Nursing is one of the few fields left in this economy where employer demand remains strong, and salaries are attractive. It requires serious study, but can be an exciting and rewarding profession, with many opportunities to continue learning, and to specialize in a specific aspect of medical care.
The paths to becoming a Registered Nurse, for people who already possess a Bachelors degree in a non-nursing subject, are called "second degree accelerated" BSN (Bachelors of Science in Nursing) programs, and "direct entry" MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) programs. If you don’t have a Bachelors degree yet, you can enroll in Four Year Bachelors in Nursing programs (traditional undergraduate nursing programs), Associate Degree Nursing programs (typically two year programs, offered by community colleges), or Practical/Vocational Nursing (LVN/LPN) programs (typically one year programs, that result in licensure as a Practical or Vocational Nurse, which is one step below a Registered Nurse).
If you start off as a Practical or Vocational Nurse, you can still become a Registered Nurse down the road, by going back to school for your ADN or BSN degree (there are hundreds of "LPN to RN" degree programs that allow you to do this).
Show me all the....
- Second Degree Bachelors in Nursing (BSN) Programs
- Direct Entry Masters in Nursing (MSN) Programs
- Four-Year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Programs
- Associate Degree Nursing (ADN) Programs
- Licensed Practical/Vocational Nursing (LVN/LPN) Programs
As a rule, you should try to contact multiple schools when you’re looking for a degree program. Like with many other things, the way to find the best nursing degree program is to spend some time shopping around. There are very meaningful differences between the programs in terms of cost, admissions requirements, and other characteristics.
Why should I become a Registered Nurse (RN)?
Nursing is one of the few fields where hiring remains strong and job security actually exists. The advanced practice nursing specializations (which require a Masters degree) offer excellent pay and benefits - annual salaries of $80,000+ are the norm (according to the ACCN). Even entry level Registered Nurses with BSN degrees often make $50,000-$60,000 per year (according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics).
There are over 2,500,000 Registered Nurses in the US, making it the largest component of the US healthcare field. The profession has evolved significantly in the last few decades. High-paying Masters degree-level specializations such as Nurse Practitioner, CRNA, and Nurse Midwife have gained prominence as the complexity of the care environment has increased.
Other market dynamics (such as rising insurance costs) have pushed the nursing field and the medical field closer together, which is to say that many functions that were previously performed by doctors are now performed, in many care settings, by nurses. This is especially true in settings that serve rural and/or low income populations, where, for instance, Nurse Anesthetists are often the primary anesthesia providers, and Nurse Practitioners function as Primary Care Physicians.
The country is currently in the throes of a widely publicized nursing shortage. In general, the shortage is most severe at the staff nurse level (the nurses who perform the bulk of the most common day to day tasks); however, job prospects tend to be specific to an applicant's geographic location, nursing specialty, and experience.
Chris O’Brien received her BSN from Auburn University and her Master’s inPublic Health degree from Emory University. With a background in cardiac care, home health, nursing research & education, and medical writing, she now enjoys the dual paths of being a freelance medical writer and yoga teacher in Decatur, GA.
Great question! Let’s start by talking about the differences between these three groups of medical professionals. As always time and money are important factors, so we’ll take a look at those first.
Is Time on Your Side?
You can become an registered nurse more quickly than you can become a physician’s assistant or doctor, but if you factor in graduate school and/or a doctoral program, then the time factor levels off between these three. Today more nurses are going straight through from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD like other professions, but this is a relatively new trend.
Money, Money, Money
The longer you’re in school the greater your educational expense, so going to nursing school and starting to work in an entry level job is the least expensive path, followed by becoming a physician’s assistant. Medical school is the most expensive route, but the earning potential is greater, so you can pay back any loans or other debt that you incur more quickly.
