Nursing is an incredibly rewarding career field. With that said, it is the largest healthcare profession and employs roughly four million nurses worldwide. There are dozens of different specializations in the field and an extensive list of career options. There are even different academic routes that aspiring nurses can choose from on their path to their ultimate career goals. All of those factors together can make navigating the world of nursing a little bit confusing.
In this guide, you will learn about the different types of nursing careers, degree programs in nursing, and even how to select a nursing program and receive the financial aid you need to get through school.
Is Nursing a Good Career Choice?
Nursing has been long regarded as one of the best career choices in the medical field and overall. Nurses are the largest workforce in the healthcare industry and registered nurses comprise one of the largest segments of the entire workforce in America. It is easy to understand why one might assume that there are so many people employed in the field and pursuing careers in it that it’s not a worthy pursuit but that’s quite far from true.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is projected to grow at a rate of 12% between 2018 and 2028. The average national growth rate is just 5% so you can see that this is a rapidly expanding field. Current projections state that more than 300,000 nursing jobs will be created over the next ten years. Something even more telling is that those projections were made prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, which has increased demand for nurses all around the world.
Even prior to the pandemic, there has been a documented shortage of nurses for years. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has stepped in several times to help bring attention to the shortage, which they refer to as a healthcare concern for all populations. Two of the main contributing factors for the shortage are the aging population of the nursing workforce right now as well as the aging population as a whole. According to the AACN, 50.9% of nurses are over the age of 50 so they are coming up on retirement age. Current enrollment rates into nursing programs are not sufficient enough to keep up with the projected rate of retirement among nurses as they reach 65 or older. There is even a documented shortage of nursing faculty among academic institutions to support higher enrollment.
As far back as 2014, the changing demographics of America have been a growing concern in healthcare. The population of people over the age of 65 is projected to be double what it was in 2012 by the year 2050. That is going to lead to higher demand for nurses who specialize in geriatric care as well as nurses who are equipped to help patients with chronic conditions, diseases, and more.
Even though millions of Americans are working in the nursing field right now, that field is going to continue to grow and, according to current trends, so is the shortage. If you were concerned about not being able to secure employment because of how many nurses there are, that’s not something you will need to worry about at all. In addition, this strong demand for adequately educated nurses is going to help provide you with great job security once you enter your professional life.
Another thing that makes nursing such a great career choice is that it is a very diverse field. There are careers in nursing at all levels of education, in a variety of medical settings, and even outside of medical practice. If you want to work in law, forensics, education, or even public health, there are opportunities for you to pursue those interests in a nursing career.
Once you enter your career, there are also significant opportunities for advancement. Continuing education is important in nursing to maintain licensure and you can take advantage of those continuing education courses and programs to expand your skills and climb the career ladder in the facility you work in. You can also change trajectories pretty easily once you have the necessary education and experience. For instance, many nursing educators spent years working in clinical settings before moving to a faculty role and many of them choose to do both.
For many aspiring college students with a passion for nursing, the amount of education that you need, and the cost of education can create apprehension. According to Nurse.org, the ROI for a nursing degree is almost unparalleled. Several other sources also express the same sentiment; the salary makes the education worth it if nursing is a career that you want to pursue.
Do Nurses Make Good Money?
The short answer is yes, nurses make good money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data states that the average salary among registered nurses for the year 2019 was $73,300.
With that said, there are a lot of factors that contribute to the salary that you will end up being paid as a nurse, such as location, specific career track, and level of education. The typical entry-level of education in the field is a Bachelor’s degree, or BSN. The most recent data from Payscale states that the average salary for nurses that hold a Bachelor’s degree is $84,000 annually. The same source states that the average salary for nurses that hold a Master’s degree is $94,000 per year. Finally, the reported average salary for a nurse with a DNP is $102,000 annually.
One of the biggest factors that has an impact on your projected annual salary is the actual position that you take as a nurse. Different positions at the same level of education can have drastically different salaries. As a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, you would have one of the highest paying careers in the field with an average annual salary of $167,000 per year. Another position that requires at least a Master of Science in Nursing is that of a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, which carries an average annual salary of $90,000 per year.
Nursing reportedly gets ranked among the top ROI for your degree; and even though there are better career opportunities as you further your education, even jobs with a BSN pay really well.
What Do Nurses Really Do?
Because of the diversity of career choices in the nursing field, the responsibilities of a nurse vary widely depending on the position that you choose. There are different nursing specialties and even positions to choose from within a given specialty and each of those things is going to influence the day-to-day responsibilities you may face. Different levels of education will also open you up to different sets of responsibilities based on what you have learned and any additional certifications that you may have.
There are some basic duties that most nurses will face if they are in any form of clinical practice, though. Some of the most common duties that a nurse must fulfill every day includes:
- Administer medications and change bandages
- Check vitals
- Conduct physical exams
- Coordinate patient care plans with other medical professionals
- Discuss symptoms and experiences with patients to help determine their needs
- Draw patient’s blood
- Make notes and keep effective medical records on patients
- Perform some health-related tests on patients
- Provide counseling and education to patients and their families
- Stay informed about current trends and innovations in patient care.
Another thing that will affect the types of things a nurse will do while on the job is the exact location or type of facility they work in. Nurses can work in a variety of different medical settings even though a hospital is the most common. Nurses can work in clinics and doctor’s offices. Nurse practitioners, after a certain level of education, can work in their own offices. Nurses could work in schools, pharmacies, assisted living facilities, in people’s homes, and even ambulances or medical transport helicopters. A nurse that works in a hospital along with a full staff of nurses is going to be doing different things than a school nurse, and so on.
