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The top 10 highest-paying RN specialties today

Vivian Health reports on the top 10 highest-paying RN specialties to help prospects find positions offering above-average compensation.

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Medical professional tends to baby in NICU.

Joa Souza // Shutterstock

As the healthcare landscape continually evolves, the demand for specialized registered nurses (RNs) continues to skyrocket, resulting in significant shifts in salary structure and career opportunities. With more than 150 unique RN specialties, nurses can align their career goals and personal passions while increasing their salary prospects. Whether you're a nursing student charting your career path or an experienced RN seeking new opportunities, Vivian Health explores the top 10 highest-paying RN specialties in 2024 to help you find roles offering above-average compensation.

Top Paying RN Specialties

Salaries for RNs vary based on education, experience, facility and location, but especially specialty. We created our top 10 list by comparing the average weekly rates of active travel nursing jobs in each RN specialty posted on Vivian Health's jobs marketplace over the previous year.

However, we only included the specialties with 3,000 or more job postings during this period to eliminate those with only a handful of high-paying roles that are rarely available. The specialties on our list may pay more or less at your facility since we used national averages, not state or local salary data.

To add more value to our comparison of RN specialties, we included the average hourly rates for staff positions within each specialty, with annual salaries calculated on a 40-hour workweek multiplied by the per-week earnings for 52 weeks. We also included the highest hourly staff and weekly travel rates to document the ceiling in these top-paying roles. We pulled all these figures from jobs posted on Vivian during the week of May 6, 2024.

To help you compare these nursing specialties further, we provided details on education requirements to evaluate the time needed to enter each specialty. We also offer professional certification suggestions that could help enhance your career and salary.

10 Highest-Paying RN Specialties Projected in 2024

Most of the top-paying specialties listed below have lower average wages than the same time last year. This wage decline aligns with our 2023 travel nursing salary recap, which indicated wages across nursing specialties steadily dropped throughout the previous year.

While travel wages seem to be flattening, some specialties still pay more than others. Based on our research, the following 10 RN specialties should command top wages throughout 2024.

1. Progressive Care Unit (PCU) Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN required / BSN preferred
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / PCCN
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $3,101
  • Change From Last Year: Up 5%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $3,879 (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $45.37
  • Average Annual Salary: $94,370
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $95 (Washington)

Progressive Care Unit (PCU) nurses, sometimes called step-down nurses, specialize in caring for patients who require close monitoring and advanced medical care but aren't in critical condition. They work in a dynamic environment that bridges the gap between the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and general medical-surgical floors. PCU nurses are skilled in interpreting complex vital signs, managing recovery from acute conditions and preparing for potential health setbacks. Their role demands strong clinical judgment and the ability to provide intensive nursing care, making them essential in the continuum of healthcare for moderately stable patients who still need significant attention.

2. Cardiovascular Operating Room (CVOR) Nurse

  • Education Requirements: BSN preferred with post-graduate CVOR education or training
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / CNOR / CV-BC / CVRN-BC 
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,886
  • Change From Last Year: Down 6.2%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $4,372 (Canton, OH)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $49.51
  • Average Annual Salary: $102,981
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $66 (Pennsylvania)

Cardiovascular Operating Room (CVOR) nurses specialize in direct patient care for cardiovascular patients receiving surgical interventions. They provide care before, during and after complex cardiac procedures, such as open-heart surgeries and valve replacements. They explain procedures to patients and prepare CV operating rooms, ensuring the sterility and availability of necessary instruments and equipment. During surgeries, CVOR nurses help maintain a sterile field, continuously monitor patients' vital signs and assist the surgical team to ensure patient safety and optimal outcomes. Post-operation, they may apply dressings, administer prescribed medications and provide after-care instructions to patients and their families.

3. Interventional Radiology (IR) Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN or BSN
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / CRN
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,878
  • Change From Last Year: Down 3.74%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $5,832 (Virginia)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $48.23
  • Average Annual Salary: $100,318
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $74 (New York)

Interventional Radiology (IR) nurses specialize in caring for patients undergoing minimally invasive, image-guided procedures. They work in high-tech environments, assisting with treatments that often serve as alternatives to surgical interventions, such as angioplasty and stent placement. An IR nurse's responsibilities cover the entire procedure, from assessment to discharge. They prepare patients by explaining procedures, administering moderate sedation and monitoring vital signs during operations. IR nurses assist radiologists by passing them instruments, guide wires, catheters and supplies. Their skills extend to post-procedure care, managing any complications and ensuring patients recover appropriately.

4. Cardiac Catheterization Lab Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN required / BSN preferred
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / CV-BC / CVRN-BC / CMC
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,825
  • Change From Last Year: Down 6%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $5,832 (Arlington, VA)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $48.23
  • Average Annual Salary: $100,318
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $76 (California)

Cardiac cath lab nurses specialize in supporting diagnostic and therapeutic procedures related to heart and blood vessel conditions. These nurses work with cardiologists and technicians to deliver potentially life-saving care, focusing on precision and patient safety during complex cardiovascular interventions. Their primary role is to assist with catheterizations, but they also assist during critical operations like angioplasty, pacemaker or defibrillator insertions and stent placements. During procedures, cath lab nurses prepare patients, monitor their vitals and provide immediate post-procedural care. They're adept at managing rapid changes in patient conditions, using sophisticated imaging equipment and contributing significantly to cardiac patient outcomes.

