Share this article

Guide to Entry-Level Nursing

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated February 23, 2024
Edited by
Interested in nursing but confused about how to enter the field? This guide will help you understand the various nursing career paths, educational requirements, financial aid, and job and salary outlook.
mini logo

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Credit: Dean Mitchell | E+ | Getty Images

No matter your experience level, there are nursing degrees and certifications that offer pathways to entry-level employment in the nursing field. The path you pursue depends on your interests, education level, and professional or salary goals.

Discover nursing certification and education requirements, financial aid opportunities, entry-level nursing salaries, and career prospects.

Popular Online RN-to-BSN Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Loading...Learn More
Visit Site
Loading...Learn More
Visit Site
Loading...Learn More
Visit Site

Types of Entry-Level Nursing Roles

Not all nursing careers require a two or four-year degree from a college or university. Nurses who want to enter the workforce sooner can enroll in training programs that lead to licensure or nursing certification and require less time and financial commitment than traditional degree programs.

For example, students can begin a nursing career after completing a nursing assistant program — which can take as little as 12 weeks — or a one-year training program for licensed practical and licensed vocational nursing.

Nursing Assistants

A nursing assistant (NA) training program offers the fastest route to on-the-job nursing experience. Prospective NAs with a high school diploma or GED certificate can enter the workforce after completing three months of training and passing a state certification exam.

NAs — also referred to as certified nursing assistants (CNAs) — perform routine healthcare services under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN). Duties include recording patients’ vital signs and monitoring blood sugar levels, assisting patients with personal hygiene, and helping them with mobility. NAs often work with the growing population of older adults in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and home healthcare.

NAs who pursue specialized training can obtain their restorative nurse assistant (RNA) certification. This advanced credential typically requires six months of NA experience. RNA programs take 18-24 months to finish. Like NAs, RNAs are supervised by RNs but may assist with rehabilitation, physical therapy, or occupational therapy.

Licensed Practical or Licensed Vocational Nurses

Licensed practical nurses (LPNs), also known in California and Texas as licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), can quickly move into entry-level nursing jobs after graduation.

Becoming an LPN or LVN requires a high school diploma or GED certificate, successful completion of a 12-16-month accredited training program that includes 500-750 hours of clinical experience, and a passing score on the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical/Vocational Nurses (known as the NCLEX-PN).

LPNs and LVNs work under the direction of RNs and physicians. They assist with procedures, monitor treatments and medication, maintain patient records, and often help with daily patient care including bathing and dressing. While they may find positions in hospitals and clinics, they often find employment in nursing homes and residential care facilities.

Registered Nurses

RNs work in various settings, from hospitals and clinics to residential care facilities and schools. They provide and coordinate treatment, perform and analyze tests, and educate patients and the general public about healthcare concerns.

While there are several pathways to an RN license, a nursing diploma from a hospital-administered program or an associate degree in nursing (ADN) provides the quickest route to entry-level RN jobs. Most students complete these programs in two years or less before taking the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (the NCLEX-RN) — a multiple choice examination that states require for licensure.

Earning a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which also prepares graduates for RN licensure, usually requires four years to complete. However, many schools offer RN-to-BSN, ADN-to-BSN, and other accelerated programs that shorten the time to complete a degree.

Types of Entry-Level Nursing Degrees

While students can complete licensing and certificate requirements for NA and LPN/LVN positions in less than two years, a college degree opens doors to broader career opportunities and higher salaries.

Earning a nursing diploma or degree does not require prior nursing experience. Both credentials prepare graduates for the NCLEX-RN exam, licensure, and entry-level employment while providing the necessary background to pursue more advanced educational and professional opportunities.

As you advance your nursing education, you will have more professional options and possibilities in the nursing field. For example, the BSN degree establishes the academic foundation for a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctorate in nursing. These graduate degrees prepare learners for specialized advanced practice nursing — some of the most lucrative and in-demand nursing careers.

