School leavers these days can go online and check out how their likely income as a nursing graduate compares with those for more than 50 other types of graduate degrees.

The information shared on the Careers
New Zealand website is based on Ministry of Education research that uses tax data to track the income and destination of our young graduates (see more about studies below).

The focus is on young New Zealand graduates, with the aim of helping guide young people, their families and their career advisors to make career choices.

Good news – at first

So what does the potential young nurse find out about nursing’s prospects? And how does graduating with a nursing degree stack up against other degrees?

The good news is that, at least initially, the incomes for young nurse graduates stack up pretty well compared with the average young graduate.

Study lead author Zaneta Park says in general the median earnings for nursing degree graduates are good, particularly in the first five years post-study.

She says median earnings start off higher for nursing graduates than for many of the other bachelor graduates, including those who study computer science, accountancy, law, languages and biological sciences. Even five years after graduation, nurses’ earnings are still relatively high – though by this stage law and accountancy graduates are similar and computer science graduates are now higher.

Six years post-study – not so good

But Park says nurses’ incomes then show an unusual trend by dipping in both the sixth and seventh year after study, with the average income seven years post-study actually being lower than it was four years after graduation. The only other graduate group dozens of degrees examined. experiencing a similar trend are the human welfare studies and services graduates, whose income peaks at six years post-study, then falls.

Graduate in both degrees are overwhelmingly female: 95 per cent of young nurse graduates and 88 per cent of human welfare studies and services graduates.

“Our assumption was that this [dip] may indeed be because graduates who complete a bachelor’s qualification in nursing tend to be female and so six to seven years after graduation tend to be more likely to reduce their hours of work for family care reasons (or otherwise make changes that reduce their earnings; for example, perhaps they are less likely to work overtime, or to be on call),” says Park.

But looking at other careers where a high proportion of graduates are female; for example, teacher education (91 per cent) and radiography (89 per cent), there is no similar fall-off in earnings. “We are not sure why this is the case,” says Park.

Another trend in which nursing stands out from the crowd is the high proportion (69 per cent) of young nurses pursuing further study in their first year after graduation, which is due to the many district health boards that include postgraduate certificates or papers as part of their NETP (nursing entry to practice) programmes.

High number pursuing further study

Because the Ministry of Education assigns each graduate to a single destination category each year (and carrying out any study means graduates are assigned to the ‘further study’ category rather than the ‘employment’ category), this results in a degree of confusion for students and parents when comparing job prospects immediately after graduation. (N.B. In table 1 the figures for ‘in work’ and ‘further study’ have been combined to reflect this anomaly.)

Young nurses carrying out further study are rewarded with the median and top incomes for nurses with a postgraduate certificate or diploma being substantially higher (see table) than for nurses with only a bachelor’s degree. But while the incomes of the top 25 per cent of earners kept steadily growing, the median income for postgraduate qualified young nurses also dipped in the sixth and seventh year.

Young nurses heading offshore

Traditionally leaving New Zealand for an OE (overseas experience) has been a common rite of passage for many young New Zealanders and nurses have been no exception.

But if anyone in the nursing sector was concerned that young nurses made up a disproportionate part of the ‘brain drain’ of young people heading offshore, this is not borne out by this study. It shows that eight per cent of 2008–2009 young nursing graduates (a pool of 1,300) headed overseas straight after graduation, which is lower than the 10 per cent average for all 28,800 young people who graduated at the same time.

The number of young nurses heading overseas continues to grow until it peaks at 29 per cent five years after graduation. It then falls back to 25 per cent overseas by seven years post-study, which is considerably lower than the 31 per cent of all graduates from the same time period who are out of the country.

When it comes to health professionals, the number of nurses overseas seven years post-study is on a par with medical graduates (26 per cent) and substantially less than pharmacy graduates (39 per cent), radiography graduates (35 per cent) or dentistry graduates, with the statistics showing half of young dentists are overseas six years after graduating.

Law (35 per cent), accountancy (37 per cent) and computer science (37 per cent) graduates are also far more likely to be overseas seven years after graduation. Amongst the graduates least likely to be overseas are teacher education graduates, with 17 per cent overseas seven years post-study.

Whether the school leaver contemplating nursing will be influenced by these statistics and findings is not known but current statistics show that nursing is holding its own in the graduate income stakes, well for at least the first five years.

Study details

The studies are based on the anonymised tax and tertiary education data of cohorts of young people who graduated between one and seven years before.

The cut-off for this study was the tax year to the end of March 2012, so the cohort of nurses who were seven years post-study was based on nurses who had graduated in either 2003 or 2004. The nurses who were two years post-study had graduated in 2008 or 2009.

The focus of the studies is on young people, with the cut-off age being 24 years or under for nurses on finishing their degree and 26 years or under on completing a postgraduate certificate.

Both the ‘What young graduates earn when they leave’ study (published online May 2014) and the ‘What young graduates do when they leave’ study (published online June 2014) can be found at

Zaneta Park, of the Ministry of Education’s Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis group, was lead author for both studies.


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