Guide to Entry-Level Nursing
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.
Whether you acquire a license or certificate right after finishing high school — or go on to earn an associate, bachelor's, or graduate degree — the nursing field offers several pathways to entry-level employment. The path you pursue will likely depend on your personal interests, education, and salary preferences.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a favorable job outlook for all nursing careers over the next decade. Nurse assistants can expect an 8% job growth between 2019 and 2029; licensed practical and licensed vocational nursing occupations should see a 9% increase; and registered nurses can expect 7% growth. This guide can help you begin your nursing career by exploring license and education requirements, financial aid opportunities, and career prospects.
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Types of Entry-Level Nursing Roles
Not all nursing careers require a two-year 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 certification. These offer less of a time commitment or financial burden than earning a traditional postsecondary degree. Students can begin a nursing career after completing a nursing assistant program — which can take approximately 12 weeks — or a one-year training program for licensed practical and licensed vocational nursing.
Nursing assistants (NAs) rank among the fastest growing entry-level nursing jobs that do not require a degree. NAs perform routine healthcare services, from recording patient vital signs to assisting with their hygiene. Although NAs are employed in an array of settings, they often work with the growing population of older adults in nursing homes and home healthcare.
Prospective NAs with a high school diploma or GED can enter the workforce after completing a 1-3 month training program and passing a state certification exam. NAs who pursue specialized training may obtain the restorative nurse assistant (RNA) certification. Many CNAs/RNAs become licensed registered nurses after gaining practical experience to move into associate or bachelor's programs.
Licensed practical nurses (LPNs), also known in some states as licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), can move into entry-level nursing jobs relatively quickly. Becoming an LPN or LVN generally requires a high school diploma or GRE, successful completion of a 1-2 year accredited program that includes 700-1,000 hours of clinical experience, and a passing score on the NCLEX-PN exam.
LPNs and LVNs work under the direction of registered nurses 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 nursing homes and residential care facilities.
Working in an array of settings, from hospitals and clinics to residential care facilities and schools, registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate treatment, perform and analyze tests, and educate patients and the general public about healthcare concerns.
While several pathways lead to an RN license, a nursing diploma from a hospital-administered program or an associate degree in nursing (ADN) provide the quickest way to entry-level RN jobs. Most students complete these programs in two years or less before taking the NCLEX-RN exam — a requirement for state 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 ADN-to-BSN and other accelerated programs that shorten the time to complete a degree.
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Types of Entry-Level Nursing Degrees
While students can complete licensing and certificate requirements for NA and LPN/LVN positions in two years or less, a college degree opens broader career opportunities. Earning an ADN or BSN degree does not require prior nursing experience. Both degrees prepare graduates for the NCLEX-RN license and entry-level jobs, and provide the necessary background to pursue more advanced educational opportunities.
The higher the degree one earns, the more possibilities for advancement in the nursing field. The BSN degree in particular 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, which also offers some of the highest paying and most in-demand nursing careers.
The ADN curriculum includes courses in the fundamentals of nursing, anatomy and physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, and nutrition. Like most two-year, 60-credit associate degrees, the ADN includes general education requirements that may transfer into four-year bachelor's programs. 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 who have earned ADN degrees find ample employment opportunities in a variety of healthcare settings. Depending on the specific 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.
As nursing roles evolve within the current healthcare environment, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has begun to advocate for the BSN as the minimum degree requirement for RNs. While the ADN still leads to numerous job opportunities, employers prefer to hire BSN graduates for entry-level jobs. The BSN serves as a prerequisite for advancement into leadership positions and the stepping stone into graduate programs for advanced practice nursing.
While a BSN usually requires learners to earn 120 credits across four years, RNs with nursing diplomas or ADNs may earn their bachelor's in two years. In addition to the general education and nursing courses covered in the ADN, the BSN curriculum permits students to pursue courses in clinical specialties such as pediatric or geriatric nursing.
Earning an MSN provides the minimum educational requirement for advanced practice registered nursing (APRN). As the highest paid nurses in the field, APRNs acquire specialized training and certifications in population areas such as pediatrics or women's health, or medical areas such as mental health or acute care. APRNs may also enter nonclinical roles in health management and nursing education.
An MSN may take up to four years to complete. However, bridge MSN programs enable students to reduce the time needed to complete their master's, depending on their previous degree and license status. Direct entry programs — for students with non-nursing bachelor's* degrees and no prior nursing experience — may take 1-3 years. RNs with a nursing diploma or ADN may complete an RN-to-MSN program in 2-3 years. Most BSN-to-MSN programs take two years.
*Bridge programs still require the degree candidate to complete the curriculum required of RNs before obtaining an MSN. Typically, the first year of a two year bridge program will be the BSN/RN curriculum, and will culminate with taking the NCLEX at the end of the first year. The second year is the MSN/APRN curriculum and practicum hours.
Job Prospects for Entry-Level Nursing Careers
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 BLS projects about 174,000 openings for NAs through the decade, primarily in residential care facilities and home healthcare. NAs earn less than nurses with college degrees, with mean annual salaries of $29,640
LPNs and LVNs work in the same settings as NAs as well as in outpatient facilities. By the end of the decade, LPNs/LVNs will fill 787,400 positions. Their median salary of $47,478 ranks above NAs but not as high as those with ADNs or college degrees.
RNs can expect about 175,900 openings each year through 2029, making a median salary of $73,300 yearly. RNs who hold a BSN or graduate degree experience better job and salary prospects than those who enter the field with a diploma or ADN. Employers generally prefer RNs who have some work experience, and/or an in-demand specialty such as gerontology.
Paying for Nursing School
Concerns about the cost of a nursing education should not discourage prospective nurses from pursuing their career goals. Several financial aid opportunities support deserving students at every degree level, even for short-term 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.
The search for financial aid begins by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine one's qualification for federal loans, loan repayment plans, or assistance to military personnel and veterans. 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 location.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an entry-level nurse?
Entry-level nurses begin their careers after completing a certificate or licensing program, a nursing diploma or associate degree, or a college-degree. These nurse training programs and degrees do not require prior nursing education or work experience. Because of the continuing demand for healthcare professionals, entry-level nurses find ample job opportunities as NAs, LPNs/LVNs, and RNs.
How can I get a nursing job with no experience?
While not required for all positions, some employers prefer to hire experienced nurses. Nursing students can increase their marketability by volunteering at a local hospital or clinic or pursuing an internship while completing their studies. Nurses entering the job market for the first time should consider taking beginning positions to gain experience, even if the jobs do not meet their personal goals.
How much money does an entry-level nurse make?
While nursing salaries have generally kept pace with the cost of living, compensation varies significantly by degree level, years of work experience, and geographic location. As a general rule, the higher the degree one earns, the higher their salary. The top-paid nurses generally possess MSN degrees and certification as APRNs.
How do I survive my first year nursing job?
New nursing professionals experience considerable job-related stress as they adjust from the academic setting to real-world experience. First-year nurses can take proactive steps to cope with the challenges by participating in volunteer or internship experiences prior to entering the workforce. Once employed, they should network with more experienced nursing colleagues, develop their time management skills, and pay attention to life/work balance by practicing self-care.
Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner who provides primary and urgent care to pediatric populations. She earned a BSN and MSN from the University of Miami.
Clarke is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.
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