Hi PA neighbor ...
I'll try to answer your questions:
1) To work per diem means you are in a pool of nurses who will be called to work when there are staffing shortages. The hourly rate is often higher, but there is no guarantee of available work.
2) I've seen different hospitals treat the 36-hr./wk. situation differently: where I work now, a nurse may be able to work 3 12-hr. shifts for a total of 36 hours. They are paid for those 36 hours only, but they are considered full-time w/full benefits. (this depends on the availability of these 36-hr. slots in any particular department, and these are typically earned by nurses w/some seniority) At another hospital I'm familar with, 36 hr. people were required to work an additional 8-hr. shift every other week, so that at the end of the 2-week 80-hr. pay period, you had still accumulated 80 hrs.
3) Pinning is a term for a nursing school graduation ceremony - it's a long-standing tradition.
4) I've seen NPs employed in both private practices and in the hospital. ERs in my area utilize them. These are RNs who have gone on to earn a master's degree in nursing (MSN) with a specialization in a particular clinical area. I believe they take some type of exam to be licensed as an NP. They can make significantly more than RNs. I don't have hard numbers, but off the top of my head, it seems to me that physican private practices seem to be hiring more PAs than NPs. Their hours mirror where they are employed - nearly 24/7 if they are employed by hospitals, more M-F daylight if employed in private practice (but still must be available for call, emergencies, etc.)
5) Any specialty seems particularly attractive to those who have an interest in it ... so I don't think there's such a thing as the "most difficult" specialty to break into. However, in my limited experience, there seems to be less turnover in OR and OB/L&D, so especially at community hospitals, those positions can indeed be few & far between.
6) There are hospitals which pay differently for certain specialties. Many do not.
7) In PA, you can apply for a temporary practice permit to work as a GN (graduate nurse) after graduation, before you pass NCLEX and are licensed as an RN. The temporary practice permit is good for 1 year, but realistically, it's very unlikely that any facility is going to "carry you" for that long. Also, NCLEX first-time pass rates drop dramatically after the 4-month mark. This is something you'll have thoroughly drummed into your head while you're in school -- take NCLEX ASAP after graduation! The temporary practice permit expires automatically when your NCLEX results are reported - it's either replaced by an RN license or if you do not pass then you can no longer work as a GN. Your employer may or may not keep you on as an aide/tech until you can take boards again (a minimum of 45 days later). Other states do not have such a thing as a temp. permit - no one works until they have passed boards.
8) I'm not familiar with Jefferson ... sorry, can't help you there.
HTH. Best of luck to you!