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How to Become a Nurse Guide

Nurses provide an invaluable service to our communities. They treat the sick and injured, care for our elderly, and provide much-needed support during public health crises. If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in this field, now’s a great time to do so. The demand for healthcare workers is skyrocketing, which means there will be plenty of nursing positions available over the coming years. This guide provides a step-by-step breakdown on how to become a nurse. 

1. Choose a nursing path 

So you’ve decided to become a nurse. That’s fantastic! The first step on your journey is to decide what type of nurse you’d like to become. As you probably know, not all nurses are the same. Nurses have varying levels of responsibilities, specialities, and educational backgrounds. Check out the chart below to learn about the most common types of nursing positions:  

Nursing Position 

Job Description

Education Required

Entry-Level Nursing 
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) CNAs often work in nursing homes and adult care facilities. They help patients with daily tasks such as feeding, bathing, grooming, and dressing. Their scope of responsibilities is fairly limited, and they work under the supervision of LPNs and RNs.  CNA certificate (4-12 weeks)
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)  LPNs have a slightly wider range of responsibilities than CNAs. Along with providing basic care for patients, they sometimes administer medicine and conduct medical tests. They work under the supervision of RNs.  Practical Nursing diploma (1 year) 
Registered Nurse (RN) RNs have a wide range of responsibilities. They coordinate patient care, administer medication, assist doctors with exams and surgeries, and manage other nurses and LPNs.  Associate Degree in Nursing (2 years) 


Bachelor of Science in Nursing (4 years)

Advanced Nursing 
Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)  Nurse practitioners serve as primary care providers, sharing many of the same responsibilities as physicians. They diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, and in many states can operate without the supervision of doctors.  Bachelor’s degree (4 years) AND Master’s degree (2 years)
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia and monitor patients during surgeries and other medical procedures. They’re also responsible for preparing operating rooms and setting up equipment.  Bachelor’s degree (4 years) AND Master’s degree (2 years)

Doctoral degree will be required starting in 2025

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) CNMs provide a full range of healthcare services to women of all ages. They specialize in gynecologic care, family planning services, preconception care, prenatal and postpartum care, childbirth, and newborn care.  Bachelor’s degree (4 years) AND Master’s degree (2 years)
Nurse Administrator  Nurse administrators hold management and leadership positions. They may occasionally interact with patients, but their main responsibility is managing their team of nurses. This includes creating work schedules, managing finances, and looking for ways to cut costs. Bachelor’s degree (4 years)

Master’s degree (2 years) is not required, but strongly recommended 

These are the most common types of nursing positions, but there are many more out there. Specializations range from orthopedic nursing to forensic nursing, and everything in between. Visit Nurse Journal for a more complete list of nursing specialities.

2. Obtain the necessary education

Nursing is a flexible career path with multiple entry points. The level of education you pursue depends on the type of nursing position you want. Below we’ve listed the various education pathways to choose from: 

CNA certificate 

These certificate programs are designed for students who want to become Certified Nursing Assistants. CNA programs are available at community colleges and trade schools. They typically last between 4-12 weeks, which makes them great for students looking to quickly break into nursing at the ground level. From there, CNAs have the option of continuing their education to pursue more advanced nursing positions. 

Practical Nursing diploma 

Practical Nursing (PN) diploma programs train students to become Licensed Practical Nurses. Students gain the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to perform basic nursing tasks. Most PN programs feature a combination of classroom study and hands-on clinical experience. They typically take one year to complete, which makes them another great way to quickly enter the field of nursing. PN programs are available at community colleges and trade schools. 

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) 

ADN programs provide students with the foundational knowledge and skills required to become nurses. They typically last 2 years, and are available at community colleges. Students should expect to take a combination of general education requirements and nursing classes. Course topics may include microbiology, foundations in nursing, chemistry, behavioral health, and communications. Associate degree programs are ideal for students who want to become RNs, but don’t want to invest the time and money that BSN programs require. 

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) 

BSN programs require four years of full-time study, and are available at colleges and universities. Students should expect to take a range of general education liberal arts courses in addition to nursing specific classes. While it’s possible to become an RN with an associate degree, earning a BSN often leads to more leadership responsibilities and higher pay. Bachelor’s degree programs are a good choice for students who want to become RNs, but have an eye on advancing their career down the line. They’re also great for anyone seeking a well-rounded four-year college experience. 

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) 

Earning an MSN opens the door to becoming an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN). There are various types of advanced nurses (see chart in step 1), so MSN programs vary depending on the kind of nursing you’re studying. MSN degrees are typically pursued by Registered Nurses looking to advance their career to the next level. In nearly all cases, a BSN and a nursing license is required before starting an MSN program. 

Doctoral degrees (DNP and PhD) 

There are two types of doctoral degrees in nursing — the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). They both offer the highest level of training in the field, but they focus on different aspects of nursing. The DNP is a practice-based degree, reserved primarily for RNs looking to become advanced nurses or nurse administrators. Meanwhile, a PhD in Nursing is focused more on research. This degree is reserved for students looking to become nurse scientists and scholars. 

3. Obtain a license 

Once you complete your education, you’ll need to become licensed before you can begin working. This involves passing an exam specific to the field of nursing you’re looking to enter. Below we’ve listed the licensing requirements for each level of nursing: 

Nursing Position  Licensing Requirements 
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) To become a CNA, you must pass a state competency exam. Exams vary from state to state, but they typically include a written portion and a clinical skills test. The written section is multiple choice and measures a candidate’s knowledge of nursing assistant skills. The clinical skills portion requires candidates to successfully perform physical nursing tasks in front of an evaluator. 
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)  To become an LPN, you’re required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN). This exam tests candidates on their ability to safely provide patient care, work under direction, and assist RNs. 
Registered Nurse (RN) To become an RN, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). This exam is similar to the one required to become an LPN, but more advanced. The RN test is tailored more towards the management of care and supervision of others. 
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) The exam you take to become an APRN depends on the type of advanced nurse you’re trying to become. If you’re trying to become a nurse anesthetist, for example, you must pass the exam administered by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists. Do research to see which exam is required for your particular field of advanced nursing. 

4. Find a job 

Now that you’ve obtained a license, you’re free to pursue work in your field. Fortunately, there’s a very high demand for nurses right now. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of Registered Nurses is projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030. There’s a particularly high demand for advanced nurses, which are expected to grow at a staggering rate of 45% over the next decade. Needless to say, you should have little trouble finding work once you obtain the necessary education and licensure. 

5. Advance your career 

The great thing about nursing is that there are many ways to enter the field, and various opportunities to take your career to the next level. If you enter at the CNA or LPN level, for instance, you can continue your education to become an RN. Or if you’re already an RN, you can always pursue a postgraduate degree to become an advanced nurse. 

If you’re looking to take your career to the next step, you should consider bridge programs. These unique programs make it possible for nurses to apply previous education toward an advanced degree. For instance, LPNs can complete a bridge program to build on their existing knowledge and become an RN. These programs exist at all levels and can be completed more quickly than it would take to return to traditional nursing programs. Learn more about bridge programs on Nurse Journal’s website

Financial aid options for nursing students 

Nursing school can be expensive, but fortunately there are ways to manage the cost of your education. Here’s what you can do to help pay for your nursing certificate or degree: 

  • Get started by checking out our list of top nursing scholarships
  • Apply for school-specific scholarships: Check to see if your college or institution offers scholarships specifically for nursing students 
  • Apply for need-based financial aid: submit the FAFSA to be considered for need-based aid 

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