A medical assistant is an unlicensed healthcare support worker. MAs work in doctors’ offices or clinics, where they provide basic administrative and clinical support. Registered nurses, on the other hand, are highly educated licensed professionals who manage complex and often critically ill patients. MAs must work under the supervision of an RN or doctor, while RNs have a great deal more autonomy. Although an MA might know how to perform some basic skills in the nursing arena, if she wants to become an RN, she will have to start over.
The first step to becoming an RN is education. In some states, a medical assistant can be trained on the job by the doctor for whom she works. The MA may have a high school education or a GED, or he may not have graduated from high school. If you have a GED or didn’t graduate, go back to school and get a high school diploma, as it will likely help you get into the nursing program of your choice. Take science classes, such as biology and chemistry, if you haven’t already.
Potential RNs can choose to pursue three types of degrees: an associate’s degree, a diploma or a baccalaureate. An associate degree is available from a community college or university; the program lasts two years, and a graduate RN is eligible to take the licensing exams after graduation. Diploma nurses complete two- or three-year programs at a hospital-based school of nursing. A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years at a university. In addition, you may go on to earn a master's degree or doctoral-level programs in nursing.
Following graduation, a nurse must take the NCLEX-RN exam, a national licensing test administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The exam is accepted by all state nursing boards as an indicator of minimum knowledge and competency for a newly graduated nurse. If you pass the NCLEX-RN exam and become licensed in one state, you may obtain reciprocity and practice in another state without having to take another test.
Get Your License
After you pass the NCLEX-RN, you must apply for a license in your state. Nursing is governed by individual state boards of nursing, and they all have different rules. Basically, you must obtain an application, complete it and send it to the board of nursing with your licensing fee. Once you actually have your license in hand, you are an RN who is legally entitled to practice nursing and sign “RN” after your name.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.