Top-Paying Nursing Specialties and Certifications

Debra Riley


The nursing field provides a meaningful career helping others, along with opportunities for high salaries and job security. With the aging of the baby boomer generation and increased focus on preventative care, the demand for qualified nurses is steadily rising. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment of registered nurses will grow 9% from 2020 to 2030. This high growth outlook has led many nurses to specialize as a way to advance their careers and earning potential.

By obtaining certifications and experience in the most in-demand and high-paying nursing specialties, nurses can take their career and salary to the next level.

This article will explore some of the top-paying nursing careers, the average salaries earned, the responsibilities required, and the certifications needed. The top opportunities highlighted include nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, and clinical nurse specialists.

Understanding these rewarding and lucrative specialties can help nurses choose a career path that aligns with their interests and financial goals.

top paying nurse specialties

Highest-Paying Nursing Specialties

Advancing into a lucrative nursing specialty requires building upon core nursing skills and obtaining advanced certifications. Many high-paying specialties require certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) to provide acute cardiac care, recognize life-threatening arrhythmias, deliver appropriate medications, and perform defibrillation. Training in ACLS builds on Basic Life Support (BLS) for a more advanced skill set.

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists are the highest-paid nursing specialty, earning an average salary of $195,610 per year. With experience, nurse anesthetists can earn over $250,000 annually. Nurse anesthetists work primarily in hospitals, physicians’ offices, and other surgical settings to administer anesthesia during medical procedures and monitor patient vital signs.

This career requires an expert understanding of anesthesia medications and how to maintain proper oxygen levels and blood pressure during surgery.

To become a nurse anesthetist, RNs must complete a Master of Science in Nursing degree from an accredited nurse anesthesia program and pass the national CRNA certification exam.

With high demand, nearly 3,000 additional nurse anesthetist job openings are expected by 2030. Pursuing a career as a nurse anesthetist can lead to a six-figure salary and prestige within the nursing profession.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses who provide primary and specialty healthcare services. The average salary for NPs is $120,680 per year. However, NPs can earn $140,000 or higher depending on their specialty and location.

There are different types of NPs including family nurse practitioners, adult-gerontology NPs, pediatric NPs, and psychiatric mental health NPs. Family NPs make up the largest percentage, about 70% of nurse practitioners.

NPs assess patients, order diagnostic tests, diagnose health conditions, prescribe medications, and provide treatment plans. NPs often serve as a patient’s primary healthcare provider.

To become an NP, nurses must complete a Master’s or Doctoral degree program and achieve board certification in their specialty. The demand for NPs is on the rise with increased need for primary and specialty care.

Pursuing a nurse practitioner career offers RNs the opportunity to provide comprehensive care while earning a generous salary.

specialist nurse pay

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) are advanced practice nurses who have graduate-level education and training in a specialized area of nursing practice. The average salary for a clinical nurse specialist is $112,267 per year. However, those working in states like California and Texas earn well over $120,000 annually.

CNSs work in settings like hospitals, outpatient clinics, and nursing care facilities to improve the quality of care and patient outcomes.

They serve as expert resources, consultants, and mentors to other nursing staff while also providing direct patient care. CNSs can specialize in areas like geriatrics, oncology, critical care, or pediatrics.

To become a CNS, nurses must complete a Master’s degree program and obtain national certification in their chosen specialty from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. The demand for clinical nurse specialists is projected to grow as the population ages and more patients require complex medical care.

Pursuing a career as a CNS allows RNs to play a key role in improving care delivery while earning a generous salary.

Other Highly Compensated Nursing Jobs

In addition to the top specialties covered already, there are several other well-compensated career options for nurses looking to advance their practice.

  • Critical Care Nurses work in hospital ICUs, trauma centers, and other critical care settings to care for patients with life-threatening conditions. The average critical care nurse salary is $76,788. With strong demand, critical care nursing offers RNs opportunities to earn over $80,000.
  • Nurse Midwives provide gynecological care and deliver babies in birthing centers and hospitals. The average salary for a nurse midwife is $111,070 but can exceed $120,000 for those with extensive experience.
  • Nursing Administrators manage nursing staff and operations in healthcare facilities. They earn an average of $100,980 but the top 10% make more than $175,000.
  • Informatics Nurses use technology to improve patient care delivery. The average salary is $77,086 but informatics nurse consultants can earn $95,000 or more.

There are many opportunities for RNs to earn higher wages by pursuing specialized roles and advanced certifications. The demand for skilled nurses continues growing across these rewarding career pathways.

Why Specialize?

There are many advantages to specializing as a nurse beyond just higher earning potential:

  • Increased Responsibility – Specializing allows nurses to perform more advanced procedures, make differential diagnoses, and manage complete care for patients. This leads to greater responsibility and autonomy.
  • Career Advancement – Further education and specialization opens up opportunities to advance into leadership roles and higher levels of practice. Nurses can progress from bedside nursing to managing units or departments.
  • Job Security – Specialized nurses are in high demand and in short supply. Pursuing a specialty helps secure a nursing job with less risk of position elimination.
  • Personal Fulfillment – Specializing allows nurses to follow their interests and passions to find more meaningful work. Caring for a specific patient population can be particularly rewarding.
  • Prestige – There is greater status and respect that comes with being an advanced practice nurse specialist compared to general nursing roles.

Specializing not only boosts earning potential but also enhances nurses’ careers in many ways from job security to autonomy. By pursuing specialty certifications, nurses can propel their careers forward.

different types of nurses

Obtaining Certifications

To qualify for the highest-paying nursing specialties, specific national certifications, and advanced degrees are required. Here are some key steps to obtaining certifications:

  • Meet Educational Requirements – Nurses must complete accredited graduate-level programs related to their specialty area, often earning a Master’s or Doctoral degree.
  • Fulfill Practice Requirements – Most certifications require a specific number of clinical practice hours in the specialty area before applying.
  • Pass Certification Exams – Specialty nursing certifications have board exams to assess competency. Exams often include multiple-choice questions and clinical simulations.
  • Maintain Recertification – Certifications must be renewed periodically through continuing education, practice hours, and reexamination to stay current.

While the process requires dedication, the payoff of higher salaries and advancement opportunities make it advantageous to pursue specialty nursing certifications. Investing in further education and training can double or even triple earning potential.


The high demand for nurses makes it an ideal time to advance your career and earning potential by pursuing nursing specialty certifications. As discussed, some of the most lucrative roles include nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, and clinical nurse specialists. But many other specialties also offer the opportunity to earn over $100,000 annually.

By specializing and obtaining advanced certifications, nurses can gain more responsibility and autonomy while also future-proofing their careers with increased job security.

Although the process requires an investment in graduate-level education and clinical training, the long-term rewards are well worth it. With hard work and dedication, passing certification exams opens the door to six-figure salaries and other benefits.

For nurses seeking to maximize their career opportunities and earning ability, specializing is clearly the path forward. Identifying your niche and passion within the diverse nursing profession can set you on the road to an enriched career and financial success.