Even though the work tasks that a nurse has to complete are not constant, the same doesn’t apply when you think about the nurse’s role in patient care. This is a much easier way to look at what nurses really do. One way that most people look at this is doctors are trained to treat conditions, diseases, and injuries; nurses are trained to treat patients. They help execute treatment plans, educate patients, and assess their needs on an ongoing basis. Nurses carry out a variety of duties that help support patients, prevent medical problems, and improve the overall outcome after care ends. There are a variety of ways to do this.
There are four main categories of nursing careers which include clinical practice, administrative roles, research, and education. Regardless of the category, all nursing education and training centers on improving health outcomes for patients and supporting their health through long-term treatment, education, and more.
Careers In Nursing
There are a lot of careers that you can choose from in nursing. It is an incredibly diverse field and you have a lot of different options about what type of patients you’d like to see, what medical setting you’d like to work in, or what specific conditions you’d like to help treat. In this section, you will learn about the process of becoming a nurse and all of the career options you’ll have.
How Do You Become a Nurse
If you want to pursue a career in a field like finance or marketing, there are a variety of ways that you can get to the end result. There are different pathways academically and professionally that you can take to achieve your career goals. Nursing is very different in that regard. There is a prescribed pathway to becoming a nurse regardless of what type of nurse you would like to become.
Obviously, the first step to becoming a nurse is pursuing the appropriate education you’ll need. Depending on the type of nursing career you would like to have, there are different levels of education that you will need to pursue. There are minimum education requirements for different positions and those must be met. Education is the ultimate first step in any given field. When you look into how to become a nurse, you’ll find that there are requirements beyond education and that’s what we’re going to cover here.
Nurses, you’ll notice, are all called registered nurses or RNs. What that means is that they have been registered with a board of nursing and this process is called licensure. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), licensure is “the process by which boards of nursing grant permission to an individual to engage in nursing practice after determining that the applicant has attained the competency necessary to perform a unique scope of practice.”
Licensure is necessary for nurses because the activities that they must perform on the job are complex and require a certain level of skill or specialized knowledge, so it is a field that is very strictly regulated. The government, at both the state and federal level, sets forth requirements and qualifications that people must meet before they are legally allowed to practice nursing. Each state has a unique set of requirements but they are typically very similar.
How Do You Get a Nursing License?
In order to obtain a nursing license, there are a certain set of steps that you must take. The first of those is to complete an academic program in nursing that covers all of the pre-licensure requirements for the state you live in. Typically, all nursing education programs at the undergraduate level come standard and will cover all of the key competencies that you will need throughout the curriculum. These programs also have to have proper accreditation in order to make sure that you have been taught everything you needed to know and that the education you received meets the published standards for the field.
Secondly, based on the type of nursing degree program you completed and the specific license you are trying to obtain, you will have to pass one of two exams. There is the NCLEX-RN for those who want to become registered nurses and the NCLEX-PN for those who want to become practical nurses. These exams are proctored and can be taken at a testing site or online. Online testing was implemented in 1994 and since then, more than six million nursing licensure exams have been taken online. You must retain your results so that they can be verified. In order to be eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN, you must have completed at least an ADN or ASN, either an Associate Degree in Nursing or an Associate of Science in Nursing. The NCSBN states that a BSN in preferred. The NCLEX-PN is different and you’ll be eligible to sit for it after the completion of a nurse training program or a vocational program.
In the final year of nursing school, you will receive an application to sit for the exam related to your training as well as an application for licensure. Once you complete the application for the exam, you will receive a letter that either approves you to sit for the exam if you’ve met the requirements (this is called an Authorization to Test). You will schedule your exam date, take it, and then receive either a pass or fail result afterward. Once you receive the results, all of the documentation can be submitted alongside your application for licensure.
Finally, most state nursing boards will require you to pass a criminal background check prior to receiving your license. There are only six states that do not require nurses to pass a criminal background check before they’re granted a license, which are Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Wisconsin. It’s important that you check with your State Board of Nursing to inform yourself of all the requirements.
Something else to note is that you will typically need to have a nursing license in order to advance your education, like if you wanted to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing. If you want to go into any specialized nursing practice, you will need to earn an MSN and will also need to obtain additional certifications. Nursing Certifications are earned by taking specialized courses or programs in a certain area of nursing. Many of them will require you to sit for a separate exam and each of them has an organization that handles the certification process. Hospice nurses, acute care nurses, nurse anesthetists, and many others will all need these additional certifications.
Careers in Nursing – Nursing Degree Salary Expectations
There is a wide range of nursing careers that you can choose from. The career choices that are available to you are going to differ based on your level of education, any certifications you may have, and the license that you hold. You’ve probably seen nurses throughout your life that, like many other medical professionals, have what seems like an endless stream of letters after their names. Those letters typically reflect their level of education, licensure, and then what specialty area they are certified in.
Common academic abbreviations in nursing include:
- ADN: Associate’s Degree in Nursing
- BSN: Bachelor of Science in Nursing
- MSN: Master of Science in Nursing
- DNP: Doctor of Nursing Practice
- DNS: Doctor of Nursing Science
Based on whichever one of those nursing degrees you earn, different careers are going to be available to you as are different types of licenses and certifications. That is because the nursing education that you receive is going to determine your scope of practice. You will only be able to practice nursing based on what you learn, which is simple. The next set of letters that you may see are the different types of licenses that a nurse can have.
