Career Overview for Nursing Students

by Genevieve Carlton
reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC
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Nurses are compassionate caregivers and central to the healthcare team, working to advocate for patient, family, and community needs.

Depending on their training, nurses assist patients with basic tasks and deliver babies. Over the course of their career, many nurses pursue higher degrees to increase their responsibilities and earning potential.

Nurses at all levels must meet rigorous educational requirements. This page introduces the career paths and earning potential of different nursing degrees. It also explores how to advance to a higher nursing level. Bachelor of nursing (BSN) salary data shows the benefits of pursuing a four-year degree, while master of nursing (MSN) salary information indicates the high earning potential of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Nursing Diploma Careers

A nursing diploma trains graduates for a number of positions. Nursing schools offer specialized diploma programs for certified nursing assistants (CNAs), licensed practical nurses/licensed vocational nurses (LPNs/LVNs), and, in some states, registered nurses (RNs). These programs take between 12 weeks and two years to complete.

Graduates with a nursing diploma can pursue entry-level nursing roles. For example, CNAs provide basic patient care under the supervision of an RN. LPNs and LVNs offer more advanced patient care without needing an RN license. A nursing diploma helps nurses gain basic training and build clinical skills before advancing their career or pursuing a degree.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Salary Information

$22,750
Lowest 10%

$30,850
Median Annual Wage

$42,110
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Description

CNAs assist patients with daily activities such as bathing, dressing, and eating. They also move patients from their beds into wheelchairs. CNAs assist RNs by taking vital signs and recording patient histories. Most CNAs work in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

How to Become One

Nursing assistants complete an education program that covers basic nursing and patient care skills. Vocational schools, community colleges, and hospitals offer CNA programs, which typically take around 12 weeks to complete. After completing the program, nursing assistants apply for a state license or certification. Most states include a competency exam to become a CNA and work as a nursing assistant.

Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)

Salary Information

$35,570
Lowest 10%

$48,820
Median Annual Wage

$65,520
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Description

LPNs and LVNs provide basic care under the supervision of registered nurses. They take vital signs, administer basic medical care, and report patient concerns to RNs. LPNs also maintain records on and communicate with patients.

How to Become One

Licenced practical nurses and licenced vocational nurses attend approved educational programs and apply for a state-issued license to practice. LPNs and LVNs spent around one year earning a certificate or diploma. Community colleges, hospitals, and technical schools offer LPN programs. During an LPN program, students study pharmacology, nursing practice, and patient care. They also complete clinical training. After graduating, candidates take the NCLEX-PN exam and apply for a license.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Careers and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Careers

An ADN program meets the minimum requirements for an RN license. Associate degree students strengthen their clinical and patient care skills.

However, most employers prefer to hire RNs with a BSN. A BSN degree qualifies nurses for RN jobs, leadership roles, and specialized nursing career paths. Acute care nurses working in hospital settings and community health nurses typically hold a BSN degree. These nurses also report a higher average BSN nursing degree salary than for RNs without a four-year degree.

Nursing schools offer many types of BSN programs. RNs without BSNs can advance their education with RN-to-BSN bridge programs. Other schools grant online BSN degrees.

RNs earn above-average salaries. RN salary data varies depending on degree level, work experience, and state. For example, some states pay higher nursing salaries, and BSN degree salaries are generally higher than the ADN degree salaries.

Registered Nurse (RN)

Salary Information

$53,410
Lowest 10%

$75,330
Median Annual Wage

$116,230
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Description

RNs conduct patient assessments, administer medication, and educate patients on wellness. They specialize in multiple areas, including pediatrics, surgery, and emergency care. Depending on their specialty, they may operate medical equipment, work with surgeons during medical procedures, or care for babies in the NICU.

How to Become One

Nurses earn an RN license after completing a nursing degree, passing the NCLEX-RN exam, and applying for a license.

RNs follow different pathways to their career. LPNs can enroll in bridge programs to complete an ADN or BSN degree. RNs can also advance their career by attending an RN-to-BSN program. During a nursing program, students take courses in human anatomy, evidence-based practice, and patient care. Nursing students also complete supervised clinical practicums. This hands-on experience helps nurses choose a nursing specialty.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Careers

An MSN degree allows RNs to move into specialty roles and increase their earning potential. With an MSN degree, nurses can work as advanced practice RNs (APRNs), clinical specialists, educators, or health administrators. APRN roles include nurse practitioners (NPs), certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), clinical nursing specialists (CNSs), and certified nurse midwives (CNMs).

In these nursing specialties, APRNs offer primary and specialty care. MSN programs provide focused classroom and clinical training for each role. Most programs require at least 500 clinical hours. Compared with BSN salary data, nurses with an MSN earn significantly more. For example, APRNs reported a median annual pay of over $117,000 in May 2020.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Salary Information

$82,960
Lowest 10%

$111,680
Median Annual Wage

$156,160
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Description

Nurse practitioners offer primary and specialty care. FNPs, for example, provide primary care for patients of all ages, while women's health nurse practitioners specialize in women's medical care, and adult-gerontology nurse practitioners focus on adult and aging care.

