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What Is the Difference Between a Military Nursing Career & a Civilian Nursing Career?

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Although nurses perform the same or very similar duties in many working situations, military nursing offers some unique challenges and some unique opportunities, according to a July 2012 article in “Nurse Together.” The U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force all offer options for active and reserve duty that allow a registered nurse to have a military nursing career.

Daily Work

Patient care is the same in both military and civilian nursing. People in the military have babies, become injured and develop illnesses just as civilians do. One difference is in the area of combat nursing. Although civilian patients may suffer gunshot wounds, injuries from explosive devices are less likely, and a military nurse must be prepared to deal with the severe trauma that results from a land mine or bomb explosion. Civilian and military nurses might suffer an on-the-job injury such as a back injury, but military nurses may also be in harm’s way if they are working near the front lines in mobile military hospitals.

Financial Support for Education

Military nurses often have educational opportunities, as paid tuition is available for an advanced degree for many military nurses. Stipends and financial incentives to pursue specialization or advanced degrees are also available, according to “Nurse Together,” as are loan repayments for previous education expenditures. In some cases, a nurse who commits to a military career may receive a stipend during her training prior to enlistment. Continuing education funds also are available. Civilian nurses may or may not have benefits such as tuition reimbursement and financial incentives, depending on the organization for which they work.

Education and Rank

Basic nursing education includes the associate degree, the nursing diploma and the bachelor’s degree. A nurse who graduates from any of these programs can take the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. Although any of these degrees are acceptable for civilian and reservist military nurses, nurses who enter the active duty military must have a bachelor’s degree and will be commissioned officers. In civilian nursing, doctors tend to be higher in the health care hierarchy, but in the military, your rank determines your position, and in many cases, physicians and nurses have the same rank.

Travel and Living Conditions

Although civilian nurses who work in travel nursing may work in a variety of different places, military nurses might travel all over the world. The military nurse, however, does not choose where he or she is assigned. A nurse’s specialty can affect an assignment, and military nurses who speak a particular language may be assigned in certain areas of the world. Nurses deployed to other countries typically live in military housing and in some areas may be required to live in a military compound to ensure their safety. Others deployed on active duty may live in tents.

Making a Choice

Although there is no guarantee that you will travel outside the U.S., a nurse who wants to see more of the world may choose the military for that reason. Promotion opportunities exist for both military and civilian nurses. Military nursing does increase the potential for the nurse to be in harm's way, especially if deployed near the front lines in a war zone. Military nurses may have more independence in their daily work, according to “Nurse Together,” but cannot make life choices such as where they live, what assignments they will accept or what their duty hours will be. Military nurses also may be separated from family and children.

2016 Salary Information for Registered Nurses

Registered nurses earned a median annual salary of $68,450 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, registered nurses earned a 25th percentile salary of $56,190, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $83,770, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 2,955,200 people were employed in the U.S. as registered nurses.