By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, RN, CBC
So, you're thinking about becoming a nurse? Yes! Here at nurse.org, we fully support you. Caring for patients and their families during their sickest and darkest moments can be incredibly rewarding and meaningful work. BUT, it can also be a long (and confusing) process.
There are a lot of things you need to consider: Which degree should you get? Which license? What type of nurse should you become? It can be pretty overwhelming. That's why we've put together this guide covering everything you need to know about becoming a nurse.
Ready to get started? Just keep reading or jump to the section that interests you most with the links below:
- Why Become a Nurse
- Nursing School
- Nursing License
- Choosing a Speciality
- Getting a Job as Nurse
- Furthering Your Education
- Nursing Continuing Education
- Nursing FAQs
There are sooo many good reasons to become a nurse. Many feel called to the profession because they're natural caregivers. Others had a nurse in their life who influenced them, and some people are just looking for a career where they can feel good about what they are doing and make a difference.
Beyond the emotional reasons for wanting to get into nursing, there are also some more practical ones.
Nurses are in High Demand!
Nursing is one of the most in-demand professions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 7% in the next decade, which is significantly faster than the growth for most other professions.
Nurses Make Good Money
According to the BLS, the average salary for registered nurses in the United States is $73,300 per year or $35.24 per hour. This will vary depending on the environment your working in, your location, your experience, your education, and your specific expertise.
There Are So Many Different Types of Nurses
There is truly something for everyone when it comes to nursing. Check out this list of all the types of nurses to learn about all the different options out there.
The first step in becoming a nurse is nursing school. But it’s not that simple. You need to choose a program (CNA, LPN, ADN, BSN) figure out what prerequisites and other requirements you need for that program, figure out how to pay for school, and oh so much more.
When it comes to nursing school, there are a LOT of options available, but which is right for you will depend on your overall career goals, your financial situation, and a number of other factors. Here are the different nursing programs available.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, 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). CNA’s are also commonly referred to as a Nursing Assistant, Patient Care Assistant (PCA), or a Nurse’s Aid.
How You Become One
Certified nursing assistants complete a state-approved education program that includes both instruction on the principles of nursing and supervised clinical work.
These programs are available in high schools, community colleges, vocational and technical schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. Upon successful completion of the program and examinations, individuals become certified.
How Long Does It Take?
CNA programs are roughly 80 hours of education including approximately 40 hours of clinical time. This will vary on the state’s requirements.
Who Is It Right For?
This is a good option for individuals that need to work during school, want to get healthcare experience for their application (some nursing programs make having your CNA a requirement), or determine which aspect of nursing is the best fit.
How Much Can You Make?
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for nursing assistants was $29,660 in May 2019. Employment of nursing assistants is projected to grow 8 percent from 2019 to 2029.
Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)
An LPN is responsible for providing patients with essential care, which includes helping them to eat, dress, bathe, etc. They also assist Registered Nurses and doctors in keeping detailed records, maintaining clear communication between the entire care team and working with patients and their families.
LPNs have advanced skills compared to a CNA but still have limitations according to their license.
Employment of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses is projected to grow 9 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.
How You Become One
You'll need to complete an LPN program, usually found at community or technical colleges. LPN programs take roughly one to two years to complete depending on the program.
Who Is It Right For?
This degree is good for individuals that were waitlisted to a nursing program, did not get into an accredited nursing program, need to work throughout nursing school, or do not have the ability to pay for a nursing program.
How Much Can You Make?
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses was $47,480 in May 2019.
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
An Associate Degree in Nursing, or ADN, is a one of the two main types of registered nurse programs, the other being a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing. There are a number of differences between the two programs. Here's what you need to know about earning your ADN.
What You'll Learn in an ADN Program
The ADN program is focused solely on nursing core classes and clinicals. Classes focus on the clinical aspect of nursing instead of the leadership, research, and management focus seen in other nursing programs.
