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Guide to Entry-Level Nursing

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High school and college graduates who are wondering what their chances are for pursuing a nursing career should take heart: This is a great field to enter with little or no job experience. Many people enter the workforce hoping to achieve their dreams, only to realize that employers routinely require lots of experience in order to get a good job.

Well, good news: Nursing is a fantastic field for those who are entry-level, or have no prior job experience. Whether you choose to get a certificate or license right out of high school, or complete a few years of college-level coursework to get a degree, you will find that your entry into the nursing field may be easier into other fields due to the high demand for nurses.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses is growing at 19 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than average. Even more hopeful are the prospects for licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, whose job outlook is growing at 25 percent in that same time span, and is much higher than the average in other industries and even within the nursing field.

If you’re wondering about the difference between various licenses, certifications and degrees, as well as what options and opportunities will go along with each, you’re in luck. This guide will delve into those questions, as well as touch on how to get financing for your education, what prerequisites you might face for various certificate or licensing choices, and what is typically involved in each type of program.

So grab a cup of coffee and your copy of Gray’s Anatomy (do we need to tell you it was a textbook long before it was a show??) and have a seat. Let’s get our nurse on.

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Types of Nursing Certificates & Licenses

If you have no previous experience in nursing and would like to get started as quickly as possible, certificates and licenses are the quickest route because they do not require acceptance to a two- or four-year college or university. Plus, they typically cost far less, making them ideal for students who are concerned about money. Many of these programs may be taken either full- or part-time, so that parents or people who cannot afford to just quit work can earn the certification or license before switching careers.

Nursing Assistant

One of the simplest routes to a direct-entry nursing career is as a nursing assistant. Plus, nursing assistant positions are widely available and the training is minimal, so if you want to get started in the nursing field quickly, this is a good option. The exact title of a nursing assistant depends on a variety of factors, but some common titles you may see include certified nursing assistants (CNAs), registered nursing assistants (RNAs), licensed nursing assistants (LNAs), as well as less official terms such as direct care workers, care assistants, home assistants or personal care assistants.

The latter titles reflect the fact that nursing assistants most commonly work in long-term care facilities, where they aid in tasks like bathing, feeding, toileting, dressing, helping patients stay mobile, documenting and filing of paperwork on living and deceased patients. If you are searching for information about nursing assistants, however, search under the broadest designation, which is career nursing assistant. This will give you the most all-encompassing idea of the position.

Training programs typically take between a few weeks and a few months, and involve a mix of schooling and hands-on clinicals. While some programs will allow you to mix in online learning, most states feel that in such a short period of time, you ought to be in the facility or a physical classroom. When choosing a program, double-check that that program will count toward official certification, otherwise it isn’t worth anything. To get into a program, you usually need a high school diploma or GED.

After you complete it, you must take state test. The requirements and details of the test will vary from state to state, but your program will inform you which test you need to take and any other requirements you must meet for certification.

Licensed Practical or Licensed Vocational Nurse

Whether you will be referred to as a licensed practical nurse or a license vocational nurse depends on which state you live in, but the designations are essentially the same. The more common designation is LPN, but understand that we are referring to both when we say that.

An LPN is the nurse that works with patients right after they check into the facility. They take and record vital signs, assist with documentation, and may help with patient care, such as dressing wounds or inserting catheters. Between doctor’s visits, an LPN is typically the point of contact with a patient, and the person they will see most often during their stay at a hospital or long-term facility. See top 10 challenges of a LPN.

Again, LPN programs and requirements differ by state, but they all require a high school diploma or GED for acceptance. They are usually about 12 months long, and courses may be offered at high schools or colleges. Distance learning may also form a component of education, while clinical training is always required. After completion of the program, LPNs must pass their state’s Board of Nursing exams. With continuing practice, LPNs may advance to specializations in intravenous therapy or foot care, for example. See top 5 online lpn/lvn options.

After earning your LPN, you may choose to undergo a bridge training program, the LPN to RN, where you leverage your existing LPN into the more advanced RN degree. These programs are a popular way to continue your education, but are not usually direct-entry because LPNs generally work for a while before continuing on.

However, the RN degree is a potential direct-entry route to nursing, as are the RN to BSN and RN to MSN degrees, and we will cover them in the following section.

Types of Nursing Degrees

Although it is a less common and longer route to entry-level nursing, you can enter the nursing field with a degree rather than a certification. While any job you get without previously working in the field is technically considered an entry-level position (since it is where you are entering the field), you may receive more benefits than typical entry-level positions if you choose to go this route. See more about the various types of nursing degrees available.

