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Have you considered a career in nursing but are intimidated by the complex relationship between education, training, and certification in this field? We’re here to help.
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Aspiring nurses can use this guide to research the different degrees, roles and specialties available to nurses, as well as the education and training requirements.
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In order for a healthcare facility to function properly, nurses at all levels must assume different patient care responsibilities. A nurse’s career begins by earning a nursing diploma and gaining clinical experience by performing basic nursing tasks for patients. Responsibilities may include designing and implementing treatment plans, administering medications, and recording vital signs. Entry-level nursing roles include nursing assistant or practical/vocational nurse.
Eventually, after gaining hundreds of hours of clinical experience and earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from an accredited school, they can work as a registered nurse (RN). Many RNs go on to gain more experience, including a master’s degree, and become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).
Once nurses reach the highest levels, they can take on specific roles in the nursing field or continue their education to pursue careers in education, administration, or policy advocacy.
A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is not a nurse. Instead, they are professionals who assist nurses in providing basic care to patients, such as moving beds, feeding, and changing patients.
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CNA certification does not require a college degree. Instead, aspiring CNAs must complete a 3-8 week CNA course, which includes 75 hours of clinical experience. Candidates then apply to their state board to take the CNA exam and become certified.
A licensed practical nurse (LPN), also known as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN), has higher-level nursing responsibilities than a CNA, such as administering medications to patients and taking vital signs. They interact with doctors and nurses on a daily basis and often work in hospitals, residential facilities and clinics.
This position requires completion of 500-750 clinical hours through a state-approved program, followed by passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).
Registered nurses (RNs) promote high standards of patient care by performing health examinations, providing counseling, and treating a variety of illnesses. They typically work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and nursing facilities. In some states, they must work under the supervision of an APRN or physician.
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Registered nurses are required to have at least an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), although some employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). Clinical hour requirements vary by state, but most registered nurses complete 200-400 clinical hours. They must take the NCLEX-RN exam to be eligible for licensure.
APRNs have more responsibilities than RNs, often working independently and developing treatment plans. They also typically see more patients in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other medical settings.
Becoming an APRN requires a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), 500 clinical hours, and passing an exam from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). The specific exam depends on the major and may include one of the following:
The lowest level degree is the Diploma in Nursing, which takes just four weeks to complete and prepares graduates for entry-level pre-registered nurse jobs. An MSN, meanwhile, typically takes two years to earn, in addition to the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree education offers more employment options and higher salaries than a nursing diploma.
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The “best” type of nursing degree is the one that fits your learning needs and meets your professional and personal goals.
Nursing diplomas typically take less than a year to complete, with some taking just a few weeks. Most nursing diploma programs have less than 100 hours of clinical experience. Earning a diploma can prepare candidates for employment as a CNA or LPN/LVN, handling primary care duties and serving as a bridge between patients and nurses. Nurses at this level typically work in hospitals, residential care, or nursing homes.
The ADN takes a minimum of two years to complete and requires students to complete approximately 300 hours of clinical experience. This degree provides the minimum level of education required to work as a registered nurse in hospitals, clinics, and schools. An associate’s degree education qualifies an individual to assume more patient care responsibilities than a diploma.
The BSN takes approximately four years to complete, although some programs allow students to complete their studies at a two-year pace. Programs typically require 300-400 clinical hours. Having a BSN is a competitive advantage when searching for a registered nurse position, especially in a job market where many employers prefer candidates with four-year degrees. Nurses with a BSN often work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and health clinics.
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An MSN typically takes at least two years to complete. As part of the MSN program, students complete a minimum of 500 hours of clinical experience. The MSN prepares graduates to become APRNs, covering professional roles such as nurse practitioner (NP) or certified nurse midwife (CNM). Master’s degree nurses typically work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, or professional settings. In some states, they can open private clinics.
The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) requires 3-6 years and 1,000 clinical hours to complete. This degree qualifies graduates to work as APRNs, professors, or nurse researchers. DNPs typically work in hospitals, clinics, or their own autonomous institutions, but they may also work as educators and researchers in higher education and health care policy organizations.
The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing takes 3-6 years to complete. Students also complete 1,000 clinical hours as part of their degree. These nurses serve as educators, researchers, and policy makers. Ph.D.-level nurses often find specialized employment in colleges, universities, and health care policy organizations.
Professionals can take advantage of nursing certification to pursue specialized nursing and patient-centered careers. Most nursing certifications are tailored for APRNs, but some only require a BSN or RN license.
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The HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Board (HANCB) provides certification for registered nurses who provide physical and emotional care to patients with HIV/AIDS. The certification covers the basics of laboratory testing, disease prevention and the HIV life cycle.
Registered nurses who work with patients with HIV/AIDS can earn the AACRN credential, also offered by HANCB. This certification emphasizes emotional and spiritual support for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The CDN credential certifies a registered nurse with 2,000 hours of clinical experience in nephrology nursing (kidney care), primarily caring for dialysis patients. The CDN exam consists of 150 questions.
The CHPCA is a credential for nurses working in administrative positions in hospice or palliative care. However, this certification is currently only available through recertification, meaning new nurses cannot earn the credential.
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Aspiring nursing assistants often pursue this certificate. It qualifies the carrier to perform primary care duties for patients in most medical facilities.
CNE certification is available to doctoral students who want to teach nursing in a college or university. Nurses with the CNE designation possess skills in curriculum design, teaching, and counseling as well as normal nursing skills.
The CNL Clinical APRN certification demonstrates skills in quality improvement, risk assessment, and care coordination. CNL certified nurses use their leadership skills to work to improve the quality of health care.
CENP, sometimes called Chief Nursing Officer Certification (CNO), is a credential that can be earned by APRNs with extensive experience in executive management positions.
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CRNA certification provides credentials for APRNs who perform anesthesia on patients undergoing surgical, obstetric, or trauma procedures.
The OCN designation certifies that registered nurses can provide care and counseling to cancer patients. Certification requires registered nurses to accumulate 1,000 clinical hours in oncology training.
Nurses often choose specialties in the population or health fields, such as obstetrics or hospice. Finding a nursing career focus can lead to higher earnings and more job opportunities, especially if you earn relevant professional certifications. The following list represents some of the more common types of nursing specialties, although it is not comprehensive.
There are many pathways for future registered nurses to enter the workforce. They can transfer directly from earning an ADN to taking the RN exam, or they can transfer to online, hybrid, and on-campus bachelor’s programs. Many students take the traditional route and simply complete a BSN program as preparation for exams and certifications.
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Other students can work as CNAs, allowing them to gain work experience. They can later apply to CNA to BSN programs to prepare for more advanced certifications.
All individuals at the RN level and above must take the NCLEX-RN exam at some point in their nursing journey. The NCLEX is the comprehensive exam required to obtain RN certification. NCSBN administers the exam through each state’s board of nursing, which may also have its own eligibility requirements for taking the exam.
APRNs can fill many different roles in the nursing field, often with higher salary prospects. The most common professional occupations for APRNs are nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified nurse midwife (CNM), and certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). All of these careers offer high salaries and career specialization.
Licensing requirements for each of the following roles vary by state, and only a few states maintain reciprocity agreements.
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