Students are not required to take courses that are outside of their curriculum and, as we mentioned, the program can typically be completed in two years.
Associate’s degrees in nursing are offered by many community colleges and some four-year institutions. An ADN program will blend hands-on training with classwork. ADN programs are designed to train students in the technical skills needed to become a nurse in an entry-level position and about a patient’s basic health needs.
Who Is an ADN Right For?
Some of the primary reasons aspiring nurses choose an ADN program are:
- It's a lot more affordable (often available at community and technical colleges)
- It's faster (2 yrs vs 4 yrs)
- You can complete your ADN while working
- It's good for individuals with families or busy lifestyles
- Many nurses earn their ADN first so they can start working fast and save money on their degree, and then get their BSN paid for by their employing hospital later on.
Cons to ADN Degrees
One major difference related to job availability for ADN nurses is some healthcare systems will only hire nurses with a bachelor’s degree. This is directly related to Magnet status and accreditation.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Considered the gold standard for nursing degrees, a BSN degree is the other main degree for becoming a registered nurse. A BSN can typically be completed in three to four years and you'll find them at traditional university.
What You'll Learn in a BSN Program
Individuals take a variety of courses including nursing, clinical experiences, and core curriculum classes. Specific courses are determined by the program of study.
Who Is a BSN Right For?
Earning a BSN does have many benefits over the other aforementioned nursing options, including:
- BSNs often get hired over other types of nurses, particularly at Magnet hospitals that may only hire BSN-prepared nurses
- Expanded knowledge. BSN programs are 2 years longer than ADN programs and you'll learn leadership and management skills that you won't get in an ADN program.
- There are more career opportunities for BSN-prepared nurses
- BSNs are a prerequisite for graduate programs and APRN roles. So, if you know that you want to go on to become an APRN or earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctorate, a BSN may be the right move.
Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) Programs
If you already have a bachelor's degree in another field and want to become a registered nurse, there's a special degree for you called Accelerated Bachelors of Science in Nursing (ABSN) degree programs.
Because you've already completed many of the general education courses in your previous undergraduate degree, ABSN programs are typically shorter than BSN programs.
Depending on the program structure and intensity, accelerated programs range from 12 months to 19 months, though some can be as long as 2 years.
Why Nursing School Accreditation Matters
Whatever type of nursing program you choose, make sure it's accredited!
Accreditation means that an accrediting body, either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) has evaluated a nursing school and its programs to ensure that it means their standards.
The purpose of accreditation is to make sure that the same standards and criteria are being met across all nursing programs. So that nurses come out with the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs correctly.
The accreditation process ultimately improves the quality of nursing education and keeps the curriculum up to date on current trends in advances in nursing and healthcare. Accreditation continues to further the nursing profession and enhances the overall care provided by nurses.
Benefits to Attending an Accredited Nursing Program
In addition to ensuring you have a thorough education, by attending an accredited nursing program you’ll also be able to:
- Receive federal financial aid
- Transfer credits towards the program
- Attend a graduate nursing program
- Be competitive in the job market
Consequences of Attending a Non-accredited Nursing Program
Graduating from a non-accredited nursing program can be devastating. While it is very difficult for brick and mortar nursing programs to function and not be fully accredited; it is often seen in online nursing programs. So, what does this mean for those students?
- Students who graduate from non-accredited programs have difficulty obtaining gainful employment
- Students that graduate from programs that are not accredited, whether an ADN or BSN program, will NOT be able to sit for the NCLEX. This means you will NOT become a Registered Nurse.
Just like not all nurses complete the same programs, not all nurses have the same license either. Some of the most common types of nursing licenses are a registered nurse (RN), licensed practical nurse (LPN) sometimes called a licensed vocational nurse (LVN), and a certified nursing assistant (CNA).
Registered Nurse (RN)
There are a few different ways to become an RN. As we discussed above, you can earn an Associate’s degree in nursing, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing as a first step. Another less common option is a nursing diploma.
