It's a bit misleading to think of nursing as a singular career. It's actually dozens of possible careers, depending on your ambitions and your aptitude. You can become a nurse with as little as one year of training, or spend years in schooling and clinical experience as you make your way to the top of the profession. It comes down to your personal goals, and how long you're willing to spend learning the prerequisites of the profession.
If you're looking for a fast entry into the nursing profession, starting off as a licensed practical or vocational nurse is your best bet. Training takes one year, divided between classroom time and supervised clinical experience. Most programs are offered at vocational or community colleges, but some hospitals offer LPN diploma programs in-house. After you graduate, you'll also have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses, or NCLEX-PN, and apply for a nursing license from your state's board of nursing.
Training as a registered nurse takes a bigger investment in time and effort. Basic RN training programs award an associate degree or a nursing diploma, and those usually take three years of classroom time and clinical training. If you want to get ahead in the profession, a bachelor's degree in nursing can be a better option. It takes four years, but that extra year gives you more training in leadership and administrative skills. Once you're in the workplace, that can translate into faster advancement and better pay. You also need a bachelor's degree if you want to move on into advanced practice nursing. Whichever alternative you opt for you'll need to pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses, or NCLEX-RN, and be licensed by your state.
Advanced Practice Nursing
Advanced practice nurses are the most highly trained nurses, offering doctor-like levels of care. To be a nurse practitioner, nurse-midwife, nurse anesthetist or clinical nurse specialist, you need to go back to school and earn a master's degree or doctorate in nursing. You need to have at least one year's experience in nursing after you get your bachelor's degree, but in reality most programs are competitive and having more experience will help your chances of getting accepted. You're looking at four years for your bachelor's degree, then at least one in clinical practice and two to three in a master's or doctoral program.
One advantage of nursing is that you can start off as an LPN with one year's training and move up the career ladder by upgrading your qualifications. Lots of schools have "bridge" programs for nurses who want to upgrade. If you're an LPN you can become an RN, or if you're an RN with an associate degree you can take the extra courses to earn your bachelor's degree. If you're serious about getting ahead you can move on from there to advanced practice, or take a management degree and go into administration.
The health care industry can't function without nurses, and that means you'd have solid job prospects. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 22 percent employment growth for practical nurses between 2010 and 2020, higher than the 14 percent average for all occupations. The picture is even rosier for RNs, at 26 percent employment growth. The BLS notes that demand will be especially high for advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Registered Nurses
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing: The Consensus Model for APRN Regulation -- A Consumer Guide
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Registered Nurse
- BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images