Choose a Nursing Path
Nursing can take you in many directions, from starting out as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or staff nurse to working your way up to nurse administrator.
When choosing your career path, think about the type of work environment you prefer. For example, RNs can be found in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other medical settings, but certified nursing assistants often work in nursing homes. What type of setting will inspire you most?
You should also consider what role you want to play. If you want to support medical staff as part of a team, a CNA or LPN/LVN could suit you well. If you want to manage other nurses and assistants or oversee systems, a career as an RN or advanced practice nurse is likely a good fit.
Because there are so many facets to healthcare, nurses often specialize in certain areas, such as geriatrics or critical care. If you have a passion for a certain type of nursing, consider the type of education you’ll need to get there.
Earn a Degree
The career path you’re interested in pursuing will typically dictate the type of nursing degree you’ll need. Nursing programs include classroom instruction as well as clinical experience. Clinical training will allow you to gain hands-on knowledge, ask questions in real-life scenarios, and connect with nurses. The experience will also give you the chance to observe how a medical facility runs.
Before choosing a program, determine how nursing school will fit into your busy life. If your program is on campus, will you have time to get there? Many bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing can be earned online, with clinical requirements completed in a medical setting in your community.
Before you choose a program, determine how nursing school will fit into your busy life.
If you want to become an RN, an associate’s degree program takes less time to complete, allowing you to enter the workforce sooner. The downside? Employers may be more apt to hire a nurse with a bachelor’s degree because they have a more in-depth education. However, plenty of nurses with ADNs go on to earn higher degrees, often with the help of tuition reimbursement from their employer.
Here are the types of nursing degrees available:
Nursing diplomas » Community colleges and vocational schools
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) » Community colleges
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) » Available at colleges and universities
Master of Science in Nursing (BSN) » Colleges and universities
Doctoral degrees (DNP, ND, PhD, DNSc) » Colleges and universities
Once you complete your education, you’ll need to take an exam to demonstrate your knowledge and nursing skills. Nurses also need to be licensed to practice, and exams are the prerequisite to licensing.
Education, Exams, Licenses Required
Certified nursing assistant (CNA)
Pass a state competency exam; earn a state license
Licensed practical nurse (LPN)
Complete a state-approved certificate program; pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN), earn a state license
Registered nurse (RN)
Complete a nursing diploma, ADN, or BSN; pass the NCLEX-RN; earn a state license
Nurse practitioner (NP)
Complete an MSN; pass the NCLEX-RN and a national certification exam administered by a professional organization such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center, or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners; earn a state license
Nurse midwife (CNM)
Complete an MSN; pass the NCLEX-RN and pass the national certification exam administered by the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB) if required for licensure in your state; earn a state license
Nurse anesthetist (CNA)
Complete an MSN, but DNP if matriculating after 1/1/2022; pass the NCLEX-RN and the certification exam administered by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists; earn a state license
Become a Lifelong Learner
With new technologies and treatments, the healthcare industry is constantly evolving. Working on the front lines of healthcare requires nurses to stay informed and educated so they can remain effective as their responsibilities change. Nurses who pursue their careers from the perspective of lifelong learners can take advantage of new opportunities and roles as they arise.
Take continuing education courses: Nurses are required to complete continuing education courses, usually every two years. Check with your state nursing board for requirements.
Get certified: If you decide to specialize in a certain area of nursing, consider earning professional certification. This cements your commitment to the field and demonstrates your skill set to employers.
Earn an advanced degree: Earning a master’s degree will qualify you for a career as a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse midwife, and certified nurse anesthetist.
Levels of Nursing
There are few careers that offer the number of opportunities for advancement and specialization as nursing. And, as more patients look for specialized approaches, nurses can fill this demand with more education, which often equates to a higher salary.
Entry-level nursing offers several career paths. Bridge programs, such as LPN-to-RN and RN-to-BSN pathways, also often allow nurses to apply previous education and experience toward the degree they want to earn. Which one suits your goals?
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
CNAs help patients with daily tasks, such as bathing and feeding. They also answer patient calls, clean rooms, and are responsible for recording information and reporting issues to a nurse.
Post-secondary certificate or diploma (4–12 weeks)
Average annual salary*:
Become a CNA if:
You want to join the nursing field quickly and gain valuable on-the-job experience.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
Under the supervision and instruction of an RN, LPNs—also called licensed vocational nurses in California and Texas—provide patients with basic care, including dressing, changing bandages, and bathing. Some LPNs are permitted to administer medication but this depends on state regulations.
Certificate or diploma (1 year)
Average annual salary*:
Become an LPN if:
You want to work in nursing sooner rather than later, but hope to become an RN one day. Many RN degree programs give credit for LPN experience.