With all of these methods, you’ll need to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) which tests the competency of nursing graduates. You can’t become a registered nurse without passing this exam.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
In order to become an LPN/LVN, you’ll need to complete an LPN program, as we discussed above, and then take and pass a national licensure exam, the NCLEX-PN.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
To become a CNA, you’ll need to complete a CNA program that’s approved by your state (requirements vary from state to state). You’ll also need to make sure you meet your states certification requirements, and then pass a CNA certification exam. Once certified, CNA licenses typically last for two years.
During nursing school, students get to experience working in some different nursing specialties, but definitely not all of them. This can make it difficult for new nurses to pick a specialty when applying for nursing positions.
It’s important to take each clinical rotation and the specialty into consideration. Give each rotation and opportunity and a fair shot. But consider if you can see yourself in that specialty. Is this a specialty that will fulfill you and challenge you?
No one can decide what specialty of nursing you should go into but remember your goals. For example:
- If you are interested in becoming a certified nurse-midwife then you will need obstetrics experience.
- If you are interested in becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist you will need either adult intensive care nursing or pediatric intensive care nursing.
- And because the ICU is difficult for new graduates to enter directly upon graduation, some hospitals will want you to work on a medical-surgical floor first.
Different specialties for new graduates include:
- Ambulatory care
- Cardiac care
- Emergency room
- Home health
- Occupational health
- Operating room
- Wound care
Now that you have graduated and passed the NCLEX, you’re ready to find your first nursing job. But for new nurses, this can be a daunting task!
The most important thing to remember when applying for a nursing position is that application rejection is a totally normal part of the process. It happens to everyone!
Transitioning into a new role at a hospital or healthcare system can be overwhelming but these steps can help ease the transition. Follow these steps to help get your first nursing position:
1. Determine the Field of Nursing You Want to Go Into
The first step is deciding what field you want to work in. There are so many options available to nurses and deciding which field will help with your job search. Remember, this is not set in stone. Nurses have the ability to change specialties throughout their career.
2. Search Job Boards and Hospital Websites
Utilizing hospitals job websites is the best way to find positions for a specific hospital. Narrowing down the area and/or hospital will help in the job search.
3. Prepare Your Nursing Resume
Your resume is the first thing your future employer is going to see, so make a good first impression!
Some top tips are to make sure your resume shows your personality and your brand, research the organization you're applying to, and optimize your resume for the resume-robots. For more detailed tips on perfecting your resume, check out our Ultimate Guide to Nursing Resumes.
4. Ask Your College Career Office About Nursing Career Days and Hospital Recruitment Days
Some major universities will partner with local hospitals to hold career days on campus. This will bring healthcare companies and agencies to the university on one specific day.
Nursing students will have the ability to meet with nurse recruiters, learn about openings, discuss new nurse orientation, and submit resumes and applications. This can be a great networking opportunity.
5. Nail the Nursing Interview
You finally landed an interview, now you need to make sure you kill it! You’ll want to practice common interview questions (check out 31 sample nurse interview questions here!) and check out our guide to the top nursing job interview tips.
Becoming a nurse is often just the first step. Many nurses go on to continue their education. Some immediately after graduation while others take time in between degrees in order to gain much-needed experience or determine exactly the type of advanced practice degree they are interested in.
Here are some of the ways you can advance your education as a nurse:
RN to BSN Programs
If you're already a registered nurse with an Associate's Degree in Nursing, you don't have to start all over to get your bachelor's degree. You can take the skills and experience you already have, and use them in an accelerated RN-to-BSN program.
An RN-to-BSN program is typically shorter than a standard BSN and it can be completed online! Learn more about RN-to-BSN programs here.
Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)
For nurses who want to pursue graduate work to advance their careers, a Master of Science in Nursing degree offers options and opportunities in the clinical realm, education, informatics, and in administration.
This is a basic advanced degree in nursing and most specialize in a specific field of nursing. Here’s a list of all the types of masters degrees in nursing.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
Doctors of Nursing Practice (DNP) deliver high-quality advanced nursing care in a clinical setting. A DNP is a terminal degree for advanced practice nurses.
