Nursing is a popular field of study and career choice for many reasons, including the tremendous demand for nurses, the opportunity to advance within the field, increased earnings with additional certifications, and last but certainly not least, the fact that it is a profession based on helping and serving others.
The demand for nurses is greater than the supply, which means students in nursing school are almost guaranteed job placement upon completing their degrees. This is certainly not the case for many other fields of study: for example, more students will graduate from law school in a given year than there are jobs available, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nursing programs are a wise choice for job security, though they are by no means easy. We have some guidelines and additional information about nursing requirements to get you started on this rewarding career path for those willing to put in the hard work toward a registered nurse (or nurse practitioner) degree.
Included below is an overview of how a nursing degree works, including traditional and online courses of study and tips for aspiring nurses on nursing degrees educational requirements.
If you plan for a nursing job in your future, the first step is getting your nursing education.
Many people think of the term “RN” as interchangeable with “nurse,” but this is not always the case. The “RN” designation is specific to a “registered” nurse who has earned a specific degree and passed a state licensing exam. Not every role filled by nurses requires the “RN” designation, so we will outline the different roles and educational requirements.
The Licensed Practical or Licensed Vocational Nurse certificate is the quickest path you can take to work as a nurse, allowing students to complete the certificate and be out working in the field within about a year.
Vocational or LPN schools offer state-approved programs, and successful candidates earn certificates or diplomas (versus a degree). After completing the licensed practical or licensed vocational nursing program, the individual may start working in the field at a salary of around $47,480. LPNs/LVNs may also return to school later to earn a bachelor’s or associate degree, and there are programs tailored to LPNs/LVNs who want to compete for these degrees.
Another path to nursing is a full-time, two-year program resulting in an associate degree. The Associate Degree in Nursing (AND) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) are degrees that enable an individual to work as a Registered Nurse (RN) once they pass a state licensing exam.
While the LPN/LVN role is easier to attain timewise, the RN designation comes with a higher salary (around $73,300), making the two-year schooling requirement a worthwhile investment in the long run.
The next step beyond the associate degree is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. This more intensive program results in more medical training, and nurses trained to take on leadership roles within their fields. With this additional training comes higher salaries, and an RN with a BSN degree can earn more than $100,000 in some cases.
Registered Nurses with Master’s Degrees (APRN MSN)
To work as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), an individual must first complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. Because these advanced degrees are often pursued while a registered nurse is already working in the medical profession, online degree programs are hugely popular (and we will look at this in more detail later in the article).
For those with aspirations of working in nursing education or research, the MSN degree is a stepping stone on the path toward a doctorate program. And for those who continue to work in the field, the MSN program degree is another way to see earnings increase, often pushing the pay well into the high $100s.
If you wish to teach or pursue executive or leadership roles within the nursing field, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.) degree are your best bets, though these are longer-term commitments. These degrees usually take four to six years for candidates to earn.
Online programs are available to complete these degrees, which creates a flexible path for earning a degree while working in the field.
Once you have a DNP or Ph.D., your earnings potential moves into the six-figure range.
For those who are less inclined to pursue advanced degrees and certifications but are still interested in participating in the nursing field, there are certainly other less time-consuming and expensive opportunities available. One such example is seeking work as a Certified Nursing Assistant.
A CNA works under a Registered Nurse’s supervision, performing such tasks as taking a patient’s vital signs and dressing wounds. The CNA role is especially helpful when nurses have numerous patients under their care, and the field is seeing increasing demand as life expectancies are longer than ever before.
CNA training can be completed in as little as two weeks (and for less than $1,000), so this is one way an individual can “test the waters” of working in patient care before committing to a full-time nursing program and its accompanying tuition.
Not every nursing student follows the same path, and some individuals decide to pursue nursing education after completing a bachelor’s degree in another subject. The nursing profession is filled with individuals who were once on the path to becoming teachers, artists, accountants, or almost any other career imaginable.