5. Perioperative/Operating Room Nurse

  • Education Requirements: BSN preferred
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / CNOR
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,736
  • Change From Last Year: Down 10.5%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $4,560 (Columbia, SC)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $50.23
  • Average Annual Salary: $104,478
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $86 (California)

Perioperative RNs, also known as operating room (OR) nurses, are specialized healthcare professionals central to providing safe and effective surgical care by ensuring the well-being of patients before, during and after operations. They manage all nursing aspects in the OR, assisting in preparing the room, sterilizing equipment and ensuring all necessary supplies are available for various surgical procedures. Perioperative nurses work with surgeons, anesthesiologists and technicians during operations, monitoring patient vitals and ensuring a sterile environment. Their post-operative responsibilities include helping transfer patients safely to recovery units and providing critical follow-up care to ensure a smooth recovery.

6. Operating Room – Circulating Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN required / BSN preferred
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / CNOR
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,731
  • Change From Last Year: Down 13.5%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $5,362 (Arizona)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $54.41
  • Average Annual Salary: $113,173
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $80 (California)

OR circulating nurses manage the overall perioperative environment to maintain safety and efficiency during surgeries. Unlike scrub nurses, circulating nurses don't directly assist with surgical procedures. They're responsible for ensuring the surgical team has everything they need, coordinating patient care and managing equipment. OR circulating nurses verify patient information and act as patient advocates, ensuring patient safety and comfort. They confirm surgical plans and communicate with other surgical team members, ensuring everyone follows safety and sterility protocols rigorously. Circulating nurses also coordinate any additional supplies or equipment required during the surgery to ensure a smooth process throughout.

7. Burn Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN or BSN
  • Relevant Certifications: ACLS / ABLS / CCRN
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,698
  • Change From Last Year: Down 8%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $2,417 (Boston, MA)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $43.26
  • Average Annual Salary: $89,981
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $52 (Tennessee)

Burn ICU nurses specialize in caring for patients with severe burn injuries, often handling the most critical and life-threatening cases. Their expertise lies in managing complex wound care, pain control and fluid resuscitation, which are crucial for burn recovery. These nurses provide intensive care around the clock, monitoring for complications such as infections and organ failure. They also support patients through the psychological challenges associated with burn recovery, coordinating with a multidisciplinary team to offer comprehensive treatment. Burn ICU nurses' roles are vital in sustaining life and improving the quality of life for burn victims through meticulous, compassionate care.

8. Pediatric Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN required / BSN preferred
  • Relevant CertificationsPALS / CPN / PED-BC
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,565
  • Change From Last Year: Down 9.9%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $4,040 (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $47.47
  • Average Annual Salary: $98,738
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $76 (Oregon)

A pediatric nurse specializes in caring for infants, children and adolescents, addressing their unique medical and emotional needs. They work in various settings, from hospitals and clinics to schools and homes, treating illnesses, injuries and chronic conditions. Pediatric nurses are skilled in performing clinical tasks such as conducting assessments, administering medications and treatments and assisting with procedures, all while using approaches that comfort young patients. They also play a key role in educating families about preventive care and managing health conditions, ensuring effective treatment and support for children's overall development and well-being.

9. Gastrointestinal (GI) Lab/Endoscopy Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN or BSN
  • Relevant Certifications: BLS / CGRN
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,560
  • Change From Last Year: Up .03%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $3,337 (Springfield, MA)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $45.04
  • Average Annual Salary: $93,683
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $68 (Massachusetts)

GI lab nurses, also known as endoscopy nurses, specialize in gastrointestinal procedures, supporting patients through diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopies. These nurses assist with the preparation, monitoring and recovery of patients undergoing procedures like colonoscopies, upper gastrointestinal endoscopies and complex interventions for digestive disorders. Their responsibilities include ensuring patient comfort, administering moderate sedation and monitoring vital signs throughout the procedure. GI lab nurses also play a crucial role in patient education by helping them understand their conditions, upcoming procedures and necessary follow-up care to ensure their safety and well-being throughout the endoscopy process.

10. Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Nurse

  • Education Requirements: ADN required / BSN preferred
  • Relevant Certifications: PALS / NRP / PEARS / RNC-NIC / CCRN (Neonatal)
  • Average Weekly Travel Rate: $2,542
  • Change From Last Year: Down 11.2%
  • Highest Weekly Travel Rate: $4,479 (Portland, ME)
  • Average Hourly Rate: $48.59
  • Average Annual Salary: $101,067
  • Highest Hourly Rate: $53 (Tennessee)

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurses specialize in caring for newborns facing life-threatening conditions, including prematurity or critical health issues such as birth defects, congenital disorders/infections and heart anomalies. NICU nurses monitor and provide round-the-clock care to neonates in high-tech environments, ensuring their bodily functions perform as expected. They manage respiratory support systems, perform tests to evaluate problems and administer treatments and medications doctors prescribe. NICU nurses may care for premature or sick infants for weeks or even months until they're stabilized and healthy enough to be discharged and educate parents on how to care for their babies when they come home.

Additional High-Paying Specialties (Limited Openings)

Table showing additional high-paying specialities.

Vivian Health

Although the RN specialties in the table above technically had job postings that paid more than those listed in our top 10 list above, jobs in these specialties are less frequently posted on Vivian Health. Some of these specialties had a single job posting with significantly higher-than-average pay, pushing their averages above the norm. 

However, we wanted to include them in our recap to provide even more options for RNs seeking high-paying specialties. Many of these specialties are niche roles, with five of eight involving sub-specializations in pediatrics.

This list only includes RN specialties that require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing or less. Registered nurses with advanced degrees and certifications qualify for advanced roles and typically earn much more than those listed here. To explore salary expectations for advanced practice registered nurses, see our Top 10 Highest Paying APRN Specialties and learn how you can boost your salary even further.

This story was produced by Vivian Health and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.