Nursing Career Paths: How to Become a Nurse and Advance Your Career

10 Min Read Published November 9, 2023
Nursing Career Paths: Degrees & Nursing Levels Explained

Nursing is an extremely diverse career field with endless options for advancement, specializations, and opportunities to change nursing careers.

There's no right way to become a nurse. However, the sheer number of options can be intimidating to aspiring nurses. This article will break down the most common nursing career paths, including the differences in nursing levels, requirements, benefits, and disadvantages of each. 

Read on to find a nursing career path that suits your needs and goals.

Why Nursing Is An Excellent Career Path

Nurses are in high demand. According to the BLS, in 2022, there were 3,172,500 registered nurses in the United States. By 2032, there will be a need for an additional 177,400 nurses, which is an expected growth of 6%.

As the U.S. population continues to age, these numbers may see a rapid increase over time. Therefore, nurses should never have trouble finding work.

Pathways into Nursing

While there are different degree programs you can choose, becoming a nurse is ultimately about what type of license you have. For example, nurses with associate's and bachelor's degrees take the same NCLEX exam to earn RN licensure.

Check out the graphic below for the differences between the 4 primary pathways into nursing. 

Salary Avg. $35,760 per year (BLS)  Avg. $54,620  per year (BLS) Avg. $76,000 per year (Payscale) Avg. $92,000 per year (Payscale)
Education 4-12 week state-approved training program 12-15 month diploma program or a 2 year Associate's Degree program 2-3 year Associate’s degree program, followed by NCLEX licensing exam to earn your RN license. 4-5 year Bachelor’s degree program followed by NCLEX licensing exam to earn your RN license.
Role CNAs help patients with activities of daily living and other healthcare needs under the direct supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN).  LPN responsibilities are more limited than an RN. They monitor patients’ health and administer basic patient care. ADNs work directly with patients, monitor and record vital signs, administer medication, and provide medical guidance. BSN nurses are qualified for more complex procedures and more leadership opportunities than ADNs. They also have more opportunities for career advancement and specialization.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, helps patients with activities of daily living and other healthcare needs. They work under the supervision of an RN or LPN. 

Pros and Cons of Becoming a CNA

Because the training process to become a CNA is just 4-12 weeks, it’s a great way for individuals to get their first experience in nursing and determine if they want to further their career to become an LPN or RN.

Many CNAs are already in a nursing school program and use this career as a chance to learn more about the healthcare world and gain additional real-world application and knowledge.

Search CNA to RN Programs

CNAs: earn your RN degree in up to 1/2 the time and cost of traditional programs with Achieve Test Prep's "Nursing Test-Out Program". All applicants must be a CNA to apply.

Are you a CNA?

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

An LPN license provides a nurse with a functioning nursing license, but in many states, an LPN is more limited in the care he or she can provide than an RN. For example, an LPN may not be able to deliver certain types of medications, so their work opportunities may be more restricted.

Pros and Cons of Becoming an LPN

Becoming an LPN can be a desirable choice for many looking to fast-track into the nursing field because you can achieve your LPN degree sometimes much faster than an RN degree.

You can get your LPN credentials in 12 to 15 months if you choose a diploma-based program. With an associate's program, you will become an LPN in about 18 to 24 months.

>> Related: RN vs LPN: What's the Difference?

As an LPN, you earn significantly less than a registered nurse. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average pay for an LPN in the United States is $54,620 per year or $26.26 per hour, while RNs earn on average $81,220.

But, there are LPN-to-RN bridge programs available if you choose to go the LPN route and want to advance your education to become an RN down the road.

Search LPN to RN Programs

LPNs: Achieve's Test-Out Bridge Program makes achieving your BSN faster and more affordable, and previous college credits will count toward your advanced degree. All applicants must be current LVN or LPN.

Are you a LPN/LVN?

Registered Nurse (RN)

Becoming an RN is the gold standard in nursing. There are three main ways to become an RN: 

1. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): You can become an RN by attending a bachelor's program through a university. Upon completion of the program, you will earn a BSN and take the NCLEX exam to earn RN licensure.

2. Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN): Similar to a BSN, you will earn your associate’s degree from an accredited program. Then, you'll take the same NCLEX to earn your RN credentials.

3. RN diploma program: Diploma programs are harder to find than ADN and BSN nursing programs. They're based on clinical hours and prepare you to take the NCLEX, which will award you an RN license.

Earning an ADN: Pros & Cons

Earning an ADN is preferable to many aspiring nurses because it's one of the fastest ways to become a nurse. It's also cheaper than a BSN degree, which is beneficial to students on tight budgets. However, the ADN route does have its downsides.

Finding Employment

For example, many ADN nurses have a harder time finding employment despite their RN license. Most employers prefer BSN-RNs and will pass on ADN candidates. However, you should also be aware that some employers will sponsor ADN nurses to attend a BSN program while working.

Career Advancement

Additionally, only holding an ADN can make advancing your career more difficult. Most advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) programs require students to have a BSN. So, if you want to become a certified nurse midwife, nurse practitioner, or certified registered nurse anesthetist, you'll have to attend an RN to BSN bridge program first.

Salary Differences

Finally, ADN-RNs earn less than their BSN counterparts. Payscale reports that ADN nurses earn $76,000 annually, while BSN nurses make around $92,000.

Earning a BSN: Pros & Cons

The American Association of Colleges of Nurses encourages a Bachelor of Science in Nursing as the minimum education requirement for RNs. Nursing and healthcare organizations consider a BSN the gold standard for RNs. In fact, an increasing number of facilities will only hire BSN-trained RNs, especially magnet and major teaching hospitals.

