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How to Become a Nurse — Nursing Education & Career Development

The healthcare industry is currently rapidly expanding and doesn’t show signs of slowing down any time soon. The demand for healthcare services is expected to increase due to an aging population, new technology, and a greater need for healthcare at home.

Nurses play a key role in the healthcare industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of registered nurses (RN) will grow by 12% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than average.

Nursing is a multifaceted career that can take you down many clinical pathways. You may work directly with patients in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, schools, rehabilitation facilities. Non-clinical settings include, government organizations, research, education, and consulting.

If you’re considering becoming a nurse, this guide will walk you through the different career paths, levels of nursing, and the steps you need to take.

Choose Your Nursing Career Path

One of the most exciting things about the healthcare industry is there is a career path for everyone. This is true for nurses too, as there are many different career paths nurses can take depending on their interests and skills

Bedside/Hospital Nursing

When most people think of a nurse, they think of bedside nurses who work in a hospital. A bedside nurse’s primary responsibility is to render immediate and direct clinical care to patients under their care, which can include the assessment of a patient’s general health status, identification of their needs, vital signs recording, overall patient observation, assisting physicians with their procedures, lab values and diagnostic tests and more.

A nurse in a hospital setting may work in a specialized area, such as a pediatric unit, cardiology, or general Med/Surg unit, that demands a different set of skills and clinical responsibilities. Nurses may also pursue a certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center once they have chosen a specialty.

Long-term Care

Nurses who work in long-term care facilities tend to have more responsibility when it comes to providing medical and even personal care since they tend to the needs of individuals who cannot manage themselves independently. Nurses who work in long-term care may be responsible for tasks like tube feedings, managing catheters, assisting ventilator-dependent patients, or aiding in physical therapy.

Care Coordinators

Care coordinators are part of the discharge management team who primarily work to prevent the under-utilization and over-utilization of health care services. A common responsibility a care coordinator has is to contact patients shortly after they have been discharged to ensure they have everything they need. Alternatively, a care coordinator may work with senior citizens in the community to make sure they follow healthy lifestyles and receive the care they need.

Care coordinators can work with different populations in many different environments to serve as the contact between healthcare facilities and patients.

Specialized Nursing Roles

Nurses can work in various community environments. School nursing is one of the most well-known examples of a specialized nursing role in the community. Other specialties include psychiatric, critical care, research, public health, and travel nursing.

Decide on Your Level of Nursing

The nursing field offers rewarding careers at virtually every level of education, which means nurses can take their career as far or as wide as they desire.

  • Licensed practical nurses (LPNs): Licensed practical nurses are entry-level nurses that provide basic patient care and work under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. An LPN usually obtains a certificate from a year of study or earns an associate degree in nursing education. They are required to pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).

Note: A licensed vocational nurse (LVN) is the same job as an LPN, but the LVN name is used in California and Texas.

  • Registered nurses (RNs): Registered nurses make up the vast majority of those in the nursing field. All states require registered nurses to have an associate degree, however, many employers look for candidates who have earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) education. Obtaining a state license to practice is also required. Ultimately, passing the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is needed.
  • Nurse practitioners: Nurse practitioners obtain a higher nursing education, usually a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). A nurse practitioner has more autonomy than other nurses and can make more decisions with patient treatment and care. Additional certifications are also obtained in specialized practice such as family medicine, pediatrics, and critical care.

Steps to Become a Nurse

There are so many variations to nursing programs, so make sure you take the time to research all the ones in your area, or consider the various online options. Don’t let the cost of the length or the cost of the program deter you. Always talk to an admissions representative before you apply to get the full picture of what the application will require, sample school and clinical schedules from previous years, and to discuss the financial commitment. From there, be sure to talk to the financial aid department and always check to see what kind of grants and subsidies you might be able to apply for. 

1. Complete an Accredited Nursing Program

To become a Registered Nurse, students are required to graduate from an accredited nursing program and have an associate degree or higher. An associate degree in nursing generally requires two years of education, while a bachelor’s degree typically requires four. One option is to complete the first two years, start working and then bridge back into a BSN program. If you already hold a degree in a non-nursing field, be sure to look for accelerated BSN programs could allow you to graduate with your BSN in two years. 

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

After graduating from nursing school, aspiring Registered Nurses must register with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). The school you are graduating from will assist you in setting up your initial exam and the fees are generally covered in your education expenses. This exam is administered on a computer in a Pearson Professional Center, which are testing centers located in each state, and must be completed within six hours. Individuals who do not pass the exam the first time must wait 45 days to retake the exam and additional fees will apply. There are multiple review courses you can take to help you best prepare for the NCLEX, your school will be a great resource for you to discuss all of the options. 

3. Obtain Your Nursing License in Your State

After passing the NCLEX-RN, you must obtain a state license to legally practice nursing. Every state has different requirements and application processes, so you should contact your state board of nursing to see what steps need to be taken to be properly licensed.

4. Seek Employment

Once you have your state license, you may seek employment. Since RNs are in high demand, you can look for jobs in any number of environments based on your career aspirations. If you aren’t sure where to start looking, check with the career center at your school, or call the local hospital’s recruitment office.

5. Pursue Additional Training and Education

If you’d like to advance your nursing career, chances are you’ll need additional training and education to achieve your goals. However, even if you don’t plan on going into a specific field of nursing in the near future, most states require nurses to renew their licenses and specific yearly intervals, and keep current with new trends and education in the field of nursing by gaining continuing education credits.

Justine Nelson

Justine Nelson RN, BSN, has been a registered nurse for over 11 years with experience in home health, community health, school based nursing and healthcare based tech startups. Justine is passionate about developing new and innovative roles for nurses outside of traditional nursing roles. She currently serves as an RN content Specialist for Clipboard Health.

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