What Are the Requirements for a Career in Nursing?

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Nurses typically provide care, support, and educational services to patients and the general public. The nursing profession is ideal for individuals who wish to help the sick and vulnerable and who want opportunities to support their community. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the nursing profession to grow at a rate more than double the national average for all occupations between 2018 and 2028.

The nursing field also offers career flexibility and job growth potential. Nurses can pursue a variety of specializations, titles, and related professions. While a diploma or an associate degree in nursing provides the shortest pathways to nursing careers, students can qualify for more advanced roles by earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in the field. Learners can also obtain nursing certifications to improve their job prospects and earning potential. This guide explores various nursing job requirements and career opportunities in the field.


Professional Certification and Licensure

Nursing professionals must hold a license to practice. Although licensure and nursing education requirements vary by state, candidates must typically sit for the nursing licensure exam. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing administers licensing tests for practical and registered nurses. Candidates can take these exams after earning a diploma or an associate degree in nursing. Through the Nurse Licensure Compact, licensed nurses can transfer their credentials between participating states.

Advanced nursing programs provide in-depth, specialized training that can lead to high-level certifications, licenses, and careers. According to the BLS, individuals in specialized nursing careers earn higher salaries than those who practice general nursing. Professionals such as critical-care nurses and advanced practice registered nurses typically need a master’s degree, certification, and nursing licensure.

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High School Courses of Study

Preparation for a nursing career can begin as early as high school. Aspiring nurses can enhance their college application by taking advanced courses in areas such as biology, chemistry, algebra, and geometry. Completing advanced coursework and maintaining a high GPA can help students earn admittance to a nursing program. Some advanced high school courses may satisfy college-level prerequisites to save students time and money.

Many nursing programs require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. To improve their chances of admission, high school students should work to earn high standardized test scores. High school students can also prepare for a nursing career through extracurricular activities, such as volunteer positions in the healthcare field.

College Courses of Study

An associate degree in nursing typically provides the fastest route to entry-level careers in the field. However, a two-year degree does not qualify degree-holders for all nursing positions. With a bachelor’s degree, graduates can pursue a wider variety of nursing roles. Bachelor’s degree-holders can also enroll in graduate school. Coursework and specialization options vary by program, degree level, and school, so learners should ensure their chosen program aligns with their career goals.

In addition to their degree, students should choose individual courses carefully. Class selections can impact the trajectory of an aspiring nurse’s career. Courses in nursing programs often provide learners with a unique perspective of a healthcare discipline, serve as prerequisites for more advanced training, and deliver specialized skills and expertise. The courses below are common options available at various academic levels.


Nearly all associate-level nursing programs include basic anatomy courses. This knowledge of the human body serves as the foundation for healthcare training. Learners explore the various bodily systems, including the respiratory, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular systems.

Health Assessment

Most BSN programs include some type of health assessment course, which helps students understand health throughout the lifespan. Students learn to assess and evaluate patients and gain skills necessary to communicate findings. This fundamental training is crucial for nurses in any role.


Nursing programs from the associate to graduate levels may include pharmacology coursework. Classes in this subject explore the administration and distribution of medicine and drugs, along with patient responses and reactions. Students learn how the body absorbs drugs, how to calculate appropriate dosages, and about the biotransformation process.

Nursing Informatics

Most common in graduate programs, nursing informatics courses help students learn how to use and leverage electronic medical records to improve patient care and clinical operations. Coursework may also explore issues in data privacy and security. Nurses in advanced practice and supervisory roles can apply this training to implement new operations.

Professional Transitions

Professional transition courses help nursing students apply theoretical training to professional positions. Learners examine the importance of the nursing profession and the responsibility of professionals in the field. While many nursing degree requirements include professional transitions courses, these classes often appear at the graduate level. Coursework typically incorporates concepts regarding management, leadership, and healthcare policy.

Continuing Education

Continuing education requirements for nurses vary by state and type of license. Nurses must typically renew their license every 2-3 years. To qualify for license renewal, nurses must ensure their skills and knowledge remain current. Professionals must complete certain continuing education requirements every renewal period.

According to the Texas Board of Nursing, for example, registered nurses in the state must complete at least 20 hours of continuing nursing education during each renewal period. Additionally, those working in direct patient care must complete a human trafficking prevention course, and nurses in geriatric care must fulfill two contact hours in older adult or geriatric courses. Nurses in emergency care settings must complete at least two contact hours in forensic evidence collection every six years.

Along with allowing professionals to maintain licensure, pursuing continuing education can help nurses advance professionally. Many schools offer bridge programs for working nurses, which create pathways to help nurses apply their training and licensure toward a bachelor’s degree. These programs typically require applicants to hold valid licensure and actively work in the field.

Graduate Degrees in Nursing

To prepare for a specialized career in the field, individuals can earn an advanced nursing degree. Master’s degree-holders often pursue roles such as clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse midwife, certified registered nurse anesthetist, and nurse practitioner. Professionals in these specialized positions often earn significantly higher salaries than nurses in more general roles.

Master’s degree-holders can advance toward a terminal degree in the field, either a Ph.D. or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Each type of program provides extensive training and experience. Ph.D. programs prepare learners for research and scientific pursuits while DNP-holders typically work in direct patient care, managing clinical sites, and leading medical teams. Professionals with a terminal degree often advance to the highest positions in the field.

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