An In-depth Guide to Different Paths Into the Nursing Career

No two nurses arrive at the profession in exactly the same way. There are so many different ways to become a nurse — and so many different motivations behind the career choice — that every nursing journey is wondrously unique. If you are considering taking steps into a nursing career of your own, here are four different ways you might get started, with deep analysis into the pros and cons of each.

Nursing Assistant

A Certified Nursing Assistant, or CNA, is the fastest and easiest way to begin your nursing journey. You can earn certification through accredited programs in four to 12 weeks, which means in under three months, you could be fully qualified for employment in a nursing position. The average salary for CNAs in the United States falls between about $23,000 and $38,000, with variations based on location and experience. Nursing assistants are primarily hired in long-term care facilities, where patients require more intensive services from nursing staff.

Because of their limited training, CNAs are severely limited in their responsibilities. Usually, CNAs are tasked with the more physical aspects of regular patient care, such as turning or moving patients, performing daily hygiene for patients (bathing, brushing teeth, shaving, etc.), feeding patients and cleaning patients’ rooms. CNAs always work under the direct supervision of a more qualified nurse, like a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Registered Nurse (RN), who will assign them specific jobs and monitor their progress. In some cases, experienced CNAs may be trusted to check vital signs or assist with basic medical procedures, but more often, these responsibilities are allocated to more highly credentialed nursing staff.

Becoming a CNA might be a good choice for you if you are curious about the nursing career but not ready to commit to a longer and more intensive training program. As a CNA, you will get a taste for nursing, and your experience in the field can help you obtain additional credentials which will increase your pay and responsibilities in the workplace.

Licensed Practical Nurse

A Licensed Practical Nurse, or LPN — which is sometimes also called a Licensed Vocational Nurse, or LVN — is a step above a CNA in both salary and responsibility, as the LPN credential allows a nurse to participate in more diverse types of care. To work as an LPN, you need to earn an LPN degree through an accredited college program, which requires 12 to 15 months of study. LPNs earn average salaries between about $36,000 and $57,000, and LPNs can find employment in virtually every healthcare setting, from nursing homes to private practices to hospitals.

State law determines what medical tasks LPNs can complete, so some LPNs might enjoy greater responsibility in the workplace while other LPNs might be more limited in their duties. Usually, LPNs are assigned fundamental jobs associated with patient care, such as taking patient histories and measuring vital signs. In some states, LPNs are permitted to provide oral medications, but in most places, they are prohibited from administering medication intravenously. LPNs can assist in surgical procedures by prepping the patient or working closely with other nursing staff and physicians.

If you are relatively certain that you want to become a nurse but need a fast track into the profession, the LPN path may be the best option for you. As a functional nursing license, the LPN allows you to experience the real responsibilities of nursing with as little as one year of pre-job training. After working as an LPN, it is much easier to qualify as an RN, which is the gold standard of nursing credentials.

Associate in Nursing

One path to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) is by earning an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). An associate’s degree is a two-year degree, usually obtained through a community college, which makes it a much faster and more affordable option for becoming a fully fledged nurse. Still, an ADN can be somewhat limiting of your career opportunities, and it certainly puts a cap on your potential earnings. Nurses with ADNs take home an average salary between about $59,000 and $97,000. Because ADNs are RNs, they allow nurses to work in any healthcare setting.

RNs perform all duties traditionally associated with nursing — and then some. With an ADN, nurses provide and coordinate all sorts of patient care, from performing basic procedures to administering medications. RNs can educate patients about conditions and offer other public health services. Often, RNs are some of the most familiar faces to patients, who come to rely on them for emotional support during their healthcare experience.

There are some things that ADNs cannot do. ADN-RNs can specialize in specific medical fields, such as intensive and critical care or pediatric and neonatal nursing — but rarely are ADN-RNs selected to advance in high-level fields like nursing management or education. Advance-practice nursing degrees are not available to nurses with ADNs, which means ADN-RNs cannot pursue certifications like midwifery or anesthesiology. In competitive markets, especially dense urban areas like New York City or San Francisco, it might be more difficult for nurses with ADNs to find work. An ADN is a good investment if you want to start your nursing career as an RN, but if you have ambitions to continue climbing the nursing career ladder, you may want to pivot an ADN into a BSN.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is highly regarded as the best minimum education requirement for nursing professionals. A BSN degree qualifies you to work as an RN, gaining you all the responsibilities outlined above. However, because a BSN involves more extensive training during a four-year program from an accredited university, RN-BSNs tend to benefit from higher salaries, easier employment and greater career opportunities. In the United States, an RN-BSN earns an average annual pay of between roughly $60,000 and $124,000, depending on location and experience. RN-BSNs can and do work in all healthcare settings, even opening their own practices — if they pursue a nurse practitioner credential.

The United States needs more nurses. Regardless of how you embark on your journey to become a nurse, you should feel confident that you are doing immense good for your community by dedicating your life to this noble career.

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