The Differences among the Various Nursing Career Paths

NursingMay 30, 2017

So you want to become a nurse, but you are not sure what sort of degree to pursue. Your confusion is understandable. Working nurses may possess any number of different degrees, licenses or certifications, requiring any number of years of study. 

Certified Nursing Assistant

Let us start at the beginning. Some choose to enter the workforce after obtaining Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certification. It is considered a relatively new way to gain entry into the healthcare field, with minimal education or special training. CNAs typically work in hospitals under the direct supervision of a registered nurse (RN). They perform simple patient care duties, such as bathing or dressing patients, feeding them, taking vital signs, etc.  Many CNAs then choose to go back to school to train to become a licensed practical nurse.

Licensed Practical Nurse

The next step up the nursing career ladder is a Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) degree (–also known as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) in California and Texas-). Duties are somewhat similar to those of a CNA, but may also include tasks such as preparing for medical procedures, monitoring or maintaining medical equipment and supplies, etc. In some localities, LPNs may be allowed to administer medications or draw blood samples. 

Often, after becoming an LPN, and taking the national NCLEX-PN exam, nurses pursue further education in order to obtain their LPN-to-RN certification. This typically involves at least two years of on-the-job experience, and/or enrollment in a program, such as an Associate Degree in Nursing program, to obtain the additional knowledge and skills needed to advance. Becoming an RN requires you to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Upon successful completion, a nurse is certified to work as an RN.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing 

Many students who are eager to enter the workforce and start earning as soon as possible choose a path that leads to an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). This is typically a two-year program that prepares students for entry-level work in nursing, at a level of pay and responsibility that exceeds that of CNAs and LPNs. Some students view this degree as a stepping stone toward a more advanced degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). 

Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Beyond

The BSN is equivalent to a four-year college degree. As such, it is a baccalaureate level degree. Nurses may obtain their RN certification before or after obtaining this degree. Many institutions are expected to begin requiring nurses to attain this level of education in the near future. By 2020, according to some experts, up to 80% of nurses should possess a BSN.

After earning a BSN, there are still more advancement/educational opportunities available to nurses. Some will choose to obtain a Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN), or even a doctorate-level degree (Ph.D.). These advanced degrees, although not necessary for most working nurses, allow for advanced practice nursing. These positions include nurse practitioner, certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), certified nurse-midwife (CNW), etc.

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