What Are the Requirements for a Career in Nursing?

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Employment figures demonstrate a strong demand for qualified nurses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a faster-than-average 7% employment growth for registered nurses (RNs) from 2019-2029. For more advanced nursing roles, projections indicate a 45% growth rate for nurse practitioner (NP) jobs from 2019-2029, far outpacing the national average.

Career levels for nurses include licensed practical nurse (LPN), RN, and advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Each level requires different nursing degrees and, in some cases, certification. All roles require state licensure.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a faster-than-average 7% employment growth for registered nurses (RNs) from 2019-2029.

This page explores the steps required to become a nurse, nursing school requirements, and how long it takes to become a nurse.

What Do Nurses Do?

Nursing responsibilities vary among roles. LPNs are responsible for providing basic patient care. Their job duties include measuring vitals, performing physical exams, administering medications, and handling basic patient needs, such as eating and dressing.

Nurses enjoy many job opportunities in diverse settings.

RNs provide more advanced patient care, serve in managerial and leadership positions, and educate nursing students. Typical job duties include performing diagnostic tests, overseeing nursing staff, and supervising nursing students during clinical fieldwork.

Nurses enjoy many job opportunities in diverse settings. They may practice in hospitals, residential care facilities, home healthcare services, educational services, and community health centers. Nurses in medical and healthcare services collaborate with doctors and other nurses on a daily basis.

Consult the following link to learn more about nurse responsibilities.

Read Our Overview Page on Nursing

How to Become a Nurse

To become a nurse, you must first complete educational requirements. LPNs need a certificate or diploma in nursing from an accredited program. Aspiring RNs must earn a minimum of an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or equivalent training. Advanced nursing roles, such as APRN, require a graduate degree in nursing.

After obtaining your nursing degree, you must then seek state authorization to sit for the national licensure exam for LPNs or RNs. Most states do not set a specific timeframe for application approval for exam authorization. Therefore, candidates should apply well before their target exam dates. Test-seekers can use the waiting period to prepare for the exam.

Licensure

LPNs and RNs must hold licensure through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), though requirements vary by state. The NCSBN offers National Council Licensure Examinations (NCLEX) for LPNs and RNs.

Eligibility to sit for the NCLEX exams requires test authorization. State or district regulatory bodies grant this authorization to individuals who meet specific nursing requirements. Authorized individuals need to register for the NCLEX, which costs $200 as of 2021.

The NCLEX exams focus on client needs, physiological integrity, and safe and effective care environments. Candidates can prepare for the tests by reviewing the NCLEX-PN and NCLEX-RN test plans. License renewal timelines vary by state. Many states take part in the Nurse Licensure Compact, allowing nurses to practice in multiple states.

Nurse Degrees and Roles

Responsibilities and salary potential for nurses increase with education, certification, and employment levels. The BLS reports median annual earnings of $48,820 for LPNs and $117,670 for APRNs as of 2020. Below, we explore the necessary education requirements and typical responsibilities for four nursing careers.

  • Licensed Practical Nurse

    An LPN, also known as a licensed vocational nurse in some states, provides basic patient care. Typical tasks include monitoring vital signs, administering basic care, and handling patient needs.

    Becoming an LPN requires an individual to complete an undergraduate nursing certificate or diploma from an approved program. Most students complete certificates or diplomas in one year of full-time study. To obtain state licensure as an LPN, graduates must pass the national licensure exam. LPNs can seek certification in specialty practice areas like gerontology, oncology, and obstetrics.

    LPNs can also choose to pursue ADNs through bridge programs, which allow learners to apply their previously earned credits toward advanced nursing degrees. An ADN satisfies the nursing school requirements for becoming an RN.

  • Registered Nurse

    RNs coordinate and provide patient care. Their responsibilities encompass recording symptoms and medical histories, administering medications, and assisting in diagnostic testing.

    Becoming an RN requires a minimum of an ADN or equivalent training. An associate nurse degree usually takes 1-2 years of full-time enrollment to complete. RNs must also obtain state licensure.

