If you’ve considered a career in healthcare, maybe you’ve wondered, “How long does it take to become a nurse?” The amount of time required depends on many factors, such as what type of nursing career you want to pursue; whether you study on a full-time or part-time basis; and how long it takes you to prepare for and successfully pass competency exams such as the NCLEX, which we’ll discuss later in this article.
Depending on what type of degree you’re pursuing (such as an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree), the process of graduating from your nursing program, passing the national licensing examination, and applying for licensure can take anywhere from under two years to over four years, with most students finishing in approximately three years. It may be possible for some students to graduate sooner by taking accelerated coursework or, where applicable, transferring old college credits.
Think a career in nursing or healthcare could be right for you? Then keep reading to learn more about key topics like:
- What do RNs, LPNs, and other types of nurses do?
- What are some common nursing career pathways to consider exploring?
- What sort of nursing program should you enroll in?
- What are the basic steps to becoming an RN?
- What is the NCLEX, and why is it so crucial to sit for and pass this exam?
What is a Registered Nurse (RN)?
There are numerous types of nursing careers you can choose from. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that there are well over three dozen different nursing jobs to explore. So what sets a registered nurse, or RN, apart from other types of nurses? What are the steps to becoming one, and what other career opportunities might follow?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines registered nurses as healthcare workers who “provide and coordinate patient care and educate patients and the public about various health conditions.” This may include job duties like documenting patients’ symptoms, administering medication, operating medical equipment and devices, and analyzing outcomes of diagnostic testing.
We’ll talk more about how to become an RN later in this guide. For now, let’s examine some other career pathways, like nurse practitioner (NP) and certified nursing assistant (CNA).
Common Types of Nursing Pathways
As we were just discussing a few moments ago, there’s a wide array of professional pathways for nursing students to explore, from cardiac care, radiology, and anesthesia to mental health, informatics, and healthcare administration. No matter what aspect of nursing you’re most fascinated by or passionate about, there’s likely a niche for your skills.
Not sure which direction to take your nursing career in? Other than becoming an RN, here are three of the most popular possibilities to consider:
- Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
- Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
- Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) categorizes certified nursing assistants (CNAs) alongside orderlies. According to the BLS, nurses in this category earn a median salary of approximately $30,300 per year, with “the highest 10% earn[ing] more than $44,240.” CNAs are entry-level nurses who perform tasks ranging from bathing patients to answering phone calls. Learn more about the requirements and process for becoming a CNA.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
As a licensed practical nurse (LPN), you’ll monitor patients, help answer their questions, and provide them with basic care, among other tasks. To become an LPN, you must generally first complete a training program that meets state-specific requirements, which vary by location. The BLS reports that LPNs earn a median salary of over $48,000 per year, with the profession expected to grow at a rate of 6% — slightly faster than the 5% average — through 2031. It’s possible to earn an LPN certificate in approximately one year, allowing you to get started gaining experience quickly.
Registered Nurse (RN)
As a registered nurse (RN), your primary role is to coordinate patient care throughout the medical field. Many RNs assist primary care physicians, surgeons, and other doctors in a variety of ways. Duties may include patient education, public health service, administering vaccines, and other duties in nursing homes, hospitals, and other health centers. Many states currently have nursing shortages, which may offer significant bonuses for relocation. The median annual wage for registered nurses is currently $77,600.
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
According to the BLS, nurse practitioners or NPs (who are categorized alongside nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists) earn a median salary exceeding $120,000 annually, with the highest 10% of earners making above $200,000. The highest-paying employers were outpatient care centers and hospitals.
Most astoundingly, the BLS projects an incredible 40% change in employment through 2031, many times greater than the 5% average. The BLS estimates that over 118,000 jobs will be added to these fields in the coming decade.
Nurse practitioners are sometimes described as “advanced practice registered nurses,” or APRNs. As an NP or APRN, your duties will include performing patient exams, ordering diagnostic tests, making diagnoses, consulting with physicians, and many other tasks.
As you probably already determined by comparing the pathways above, there’s a diverse range of specializations that nurses can pursue to enhance their earning potential. Here are just a few of the many examples:
- Critical Care
- Home Care
- Mental Health
- Plastic Surgery
- Public Health
- Women’s Health
How to Choose the Right Nursing Program
Considering how many nursing careers and specialties exist, it’s no surprise that there’s likewise a wide range of nursing degree and certificate programs. So how do you choose a program that will be right for your goals, cover relevant material, and help you prepare to meet testing and licensure requirements?
The first step is to determine what type of career path you’re interested in exploring, which will affect the type of degree or education you’ll need to qualify for jobs. For instance, are you interested in a type of specialty that requires you to have a master’s degree? A doctorate?