An accelerated BSN program is a great option for those who already have a bachelor’s degree and want to shift to nursing. These programs allow the individual to earn the BSN within 12 to 24 months, with the following caveats to keep in mind:
Online degree programs are constantly growing in popularity as a flexible way for individuals to earn degrees in everything from nursing to horticulture. The path from high school straight into a four-year college is not possible or practical for every family, and many high school graduates go straight into the workforce.
It may be years later that an individual is focused on earning a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree. For many people, this has to be done simultaneously while working full-time and/or raising a family.
An online nursing program is a fantastic opportunity for those who want to earn a degree and want to set out on a career path with nearly guaranteed employment and a competitive rate of pay (plus benefits).
It is important to remember that several components are involved in reaching the RN designation, and the educational requirements are just one. Even after earning the degree (whether it is online or in-person), the individual will need to work in the field and pass the licensure exam. Additionally, the requirements to work as an RN may vary based on the individual’s state of residence. You can check your state’s requirements here.
Choosing the right online program will include many deciding factors, with everything from tuition and fees to accreditation influencing an individual’s decision. Accreditation is one of the most important factors that should not be overlooked, as your ability to work as a nurse may depend upon your program’s accreditation.
If you are planning a nursing career, you may be wondering what the prerequisite courses are in high school and college study. It is never too early to start planning ahead, and before we talk about the specific coursework, we should mention the importance of grades in general.
Nursing programs are competitive; to gain admittance into the top programs you have chosen, you must be prepared with a high GPA overall. While you may not think your Spanish grades have any relevance to a future nursing career, they do matter. Anything that brings your GPA down (such as flunking Spanish) could prevent you from getting accepted into your top pick for nursing programs.
Now is also a good time to point out that fluency in another language is also a “competitive edge” for a nurse. Bilingual nurses may have a better chance of getting hired in some parts of the country or specific medical groups; acing your Spanish courses is also a good idea for that reason!
Additionally, there are other courses you may take in high school or college that prepare you for nursing in ways you may not expect. The algebra techniques you learned in high school can be used when calculating the correct dosage of the medication for a patient.
Taking advanced placement courses in high school may also prepare you for the rigors of nursing school. Excelling in English/Language Arts is helpful in almost any field, nursing included. A clear and effective communicator will often be considered for promotions over peers who lack good communication skills.
One of the best ways for nurses to get promoted involved leadership positions; managing a team of other nurses requires effective communication skills. You may be in a position where you are required to send important written communications to staff members or even the hospital’s board of directors. These types of tasks demand the kind of command of the English language honed in high school and college study.
Beyond general educational requirements, you will find some common areas of study in nursing programs, including the following:
The word “exam” can make many people anxious, even the brightest of students and top-of-the-class overachievers. Whether it’s the SATs, the bar exam for an aspiring attorney, or a licensing exam for a future registered nurse, these tests can be incredibly overwhelming.
However, in most cases, individuals are adequately prepared for the nursing licensing exam thanks to their education in a nursing program before taking the exam. Still, it is one of the most important things to prepare for as you plan for a nursing career, and we will walk you through what you need to know about this make-or-break test.
To take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), you will need to have completed an accredited nursing program and apply for an RN license through your state board of nursing. You must register for the test, and your eligibility will be verified.
That verification will come via email with your registration number and a list of days/times/locations where you can take the test. You will have a 90-day window to do this.
Because many people are anxious about this exam (and rightfully so), there are practice exams available to help you prepare.
Those who have completed an associate or bachelor’s degree to work as registered nurses will take the NCLEX-RN. Still, there is also an exam for those entering the field as vocational or practical nurses (the NCLEX-PN).
The NCLEX is administered year-round, so there is no pressure for it to be done at one specific time of year. However, once you confirm eligibility, you will need to take it within 90 days.
The exam fee is $200, but you may have some additional fees to pay based on your own state board or applications subject to international scheduling.
Most test-takers will be relieved to know you are not required to write an essay on why you will be the perfect nurse. The exam is a multiple-choice format with some fill-in-the-blank or drag-and-drop style questions as well.
The exam for RNs will have anywhere from 75 to 250 questions. Because the test is computer-adaptive, the questions will be specific to how you answer them. In other words, when you answer one question correctly, the following question may be more difficult, which will give the computer a mechanism to measure your abilities.