DNP graduates are leaders in advanced nursing practice that bring evidence-based knowledge into the clinical setting to help improve healthcare outcomes and strengthen the leadership role of nurses in both the clinical and academic setting.
In 2019, on average NPs make an annual salary of $115,800, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; interestingly, there is minimal concrete data on the average annual salary of a DNP. Healthcare salary trends suspect DNPs average $125,000 to $150,000 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has very limited data on DNP salaries but the reported average is $135,830.
Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD)
A Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D. in Nursing), is a research-focused doctorate in which students conduct research to advance the science and practice of nursing. PhDs are considered the gold standard for terminal degrees in nursing and at one time was the only doctorate option.
Individuals must have a strong desire to conduct research or teach students as this is generally what this degree is used for.
Ph.D. nurse educators had a median annual wage of $83,160 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2019.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
A certified registered nurse anesthetist is an advanced practice nurse who administers anesthesia for surgery and/or other medical procedures.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the average income of a nurse anesthetist to be $169,450 per year, with some CRNAs earning over $252,000.
There are currently 42,620 registered CRNAs in the United States, with a projected rise of 31% from 2016-2026.
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
Certified Nurse-Midwives provide health care and wellness care to women, which may include family planning, gynecological checkups, and prenatal care.
CNM duties include annual exams, writing prescriptions, basic nutrition counseling, patient education, and reproductive health visits.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for CNMs is $108,810 as of May 2019.
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Clinical nurse specialists provide an advanced level of care in hospitals and other clinical locations.
They strive to improve healthcare through evidence-based practice at the individual patient and systems levels. According to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS), CNSs provide,
- Clinical expertise
- Leadership in nursing practice
- Systems innovation in hospital, community, outpatient, and long-term care settings
Regulations and administrative rules for nursing practice vary by state for Clinical Nurse Specialists. As of May 2016, CNSs can now practice independently in 28 states and prescribe independently in 19. Additionally, 13 recognize CNSs as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses but require them to have a collaborative practice agreement with a physician.
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Nurse Practitioners deliver advanced care to a variety of patients in the clinical setting.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that employment opportunities for all nurse practitioners would grow by 45% between 2019 and 2029. This is much faster than other occupations and a result of increasing demand for healthcare services.
Additionally, as the healthcare industry continues to change there will continue to be a need for NPs. The median pay for general nurse practitioners as of May 2019 was $115,800 according to the BLS.
Education never stops when you're a nurse. You have to maintain your license by completing continuing education units.
Generally, in order for an individual to renew their RN license, they will need to fill out an application, complete a specific number of CEU hours, and pay a nominal fee.
Each state has specific requirements and it is important to check with the board of nursing prior to applying for license renewal.
If the RN license is part of a compact nursing license, the CEU requirement will be for the state of permanent residence. Some states require CEUs related to child abuse, narcotics, and/or pain management.
A detailed look at Continuing Nurse Education hours can be found here.
How many years does it take to become a nurse?
- Generally, it takes between two and four years to become a nurse depending on the type of program. Second-degree nurses can graduate in as early as 14 months from the start of the program, while traditional undergraduate students can complete a nursing degree in four years.
What is the job outlook for nurses?
- Nursing is one of the most in-demand jobs. Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the BLS, about 175,900 openings for registered nurses are projected each year over the next decade.
What are the most popular nursing specialties?
- The most popular nursing specialties include maternity, neonatal intensive care nursing, cardiac catheterization lab, pediatrics, and post-anesthesia care nursing.
Where do nurses work?
- Nurses most commonly work in a hospital setting; however, the work location possibilities are endless. Other common work locations are outpatient offices, surgery centers, academia, nursing care facilities, and home healthcare services. More unique work locations include on a cruise ship, camp nurse, NASCAR nurse, as well as these other non-traditional work locations.