Nursing is a time-honored profession. Helping the sick heal and the well stay well is a career path many find fulfilling and rewarding, and can be quite lucrative as well, if you stick with it. Many have made nursing their life’s work, and have found that by earning additional degrees or certifications, have been able to improve their job outlook and face new challenges again and again.
If you’ve been wondering whether or not to become a nurse, or would like to know more about what the path to becoming one looks like, this guide is for you. We’ll discuss what nurses do and why you might consider becoming one, talk about the nursing degrees you need, programs to earn them and certifications required, and end with a discussion about renewing licenses and continuing to advance your nursing career throughout your life.
Ready to get started? Whip out that notebook and trusty pencil, and let’s dive in.
What Does a Nurse Do?
Before you spend too much time thinking about whether or not to become a nurse, it’s important to understand what nurses do. More specifically, you need to understand what each type of nurse does, because there are many different types, and the route to becoming them differs.
Registered Nurses are probably the most well-known type of nurse, and work everywhere from clinics to hospitals to nursing care facilities. They educate patients about their illnesses and diseases, help manage medications and care, and report to physicians.
Licensed Vocational and Licensed Practical Nurses also work in a variety of settings, including extended care facilities and nursing homes, physicians offices and hospitals, private homes and public health clinics, schools and correctional facilities. These nurses educate public and private patients, provide advice and emotional support to patients and families, and work with RNs to coordinate patient care.
Advance Practice Nurses
There are also a number of Advanced Practice Nurses, which includes Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Anesthetists and Nurse Midwives. These fill specialized roles, and in some states are even allowed to own their own practices (in others, they must work under the supervision of physicians, as with other nurses).
Nurses of all types focus on patient-centered care, helping ensure that:
- Patients are always cared for and as comfortable as possible
- Patients, families and caregivers are informed about courses of treatment and decisions
- A patient’s lifestyle and medical history is fully taken into account before any decision is made
- The patient feels heard and understood
- Physicians are kept in the loop about a patient’s status, and continuity of care continues unbroken between various providers
- The medical community in which they work is always following regulations and operating in as safe a manner as possible
Now that you know what different types of nurses do, it will likely be easier for you to decide which type you want to be and choose the specific course of action that will enable you to become that type of nurse. Before we get to specifics, however, let’s first take a quick look at the benefits of a career in nursing.
Why Become a Nurse?
Aside from the satisfaction many nurses get from working with and helping patients and their families, becoming a nurse is simply a good career move. Before you decide which nursing career path to embark on, it’s a good idea to take a look at the benefits of each.
LPNs and LVNs, for instance, can expect to make about $43,000 on average, and the job outlook is good. The number of jobs is expected to grow 16 percent between 2014 and 2024, meaning you will have no trouble getting a job once you graduate and get your license. This is much faster than average job growth, as the need for people to work with the aging Baby Boomer generation is increasing rapidly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were about 719,900 jobs available in 2014.
The same can be said for Registered Nurses, or RNs. The rate of jobs is also growing at around 16 percent between 2014 and 2024, constituting a whopping 2,751,000 jobs in 2014. According to the BLS, nurses in this role can expect to make about $67,000 on average.
Advanced Practice Nurses make the most of all, on average $104,000 per year, says the BLS. The rate of job growth is insanely high for these APNR specialist nurses, growing at about 31 percent between 2014 and 2024, meaning anyone who earns the certification needed to work as a Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Midwife or Nurse Anesthetist will never have trouble getting a job.
What Degree Do You Need to Become a Nurse?
The degree you get will depend on the type of nurse you decide to become. Some types of nurse do not even need a degree, depending on the state and the requirements of the facility in which you hope to work.
LPNs and LVNs, for instance, don’t need a degree at all. If you would like to pursue this career path, you need only earn a postsecondary award from an approved state program. This usually takes around a year to complete, and the award certifies that you have the necessary education and practice hours to work as an LPN or LVN. Afterward you must pass a licensure examination to get your state license, and then you are approved to work in that state.
You can work as an RN by taking one of three educational paths. You can either earn an associate’s degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), or get a diploma from a nursing program approved by your state. Note that while you can technically work as an RN, and will be prepared to take your licensure exam, no matter which degree path you choose, some facilities require you to have a certain degree. If a hospital you really want to work in, for instance, requires a bachelor’s degree, that might be the best path for you.