CNA: This stands for Certified Nursing Assistant. This isn’t the same as a CNS or Clinical Nurse Specialist, which is a form of advanced practice nursing. In order to become a CNA, you will go through a nurse training program that includes a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on clinical training. These programs typically last just a few weeks as opposed to months or years for other programs. They are offered at community colleges, vocational schools, hospitals, and even the American Red Cross. It is less common for this type of nursing program to be offered online.
Once you complete the CNA training program, each state has its own process that you must go through in order to get your certification. This usually includes proving that you’ve met the requirements for classroom instruction and clinical hours, and then taking an exam. As a Certified Nursing Assistant, you would usually be employed in a setting that is geared towards long-term care like an assisted living facility, a hospice setting, a correctional facility, or something along those lines. CNAs can also provide in-home care. They work directly with patients and their job is centered around long-term care.
The average annual nursing degree salary for a CNA is $28,540.
LPN: This stands for Licensed Practical Nurse and is also interchangeable with LVN, which stands for Licensed Vocational Nurse. Similar to the previous type of nursing license, you do not need a very extensive education. In order to become an LPN, you have to complete a nurse training program but you don’t need a degree. Instead, you can become an LPN with a diploma or a certificate from a vocational school or community college. Obtaining an Associate Degree in Nursing can also qualify you for this type of license. You can expect to complete the academic requirements, which are a blend of classroom and clinical instruction, in one to two years.
After you earn your certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree, you will then have to pass the NCLEX-PN exam. The specific requirements will vary by state but this is the typical pathway to receiving your license to practice as an LPN. Once registered, these nurses can work in a variety of medical settings. It is possible for them to find work in hospitals, military facilities, correctional facilities, doctor’s offices, in-home care, schools, and assisted living facilities. LPNs are involved in the ordinary care of patients, whether that is acute or long-term, but they do not have the same scope of practice as a registered nurse. Instead, an LPN usually answers to either a physician or RN.
The average annual nursing degree salary for an LPN is $45,710.
RN: This is the most common type of nursing license and it stands for Registered Nurse. This type of nursing license does require you to earn a degree. An Associate Degree in Nursing is accepted but the majority have or go on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. The education requirements in the field of nursing have been increasing over time and most places of employment prefer their RNs to hold a BSN degree. It is not uncommon for a registered nurse to complete an online RN to BSN degree program once they start working. Some employers even offer tuition reimbursement programs to encourage this. The degree required can be earned in two to four years.
After completing an undergraduate degree in nursing, which will include classroom instruction and clinical practice hours, you must take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Once you pass the exam, you will submit an application for licensure. After that is completed, RNs have a very broad range of career options. Registered nurses typically work in medical settings like hospitals, doctor’s offices, clinics, and a variety of other patient care settings. They are involved directly in patient care in a variety of ways like performing medical tests, assessing health needs, maintaining medical records, educating patients, and helping to create plans of care, along with a host of other things. As an RN, you will have the most diverse options when it comes to the setting you may end up working in and the duties you may end up performing.
The average nursing degree salary for an RN is $75,510 per year.
APRN: This stands for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse. There are multiple different types of APRNs, such as Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), and Nurse Practitioner (NP). In order to become an APRN, you must go through the process to become a registered nurse first. Afterward, you must continue your education at the graduate level and earn a Master of Science in Nursing or MSN. These programs can be completed in a traditional classroom setting but, given the nature of the nursing career, it is more common for practicing RNs to earn an MSN degree online. At this level, there are even more opportunities for your employer to pay for your degree.
Earning a Master of Science in Nursing can take as little as one year or it can take several years. There are a lot of factors that impact how long it takes to earn an MSN, like work schedule, class schedule, and enrollment status. In these programs, you will have the option to select a specialty area that you’d like to work in and that will determine the classes that you need to take. A mix of classes and clinical instruction helps prepare RNs for an advanced area of practice. The majority of nursing degrees at this level are dominated by electives rather than a prescribed curriculum.
While working on this degree, you may find that different graduate-level certificate programs are offered at the nursing school you chose. You can organize your schedule so you earn one of these certificates alongside your graduate degree. Depending on the state you live in, you may be required to earn a graduate certificate in your specialty area. Once you have completed your advanced degree, clinical hours, and any required certificates in an academic setting, you will then need to pass a certification exam. There are different organizations that oversee different types of advanced practice and you will need to take their exam and complete any prescribed steps to gain a certificate from them. After that, you can apply for additional licensure in your state.
APRNs typically work in the same medical settings as RNs. The key differences are in the responsibilities of an APRN. Depending on your specialty, you will see yourself involved in the care of a certain type of patient or for a certain type of medical problem. You can be certified as a CNM, CRNA, CNS, or NP. Additionally, there are a dozen or more sub-specializations to choose from for Nurse Practitioners.
Salaries will vary depending on the exact type of APRN you become. The overall average salary for all types of APRNs is $115,800.
Types of Nurses
Once you advance to a certain level in the nursing field, you find that there is a range of different types of nurses. Advanced Practice Registered Nurses typically fill the majority of these specialty roles but there are a lot of career options that are open to Registered Nurses as well. In order to be involved in any level of advanced practice, a Master of Science in Nursing is required. With that said, some types of nurses, like travel nurses are only required to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
In advanced practice, Nurse Practitioners have the broadest range of specializations to choose from. The main categories include population, setting, medical subspecialty, type of care, or type of health problem and there is a range of specializations or types of nurses in each category.
