Nursing Career Paths [Infographic]

Nursing Career Paths [Infographic]

Aspiring nurses will take different paths to achieve their nursing career goals. The desired role or specialization helps determine their direction—but even nurses in the same roles or specialty may take different routes to reach the same end. Geography, stage of life, and financial flexibility can also be factors in shaping a nursing career path.

By understanding the daily responsibilities and education required for various nurse jobs, students can make nursing career decisions that most align with their aspirations.


There will be more registered nurse jobs available through 2022 than any other profession in the United States, according to the American Nurses Association.


Four of the most common nursing degrees are:

Go to a transcript at the bottom of this post explaining the routes an aspiring nurse can take to earn a nursing degree and become a registered nurse, nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, certified registered nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse leader, or certified nurse-midwife.

What Can I Do With an Associate’s Degree in Nursing?

An associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) is typically the minimum education required to become a registered nurse (RN), but aspiring RNs should contact the nursing regulatory body where they plan to practice to confirm.

An ADN program can often be completed in less than two years. All classes in an ADN program are specific to nursing with no general education requirements. Graduates can sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

The responsibilities of an ADN-prepared nurse differ by specialty but typically include:

  • Taking patient histories and symptoms
  • Communicating with patients about their concerns
  • Checking and tracking vital signs
  • Administering medications

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Nursing Career Spotlight: Certified Nursing Assistant


What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Do?

Under the supervision of a registered nurse, CNAs provide basic care for patients in hospitals and people in long-term care facilities. This includes monitoring patients’ vital signs and assisting them with the tasks of daily living, including bathing, getting dressed, using the toilet, and eating. Some CNAs may also help administer medications.

Similar to a CNA, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) is an entry-level nursing role. LPNs provide basic medical care in hospitals and other care facilities and go through a similar process as RNs to achieve licensure.

What Education and Experience Are Required to Become a CNA?

Aspiring CNAs must have obtained a high school diploma or GED and completed a state-approved education program, such as an ADN program. After graduation, applicants must pass a CNA certification test, which consists of a written exam and clinical skills test.

What Is the Job Outlook for a CNA?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the following nursing career information for CNAs:

  • Median Pay in 2018: $28,530
  • Job Outlook 2018–2028: 9% increase (faster than average)

What Can I Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing?

A baccalaureate degree in nursing, such as a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), is typically a four-year degree program that prepares students to sit for the NCLEX-RN, similar to an ADN program, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nurses (AACN) fact sheet on nursing practice.

Aspiring nurses should note that some hospitals mandate that nurses hold a BSN. Almost half of hospitals and other health care settings require new hires to hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing, according to the 2017 Employment of New Nurse Graduates and Employer Preferences for Baccalaureate-Prepared Nurses from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The same survey showed that 83.6% of employers strongly preferred BSN program graduates.

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To progress to an advanced practice registered nurse certification (APRN), many universities require a BSN degree for admittance.


BSN programs cover the sciences, nursing research, public and community health, management, and the humanities in greater depth than ADN or nursing diploma programs. Students graduate with a deeper understanding of the complexities of health and care delivery and are prepared for a broader scope of practice, according to the AACN fact sheet. As a result, earning the degree may open the door to more job opportunities and stronger graduate degree options. Another key difference between an ADN and BSN is that BSN programs often allow for specialization in subfields, such as oncology and pediatrics.

In practice, ADN vs BSN competencies can be similar. Responsibilities of a BSN-prepared nurse typically include:

  • Evaluating and assessing patients’ conditions
  • Administering medications and treatments
  • Developing plans for patients’ care
  • Supporting and implementing empirical research projects and human studies

Nursing Career Spotlight: Registered Nurse


What Does a Registered Nurse (RN) Do?

RNs are nursing professionals who have successfully completed a nationally accredited nursing degree program, such as a bachelor of science degree in nursing, and passed the NCLEX-RN. They are trained to assess patients’ conditions, evaluate them, and help perform and analyze diagnostic tests. With these data points, they can then develop patients’ care plans. RNs may work in hospitals, provider offices, home health settings, long-term care facilities, and schools.

What Education and Experience Are Required to Become an RN?

RN is a certification, not a degree. Aspiring RNs must complete an approved BSN, ADN, or nursing diploma program with supervised clinical experience. The program should include coursework in anatomy, physiology, nutrition, microbiology, chemistry, and psychology, as well as social and behavioral sciences. In order to practice, graduates must then pass the NCLEX-RN to achieve licensure and obtain provider-level certification in CPR, basic life support, and advanced cardiac life support.

Some state boards of nursing may have further requirements. Learn more about state requirements from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

What Is the Job Outlook for an RN?

The BLS reports the following nursing career information for RNs:

  • Median Pay in 2018: $71,730
  • Job Outlook 2018–2028: 12% increase (much faster than average)

What Can I Do With a Master’s Degree in Nursing?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an advanced practice degree that enables nurses to advance in a specialty area or population and develop their clinical leadership skills, according to the AACN. Generally, an active RN license is required to enroll in an MSN program.


One in five nurse practitioners, a type of APRN, held an executive-level position such as CEO, CNO, or owner in a 2018 survey.


