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My first experience looking for a job as a nurse and attempting to understand compensation variability within the profession was both intimidating and stressful. After graduating from one of the best undergraduate nursing programs in the country, gaining clinical experience from top healthcare facilities and enduring the NCLEX and licensure, I assumed that finding a job would be a fairly straightforward process. Instead, I found myself scouring job boards, Googling for any new grad opportunity I could find, combing through Craigslist and blindly emailing the few contacts I had. 

After a discouraging months-long search, I finally landed an inpatient opportunity as a pediatric nurse, but the experience was so painful that doing it again seemed unthinkable. So two years ago, when I had the opportunity to join the team at Trusted Health and to help other nurses avoid a similar ordeal, I jumped at the chance. 

Today, along with a team of Nurse Advocates, I help nurses find new opportunities, maximize their income, and ultimately, build their careers. After helping hundreds of nurses navigate the job market, I’ve discovered a variety of strategies for any nurse looking to understand how they can grow their skills and increase their earning potential… all things I wish I’d had known at the outset of my career! Read on for three of my top tips.  

Experiment with different income streams

One of the tactics I often recommend to the nurses who are looking to maximize their earning potential is to combine different types of opportunities, such as a per diem and a part-time role or travel nursing contract. While many nurses are familiar with this concept, most have questions about how to make it work on a practical level. 

The key is to find a per diem role that offers maximum flexibility. If you’re restricted by a specific shift or weekend requirement, it’s likely going to be tricky to make both work. But, if you only need to work one to two days per month and are able to plan ahead, you can easily schedule around a part-time or travel position which may not be as flexible. 

While combining two types of clinical opportunities, such as per diem and travel nursing, can be a great financial decision, it’s important not to overdo it. Be sure to consider the proximity of the two roles and how that will affect your ability to balance both and have downtime in-between shifts. I also encourage nurses to schedule time off or a vacation in between opportunities — particularly if they are working in two similar care  settings — to avoid burnout. 

Understand the salary landscape

The nursing industry suffers from a serious lack of transparency when it comes to compensation, especially for travel opportunities. Compensation information is often obscure and can vary by agency, plus most recruiters can only speak to the compensation trends across their open roles. Given how great the variances are geographically, by specialty, and care setting, it’s important to do your research. One great resource is a recent report from Trusted, which provides a comprehensive look at the salary landscape for travel nurses. 

Some of the findings are what you might expect: cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles lead in terms of pay, but there are nuances. While that big paycheck may not stretch very far in SF and NYC once you factor in cost of living, LA actually offers a pretty good bang for your buck. In fact, the average gross weekly pay for travel nurses in LA is 60% higher than the average for local residents. 

St. Louis also emerged as a place where travel nurse salaries really stretch. While St. Louis might not top many nurses’ wish lists the same way that California or Hawaii often do, it has the advantage of its central location. So in addition to its low cost of living, it also may be a place you could potentially commute to for travel shifts while maintaining a per diem role elsewhere. 

In general, I always encourage travel nurses to keep their minds open to locations that not be as obviously appealing. Rural or less-populated states often have a need for travel nurses that outstrips their supply, and as a result, are willing to pay top dollar. Alaska and South Dakota, for example, rank among the top five states in terms of pay, offering 9 and 6 percent above the national average respectively. It’s also worth noting that less obvious choices can sometimes make for surprisingly fun places to live. I frequently hear anecdotes from nurses who go to small towns with low expectations, only to find that they really enjoy the setting and lifestyle. 

Embrace the art of negotiation 

Broadly speaking, the characteristics that make a good nurse — selflessness, empathy and putting the needs of others first — are antithetical to negotiating savvy. It’s also not a skill taught in most nursing programs. As a result, it can feel taboo to nurses to have hard conversations about money.  Fortunately, being informed can be just as effective as possessing those natural negotiating skills.

When you find a travel role you’re interested in, do your diligence to understand what compensation you should expect and whether it’s being offered by multiple agencies.  Compensation and contract terms can often vary widely. To make an informed decision about the role, it’s important to understand the complete compensation package, which, in addition to salary, includes stipends and reimbursements.

While most of us don’t choose nursing for the money, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go after the pay you deserve. I know firsthand that travel nurses can be some of the hardest working and most experienced professionals in healthcare, and I hope these insights are helpful for anyone looking for ways to maximize their income!

 Another important variable? Understanding how the length of your contract impacts your compensation. While longer contracts should generally mean higher compensation, it is important to find out if there is the possibility of an extension bonus. Even if you plan to stay for a longer period of time, it might benefit you  to sign an initial contract first and later extend. And if an employer isn’t willing or able to budge on compensation, see if you can stipulate that your hours are guaranteed in your contract, thereby ensuring that your salary doesn’t vary if you’re called off shifts.

Sarah Gray is the Founding Clinician at Trusted Health, the career platform for the modern nurse. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Nursing School and began her nursing career at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Prior to moving away from the bedside, she was a Clinical Nurse III and an Evidence Based Practice Fellow, and served on multiple hospital-wide committee boards. At Trusted, she utilizes her clinical insight and passion for innovation to change how nurses manage their careers and solve for inefficiencies within healthcare staffing.

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