The Populations category refers to types of nurse that are trained to work with a specific patient population, such as babies (Pediatric Nurse Practitioners), women (Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners or Obstetric Nurse Practitioners), and even seniors (Adult-Gerontological Nurse Practitioners).
The Setting category refers to several different types of nurses that have special skills to make them a best fit based on the setting they choose. This could include types of nurses that specialize in rural treatment, emergency rooms, surgical facilities, and more.
The Medical Subspecialty category refers to nurses who are trained to work in a specific area of medicine like intensive care units (Critical Care Nursing), pregnancy wards (Labor and Delivery Nursing), or in surgical wards and facilities (Medical-Surgical Nursing).
The Type of Care category can apply to many of the others. Nurses can choose to specialize in acute care (short-term medical problems or injuries), or long-term care (such as in a facility). For instance, a nurse that works with older patients in emergency rooms, clinics, and doctor’s offices may be an Acute Care Adult-Gerontological Nurse Practitioner; a nurse that works with children receiving cancer treatment may be a Primary Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialization in Oncology.
The Type of Health Problem category is another that is extremely broad. A nurse that works with hereditary diseases could specialize in Genetics Nursing. Cardiac Care Nurses are ones who are trained to treat patients with heart conditions. There are also nurses who specialize in psychiatric care (Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners).
Even still, there are dozens of different types of nurses that are not covered above. There are burn care nurses, bariatric nurses, ambulatory care nurses, orthopedic nurses, and so many more. In total, there are over a hundred different types of nurses and there is a unique demand for each of them. Don’t feel like you won’t be able to have a unique and interesting career just because nursing seems like it’s very narrow from the outside. Some of the types of nurses you read about above are the most common but, there are some uncommon types of nurses as well.
Forensic Nurses, for instance, use their nursing expertise to help solve criminal cases. These types of nurses work with victims of crimes and help provide them with the compassionate and comprehensive care that they need. Other things that forensic nurses do include helping to gather evidence for law enforcement to help solve cases, and they can also work with coroners or medical examiners to help determine a cause of death. This is a great way to combine a passion for nursing with a background in criminal justice.
Nurses that work in a hospital setting but are looking to expand their horizons can also work as Medical Script Nurses. In this type of career, you would work with film and television scriptwriters, producers, and production crews and act as a consultant. This work isn’t always easy to find but it can be very rewarding! Medical script nurses work alongside writers and directors and other crew members to help make sure that their productions are medically accurate.
Nurses can also choose to specialize in an area that is close to their heart such as developmental disabilities, domestic violence, lactation, or life care (helping patients with life-altering injuries or conditions plan out how to navigate their lives after such a drastic change). You could specialize in transcultural care or international nursing, helping bridge the gaps for patients of different cultural backgrounds or from different parts of the world with their care teams. Most types of nurses work in direct patient care but the other options out there may surprise you too!
Alternative Careers in Nursing
When people think about nurses, they typically think about the ones that work directly with patients and help care for them in a medical setting; however, there are a lot of different options in the field. Many of these opportunities would allow you to apply other interests to your career in nursing and help improve patient outcomes in a more indirect (but sometimes more impactful) way.
In the hospital, there are a lot of administrative roles that nurses can take on. These positions are available to undergraduate degree holders as well as those who went on to obtain a graduate degree. Some different administrative careers for nurses include healthcare administrator, clinical nurse leader, or nursing supervisor. In a role like this, you could see yourself in charge of more business-related tasks related to the nurses that work in your facility. You could be tasked with creating and managing budgets, keeping track of resources, and even doing performance reports on the nurses that you’re in charge of.
In an administrative role as a nurse, you would also be in charge of managing the nurses throughout the facility. This means that you would make sure they were scheduled to work in the appropriate parts of the hospital, making sure that they’re doing their jobs well, and handling any problems that may arise in the workplace. You could be tasked with approving plans of care, providing employee counseling, and overseeing teams of nurses as they perform their day to day activities. This is typically an office-based job.
Nursing faculty shortages are another problem in the nursing field. According to the AACN, over 75,000 qualified applicants were rejected from nursing school programs due to faculty shortages in 2018. The projected job growth for nurse educators is as much as 24% between 2016 and 2026, according to a variety of sources. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep data on this occupation. Nurse educators also make an average of $75,695 per year. It’s in demand, growing, and pays well.
Nurse educators can work in a variety of settings. Some of them work in hospitals and help make sure that nursing students are meeting the requirements for their clinical hours or they help make sure that the educational programs offered through the hospital are effective. Some of them can work in curriculum design at universities. Nurse educators can also work in classroom settings as professors or even help create continuing education programs for nurses who are already in their professional lives. You could also find work helping to write textbooks or create other learning materials for nurse training programs and classes.
In order to work in a nurse educator role, you must have some experience working in a clinical setting and then continue your education at the graduate level. The most common degree program for this type of just is a Master of Science in Nursing Education.
Medical research is incalculably important to the entire healthcare industry. Nursing research is especially critical because evidence-based care is the core of the entire field. As a nurse researcher, you’re a nurse but also a scientist. You could find yourself working for a hospital, pharmaceutical lab, clinic, or research facility. Most nurse researchers do have experience in bedside nursing; however, this job is carried out almost completely behind the scenes. According to PayScale, the average salary of a nurse researcher is $81,500.
