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Nursing Career Pathways

5 min readApril, 25 2023

Nursing is a dynamic, rewarding profession with plenty of room for personal and professional growth. The demand for nurses is high and projected to grow as the baby boomer generation ages, promising excellent job security and earning potential. Are you wondering where to start your nursing career, or have you already started one? We'll show you available nursing career options and how to develop a career plan for the future.

Nursing Careers: Getting Started

Each nursing career path offers unique advantages and may require additional training or degrees. Establishing your goals upfront makes choosing the right nursing pathway easier. Fortunately, the nursing field provides ample opportunity for professional development. Keep in mind that many nurses change specialties or work environments throughout their careers, so whatever you initially decide isn't set in stone.

1. Earn Your Degree

No matter what nursing career you choose, your first step is to earn a post-secondary degree. The main options to consider on your path to becoming a nurse are:

  • Licensed practical nurse program: If you want to start working as soon as possible, a certificate program to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) is your fastest option — you can complete one in about a year. Bridge programs can help you transition from an LPN to a registered nurse (RN) later if you decide to advance your career.
  • Nursing diploma: A nursing diploma is a fast and often more affordable path to becoming an RN. This type of program is most often based in a hospital. They aren't as common as degree programs, but if your state has one, you may be able to start working as an RN in less than two years. However, a nursing diploma doesn't provide college credits, so your training won't count toward a degree if you plan to further your career later. You may also earn a lower salary than you would with a college degree. However, with an RN-to-BSN program, you can fast-track your four-year degree later if you want to pursue opportunities that require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
  • Associate degree: Earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) usually takes two to three years. Like a four-year degree, an ADN prepares you to become an RN. Depending on the nursing career pathway you want to pursue, you may need to get a BSN degree later. However, the advantage of an ADN compared to a nursing diploma is that your credits may transfer to your BSN program, making it easier and cheaper to continue your education down the road.
  • Bachelor's degree: Compared to other ways to become an entry-level registered nurse, a BSN takes more time and may be more expensive. It usually takes about four years to get a BSN, but having one can make it possible to pursue other nursing career paths that aren't possible with a diploma or ADN alone. For that reason, a BSN is an investment that offers greater earning potential and more opportunities for professional growth throughout your career. Many hospitals and other health care employers now require new hires to have at least a BSN. And most advanced certification and post-graduate programs also require applicants to have one. Getting a BSN is the best option if you're planning a long-term nursing career or pursuing the RN career path with the highest earning potential.

2. Get Your License

Whichever nursing degree or program you decide to pursue, you need to get licensed before you can work as a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse. You must pass a licensure exam called the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX for registered nurses or NCLEX-PN for LPNs). This test verifies that you have the knowledge and skills to begin working safely and confidently as an entry-level nurse. Once you pass the exam, you'll receive licensure from your state and can start your nursing career.

3. Secure a Nursing Job

Once you're licensed, you're ready to look for your first nursing job. The median salary for an RN is more than $77,000, but nurses starting out can also expect a decent wage — only about 10% of registered nurses earn less than $60,000 per year. LPNs make, on average, about two thirds as much as an RN — $48,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

4. Pursue Advanced Certification

Many nurses are content working as RNs or LPNs. But if you're interested in a nursing specialty or becoming a certified nurse practitioner, you have some terrific options. Some specialties require additional training or certifications from bodies like the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Some specialties require post-graduate degrees, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Most MSN and DNP programs require a bachelor's degree before applying. If you start out with a diploma or an associate degree, you'll need to finish your BSN before pursuing nursing career pathways that require advanced degrees. Although it takes extra time and expense to get a post-graduate degree, nurses who obtain an advanced specialization have more options for career development and are among the top earners in the nursing profession. Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) make the most, earning over $165,000 on average.

More Career Options for Nurses

A confident nurse in navy blue scrubs with a pink stethoscope stands with crossed arms in an intensive care unit, surrounded by medical monitoring equipment, radiating professionalism and care.

With all the different nursing paths, titles, advanced certifications, and specialties, a nursing career provides more flexibility than many other professions. You can choose the environment you want to work in, such as a school, hospital, outpatient doctor's office, travel nursing, long-term care, or occupational health setting.

Want even more flexibility? Depending on the nursing career path you choose, the degrees or certifications you earn and the experience you acquire, you can even work in a role that doesn't involve day-to-day patient care, such as medical consulting on legal cases, nursing research, or nursing technology and informatics. And if you have a post-graduate degree, you can pursue an advanced clinical position or a leadership role like a nurse educator, nurse administrator, or director of nursing.

This flexibility is essential for job satisfaction and to avoid one of the most significant issues: nursing burnout. When job stress leads to a lack of motivation, reduced performance, and dissatisfaction, it poses a serious safety risk to nurses and their patients. Having the freedom to pivot your career, change your environment, or move into another nursing specialty can prevent burnout and lead to a fulfilling career.

Learn about the different types of nurses and what nursing school is like as you consider if a career in nursing is right for you.


Images sourced from Getty Images

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