Much like aspiring attorneys taking the bar exam, not all future nurses pass the NCLEX on the first try. It is not uncommon for 10-15% of people taking the test to miss the passing standard on their first try. Fortunately, the test can be taken again (in some cases, up to eight times within a year). However, you may need to wait 45 days before you can take it another time.
Those who do not meet the passing standard after the first try may wish to take more practice exams to prepare for the next round.
Once you have successfully passed the NCLEX exam, you will complete your state’s licensing requirements, and you can begin working.
Once you start a career as a Registered Nurse, you may quickly develop an interest in a specialized area of care. For some nurses, this is a way to pursue a particular passion and a way to earn more money in specific fields.
There is a wide variety of opportunities available for those who want to explore specialty areas, and we will cover some of the most popular choices here.
These roles require the passage of certification and completion of educational programs beyond the basic nursing education you may have received to become an RN.
Emergency Room Nurse: With a Registered Nurse license, an individual may also earn a certification to work as an Emergency Room (ER) nurse.
Demand for ER nurses is high, and this is a field that appeals to those who work well in fast-paced, high-stress environments. Additionally, this role appeals to those who wish to apply their skills to a wide variety of patient needs.
Many other types of nurses, specializing in everything from orthopedics to oncology, and nursing specialties will continue to grow as the needs of the population demand. There are also opportunities for nurses to advance into leadership and administrative positions within hospitals and medical practices.
Many choose this path as a means to grow not only professionally but also advance financially in their careers. The hierarchy of nursing positions is covered here.
Beyond the obvious placements within hospitals and medical practices, there are numerous additional opportunities available to those with nursing degrees and certifications. Nurses work in a variety of settings now, and there are even opportunities to work from home.
While many nurses will begin their careers in the traditional setting of a hospital or doctor’s office, they may transition later to much different roles in less traditional settings. In this way, nurses who have gained the practical experience of treating patients directly may be able to take that knowledge and apply it in different but equally useful ways.
These are just some of the other roles and opportunities available to registered nurses:
Working as a school nurse is an incredibly rewarding path for many nurses, especially those passionate about helping children. Requirements for school nurses vary by state, so those interested in this role should be sure to check the necessary steps for their own state. Many school nurses must have an MSN (or a master’s in education in some cases).
With the health demands of an aging population, there are more opportunities for nurses to work in-home health care. For example, seniors who need home-based treatments on a weekly basis or those who need full-time care may opt to hire a nurse to come into their own home versus moving into an assisted living facility.
Nurses passionate about educating others may take their own experiences back to the classroom or corporate settings to teach people about health. Nurse educators are employed by insurance companies, public health departments, schools, and other organizations.
This growing field is one way some nurses can transition to working at home by applying their knowledge of data and medical records to assist medical facilities and other companies in managing electronic health records.
These massive data systems require a tremendous amount of data and oversight; nurses who may be ready to transition out of active patient care but are still interested in employment in the medical field, may find these roles to be a perfect fit. They also create an opportunity to work from home if a nurse cares for young children or other family members.
The dream job of the registered nurse who binges “Law & Order” episodes on her days off, the legal nurse consultant role is one a registered nurse can earn a certification for with a current license, five years of experience as a registered nurse, and the accumulation of 2,000 hours of legal consulting. This type of work does not require a law degree, but many candidates pursue continuing education opportunities along with on-the-job training.
Legal nurse consultants perform various tasks in consultation with attorneys, including client interviews and reviews of medical history, testifying as expert witnesses, and educating attorneys about specific healthcare issues.
To become a registered nurse, you will need to complete the required education and pass a state licensing exam. To transition into a specialty field, you may need additional certifications. In many cases, nurses will continue their education to pursue advanced degrees, including master’s and doctorate degrees, and nursing leadership opportunities.
Work for registered nurses is in high demand; therefore, an investment in a nursing diploma is a wise one that will pay off for nurses in the long run. Before getting started, be sure to review all the nursing requirements to ensure you start out on the right path.