Depending on where you work, you could be involved in research on how to improve the practice of nursing, how to improve patient outcomes among certain demographics, and many other topics related to nursing, patient care, and nurse education. You would be responsible for helping to design and conduct studies, analyze data, and create reports based on the conclusions from that data. In order to work as a nurse researcher, you will need an advanced degree in nursing such as an MSN or DNP. You could even have a PhD in Nursing if you wanted to devote your entire career to research. The master’s program you select should be one that is research-intensive rather than practice focused and you’ll want to select the thesis option if you’re given the choice.
Advocacy is a huge part of the nursing career. It is the responsibility of every nurse to help advocate for their patients and there is even a direct care position in hospitals known as a Nurse Advocate or Patient Advocate. If that is something that you are very passionate about but want to expand beyond a patient care role, you can pursue a career in health policy as a nurse. Nurses have been involved in advocating for change in the field since the inception of nursing as a profession and as the needs of the people they serve continue to evolve, that has become even more important.
A career in health policy is a perfect opportunity for nurses to work towards innovating healthcare, influencing policy changes that will improve patient outcomes, and streamlining treatment delivery. Health policy nurses can work in medical facilities, at research firms, as part of a non-profit or consultancy organization, and more. Many of them find work in community organizations or in their local, and state governments. Health policy nurses also can work in federal government offices. They may be part of orchestrating policy changes in health policy, research implementation, nursing leadership, and healthcare economics.
If you’d like to work in a health policy position, it is best if you have experience working directly with patients for several years. Most nurses who move on to this type of job would have the best career prospects if they hold a graduate degree. A Master of Science in Nursing, a Master of Public Health, or a Master of Public Administration would all be great options. Some things that health policy nurses could work to do include finding ways to increase access to adequate healthcare in underserved communities and looking for ways to reduce waste in healthcare.
Health policy is one of the most well-paid areas in the nursing field unrelated to direct care, with an average annual nursing degree salary of $71,703.
This is closely related to the previous alternative career path. Nurses that work in public health can help impact health policy overall but, that’s not all they do. Many public health nurses help create community initiatives to help improve the health of the populations that they serve. They can also help create important health guidelines at a local, state, or federal level depending on the career trajectory that they choose. The education and experience requirements are very closely aligned with those of health policy nurses. They work in similar environments and the salary information is also comparable.
As technology continues to grow, it has started to influence change in every other industry. Healthcare informatics is an emerging career in the field of nursing that is a great choice for the technologically inclined. Informatics nurses work at the crossroads of technology and nursing. They are responsible for analyzing the available technology and observing health data to help inform how technology can be implemented to improve patient outcomes. Hospitals, doctor’s offices, medical facilities, and companies that work to develop healthcare technology all employ informatics nurses to help inform the development of new technology and how it can be used to deliver better care to their patients.
Most of the time, these nurses do not work directly with patients. However, they should have a couple of years of experience in bedside care to secure a job like this. In addition, further education is needed to help get them familiar with the key concepts of informatics. This can take the form of continuing education courses, a graduate certificate, or an additional degree. A common option is a Master’s in Healthcare Informatics. In order to succeed as an informatics nurse, you will need to be tech-savvy and it’s going to take some work on your part.
Getting A Nursing Education
When you are faced with the sheer volume of options in nursing, figuring out how to navigate the world of higher education can become even more confusing. Just at the undergraduate level, there are roughly 1,000 different nursing degree programs. You may not know what a nursing program entails at all, you may not know how you can pay for your nursing school, or maybe you aren’t sure how to narrow down all of your options. Regardless of where you’re at, this section is going to answer all of the questions you may have about going to nursing school.
What Do You Learn in Nursing School?
Nursing education is the absolute first step that you’ll take on your journey to becoming a nurse. The degree programs are designed to give you all of the information and experience that you need in order to hit the ground running on your first day which means that they are full of information. It’s going to take a lot of work on your part; there is a lot of studying and a lot of hands-on practice in a variety of medical settings to get you ready. Most programs are all structured in the same way.
The main component of any nursing curriculum is the core classes. These are the classes that you must take in order to meet the requirements of your degree. They are designed to make sure that you have all of the core competencies of nursing under your belt but, they also prepare you for the NCLEX exams that you will need to take to get your nursing license.
Some of the subjects you will cover in your nursing core classes at the Associates level include:
- Nursing Practice
- Nursing Theory
- Public Health
You will also be expected to complete any general education requirements that the school you attend prescribes for their students. If you enter directly into a BSN program without an ADN, you will also take those courses listed above as part of your program. Most students that are pursuing a BSN, though, are enrolled in either face-to-face or online RN to BSN programs. Those bridge programs are not going to cover those basic topics again. Instead, they’re going to build on what you’ve learned with more in-depth courses like Community Health, Health Promotion, and Risk Reduction, Informatics in Nursing, Innovations in Healthcare, Nursing Ethics, Nursing Leadership, and Nursing Management. You’re also likely to encounter classes that cover current trends and issues related to nursing and healthcare.
At the Bachelor’s level, that is when you will also start having the option to complete elective courses (depending on the structure of the program you’re in). Most of the time, you will be required to select some electives that are related to your degree program and then will have a handful of free electives.