Lastly, there are the Advanced Practice Nurses. APNs always have to have a master’s degree, though they sometimes choose to earn a doctorate as well. In order to be accepted to an APN program, however, you also have to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, so almost all APNs start as RNs.
Note that all nurses will have to meet different requirements if you move out of state. Your new state will likely recognize your degree, but may require you to take additional classes or continuing education hours, and may also require you to pass a different exam. At the least, you will have to submit paperwork to get a new license or certification before you are able to work in that state.
Choosing a Nursing Degree Program
Once you know what type of nurse you’d like to be, it’s time to choose a program. If you desire to become an APN, for instance, you would probably want to jump straight to an RN program. If, however, you aren’t sure if nursing is for you or you want to start out with a more affordable program, you would likely begin with an LVN or LPN program.
In any case, there are several factors you should take into account when choosing a program:
- Proximity to Home or Work: If you will need to continue working or want to be close to home, the location of your school might matter.
- Time Frame: How long will the program take to complete? If you want to begin work right away, you should take a full-time program rather than part-time. On the other hand, if you have lots of other duties to fulfill (work and family), part-time may be more realistic.
- Online Access: This makes studying and submitting work much easier.
- Cost: Depending on whether your program is offered by a community college or a four-year college or university matters a lot to price.
- Name Recognition: You might really care about the reputation of your school, or you might simply want to get the degree or award and move on.
Decide which of the above factors matter to you, then search online for programs accordingly. Once you have chosen, applied to, been accepted, gone through and graduated from your program, it’s time to get any necessary licenses or certifications so you can begin practicing.
Certification and Licensure
Certification and licensure, while often confused with one another, are actually two different things. Licensure attests that you have met the minimum specifications required to practice nursing in a particular state, and typically follows the rules of that state’s Board of Nursing or Department of Health. All types of nurses must be licensed to work in their state. If you’re trying to figure out what the licensure requirements are in your state, simply type “license + type of nurse + your state” into a search engine, and you will find the results right away.
Certification, on the other hand, testifies that rather than meeting broad requirements set by the state, the nurse has met a highly specific set of criteria that certifies them to work in an area of advanced practice. This includes a wide variety of nursing specialties, from Family Nurse Practitioner to Gerontological Clinical Nurse Specialist to Cardiac Rehabilitation Nurse and dozens of others. By the time you need to think about your exact specialty, you will already have earned an RN license (and possibly an LPN or LVN license before that), and will have a much better idea of the type of specialty you might be interested in. Note that APNs must have a license to work in their state in addition to their certification.
For now, simply know that both licenses and certifications require that you pass a competency exam, as well as submission of paperwork and fees for processing your application. You can find the specific rules for each at board or credentialing agency’s website, which your school program will inform you about during your training.
Renewing Your Certification or License
Once you become a nurse, you must keep your certifications and licensures updated. Licensure renewals follow the rules of the nursing board in the state you work in, so check with your state’s individual Department of Health to determine when your license expires, how often you must renew it, what you have to do to renew it (typically continuing education and often fingerprinting), what status you would like (active, inactive, lapsed) and any fee that might be required.
When you must renew your certification or license depends on the individual credentialing agency that originally granted you credentials. For instance, the American Nurses Credentialing Center requires that its nurses get recertified every 5 years. In order to do that, they must pay a $125 reactivation fee and prove they’ve completed 75 hours of continuing education. Check with each individual agency to find out what your exact timeframe, continuing education requirements and fee are, and be sure to complete everything well in advance in case any paperwork gets held up along the way.
Advancing Your Career
Because there are many types of nurse, it stands to reason that you may very well progress in your career as time goes on. It is not uncommon that nursing professionals start out with postsecondary non-degree awards and work as LPNs or LVNs, then earn an associate’s degree or BSN and work as RNs, then a master’s degree and become highly specialized Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Anesthetists or Nurse Midwives.
Wherever you start in your nursing career, you can absolutely continue to advance. Take a realistic first step – for instance, if you can only afford an associate’s degree or postsecondary award at first, do so. Work in that field for a while earning the expertise needed to excel in an RN program, then move on. And if you never wish to move on, that’s fine too.
Hopefully this guide has helped answer some of your questions about how and why you might become a nurse. If you have any additional questions or comments, please feel free to let us know. In the meantime, we wish you the best of luck embarking on your exciting new career!