How to Become One

NPs hold a master's or doctorate in nursing. During an MSN program, they study advanced health assessment, primary care nursing, and nursing leadership. Programs also train nurses as family nurse practitioners (FNPs) or mental health nurse practitioners. Learners typically complete more than 500 hours of supervised clinical training before earning their degree, applying for national certification, and receiving an NP license.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Salary Information

$133,970
Lowest 10%

$183,580
Median Annual Wage

>$183,580
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Description

As advanced practice RNs, CRNAs administer anesthesia for medical procedures. They administer general, local, and regional anesthesia. CRNAs then monitor patients during procedures to adjust pain medication and advise patients on pain management after being discharged from the hospital.

How to Become One

Nurse anesthetists complete a master's or doctorate with specialized training in pain management and advanced nursing care. They also gain hands-on experience through clinical placements. Before enrolling in a CRNA program, applicants must hold at least one year of RN experience in a critical care setting. After earning their degree, graduates complete national certification requirements and apply for a license.

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

Description

Clinical nurse specialists bring graduate-level training to clinical roles. They specialize in areas like acute care, critical care, and pediatrics. In healthcare settings, CNSs educate nurses and advise healthcare practitioners on the best practices to improve patient outcomes.

How to Become One

CNSs hold a graduate degree in nursing with a focus on clinical specialties. These nurses focus on several clinical areas, including adult/gerontology care, pediatrics, and neonatal nursing. During a graduate program, nurses complete at least 500 hours of clinical training to strengthen their patient care skills. After graduation, clinical nurse specialists complete a specialty exam and apply for CNS certification from their state.

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

Salary Information

$67,710
Lowest 10%

$111,130
Median Annual Wage

$179,770
Highest 10%

Source: BLS

Description

CNMs offer family planning services, prenatal care, and maternity care for women. They train to deliver newborns and handle labor emergencies. Nurse midwives also treat sexual and reproductive health issues. CNMs can act as primary maternity care providers.

How to Become One

Nurse midwives complete a specialized graduate degree that includes training in women's health, prenatal care, and delivery. Nursing students take courses and meet clinical practicum requirements to train for this specialized role. Most MSN programs for nurse midwives take two years. After earning their degree, graduates pass a national certification exam and apply for CNM state certification.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing Careers

A DNP degree builds advanced clinical, leadership, educator, or research skills. During a doctor of nursing practice program, nurses strengthen their patient care or specialty skills. Nurses with a DNP may work as APRNs, educators, or in executive leadership.

DNP/APRN programs incorporate at least 500 clinical hours to prepare nurses for advanced practice roles. Many nursing schools offer DNP programs for nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, for example. The degree also leads to careers as a nursing professor or nurse researcher.

While a DNP emphasizes nursing practice, a Ph.D. in nursing focuses on research and prepares graduates for academic and research roles. Ph.D. students complete coursework in quantitative and qualitative research methods. They also study current methodologies in nursing research.

Ph.D. learners complete a dissertation rather than clinical hours. Earning a Ph.D. in nursing takes 5-7 years. The degree leads to careers as a nursing professor, nurse researcher, or policy maker.

Nursing Professors/Researchers

Salary Information

$75,470
Median Annual Wage

Source: BLS

Description

Nurse educators and researchers often work in hospitals, laboratories, and academic settings. Professors instruct students in evidence-based practice, clinical nursing, and patient outcomes. Researchers investigate ways to improve patient outcomes and wellness in different healthcare settings.

How to Become One

A DNP or a Ph.D. in nursing prepares nurses for roles as nursing professors or researchers. Earning a doctorate in nursing generally takes around five years. Depending on the role, nurses may need clinical experience. Nursing professors and researchers need an RN license.

Common Questions About Nursing Careers

true What Is a BSN Salary Compared to an ADN Salary?

BSN graduates earn more money than ADN graduates. Nurses with an ADN earn an average salary of $71,000 per year, while nurses with a BSN earn nearly $88,000 per year, according to July 2021 data from PayScale.

true What Kind of Nurses Get Paid the Most?

Advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, earn the highest nursing salaries. At the RN level, OR nurses, informatics nurses, and critical care nurses with BSNs report the highest salaries.

true Why Do Hospitals Want BSN Nurses?

Hospitals prefer BSN nurses for specialized and leadership roles. A BSN allows nursing students more time to strengthen their clinical skills and pursue specialty training. BSN nursing degree salary rates exceed those for nurses with an ADN.

true Do Hospitals Prefer ADN or BSN?

Many hospitals prefer nurses with BSNs. Nurses with a bachelor's degree receive additional training in nursing leadership, evidence-based practice, and patient care.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches masters students through their culminating projects. Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and a nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the wellbeing of students and healthcare professionals.

Header Image Credit: The Good Brigade | Getty Images

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