionate about than the one you were going to go after.

2) Get hands-on experience by shadowing NPs in different specialties.

That said, don’t choose a specialty from research alone. You can’t truly know what an area of practice involves until you try it. Try to find some opportunities to shadow NPs in the specialties you’re considering. You might be able to do this in the hospital or clinic where you currently work. If not, network with NPs in your community and put feelers out to see if anyone would be willing to have you shadow them during their shift.

3) Get input from colleagues and friends.

Our colleagues and friends often know us best. Ask them what specialty they could see you in, and be open to their suggestions.

4) Acquire necessary certification(s) or education.

Once you’ve identified the specialty you want to transition into, move forward with education or certification if it’s needed. Work on completing this before you resign from your current position.

5) Apply for jobs.

Start applying for jobs before your education or certification is complete. You’ll want to have a job lined up to jump into right away.

6) Resign from your current role.

Resign from your current position by giving notice that ranges “typically anywhere from two weeks to three months,” Brook says. “You would likely not be letting them know that you are changing specialties, but rather that you are resigning and taking on a new position that happens to be in a new specialty area,” she says.

7) Own your new role.

When you land a job in your new specialty, own it. It’ll be easy to feel that dreaded imposter syndrome creeping in as you realize how much you don’t know. But remind yourself that you’re qualified for this position and a new job always has a learning curve.

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Final Thoughts

Never let fear hold you back from making a career shift as an NP. You’re doing a service to yourself and your community by choosing an area of practice in which you’ll truly thrive. Armed with the support of others and belief in yourself, make a transition that will help you realize your full potential.


Image courtesy of iStock.com/Viktoriia Oleinichenko


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Berxi™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice.

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