    Prospective RNs may elect to pursue a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Earning a BSN qualifies graduates for more advanced careers in nursing and satisfies one of the requirements for becoming an APRN.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

    APRNs provide specialized healthcare services, fulfilling physicians’ roles in some cases. They may perform diagnostic tests, diagnose health conditions, and research novel treatments.

    To become an APRN, you must first become an RN, obtain a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree, and receive certification. Common specialty roles include NP, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist.

    To practice as an APRN, you must pass a national certification exam and obtain state licensure. RNs often complete the APRN requirements in 3-5 years. APRNs interested in leadership or educational positions may choose to pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.

  • Doctor in Nursing Practice

    A DNP offers a practical alternative to a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing. Both programs provide the highest level of nursing training but differ in focus and career pathways. DNPs often pursue careers as educators or administrators. Individuals with a Ph.D. in nursing, by contrast, typically seek employment as professors or researchers. However, APRNs may choose to pursue either a DNP or Ph.D. for career advancement.

    Other degree titles include doctor of education in nursing and doctor of nursing science. Many programs expect students to finish in five years. DNP tasks vary depending on whether individuals pursue roles in academic or clinical settings.


Explore Your Possible Academic Paths

Further Education for Nursing

Many nurses pursue additional education for nursing specialties, including cardiology, surgery, prenatal, and gerontology. Most concentrations require additional certifications. Professionals should prioritize organizations with accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or the American Board for Specialty Nursing Certifications.

Certification boards for nursing specializations include:

  • American Nurses Credentialing Center

    A subsidiary of the American Nurses Association, ANCC awards internationally renowned certification in several specialty practice areas. Specialties include cardiac-vascular, medical-surgical, pain management, and psychiatric-mental health certifications.

    Learn More

  • The American Board of Nursing Specialties

    The ABNS represents approximately 750,000 certified nurses globally. The board awards specialty nurse certifications, promotes career development, and advocates for improved healthcare outcomes and patient safety.

    Learn More

  • The Competency & Credentialing Institute

    CCI aims to improve patient outcomes and awards perioperative nursing certification in several focus areas. Specialty practice areas include ambulatory surgery, surgical services management, and the perioperative central nervous system.

    Learn More

  • The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

    AACN grants internationally recognized RN certification in acute and critical care. The association also provides free continuing education opportunities.

    Learn More

  • Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation

    ONCC grants RNs nationally accredited oncology nursing credentials in several focus areas. ONCC-certified nurses can pursue specialties such as advanced oncology, pediatric oncology, blood and marrow transplant, and pediatric hematology.

    Learn More

College Resources for Nursing Students: The Ultimate Guide

Professional Organizations

  • Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing Sigma represents 135,000 members globally as the first national organization to fund nursing research. This organization offers its members career advice, education opportunities, and leadership programs.
  • The National Student Nurses Association NSNA serves nursing students seeking career resources and graduates preparing for their initial nursing licensure. The association also advocates for high-quality, affordable, and accessible healthcare.
  • The American Nurses Association ANA represents the interests of the nation's four million RNs as one of the largest professional nurse organizations in the country. This association comprises the American Academy of Nursing, the American Nurses Foundation, and ANCC.
  • The National League for Nursing NLN, the oldest professional nurse organization in the United States, advocates for nursing education in postsecondary institutions and healthcare organizations. The organization provides continuous education, networking opportunities, and career advice to its members.
How Much Can I Earn With a Nursing Degree?

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you be a nurse without a degree?

    Yes. To become an LPN, you need a certificate or diploma in nursing, plus licensure. To become an RN, however, you need an ADN or equivalent training and licensure.

  • What are the different levels of degrees in nursing?

    An aspiring nurse can pursue an ADN, along with BSN, MSN, DNP, and Ph.D. in nursing degrees.

  • How many nurse prerequisites are needed?

    Nurse prerequisites vary with program level, school prestige, and program length. Most LPN programs require a high school diploma or GED certificate.

  • How long does it take to become a nurse?

    You can complete LPN education requirements in one year and RN requirements in 2-3 years. Licensure timelines vary among states and districts.

  • What careers are in nursing?

    Common nursing careers include LPN, RN, APRN, NP, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist. Most nurses can also pursue certification in specialties, such as oncology or surgery.



Feature Image: Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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