About the Job

Nursing Specialists May Now Out-Earn Some Doctors

Nursing Specialists May Now Out-Earn Some Doctors

Nursing, like being a mother or teacher, is often an emotionally and physically draining job with little compensation or recognition. The medical world is a lot like the academic world. Professors and doctors, both of whom make a great deal of money, are heavily involved in research, but do not have a ton of time to spend with patients or students. TAs and Nurses are similar as well, as they are paid a fraction (seriously, a fraction) of what the professors and doctors get paid while being far more involved with the patient or student. In fact, any time that someone goes into a hospital or doctor’s office, there are always a plethora of bustling nurses, holding a handful of files and a tired smile on their faces. They also often know more than new doctors at first, thus guiding them through the first few days or weeks on the job.

Why Nursing?

Every September, thousands of bright-eyed and bushy tailed college freshman enter the world of higher education with the same major: pre-med. This often does not stay their major. Aside from the tremendous amount of stress, studying, and dedication that goes into being a pre-med major, there is also the adjustment from high school life to college life. When applying to medical school, most applicants know that if they more than a handful of high B grades, they have drastically cut their chances of getting into medical school. The highly competitive nature of the school does not lend itself well to allowing for that vital adjustment period between having to raise a hand to get a drink of water in a high school classroom to basically running one’s own schedule and life within a period of a summer.

This is a common occurrence for people. Brittany Sherwood was one of these students. “During my first semester of college I was planning on doing pre-med, but I got a ‘B’ in Bio 101, and I started doing a little research and realized there was a different way to end up in a similar place,” Sherwood, now 27, reflected on her time at Florida State University, where she went or her BA. Sherwood’s idea was to move into nursing instead of trying to be a physician.

While this type of “quarter life crisis” happens to many people at college, resulting in several major changes, this crisis tends to happen earlier on in college for pre-med students for the reasons outlined above. When Sherwood looked at the differences between becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner and a psychiatrist, she saw that there was a lot of overlap between the two career paths. What she did see, however, was that the psychiatric nurse practitioner job took fewer years in college, which meant less student debt.

This is a regular shift in thinking for many people under 30. Student debt is at an all time high in this country. To top it off, the push to get people into college has worked — almost too well. Now that everyone is getting educated, people need to keep reaching for higher degrees in order to stand out from the pack, leaving the rest of the “pack” so to speak, in a hulking amount of debt with less promising job prospects. Especially for women, who despite legislation still make roughly 77% of the salary their male counterparts get, thinking in terms of debt is incredibly important.

“In total, it was less than three years from the time I graduated from my bachelor’s degree in nursing to when I had a prescription pad with my name on it,” explains Sherwood, who earned her master’s degree in nursing at the prestigious Columbia University.

Sherwood is not alone, Michelle Grundy, a health professions career counselor at Vanderbilt University, says that outlining the pros and cons of whether or not to pursue nursing is a regular thought among pre-med students. While some of them may feel overwhelmed by the idea of about a decade in school, most people in recent years have had to make this choice because of student debt.

Granted, the average pay for a doctor is $189,000 a year, so it seems that thinking about student debt is unnecessary. Only about 81% of medical students finish medical school in four years. Many don’t finish at all, which means crushing debt and not a lot to show for it. In fact, the most disheartening thing about these numbers is that the people who do drop out are usually the people that we want in medicine in the first place! According to a piece done by NPR, “many of the dropout docs expressed a desire to improve the doctor-patient experience. In interviews with KQED, several said they spent very little time administering care during medical school, and they felt that patients were too often kept out of the loop.” This seems to mean that the people who have the best bedside manner and the best skills for making a patient feel at ease, thus erasing the distrust of doctors that has formed in the past four decades or so, are the ones who don’t finish medical school. This is partly because they felt so disconnected from their initial reason to go into medicine in the first place: to help people.

On the upside, whereas medical school, which at best is four years (the graduation rate has dropped from 96% in four years to around 81% in four years in the past 25 years), there are a number of excellent graduate nursing programs that are only two years in length. Ora Strickland, the dean of the College Nursing and Health Sciences at Florida International University, explains “you can become a nurse practitioner for less than $100,000 for a degree — typically around $50,000 to $60,000.” While this is still a lot of money, it is far less than even one year at a private school like NYU, let alone medical school.

Strickland continues to say that nursing practitioners in certain specialties, like psychiatry and anesthesiology, have an incredibly high overlap rate with the physician’s job responsibilities: a whopping 85%. Other areas, like surgery, does not have the same type of overlap. This is not to say surgical nurses do not have a plethora of incredibly important things to do. “Nurse practitioners are not trying to be physicians. We take a broader perspective,” explains Strickland. A broader perspective is very much what the medical world may need right now. It is important to have different types of minds working with patients in order to not only find a cure, but to make sure that their quality of life is high.

While nursing has been a long under-appreciated field, last year nursing practitioners made an average base salary of $117,000, with some of the offers ranging into $197,000! This is an even higher salary than the average doctor. Specialist nurses in specific fields have the highest earning potential. Certified nurse anesthetists make about $140,000 early on in their careers. On the other hand, a salary for a first year medical residency is between $45,000 to $75,000. While doctors have higher earning potential later on in their careers, the cost of becoming a nurse practitioner, especially one in a specialized field with high early earning potential puts them in a better position earlier on, allowing them to save for their futures while saving the futures of those around them.