Depending on the program, an MSN can be pursued from several different starting points: an ADN, a BSN, or an associate of science in nursing (ASN). MSN programs are often specialized, preparing graduates to pursue certification as advanced practice roles, such as family nurse practitioner, clinical nurse researcher, nurse educator, certified nurse-midwife, and women’s health nurse practitioner.

Responsibilities of an MSN-prepared nurse depend on the specific role and could involve:

  • Working in primary care, diagnosing and managing acute and chronic conditions
  • Caring for women, offering reproductive health care, delivering babies, and caring for newborns
  • Managing clinical trials, collecting data, and performing analyses
  • Teaching nursing courses at colleges and universities

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Nursing Career Spotlight: Nurse Practitioner


What Does a Nurse Practitioner (NP) Do?

An NP is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who coordinates patient care and provides either primary or specialty care. In many states, APRNs function autonomously as patients’ primary provider or care team leader, providing the same level of care as physicians, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

NPs typically have more responsibilities than RNs. Their scope of practice includes diagnosing and treating illness, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, and writing prescriptions (depending on state legislation). Promoting health and preventing disease are a major focus of NPs, particularly those in primary care.

What Education and Experience Are Required to Become an NP?

Aspiring nurse practitioners must hold an active RN license and sometimes a BSN. To practice, they must hold an advanced degree (an MSN or Doctor of Nursing Practice), national board certification in their chosen specialty or population, and state licensure.

What Is the Job Outlook for an NP?

The BLS reports the following nursing career information for NPs:

  • Median Pay in 2018: $113,930
  • Job Outlook 2018–2028: 26% increase

What Can I Do With a Doctorate Degree in Nursing?

The Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree that prepares registered nurses to pursue advanced certification with additional training on evidence-based practice, leadership, and practice-based research, according to the AACN’s fact sheet on DNPs.

Though the DNP is a relatively new degree, the AACN released a position statement in 2004 calling for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to be educated at the doctorate level. Currently, APRNs can hold either a master’s or doctorate degree in order to pursue licensure.

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DNP vs PhD


The DNP focuses on leadership and evidence-based practice as applied to clinical settings. A PhD in nursing is also rooted in research but meant for nurses seeking to become nurse researchers, nurse educators, or policy shapers.

The DNP is a practice doctorate that prepares graduates to operate at the highest level of nursing practice. DNP-prepared nurses may take on more of a leadership role in clinical practice or health care administration. They work to improve care delivery and outcomes, often taking a step back from daily practice to observe how the system works together as a whole.


The following section includes real text from the graphic in the post.

Nursing Career Pathways

Aspiring nurses can take a variety of avenues to achieve their professional goals. Follow the general nursing career paths below to find out more about the requirements and rewards associated with some of the most popular roles.

You want to become a nurse.

  • You obtain a Diploma in Nursing.
  • You pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses).
  • You receive state RN licensure.
  • You begin working as a registered nurse.

OR

  • You obtain an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN).
  • You pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses).
  • You receive state RN licensure.
  • You begin working as a registered nurse.

OR

  • You obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
  • You pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses).
  • You receive state RN licensure.
  • You begin working as a registered nurse.

You want to become an APRN.

You obtain a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP), specializing as a:

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)
    • You pass the NP certification exam.
    • You apply for NP state licensure.
    • You start working as an NP.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
    • You pass the CNS certification exam.
    • You apply for CNS state licensure.
    • You start working as a CNS.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
    • You pass the CRNA certification exam.
    • You apply for CRNA state licensure.
    • You start working as a CRNA.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
    • You pass the CNM certification exam.
    • You apply for CNM state licensure.
    • You start working as a CNM.
  • Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)
    • You pass the CNL certification exam. There is not a state licensure process for CNLs.
    • You start working as a CNL.
  • 2018 Median NP Salary: ~$107,000/year
  • The BLS does not report salary data for CNS positions. To learn more, reach out to employers in your area.
  • 2018 Median CRNA Salary: ~$167,950/year
  • 2018 Median CNM Salary: ~$103,770
  • The National Council of State Boards of Nursing reported that about 88% of first-time, U.S.-educated NCLEX-RN takers passed in 2019.
  • Median RN Salary: ~$72,000/year
  • Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 12% from 2018 to 2028.
  • In 2018, 17.1% of RNs in the United States held a master’s degree, and only 1.9% held a doctorate degree, according to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Study.
  • The BLS does not report salary data for CNL positions. To learn more, reach out to employers in your area.

Sources:

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “CNL Certification.” Accessed February 13, 2020. https://www.aacnnursing.org/cnl-certification
  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Nurse Practitioner Role Grows to More Than 270,000.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.aanp.org/news-feed/nurse-practitioner-role-continues-to-grow-to-meet-primary-care-provider-shortages-and-patient-demands
  • American Journal of Medical Quality, “United States Registered Nurse Workforce Report Card and Shortage Forecast.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31479295
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Registered Nurses.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-5
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/oes/2018/may/oes291151.htm#nat
  • Haddad, Lisa M., and Toney-Butler, Tammy J. StatPearls Publishing, “Nursing Shortage.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493175/
  • National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, “Key Findings from the 2018 Clinical Nurse Specialists Census.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://nacns.org/professional-resources/practice-and-cns-role/cns-census/
  • National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc., “2019 NCLEX Pass Rates.” Accessed February 12, 2020. https://www.ncsbn.org/Table_of_Pass_Rates_2019.htm

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