Registered Nurse

The RN is one of the most common nursing degrees, and requires two years of study to obtain. It is typically an associate’s degree, which means you can get it at a community college. Sometimes you can also earn an RN at a vocational school, though this usually means it is a certificate rather than a degree. For all cases, you need only a high school diploma or GED in order to be accepted into most programs. In addition, you must meet certain GPA and other requirements.

RNs may work in hospitals, physician’s offices, long-term care facilities, military bases, correctional facilities and schools, and more. They teach patients about illnesses and injuries, and about proper care and management after a stay in a hospital or facility, and educate families on how to care for their loved ones.

Registered nurses make considerably more than either CNAs or LPNs: Whereas the median pay of an LPN is around $20 per hour, the median wage for an RN is over $31 per hour. They have to attend school for at least two years, however, earning an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or a certification from an accredited vocational school. In addition to this degree or certification, they must also pass the state board exams in order to become licensed.

Before you decide that an RN is your path to entry-level nursing, be aware that many hospitals, offices and treatment centers are upping the necessary qualifications for the RN position and won’t accept less than bachelor’s-level certification in their applicants. Learn more about getting your bachelor’s degree and the entry-level positions available to you in the next section to determine whether this is a better option for you.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

If you graduate high school and move on to college right away, then graduate four years later with your degree in nursing, then the job you receive right after college will be an entry-level position. Some programs only require three years of schoolwork and clinical rotations, so you may be able to graduate with your BSN in even less time.

Note that a BSN is a degree, but when you begin working your designation will probably take another form. For instance, as mentioned above, you might become an RN. Or you might work in a pediatric facility, for instance, in which case you would become a certified pediatric nurse, or CPN. If you chose to work in long-term care facilities or to perform palliative care for the elderly or dying, you might become a certified hospice palliative nurse, or CHPN. Each of these designations requires that you get certified, which you can get after taking relevant credit hours and performing the required hands-on work in a related facility. Nurses may also specialize in surgery, the ICU, the ER, obstetrics and gynecology, or other areas.

Master of Science in Nursing

The last main way you can enter the field of nursing is through a master’s degree. You can either get this degree after working in the field as a nurse, in which case this is not an entry-level degree, or you can earn a direct entry Master of Science in Nursing, which means that you already have a bachelor’s degree but it is not in nursing or a related field. In that case, this is a direct-entry degree. The difference is whether or not you have previously worked in the field of nursing.

Students who graduate with the direct-entry MSN are entering the field for the first time in advanced positions such as nurse managers or educators, or as advanced practice nurses with specializations in fields such as midwifery or anesthesiology. To receive an MSN, you usually need to meet each specific school’s prerequisite and GPA requirements, as well as undergo a long and usually demanding clinical rotation. Generally you will have worked in another field for a few years before applying to this degree, and you must have a bachelor’s degree from another institution.

Note, however, that you can also receive an MSN later in your career if you already have an RN or BSN it just won’t be direct entry. If you are considering taking your education to an advanced level, do not hesitate to earn less advanced degrees first, then continue on from there. This may sound confusing, but the bottom line is that whether or not you have previous nursing experience, you can theoretically earn a Master of Science in Nursing and many options offer a No GRE requirement.

Job Prospects

The job prospects for which you will be eligible vary depending on degree type. As noted above, both RNs and LPNs/LVNs have very good job prospects. The outlook for nursing assistants is also favorable, and their job opportunities are growing at a rate of 21 percent between 2012 and 2022.

More advanced nursing positions, which can still be obtained at the entry-level given completion of the proper programs (mostly the BSN and the MSN), are also doing well. Nurses working in specialty hospitals, for instance, earn a median wage of about $55 an hour, while nurses working in general hospitals earn roughly $49 per hour. Average wage also depends on where in the country you work, so if you are willing to move upon getting your certificate or degree, feel free to search for jobs by state.

The abundance of nursing jobs, explains the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is thanks to a nation that has more elderly people than ever before, who are getting sicker than ever before despite their longevity. However, this also means that more and more of the available jobs will be in long-term care, so if this is not your preferred field, you may want to emphasize another specialty from the outset to avoid being drawn into this high-need area.

Financial Aid for Nursing Certificates, Licenses and Degrees

Financial aid is widely available for the range of degree types, including associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. For any of these, you can fill out a FAFSA to receive aid. The government’s willingness to pay for shorter programs, such as those necessary to earn a CNA or LPN, vary, but you should apply anyway. You should also apply for grants and scholarships, as well as aid from your institution. Talk to the financial aid office to make a plan.

Getting an entry-level nursing job can take anywhere from a few weeks to many years, depending on what your goals are. Hopefully this has shed some light on your opportunities and you are now informed enough to decide on your path and start down it.

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