It's no secret that nursing is one of the most challenging and rewarding career fields. Nurses stand on the front lines of patient care, healing bodies and minds for a wide variety of patients. As nurses work their way up the career ladder, they can earn higher pay and find more opportunities to concentrate on the specialties that interest them the most. Knowing the different levels of nursing education and the degrees that go along with them can help a nurse plan their career path.
There are several levels of nursing credentials. Each represents a step in a nurse's potential career path, and each opens up future opportunities. As a nurse advances through these ranks, they typically gain new job responsibilities, more input in the care process, greater autonomy, and higher pay.
Nursing assistants, also called nursing aides, provide essential help to nurses every day. While not technically nurses, CNAs partner with nurses to improve patient care. CNAs may feed, bathe, and monitor patients, freeing up nurses to concentrate on more demanding clinical duties. CNA candidates must complete one to two months of training and pass an exam to earn their certificate.
The next step up in nursing experience is the licensed practical nurse, or LPN. LPNs have greater income potential and a commensurate increase in clinical responsibility. As nurses, LPNs may administer medications, discuss care plans with the patient, and update electronic medical records. LPN licensing requires a degree from an accredited nursing program, which can be earned after about a year of study.
A registered nurse, or RN, is the role most of us think of when we hear the word "nurse." RNs are deeply involved in their patients' care. These highly skilled nurses perform a variety of clinical tasks, such as taking vitals, administering medications, and performing diagnostic tests. RNs are the primary conduit between patients and their doctors. To become an RN, you'll need an associate or bachelor's degree in (nursing), which typically takes 18 to 48 months to earn. Once you have the necessary degree, you're eligible to take the exam and earn your license as a registered nurse.
Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) are nursing specialists, and this designation includes several different roles. Each role brings added privileges (such as prescribing medications), responsibilities, and autonomy, as many APRNs are able to practice without the supervision of a physician. There are four main types of APRNs: nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, clinical nurse specialists, and certified registered nurse anesthetists. Nurse practitioners (NPs) provide holistic care to their patients. This includes not only treating any acute health issues but also preventive care and health maintenance. NPs who specialize in family practice medicine are known as family nurse practitioners (FNPs). Certified nurse-midwives (CNMs) specialize in midwifery, or assisting women through the process of childbirth. A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) has a narrower scope of practice than an NP, which enables them to delve deeply into their specialty. CNSs may specialize in women's health, pediatrics, mental health, or other areas. Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) specialize in managing anesthesia, often for pain relief during surgical procedures. Becoming an APRN requires at least a master's degree in addition to all of the requirements for becoming a registered nurse.
Each nursing designation requires a certain amount of training and often requires a degree as well. As a nurse gains higher-level degrees, the demands also increase. This applies to both the study required for the degree and the continuing education required to keep a nursing license active.
Nursing diplomas and associate degrees in nursing (ADN) are two tools to start a nursing career. Both take one to three years to complete, and both prepare you to sit for the nursing exam and gain licensure. However, the two methods differ in their approach. A diploma program is generally offered directly by a hospital and does not involve college courses. At one time, a nursing diploma was the most common starting point for new nurses. As nursing degree programs developed, however, associate degrees have become more popular. ADN programs are offered by colleges and universities, rather than by hospitals, and offer in-depth courses in anatomy, pharmacology, health sciences, and more. Perhaps the biggest advantage the ADN offers is that an associate degree is a stepping stone to further education, such as a bachelor's degree in nursing.
The Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) degree is highly sought-after and is growing in popularity. Some health-care systems are starting to require BSNs for new nurses joining their ranks. The BSN is an undergraduate degree that typically takes four years to earn. While new nurses can gain an RN license with either an associate or bachelor's degree, the BSN has several advantages. RNs with a BSN often command higher salaries and may be more readily considered for promotion to a leadership position.
The next step up in nursing degrees is the Master of Science in nursing, or MSN. This degree is a requirement for any nurse hoping to take on a role as an APRN. The MSN is also a popular choice for nurses moving into managerial or administrative roles. Higher-level positions in clinical informatics (providing a link between information technology and clinical practice) may also require an MSN.
A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is the highest level of nursing education available. Candidates for a DNP degree include high-level nursing leaders and health policymakers. Those who continue in direct patient care roles may take on some of the duties traditionally performed by physicians. A DNP program often takes three to six years to complete.
Nursing is a fast-paced, constantly changing career. That's because medical science is always advancing, and clinical staff need to be able to provide state-of-the-art care to their patients. For this reason, a nurse's education cannot be stagnant after they finish school; each nurse must be prepared to make lifelong learning part of their career journey. Continuing education is necessary to keep skills sharp and maintain nursing best practices. Each level of nursing requires a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) every year or two. Many hospitals offer regular seminars and training to help nurses gain CEUs.