Another key element to a nursing degree program is clinicals. Sometimes this is referred to as clinical hours or practicum hours. In that component of your program, you will work full shifts in a variety of medical settings alongside an instructor or nurse educator. This part of the curriculum gives you hands-on experience and gives you the opportunity to begin applying what you’ve learned in the classroom. The number of hours you need will vary based on the program you’re in but, most programs will be set up so you will have to complete three clinical hours for every one hour of time spent in the classroom.
BSN programs also culminate in final exams and you will be expected to complete a capstone course or project. Usually, the capstone just involves completing a research paper or project which you will have to present. In total, it can take three or four years to complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
Graduate Nursing Programs
Master’s level programs in nursing follow a very similar structure with some key differences. Regardless of what Master of Science in Nursing degree program you choose, there are some core elements that the curriculum will be designed to cover. They are designed to give you the scientific background for nursing practice, expose you to organizational leadership concepts, and teach you how to integrate scholarship into your nursing practice. You will learn about emerging technologies in nursing and healthcare, quality and safety improvement, health policy, and how to encourage clinical prevention, as well as fostering a collaborative medical environment to improve patient outcomes for individuals and populations. They also expose you to more extensive clinical practice.
The core classes that you take as part of an MSN program are designed to build on what you learned in your undergraduate program as well as what you may have learned throughout the course of your nursing career thus far.
Some topics you can expect to be covered in the core classes for an MSN include:
- Disease Prevention
- Health Promotion
- Healthcare Economics
- Nursing Theory
- Social Issues in Nursing
One of the biggest differences at this level of nursing education is that you have greater options in terms of course selection, which allows you to specialize in your MSN. You will be exposed to more electives related to your desired focus area, which could be a certain type of nursing (leading you to become an APRN) or could introduce you to an alternative career in nursing (health policy, education, or something else). Obtaining a graduate degree in nursing helps open you up to career opportunities in advanced practice as well as leadership. Nurses that hold a Master’s degree make over 10% more than nurses that hold a Bachelor’s degree.
You will also be exposed to additional clinical hours in an MSN program. If you are going into an area of advanced practice, much of those clinical hours will be focused on that specific area.
The final difference between undergraduate and graduate-level nursing programs is how they end. Depending on the program that you select, you will likely be given the choice of a thesis option or non-thesis option. A non-thesis option is going to expose you to more practical aspects of nursing and you will most likely have to complete a capstone project similar to the ones you’d encounter in a BSN degree program. The thesis option is usually a few more hours and has a much heavier focus on research and nursing theory. You will be required to complete a thesis paper and present it.
Thesis options are best-suited for nurses that want to pursue a career related to research or education in the field of nursing. Most doctorate programs require you to take the thesis option in order to be eligible for enrollment. You can expect your Master’s degree to take about two years to complete.
At the doctorate level, most nurses pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice or DNP. There are also PhD programs in nursing or you can pursue a Doctor of Nursing Science. These programs are going to allow you to go more in-depth into your specialty area. They can prepare you for executive positions in healthcare facilities, teaching positions, and more advanced careers in nursing research. You will be exposed to more advanced topics like Epidemiology, Systems Management, and will likely take additional Healthcare Informatics and Ethics courses.
DNP programs require you to complete a minimum of 500 clinical hours and will culminate in a DNP project. There are different tracks to choose from based on your career goals (such as practice-focused, business-focused, and so on) but most of the programs have the same structure. Nurses who go on to earn a DNP degree make, on average, $5,000 more per year than nurses who hold an MSN.
Online Nursing Degrees vs. Traditional Nursing Degrees
Online degree programs are becoming increasingly popular across a variety of fields but that is especially true in nursing. Nurses typically continue their education after they have already started working and it is a particularly demanding career that can make it difficult to schedule attending a traditional nursing degree program. There are hundreds of different nursing degree programs available all across the country, both online and on-campus.
Traditional nursing degree programs consist of in-person classroom instruction and clinical hours that typically take place at the university hospital or one that the university has partnered with. Many of them are residential, which can mean that some nurses have to relocate to attend school. For many, this isn’t an ideal situation because of their job, their family, or any other obligations that they may have. Earning your nursing degree on campus may open you up to more networking opportunities and is going to be a lot more structured.
The hands-on nature is one of the reasons why so many students may feel apprehensive about approaching this type of degree program online. There’s nothing to worry about in that regard, though. When you choose to study nursing online, you can often complete all of the necessary clinical hours at an approved facility near you and you will have an advisor that helps you coordinate that. If you’re already working as a nurse, some programs may allow you to complete your clinical hours where you are already employed.
In fact, there are a lot of advantages of online nursing degrees that you don’t get when you choose to pursue your degree on campus. The main benefit that you get is flexibility. Online programs do not require you to relocate so you won’t have to worry about leaving your career or any of your current obligations behind and starting fresh in a new community or at a college campus. Online classes are usually delivered in an asynchronous format, too. This means that there are not usually scheduled class times that you would need to be virtually present for. You can watch lectures and complete assignments at any time of day. With that said, some online MSN programs may have synchronous elements.
Your degree will not have any indication that it was earned online and employers have the same level of respect for distance education students that they have for those who attended their classes on campus. This is an exceptional opportunity for you to advance your career without turning your life upside down or having to put anything on hold. Most of the time, you can finish your entire program without ever having to set foot on a campus. Some programs will have requirements that involve you spending a few days at the school for things like orientation, certain courses, and to defend your thesis but these are always brief and you will know months in advance so that you can plan ahead for them.