Associate Degree in Nursing

The ADN curriculum includes courses in nursing fundamentals, including anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, and nutrition. Like most two-year, 60-credit associate degrees, you can apply ADN credits toward a BSN degree.

Many students enter nursing jobs immediately after earning their ADN and successfully passing the NCLEX-RN exam, while others continue on to earn BSN and graduate degrees.

RNs with ADN degrees can pursue employment in a variety of healthcare settings. Depending on the work environment, their roles and responsibilities include collecting patient histories, performing physical exams and diagnostic tests, administering medication and treatments, and consulting with doctors and other nurse supervisors.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

As nursing roles evolve within the current healthcare environment, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing advocates for the BSN as the minimum nursing degree requirement for RNs.

While the ADN can still lead to job opportunities, many hospitals prefer to hire BSN graduates for entry-level jobs. A BSN degree can also help you pursue advancement into leadership positions and apply to graduate programs for advanced practice nursing.

While a BSN usually requires 120 credits across four years, RNs with nursing diplomas or ADNs may earn their bachelor’s in 1-2 years. In addition to the general education and nursing courses, the BSN curriculum allows you to pursue courses in clinical specialties such as pediatric or geriatric nursing.

Entry-Level Nurse Salaries and Career Prospects

Employment prospects in the nursing field continue to grow faster than the national average for all occupations. Earning a nursing assistant certificate provides the quickest path to a nursing career.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects about 56,500 additional openings for NAs during 2022-2032, primarily caring for older adults in residential care facilities and home healthcare. NAs earn less than nurses with college degrees, with mean annual salaries of $35,760.

LPNs and LVNs work in the same settings as NAs as well as in hospitals and physicians’ offices. The BLS projects that LPNs/LVN jobs will increase by 5% from 2022-2032, which is faster than average. Their median salary of $54,620 ranks above NAs but not as high as those with ADNs or other college degrees.

RNs earn a median annual salary of $81,220, according to the BLS.The agency projects RN jobs to increase by 6% by 2023. RNs with a BSN or graduate degree often have better job and salary prospects than those with a nursing diploma or ADN. Employers generally prefer RNs with some work experience or credentials in an in-demand specialty such as gerontology.

Paying for Nursing School

Concerns about the cost of nursing school should not discourage you from pursuing your career goals. Several financial aid opportunities support students at every degree level, including NA and LPN/LVN programs.

Nursing students may apply for federal and private loans or scholarships and grants that do not require repayment. Some schools offer work-study programs to help students offset the tuition costs.

Some grants and scholarships provide funding for specific nursing programs or specialties, while others offer assistance to applicants based on race, ethnicity, gender, or geographic considerations.

The search for financial aid begins by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine your eligibility for federal loans, loan repayment plans, or assistance to veterans and active military.

The minimum requirements for filing the FAFSA include U.S. citizenship, a high school diploma or GED certificate, and application, acceptance, or enrollment in an ADN or BSN program.

FAFSA forms must be submitted for each year school year, and you earn satisfactory grades to receive funding. You can access FAFSA forms as early as October 1 and are due the following June 30. The fastest way to apply is online.

Entry-Level Nursing FAQ

Entry-level nurses include NAs, LPNs/LVNs, or RNs. They begin their careers after completing a nurse certification, licensing program, or a nursing degree. These nurse training programs and nursing degrees do not require prior nursing education or work experience.

While not required for all positions, some employers prefer to hire experienced nurses. Nursing students can gain experience by volunteering at a local hospital or clinic or pursuing a nursing internship while completing their studies. Nurses entering the job market for the first time should consider taking entry-level positions to gain valuable experience, even if the job does not meet their long-term professional goals.

Entry-level nurse salaries can start around $60,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nursing salaries vary significantly by degree level, work experience, and geographic location. Generally, the higher the degree you earn, the higher the salary.

First-year nurses can take proactive steps to cope with job-related challenges by participating in volunteer or internship experiences before entering the workforce. Once employed, consider networking with more experienced nursing colleagues, developing time management skills, and paying attention to life/work balance by practicing self-care.

Related Resources

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.