Nursing Specialists Can Earn More Than Some Doctors


By Farran Powell

Before college, Brittany Sherwood thought she would study a pre-med major, go to medical school and become a doctor.

"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," says the now-27-year-old who went to Florida State University to earn her bachelor's degree.

The Florida native began considering a career in nursing instead of work as a physician.

When she compared the differences between a psychiatric nurse practitioner and a psychiatrist, she found the two professions overlapped. But the nursing route didn't require as many years in school, which she says meant a smaller price tag in terms of student debt.

"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," says Sherwood who earned her master's in nursing at Columbia University.

Michelle Grundy, a career counselor for health professions at Vanderbilt University, says the topic of weighing whether to pursue nursing often comes up with pre-med students – especially when it comes to considering future student loans.

The average indebtedness for an M.D. who graduated from medical school and borrowed loans in 2015 is $171,444 for a private school and $161,646 for a public school.

Unlike four years of medical school, many graduate nursing programs are around two years in length.

"You can become a nurse practitioner for less than $100,000 for a degree – typically around $50,000 to $60,000," says Ora Strickland, dean of the college of nursing and health sciences at Florida International University.

Strickland says nursing practitioners in some specialties – especially in psychiatry and anesthesiology – overlap in job responsibilties with physicians 80 to 85 percent. But other nursing specialties, such as surgery, don't have as big of a convergence, she says.

The role and recognition of advanced nursing in health care has changed in recent years. But, Strickland says: "Nurse practitioners are not trying to be physicians. We take a broader perspective."

Highly educated and highly skilled nurses are able to exercise a higher level of autonomy, offer a greater degree of care to patients, enjoy higher nursing salaries and a great demand satisfaction for their work, says Dorothy Miller, chair of the bachelor's in nursing program at Argosy University in Atlanta.

Last year, nurse practitioners were offered an average base salary of $117,000 with some offers ranging up to $197,000, according to the latest numbers from Merritt Hawkins & Associates, a physician recruiting and consulting firm. The firm also found that nurse practitioners are among the top five for most-recruited positions among physicians and advanced pracitioners.

Specialist nurses in certain fields may also see higher earning potential, says Katie Bardaro, vice president of data analytics of Seattle-based PayScale, an online salary information company.

In fact, certified nurse anesthetists, or CRNAs, make around $140,000 early in their careers, according to PayScale's 2016-2017 report on highest-paying graduate degrees. According to the Seattle-based company, medical residents earn less than CRNAs or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, or PMHNPs, and other nurse specialists.

Salary ranges between $45,000 to $75,000 for an M.D.'s first year of residency, Bardaro says.

"It's a huge difference in cost in becoming a nurse practitioner. There are years of residency where the physician's salary is compressed," says Strickland from FIU on the turnaround time between graduation and entering the job market with a high-paying salary.

When comparing an MSN with an M.D., the nursing degree salary wins in the short term, says the PayScale data analyst. "But M.D.s will overtake MSNs in pay after their residency and that will just continue to grow."

Sherwood says her decision to be a mental health nurse practitioner instead of a physician wasn't only driven by fear of staggering med school debt. "But the difficulty in being able to make headway in debt, especially with residency being so long and underpaid," she says.

The Florida nurse says she likes how her work blends the work of a psychtriatrist and psychologist. Her licensed profession allows her to do "talk therapy" with patients, but also gives her the authority to write prescriptions for controlled substances.

"I have a lot of friends the same age who just went through matching for residency and I've already been practicing in this role for two years," Sherwood says.


Articles in this issue:


  • Masthead

    Editor-in Chief:
    Kirsten Nicole

    Editorial Staff:
    Kirsten Nicole
    Stan Kenyon
    Robyn Bowman
    Kimberly McNabb
    Lisa Gordon
    Stephanie Robinson

    Kirsten Nicole
    Stan Kenyon
    Liz Di Bernardo
    Cris Lobato
    Elisa Howard
    Susan Cramer

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