Choosing to study online broadens the horizons for you in terms of what you can study. You are not limited to what the colleges and universities within traveling distance have to offer. Of course, if you choose to attend an out-of-state school, you may be subject to higher tuition and fees. Even though that is the case, there are a lot of affordable online nursing programs that will provide you with a great education without draining your finances.
Only you can decide which route is the best option for you; however, you should know that online nursing degree programs are a great option. They can be more affordable, faster to complete, and are much more flexible than on-campus programs. If you feel like you would do better with the structure of a campus-based program, there is an endless list of schools for you to choose from.
The one thing that you need to make sure of when you are looking at nursing schools that aren’t in your home state or the state you’d like to work in is that the degree programs that they offer meet the requirements for you to obtain a nursing license in that state. Most states are pretty standard, but it would be prudent to look into what your State Board of Nursing has to say on the matter.
Paying For Nursing School
College is expensive and when you are faced with how many years of nursing school that you have ahead of you to reach your career goals, that price tag can seem even more daunting. The good thing is that there are a lot of options out there for you to explore that will help you to reduce the cost of your nursing degree. Online students are eligible for the same financial aid benefits that on-campus students are, too!
The most important first step to receiving any kind of financial aid is filling out your FAFSA, which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It will ask you a long list of questions related to your income and your parents’ income along with some other general information. Even if you do not plan on taking out any student loans, it is still in your best interest to fill this application out. It will determine if you qualify for any need-based assistance. One of the most commonly awarded need-based grants is the Pell Grant. It is a government subsidy that is reserved for undergraduate students and you will never have to pay this money back.
The school that you decide to attend will also expect you to fill out your FAFSA to determine your eligibility for any financial aid that is offered through the university itself. There are all different kinds of assistance that you may qualify for and you will never know what they are without completing the application. So, make sure that you do it as soon as possible and make sure you do it correctly. Tip: Make sure you avoid these common FAFSA mistakes.
Grants For Nursing School
Grants are usually awarded based on financial need rather than academic merit. There are also some special grants available for nurses that have been created to help combat the mounting shortage of qualified nurses in the workforce. Grants are usually given by the government but they can also come from the college or university. In rare cases, you may be eligible for a private grant. The American Association of Critical Care Nurses awards grants to undergraduate students pursuing a career in critical care and the Gerontological Society of America awards grants to graduate students who are pursuing nursing careers related to aging populations. They can be awarded directly to the school you’re going to attend or directly to you, depending on the source and terms of the grant itself.
This is a type of financial aid that does not need to be paid back (in most circumstances). The only time that you would be expected to pay back any grant money that was awarded to you would be if you didn’t complete your nursing degree in the allotted timeframe (up to six years for a BSN), or if you drop out of the program altogether. In cases like this, your grant technically overpaid you and you would owe that money back.
Sometimes, special grants can be awarded based on your economic status, minority status, or the specific area of nursing that you want to enter. For instance, there are grants that have been established to help fund education for nurses that intend to work in underserved and rural communities upon graduation.
Scholarships are another way that you can help offset the cost of your nursing education. There are need-based scholarships, merit-based scholarships, and even special scholarships for different races, religions, career paths, and more. Scholarships can be awarded by the school you’re going to attend but they most often come from private sources like philanthropists, nursing associations, medical companies, or some other private organization.
Scholarships do not have to be paid back; however, scholarships are going to have more requirements than grants and may have a more extensive application process. For instance, some scholarships are only available as long as you maintain a certain GPA or enrollment status. Some scholarships want you to write an essay, submit a video, or create some kind of project. Some of them, you just have to submit your name and the school you plan to attend. There is a very vast sea of options when it comes to scholarships and there are tons of opportunities that are specifically for nurses.
You can search for scholarships using a tool like the ones provided by Scholarships.com and Scholly. Churches, healthcare corporations, and nursing associations all offer different scholarship opportunities that are specifically for nurses. Nurse.org has compiled a list of roughly a hundred different nursing scholarships to help you get started.
Scholarships will tell you in the application process all of the things that you will be required to submit as part of your application. You will also be able to see how the scholarship will be awarded, which can be directly to the school or directly to you. Most scholarships also outline the ways that you are allowed to use the money. As an example, some may be strictly for tuition whereas some will allow you to apply those funds to housing, textbooks, and sometimes even living expenses.
Tuition Reimbursement Programs
Nursing is an in-demand field and it is one that just requires a continuing education as time goes on to make sure that you’re staying informed about innovations in nursing and providing the highest level of care to the patients you work with. In addition, most states require nurses to have some continuing education in order to maintain their licensure. Because continuing education and ensuring that qualified nurses are available to fill key roles are so important, many employers offer tuition reimbursement programs.
This type of program can take multiple forms. If you work at a hospital or for another type of healthcare facility, your employer may have a program in place through which they will help pay for your education. Most of the time, these funds are paid directly to you after you have paid out of pocket for your classes. In order to qualify for this type of financial aid, you would have to look at the requirements set forth by your employer. Do they pay the school upfront? Do they pay you back while you’re in school? Do they pay you back after graduation?
It is also important to look at what they’re willing to pay for. Some employers are only willing to reimburse their employees if they attend a partner school or at least an in-state university. Some do not provide funding for private schools. Some only provide funding under certain circumstances and some have the amount they are willing to give you capped at around $5,000 (because of IRS requirements). Each employer is going to structure their program a little bit differently. Over the years, this practice has become increasingly common in nursing programs as a way to help make sure that there are enough nurses and that those already in the workforce have adequate education to move up in their careers.