BSN Degree Cost

Forbes Advisor reports that BSN degrees cost between $20,000 and $100,000 in tuition alone. But, students can expect to incur additional fees for housing, meals, books, fees, and more.

Several factors will impact how much your BSN degree costs. These variables include whether you attend school part or full-time, your location, whether you attend a public or private university, and your residential status.

However, these costs don't always reflect what you actually pay. Remember that paying for nursing school is a combination of out-of-pocket costs, financial aid, scholarships, and government grants.

BSN Degree Paths

Students have three options for earning a BSN degree. The most common route is attending a traditional 4-year baccalaureate program. These programs offer two years of nursing school prerequisites and general education, followed by two years of nursing and clinical training.

However, there are further options for ADN nurses and those with non-nursing degrees to earn a BSN. The three paths to this degree are as follows:

Traditional BSN Program
  • The most direct and common way to become an RN
  • 4-year program for non-nurses with no prior degree
  • Includes 2 years of prereqs followed by 2 years of nursing-specific education
RN-to-BSN Program
  • 2-year program for ADN or diploma-trained RNs
  • Some programs allow students to 'test out' of material, making earning a BSN faster
  • Flexible and online classwork allows students to work while earning their degrees
Accelerated BSN Program
  • 11-18 month program for non-nurses with prior bachelor's degree
  • Bridges previous education with nursing coursework & practice focused on nursing theory
  • Available in-person and online for added flexibility
  • Many programs produce high NCLEX scores and low attrition rates


Advancing Your Nursing Education

Nurses looking to increase their salary and career opportunities can do so by earning an advanced degree. 

Salary  Avg. $125,900 per year Avg. $117,859 per year
Education The average cost of an MSN program is between $24,000 and $80,000. The average cost of a DNP program is between $10,000 and $100,000.
Role MSN-degreed nurses can work in any medical environment in which hands-on healthcare is needed, as well as in healthcare leadership, technology, and policy roles. An individual with a DNP can function in a provider capacity, but most also work to generate new scientific and clinical knowledge in nursing and healthcare.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

As more job opportunities for MSN-trained nurses become available, the popularity of MSN programs skyrockets. If you're interested in non-direct patient care nursing positions, you'll most likely need a Master of Science in Nursing degree.

Earning an MSN: Pros & Cons

MSN nurses are eligible for higher nursing positions with greater responsibility and autonomy. If they take on an APRN, education, or administrative role, MSN nurses often also earn higher salaries than ADN or BSN-trained RNs.

The BLS reports that APRNs earn a median annual salary of $125,900 or $60.53 per hour. But, your chosen specialty will affect how much you earn. Median annual salaries for different MSN nurse roles include the following:

  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA): $203,090
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM): $120,880
  • Nurse practitioner (NP): $121,610
  • Nurse administrator: $104,830 
  • Nurse educator: $78,580

MSN programs are available online or in person, but they can be costly. Forbes Advisor reports that MSN programs can range from $24,000 to $80,000, with the most expensive programs exceeding $100,000.

Types of MSN Degrees

  1. A non-clinical MSN degree is most suitable for nurses who are looking for management, administrative, leadership, or educator roles.
  2. An APRN MSN is the type of degree you would choose if you are looking to become an advanced practitioner, like NPs, CNMs, and CRNAs.

MSN Jobs

Depending on the MSN program you select, you can take on the following nursing roles:

  • Clinical nurse leaders
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Certified nurse midwives
  • Clinical nurse specialists
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists
  • Nurse administrators
  • Nurse educators
  • Nurse informatics

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Doctors of nursing practice are leaders in advanced nursing practice who bring evidence-based knowledge to clinical settings. They work to improve healthcare outcomes and strengthen nursing leadership in clinical and academic environments. DNPs can have the same APRN roles as MSN nurses, but many work in research, academia, or as administrators.

Earning a DNP: Pros & Cons

There are several benefits to earning a DNP, which include knowledge expansion, greater career satisfaction, and higher salaries. However, these programs are expensive, so weighing the pros and cons of earning a DNP is necessary.

DNP Roles

DNP nurses can function as providers or work in APRN roles, but most work to generate new clinical knowledge for nursing and healthcare fields. DNP-trained APRNs don't have more authority or a wider scope of practice than MSN nurses. Additionally, they rarely conduct scientific research or teach.

More often, DNPs work as researchers, administrators, and educators. Therefore, if you want to remain in a direct patient care APRN role, earning a DNP may not be worth it to you.

DNP Salary

DNP nurses make $117,859 per year, which is $57 an hour, according to reports from ZipRecruiter. Payscale estimates a similar average salary of $111,000 a year or $55.13 an hour.

DNP Cost

Earning your DNP does not come cheap. Forbes advisor reports that DNP programs cost between $10,000 and $100,000 depending on the school you attend, your residential status, and whether you go full or part-time.

Alternative Nursing Career Paths

Nursing is a complex and ever-changing profession that provides individuals with countless job opportunities. Most know about pediatric, medical-surgical, operating room, and even hospice nursing.

However, there are less popular but still exciting career paths for nurses:

How to Decide Which Nursing Career Path

Though becoming a nurse may be your dream, it can also be a formidable task. There are hundreds of programs and several nursing career paths to take. Before starting on your journey, ask yourself:

  • Do I want to advance my career upon graduation and become a CRNA or CRNP?
  • How will I pay for this program?
  • Will I be working throughout the program?
  • Will I go to school part-time or full-time?
  • Can I move away from home for undergraduate school?

Determining what your goals are for nursing will help narrow down the choices.  Nursing is a fulfilling and amazing career- regardless of the path chosen, becoming a nurse is an amazing accomplishment.

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Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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