Ask a Nurse: I Want to Become a Nurse but Am Starting Later in Life. Should I Become an LPN and Then an RN?

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated February 10, 2023
    Nursing is a rewarding and stable career choice. Choose from several options to achieve your goal when you start later in life.
    Featured ImageCredit: peakSTOCK / Getty Images

    In our Ask a Nurse series, experienced nurses provide an insider look at the nursing profession by answering your questions about nursing careers, degrees, and resources.

    Question: I’m interested in becoming a nurse, and I’m starting later in life. I’ve been told to get my LPN first so I can work and then go for the RN. What are the advantages and disadvantages to doing this, and what is the best route to take?

    This is a great question! The job growth rates for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and registered nurses (RNs) are steadily rising. This is driven in part by the baby boomer generation, which will reach retirement age by 2030.

    Other contributing factors include nurses leaving the profession during the pandemic and the pre-existing nursing shortage. More opportunities are available to those who want to join the healthcare field, no matter what time in life they decide to start.

    There are several ways to become an RN. One is to start as a registered nurse; another is to begin as an LPN and then complete your degree using a bridge LPN-to-RN program.

    Explore the factors involved in becoming an LPN and RN to determine the best route to becoming a nurse later in life.

    What Is the Difference Between an LPN and RN?

    One of the factors to consider as you’re deciding how you want to approach your new career is understanding the difference between an LPN and RN.

    The difference begins with the educational requirement. An RN can enter the field with a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree. An LPN completes a certificate program, which can take between 12-18 months.

    After graduation, LPNs and RNs perform many of the same nursing tasks, but within hospitals and other healthcare institutions, LPNs are support staff to RNs.

    Many hospitals, healthcare facilities, and physicians’ offices are seeking RNs to fill their positions. They typically prefer those with a BSN.

    According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for an LPN is $48,070 and for an RN is $77,600. This is a significant difference. However, earning an LPN certificate first allows you to work for up to one year earlier than an ADN while completing your RN degree.

    Becoming an LPN First, Then an RN

    An LPN certificate is an entry-level nursing position. While there are accelerated nursing programs that allow you to earn your certificate in around seven months, most take between 12-18 months, depending on how many credits they can complete each term.

    You must have a high school diploma or GED certificate and enroll in an accredited nursing program. If your program is not accredited, it is difficult to receive federal aid, your credits will not transfer to another program, and you will not be able to complete your RN degree at an accredited school.

    After graduating, you have to complete an application to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). You must pass the exam to apply for your license to practice through the state board of nursing. Other requirements for your license vary depending on your state.

    After you have graduated and received your state license, you can begin work. This allows you to make money while you’re completing your RN degree. You have a couple of options to complete your degree.

    While you can enroll in an ADN program, it will take more than two years to complete while working. This may not be a time-efficient decision as most employers are seeking BSN-prepared nurses.

    The better option might be to enroll in an LPN-to-BSN program. When you have graduated from an accredited LPN program, your credits and work experience transfer. This shortens the time it takes to complete the degree.

    There are in-person and online LPN-to-BSN programs. You must weigh your options between in-person and online nursing programs to decide which is the best for you. Online programs may be more cost-effective as you don’t have transportation costs; some programs charge less per credit hour.

    However, you may thrive on the in-person experience in the classroom. This would make an online program more challenging to complete. It is also important to evaluate:

    • Admission requirements
    • Clinical experience requirements and support
    • Accreditation
    • Program curriculum
    • Graduation rate
    • NCLEX-RN pass rate

    Each of these factors is important to your successful completion of the program and ability to get your state licensure.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Becoming an LPN First

    There are advantages and disadvantages of becoming an LPN first. While the program is usually quick, many hospitals and doctors’ offices are moving away from hiring LPNs. You may find the most available work environment is in gerontology. Also, LPNs make less than RNs and may feel a lack of respect or recognition from other healthcare staff, despite being essential to the healthcare system.

    The role is limited. An LPN lacks practice authority and job mobility. However, if you are using the role as a stepping stone to becoming an RN, then the lack of mobility and authority only lasts as long as it takes to complete your degree.

    It is easy to get started as an LPN as the certificate program can often be completed in 18 months or less. You’ll have a flexible schedule, and most employers will work around your school requirements.

    You’ll have the opportunity to work in a steady job while completing your degree. Usually, you will have benefits, such as health and life insurance. There are some opportunities for traveling LPNs. This can give you the opportunity to travel and work while going to school.

    What’s the Best Way to Become a Nurse Later in Life?

    Nursing isn’t just a job — it’s a career and sometimes a calling. If you are committed to becoming a nurse, the best way to enter the profession later in life is to complete your BSN degree. If you have a non-nursing associate or non-nursing bachelor’s degree, there are accelerated programs that may meet your needs.

    However, not everyone can take 2-3 years off work to attend school. In this case, an LPN certificate can help you get started in your career and still allow you to work while completing your degree.

    Most nursing programs recognize the importance of accommodating the needs of older students. The best way to become a nurse later in life depends solely on your life circumstances. Only you can decide.

    In Summary:

    • Students looking to become a nurse may enroll in a BSN program as these professionals are highly sought after by healthcare organizations and physicians’ offices.
    • For students who are unable to attend school full time for four years, they may choose to enroll in a 12-18-month LPN certificate program.
    • Once completed, an LPN must pass the NCLEX-PN and apply for a state license to practice; requirements for the license vary depending on the state board of nursing.
    • After getting a license and job, an RN candidate may enroll in an in-person or online LPN-to-RN program.
    • Nursing candidates with a non-nursing associate or bachelor’s degree may enroll in an accelerated program where the credits from the first degree can transfer.
    • The best way to become a nurse later in life depends on the student’s life circumstances. Most programs understand the importance of accommodating older students.