The best way to find out if your employer offers this type of financial aid is to ask. Ask if it is available and ask any questions you have about the amounts available, how funds are awarded, and what you need to do to make sure you keep your eligibility. Keep in mind, you’re probably going to have to pay out of pocket with this one.
Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses
Student loans are something that most people end up needing and there is nothing wrong with that. They help you get your education now and give you the opportunity to pay the money back over time (with interest, of course). There are federal student loans, which typically have better interest rates and do not require you to have good credit or any credit history at all. Federal student loans are paid directly to the school you’re going to attend and do not need to be paid back while you’re still attending school. Private student loans tend to have higher interest rates, may have credit requirements, and will typically require you to make payments while you’re still in school. The only prominent benefit is that private student loans are paid directly to you and can be used to cover books, supplies, housing, and living expenses as well as tuition.
When you get federal student loans, you have the option of loan forgiveness programs. These are for when you are not able to pay back your loans or, at the very least, they can help offset some of those costs for you. Student loan forgiveness programs will have special requirements that you have to meet but there are programs specifically for nurses, along with several others that nurses may qualify for.
Faculty Loan Repayment Program: Nurses have the option to apply for this program in order to receive as much as $40,000 towards paying off their student loans. In order to be eligible for this type of debt forgiveness, nurses have to work for at least two years teaching at a nursing school. If you’re a nurse educator that meets that requirement, you can apply for this program to help knock a huge chunk off of your student loans.
Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation: Perkins Loans are federal student loans with extremely low-interest rates and they are reserved for those who demonstrate extreme financial need. These loans are not being awarded anymore but any nurses who were recipients of these loans could qualify for this program. Some nurses could qualify for up to 100% loan forgiveness as long as they have worked in the field for a minimum of five years on a full-time basis.
NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program: This is a program that is offered by the US Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Health Workforce. In order to be eligible for this debt forgiveness option, nurses must either work in a healthcare facility that has a critical shortage of nursing staff or work as faculty at an eligible nursing school on a full-time basis. If you’re accepted into this program, the Bureau of Health Workforce will pay 60% of your unpaid student loan debt over a two-year period.
National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program: This student loan forgiveness program is only offered to certain types of nurses. In order to qualify, you must hold a Master of Science in Nursing and be certified as a Nurse Midwife, Nurse Practitioner, or Psychiatric Nurse Specialist. NP’s in the specialties of Adult, Family, Geriatric, Mental Health, Pediatric, Psychiatric, and Women’s Health care are eligible. If you meet any of those criteria and have worked at least two years in a Health Professional Shortage Area, this program could pay you up to $50,000 towards your student loans.
What To Look For in a Nursing Program
The final important piece of the puzzle when you’re preparing to go to nursing school is understanding what you need to look for in an institution to make sure that you get the education you need and that you’ll be able to professionally apply your degree in the way that you want to. There are four key things to consider.
Accreditation is the process through which third-party organizations assess programs to make sure that they are relevant and meet the standards set forth by the United States Department of Education. This is especially important in nursing programs because failing to make sure that you’re enrolled in a properly accredited program could make it so that you are unable to receive a nursing license once you graduate.
The two main accrediting bodies for nursing programs are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Both agencies have websites with rich resources to help you find appropriate programs. You can also consult the National Center for Education Statistics. Making sure that your program is accredited ensures that you will be eligible for financial aid, you will be able to transfer credits, you will be able to continue your education, and you will be able to obtain a license to practice nursing. This is critical.
2. Classes In Your Specialty Area
This is going to be more applicable to graduate-level nursing programs but it is something that you want to make sure that you are looking at. If you have a goal of becoming an APRN and you know that the state you live in has a certain set of requirements or the organization that grants such certifications expects you to have competency in a particular area, you need to make sure you will be enrolled in the right classes. Online degree programs make this easier than ever.
3. Prerequisites For Higher Education
This tip applies to both undergraduate and graduate students. Each nursing program is going to have prerequisites that you will need to have taken and passed before you can be eligible to enroll. At the undergraduate level, if you have a goal of attending a specific university’s nursing school and they expect you to have completed certain courses in something like anatomy or biology, make sure you choose a BSN program that includes those classes. If you haven’t taken prerequisites, you could be rejected from the program. In most cases, you will have to take them as summer courses to prepare you before the semester starts. This means that you will have to pay for more classes and, unfortunately, a lot of these “bridge” courses are only available in a face-to-face format.
At the graduate level, this is less relevant but still important. For instance, if you know that you would like to go on to enroll in a DNP program or even a nursing PhD program, they may require you to have completed a thesis in order to be eligible to enroll. Everything that you’re doing when you’re selecting your programs should be done with your future in mind.
4. Licensure Requirements in Your State
The final thing is that you should always research the requirements to obtain a nursing license in the state that you want to practice in. You don’t want to make such a big investment and then later find out that something was left out along the way. This is especially important for students who are going to earn their degrees at an out-of-state school or plan to enroll in an online nursing program.
Nursing is one of the most in-demand career fields that offer great starting salaries, upward mobility, and opportunities to pursue your unique passions. You have the ability to pick an academic path that works for you and the possibilities of where nursing can take you are virtually limitless. To learn more about nursing and other healthcare degree programs, you can check out this resource for more information.
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