Next, you should identify the specific degree you intend to pursue. For instance, are you qualified for a “bridge” program like an RN to BSN program, which we’ll cover in detail a little later? Or is an ADN or BSN more appropriate for your educational and professional development needs?
Finally, it’s helpful to think about general factors that will impact your ability to learn. These factors might include, but aren’t limited to:
- Class size and student-to-teacher ratios
- Online vs. on-campus learning
- Opportunities for internships, clinical rotations, and gaining other experience
- Program accreditation
Nursing Degree Options
There are several degree options for RNs and aspiring RNs to consider, depending on how advanced your career is and what your professional goals are at this time. If your goal is to become an RN, you can start by earning your Associate’s Degree in Nursing, or ADN. You can generally earn an associate’s degree in two years or less, empowering you to make a career change and enter the field quickly.
If you already are an RN and want to advance your career further, consider the Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) as an alternative. A BSN degree takes longer to complete than an ADN — typically about four years in a traditional program, versus two for an ADN — but it also provides a more comprehensive education, and is associated both with better patient outcomes and higher NCLEX pass rates.
You may also encounter programs called “RN to BSN” programs, which we’ll discuss below.
RN to BSN Programs
Do you already have an active, unencumbered RN license? If so, you could be eligible for the RN to BSN program at National University, which is designed to expand your clinical knowledge while helping prepare you to pursue advanced roles in nursing education, administration, and teaching. Learn more about program outcomes and course details.
How Do I Become a Nurse?
While RN is an entry-level nursing position, there are still rigorous requirements for becoming a registered nurse, including educational requirements, national examination requirements, and state-specific licensure requirements, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a registered nurse and earn your nursing license.
Steps to Become an RN
There are three basic steps to becoming a registered nurse, which we’ll elaborate on below. You’ll need to complete a nursing degree program, or meet other educational requirements depending on your desired role; pass a national exam known as the NCLEX; and obtain licensure from the appropriate state nursing board, such as the California Board of Registered Nursing (CBRN) or the Nevada State Board of Nursing.
Step 1. Complete a Degree Program
Educational requirements vary across nursing professions. For instance, clinical nurse specialists are generally required to hold a master’s degree in nursing. However, it’s possible to become a CNA after completing a state-approved online program — in some cases, in as little as four to 12 weeks. On the other hand, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) will be required to hold a doctoral degree beginning in 2025 — a process that can take eight years or longer to complete. So where do RNs fall on this spectrum?
For aspiring registered nurses, the BSN degree or Bachelor of Science in Nursing is increasingly becoming the standard that employers look for, throughout various sectors of the economy. Earning your BSN degree can increase your preparedness for the challenges of the role while helping to distinguish you as a candidate.
Step 2. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)
The NCLEX is the National Council Licensure Examination, a computerized national exam that all nursing school graduates must pass prior to becoming licensed. There are two main types of NCLEX exams: the NCLEX-RN, which tests graduates from RN programs, and the NCLEX-PN, which is designed for graduates of practical and vocational nursing programs. Learn more about taking the NCLEX, or test your knowledge with an NCLEX practice exam (NPE).
Step 3. Apply for Your Nursing License
In addition to national requirements like passing the NCLEX, you may also need to meet nursing licensure requirements which vary by state. For example, if you want to become an RN in the state of California, you’ll specifically need to earn state licensure from the California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN).
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which describes itself as “an independent, not-for-profit organization through which nursing regulatory bodies act and counsel together,” provides a helpful starting point if you’re searching for information about state-specific licensure rules and regulations. As the NCBSN points out, typical stages of the licensure process include:
- Verifying that you graduated from an RN educational program (like earning your BSN)
- Verifying that you completed and passed the appropriate variation of the NCLEX (such as the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN)
Want to learn more about how to become an RN in the state of California? We recommend starting with the BRN website, which provides detailed step-by-step information about meeting the state’s criteria for practicing RNs. You can also learn more about licensure in California here.
Become an RN with an Education from National University
Whether you’re just starting out in the healthcare field, or you’re ready to take your experience to the next level, National University has an accredited program to fit your goals at every stage of your nursing career. With online, on-campus, and hybrid program options, along with nursing scholarships and discounts for military students, not only are our degree programs affordable and accessible — they’re also designed to push and challenge you, preparing you to sit for the NCLEX while providing you with clinical experience.
Learn more about National University’s healthcare and nursing programs, which include bachelor’s degree programs, master’s degree programs, and more. Contact our admissions office to request more information, or start your online application today.