How Much Do Nurses Make? 6 Intriguing Nursing Salary Insights
Nursing is a massive part of our healthcare system. You see what nurses do—how they meet patients wherever they’re at, how they comfort, assist, care for and advise people—and you could see yourself in that kind of job.
But beyond that, you’re not as sure about the details. What type of nursing is an option for you? What nursing education would you seek out? How much do nurses make in a year? In this particular question—no one figure will give you an accurate estimate. There are so many different types of nurses, and they all come with different requirements and benefits.
“In general, there are three things that impact a nurse’s starting salary,” says Dr. Amanda Young, DNP, FNP-BC. “Education level and certifications, previous experience and geographic locations.” These factors can all change the landscape of your job search after you graduate nursing school.
But even though a simple single-figure answer covering every position within nursing is out of reach, learning more about how nursing salaries work can give you an idea of what the average salary for your particular situation would be.
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6 Nursing salary insights to keep in mind
We combined research and key insights from nurses about factors that influence salary differences to give you a more accurate look at nursing salaries.
1. Nursing salaries vary between types of nurses
The first thing to decipher whether you are asking how much do nurses make is to pin down what type of nurse you’re referring to.
Licensed practical or vocational nurses (LPNs and LVNs) provide nursing care under the supervision of registered nurses (RNs) and doctors. The 2020 median annual salary for LPNs and LVNs was $48,820, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1
Registered nurses make up the largest portion of the nursing industry. They provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and family members and can pursue a variety of specialties and unique roles. The 2020 median annual salary for RNs was $75,330, according to the BLS.1
Nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives are often grouped into the category of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). These nurses often provide primary and specialty healthcare with a wider range of responsibilities and scope of practice (for example, in many states APRNs can prescribe medicine). The 2020 median annual salary for APRNs was $117,670, according to the BLS.1
Further complicating things is the fact that there are many other specialized types of nurses out there. Our article “Top 25 Types of Nurses Employers Are Hoping to Hire” will provide you a better picture of the wide variety of potential nursing options—and salaries—out there.
2. Education level matters
“In general, bachelor’s degree-educated registered nurses make more money per hour than associate-level nurses, and more than LPN/LVN nurses,” Young says. For Jane Rabun, staff RN at Sharp Memorial Hospital, having a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) was crucial to getting a better starting salary. “Back when I applied, a BSN degree was not required but the American Nursing Association was starting to push for it,” Rabun says. “Having a BSN degree definitely helped me get a larger starting salary.”
The correlation between education level and earning potential isn’t just based on anecdotes. Nurse.com’s 2018 Nursing Salary Research Report surveyed approximately 4,520 nurses around the country. Their report found clear salary differences based on education. They found the average salary increased with each advance in education, with a particularly big jump at the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) level:2
- Diploma: $66,092
- ADN: $67,162
- BSN: $73,995
- MSN: $90,288
3. Gender pay disparities affect nurses too
Gender appears to have some impact on nursing salaries. The Nursing Salary Research Report noticed that male RNs earned a higher average salary ($78,342) than their female counterparts ($68,227) and were also more likely to negotiate for a higher salary.2
While this pay gap is certainly frustrating for women, the study did find that this gap narrowed significantly among nurses with professional certifications.2 The report doesn’t attempt to explain why this change is present, but this is at least worth considering if you’re on the fence about pursuing professional certifications as a nurse.
4. Geography can play a role in nursing salaries
“There will definitely be substantial differences in the hourly rate of RNs across the country, but the goal is to keep all nurses within the same income bracket, no matter where they live,” Young points out. “The hourly rate is directly proportional to the cost of living of the location of the hospital.”
Young explains that in private practice clinics—pay disparities might be a bit more noticeable since they don’t adhere to the same generalities hospitals do.
“In major cities, where there is a surplus of nurses looking for employment, many hospitals can (and do) make the demand for Bachelor-educated nurses only,” Young says, adding that rural areas experiencing shortages are more likely to accept experienced nurses regardless of their education level. “In these situations, pay differences are nonexistent,” Young says. “But medium-sized cities, with a diverse mix of nurses, will pay more for higher education and/or experience.”
But Young also says you will see the most geographic variance in nursing salaries when it comes to RNs. “For advanced practice nurses pay is roughly the same no matter what geographic location you live in. The nurse practitioner in Davenport, Iowa, makes about the same as a nurse practitioner in NYC, despite the drastic and polar opposite of cost of living.”
5. The type of healthcare facility can alter your nursing salary as well
Typically, private practice clinics and doctor’s offices pay less than a hospital, according to Young. Usually this comes with a trade-off—nurses in small clinics and doctor’s offices may still prefer the more traditional “business hours” schedule over the potential for additional compensation. That said, nurses who work irregular hours in a hospital are likely to see a bit more compensation.
“My starting salary was most impacted by my BSN and the fact that I worked in a specialty unit,” Rabun says. She started in a surgical ICU that required additional certifications and also came with a step-up in wage. “I also started by working night shifts, which paid more than day shifts—so I had a larger starting salary,” Rabun explains.
6. Nursing advancement typically involves more education
Nurses are always learning, and experience is definitely the best teacher. But there may be only so far you can go without new credentials. Young says that nurses can negotiate for a better salary (particularly if switching jobs) after they’ve gained a few years of experience.
But there is also a ceiling to that—according to Rabun, who says pay raises can start to slow down. If you hit a point in your career where your experience is racking up, but your salary isn’t growing—advancing your credentials to include new responsibilities or specialties can really broaden your salary potential.
Is the nurse salary worth it?
With all these factors to consider, you can see why nursing salaries are a complicated question. But if you’ve been dreaming about becoming a nurse, you can fill in some of these blanks for your specific situation. What kind of nurse do you want to be? Where do you hope to work? What geographical area will you be working in?
These specifics can lead you much closer to an accurate nursing salary estimate. But to understand whether the salary pays off—you also need to know what kind of investment it takes to become a nurse. Check out our article “How to Become a Nurse: A Beginner’s Guide” to learn more about the potential paths ahead of you.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed September, 2021] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Nurse.com, 2018 Nurse.com Nursing Salary Research Report, [accessed July, 2019] http://mediakit.nurse.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2018-Nurse.com-Salary-Research-Report.pdf. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.