Autonomy & Flexibility
Do you like to work independently? Do you want to have lots of options? There are more positions for nurses than there are for physician assistants or doctors, so you have the ability to move both laterally and also upward as a nurse. For physicians and physician assistants it is not always easy to change jobs. However, I do know doctors who change jobs, but they tend to work in public health, emergency medicine, and other clinical areas where building a patient base is not a factor.
If you know you’ll need to move frequently then nursing is a great field because qualified nurses are in demand all over the world. Licensing issues always have to be addressed, however, so it’s not a total cake-walk to move and start working, but it’s less involved for nurses than it is for physicians in most cases.
Physician assistants work under the license of a doctor, so they’re not able to work independently like nurses can. This is more important for advanced practice nurses/nurse practitioners who may want to work in a rural setting where there are no doctors, for example. So being a nurse or doctor provides more professional autonomy than being a physician’s assistant. However, many physician assistants have a great deal of day-to-day autonomy. They cannot establish their own practice like a nurse can, not without a physician who is working with them.
Are you starting to get a sense of the differences?
The Big Picture
The focus of all nursing care is to prevent health problems by looking at situations from a holistic or whole person/whole community approach. This may happen in settings ranging from schools to prisons to workplaces and far beyond. Nurses evaluate, plan, and implement care that prevents future problems for individuals and populations in so many settings. In hospitals this means working with sick patients, providing highly skilled treatments with a caring approach. In home-health settings nurses provide highly skilled care and teach patients and their families how to maintain and improve health. In all cases a holistic approach is the backbone of quality nursing care.Modern medical care is organized by systems within the body. Cardiologists treat the heart, nephrologists treat kidneys, etc. This is not to say that doctors don’t look at the big picture, it’s just that they’re highly specialized and work in a more compartmentalized way, referring to other specialists as needed. This is known as the medical model of care, which also applies to physician assistants. Some exceptions to this highly specialized approach are family medicine and primary care; these doctors treat a wide array of diseases and conditions, referring to specialists only as necessary.
Do you have a better sense of where you fit now?
Expert Advice: I have a Bachelors degree but I’m not a nurse. What kind of nursing program should I look for?
Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN is a professional freelance writer with almost a decade of experience as a Registered Nurse. She’s worked in both hospitals and nursing homes as a med-surg, geriatric and transplant nurse. Her national publication credits include Parents, RN, Ladies’ Home Journal, Nursing Spectrum, Pregnancy and Journal of Christian Nursing.
Congrats on your decision to pursue a new career! As a mature adult, you bring a lot of strengths to your nursing career, even before you begin. And your previous academic experience doesn’t hurt, either. Unlike many just-out-of-school nursing students, you already know how to study and prioritize your time.
Begin by looking for an accelerated BSN program (sometimes also called a BS-to-BSN or BS-to-RN program). These programs are specifically designed for individuals like you, who already hold one degree but would like to study nursing. Instead of starting at the beginning, you’ll receive credit for the general coursework you’ve already completed. Accelerated BSN programs are typically completed in 12 to 16 months and focus exclusively on nursing.
Because of the intense focus, program participants must have all prerequisites completed prior to beginning the program. Depending on your major, you may need to pick up a few classes. You probably have your English and composition classes done already, but unless you were a health major, you’ll probably need to take Anatomy & Physiology and Microbiology. (Other typically required prerequisites include Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry and Human Growth and Development.)
Check the programs at various colleges and universities until you find one that fits your needs. Some people prefer to finish as soon as possible. If that’s you, you may prefer a 12-month program to a 16-month program. Different schools have different admission requirements as well; some require a 3.0 GPA while others require certain grades in certain classes. Ask what the program includes as well. Due to the short nature of the programs, almost all accelerated BSN programs include clinical experiences in the first semester - some as early as the first week!
A few colleges now offer online accelerated BSN programs. Students complete all course work online, but complete their clinical rotations in their home communities, under the supervision of nurse preceptors and faculty. Online programs may also include an on-campus requirement at some point, so ask the college about specifics.
Today, you have more options than ever before to become a nurse. Make some calls and get out there!