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Paths to Becoming a Nurse

A career as a nurse is both smart and rewarding. Nurses provide essential care and make a real impact in the lives of patients. The satisfaction that nurses take from their work is greater than most professionals can claim. Plus, a career as a nurse promises expanding opportunities and competitive compensation no matter where you are located. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for registered nurses is expected to grow over twice the national average for all other careers during the next decade.

Another great reason to pursue a career in nursing is that there are multiple paths to accomplish the goal. This allows people hoping to break into the field to choose the option that is best suited to their budget, schedule, priorities, and learning style. These are the most common paths to become a nurse:

Earn a Certificate or Diploma

This path is designed to provide students a crash course in nursing so that they can get started in an entry-level position. Some diploma or certificate programs can be completed in as little as a year, but typically they take one-to–three years. This option is popular with students who are eager to get their career started and willing to pursue additional education or training once they have entered the field of nursing.

The focus of nursing certificate and diploma programs varies widely depending on where it is being administered. Some offer an introduction to human anatomy, physiology, patient care strategies, technical nursing skills and healthcare administration. Other programs dive into more advanced topics like microbiology, psychology and informatics. In both cases, coursework combines classroom instruction with extensive hands-on learning.

Pros to This Path – This is the fastest way to enter the field of nursing, as well as the least expensive in most cases.

Cons to This Path – Nurses with a certificate or diploma will be qualified for a smaller (but still substantial) number of jobs. Furthering a career often requires pursuing additional education.

Earn an Associate’s Degree (ADN)

This path is ideal for students who want in-depth training in nursing with less investment than a bachelor’s degree would require. There are associate’s degree programs available from most community colleges, and they take just two-to-three years to complete. Graduates have the education necessary to pursue many introductory nursing positions.

An associate’s degree program will combine instruction in nursing with classes from the liberal arts, providing students with a broader foundation of learning than a hyper-focused certificate or diploma program. The nursing instruction covers topics like biology, physiology, nutrition and anatomy. That is combined with instruction in healthcare administration, record keeping and other aspects of nursing not directly related to patient care.

Pros to This Path – An associate’s degree requires relatively little investment of time and money while providing a solid nursing education.

Cons to This Path – Nurses with an associate’s degree may not be eligible for all the same opportunities available to nurses with a higher-level degree.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (BSN)

This path is ideal for students who know that a career in nursing is the right choice and want to prepare as well as possible. The purpose of a bachelor’s degree program is to provide students with a comprehensive nursing education so that they can confidently step into a wide range of roles soon after graduation. It typically takes four years to complete a program, but accelerated options are available in some places.

The curriculum in a bachelor’s degree program will go in-depth with nursing topics and provide students with a broad range of knowledge related to science, medicine and healthcare. Instruction takes place in the classroom, laboratory and in clinical settings, and students may be required to complete a final project or fulfill an internship requirement to graduate.

Pros to This Path – A bachelor’s degree provides the strongest educational foundation for an aspiring nurse and qualifies graduates for a larger number of job opportunities.

Cons to This Path – This option requires a significant investment of time and money.

Paths to Becoming a Nurse – Next Steps

First, if you are reading this and are already working as a registered nurse with an associate’s degree in nursing, but want to advance, consider an RN-to-BSN bridge program. With your strong educational foundation already in place, you can accelerate your education with a bridge program designed to help you earn your bachelor’s degree in one to two years instead of the standard four years.

Education and training are essential for becoming qualified to work as a nurse. But they are not all that is required. No matter which path a student chooses, he or she will need to meet additional requirements after graduating to be eligible to work. Passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is a requirement in all states. Each state sets its own requirements, which means nurses may have to possess other credentials or meet administrative obligations in order to be licensed.

It is important for anyone eager to start a nursing career to examine the requirements for a nursing license in their home state, or the state they hope to work in. Navigating any of the paths to becoming a nurse is much easier when students know exactly what standards they must meet for licensure. With the right education, training, study and hands-on experience, it will be easier to move confidently into a fulfilling career as a nurse.


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