How to Become a Nurse

6 Min Read Published February 9, 2024

Learn how to become a nurse in this step-by-step guide, including requirements, specialties, and advanced nursing careers.

How to Become a Registered Nurse

Your nursing journey will differ depending on your educational background, goals, and priorities. Luckily, the diverse field of nursing will almost certainly have a path that suits your needs.

In the following sections, we'll explore how to become a nurse your way, no matter what that looks like. Read on to learn more.

How Do I Become a Nurse: A Step-By-Step Guide

Whether you attend a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or start with baby steps as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), there are four basic steps to becoming a nurse:

  1. Attend an Accredited Nursing Program: Accredited programs set you up for success in the job market and future educational endeavors. Read our nursing school accreditation guide to learn more.

  2. Become Licensed: All types of nurses need a license to practice, including licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). For LPNs and RNs, you must pass the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN, respectively, to earn your licensure.

  3. Earn Additional Certifications: Certain specialty areas of nursing require certifications. If you pursue a specialization, you may need to earn these additional credentials.

  4. Continue Your Nursing Education Journey: Each state has different nursing continuing education units (CEUs) that nurses must complete regularly to maintain licensure. Additionally, if you want to climb the career and salary ladder, you must return to school to earn higher degrees.

Nursing Programs & Requirements

Every nurse's journey begins with attending a nursing program. The following section explores how to become a nurse at every level, including major requirements, programs, and certifications.

Infographic of how to become every type of nurse

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

  • Requirements: Accredited CNA Program and Certification/Licensure
  • Program Length: 4-12 weeks
  • Annual Salary: $36,220, via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Certified nursing assistants are entry-level healthcare professionals who work under the direct supervision of an RN. Starting as a CNA is not necessary, but a great way to quickly enter the nursing field and learn whether it's right for you. CNA requirements include attending an accredited program and earning a certification or license, depending on the state.

Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)

  • Requirements: Accredited LPN/LVN program and NCLEX-PN
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Annual Salary: $54,620 (BLS)

LPNs and LVNs are entry-level nurses who provide essential care to patients and assist RNs and doctors. Becoming an LPN requires attending an accredited program and passing the NCLEX-PN exam. LPN programs are easy to get into and affordable, making them ideal for waitlisted students and aspiring nurses on a budget.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) - RN

  • Requirements: Accredited ADN program and NCLEX-RN
  • Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Annual Salary: $80,321 (ZipRecruiter)

Earning an ADN is the fastest way to become a registered nurse. Most ADN programs last just two years and are available at community and technical colleges. At the end of the program, you take the same NCLEX-RN exam as those who complete a bachelor's education. Since some hospitals pay for RNs to earn a BSN, many nurses earn an ADN first to quickly enter the workforce and save money.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) - RN

  • Requirements: Accredited BSN program and NCLEX-RN
  • Program Length: 4 years
  • Annual Salary: $102,263 (ZipRecruiter)

A BSN is the gold standard in nursing degrees, allowing you to become a registered nurse in four years. Typically found at universities, BSN programs prepare students to take the NCLEX-RN exam and enter the workforce. Employers at coveted hospitals tend to prefer BSNs over ADNs, and the degree sets you up to easily advance your education later.

Second-Degree Registered Nurse

  • Requirements: Accredited ABSN program and NCLEX-RN
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Annual Salary: $102,263 (ZipRecruiter)

Attending an accelerated BSN (ABSN) program allows you to quickly and affordably change careers and become a nurse. Designed for students with non-nursing bachelor's degrees, ABSN programs qualify you to enter the nursing field in as little as one year.

>> Related: Top Online Nursing Programs for Non-Nurses

Choosing a Nursing Speciality

Your professional goals will largely influence which nursing specialty, if any, you'll select. For example, aspiring nurse-midwives will need obstetrics experience before attending a graduate program. 

Some common specialty areas for new graduates include the following:

  • Ambulatory care
  • Cardiac care
  • Dermatology
  • Diabetes
  • Emergency room
  • Genetics
  • Geriatrics
  • Home health
  • Hospice
  • Medical-surgical 
  • Metabolic
  • Neurology
  • Neonatal
  • Occupational health
  • Operating room
  • Orthopedics
  • Pulmonology
  • Wound care

Show Me Nursing Programs

Advancing Your Nursing Education

Continuing your nursing education allows you to expand your scope of practice, take on leadership roles, and earn higher salaries.

RN to BSN

  • Program Requirements: Active & Unencumbered RN License
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Annual Salary: $102,263 (ZipRecruiter)

As an ADN-RN, you can take the skills and experience you already have and use them in an accelerated RN-to-BSN program. Some RN to BSN programs don't include clinical hours, and you may complete them entirely online.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

  • Program Requirements: BSN & 2 years clinical experience
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Annual Salary: $125,900 (BLS)

MSN degrees open advanced opportunities in clinical, education, information, and administrative fields. While traditional MSN programs require a BSN, you may also attend an RN-to-MSN program or, if you have a bachelor's in another field, a direct-entry MSN.

Show Me All Specialized MSN Programs

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

  • Program Requirements: ADN, BSN or MSN & 2 years clinical experience
  • Program Length: 2-6 years (Previous education dependent)
  • Annual Salary: $125,900 (BLS)

A DNP is a terminal nursing degree for APRNs. DNP graduates are leaders in advanced nursing practice who bring evidence-based knowledge to clinical and academic settings. While many DNP degrees require a BSN or MSN, RN-DNP programs exist for qualified ADN-RNs.

Show Me DNP Programs

Why Should You Become a Nurse?

Why do you want to become a nurse? Many aspiring nurses are driven by a desire to help others and make the world a better place. But there are several other reasons why becoming a nurse is a practical and exciting career move:

  • High Demand: Nurses and APRNs are some of the most in-demand careers nationwide. The BLS predicts RN jobs will grow by 6% over the next decade, and APRNs will grow by 38%.

  • Recession-Proof: When the nation faces mass layoffs and recessions, healthcare and nursing jobs remain due to their necessity and demand.

  • Good Money: The BLS reports that all RNs earn a median annual salary of $81,220 or $39.05 per hour. This figure reflects a higher-than-average annual income compared to all other professions.

  • Diverse Opportunities: You'll never get bored working as a nurse because there are so many lateral and advancement opportunities in the field. Check out this list of all the types of nurses to learn about different nursing paths.

Show Me Nursing Programs

How to Become a Nurse FAQs

  • How long does it take to become a nurse?

    • Becoming a nurse takes two to four years, depending on whether you attend an ADN or BSN program. However, this timeline may change depending on your ability to attend classes full-time and prior education. 
  • What is the job outlook for nurses?

    • The BLS predicts RN jobs will grow by 6% from 2022 to 2032, while APRN jobs will grow by 38% in that time. These predictions are much faster than the average growth of all other professions. 
  • 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?

    • Most commonly, nurses work in hospitals. However, they can also work in outpatient care centers, surgery centers, academia, nursing care facilities, home healthcare, and nontraditional nursing settings

 

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Kathleen Gaines
MSN, RN, BA, CBC
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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