There are countless reasons why someone could be motivated to become a nurse. Whether you are searching for a profession that allows you to make a meaningful difference in other people’s lives or want to enter a field of work filled with opportunities, pursuing an education and career in nursing can be an excellent decision.
While there are plenty of good reasons why you should consider a nursing career, knowing where to start can be somewhat intimidating if you have never looked into the industry before. On top of that, many people worry that fulfilling the education requirement needed to become a nurse could be far too time-consuming for it to be a practical career move. Luckily, getting started in a nursing career can take much less time than you might expect.
To help you get started on the path to becoming a nurse, we have written this useful guide that will explain how you can enter the nursing field as quickly as possible. Whether you want to change careers or are a recent college graduate who is curious about a career in nursing, we will explain exactly how you can fast-track your nursing education. We will also describe the differences between the various types of nurses and explain why you should consider a career in nursing in the first place.
What Exactly is Nursing and What Do Nurses Actually Do?
Nurses play a critical role in the healthcare industry. You could even make a compelling argument that nurses are the glue that holds the entire patient-treatment process together.
Nursing finds a middle ground between science and compassion. At its heart, nursing requires respect for human dignity and the desire to help others. Nurses must address the emotional needs of their patients while using their expertise to care for their health.
There are currently more than three million registered nurses working in the United States, and they outnumber doctors by a ratio of three to one. In the past, nurses simply acted as assistants for doctors, but in the modern healthcare industry, nurses receive extensive and specialized education, which allows them to take on a greater level of responsibility for the overall care of patients.
Benefits of a Nursing Degree
While nurses can be responsible for a whole host of duties, there are some common responsibilities that they will almost always perform. For starters, they continuously monitor and evaluate patients that are under their care. They coordinate with numerous specialists and doctors to ensure that patients are being adequately cared for and efforts are being made to help them recover.
While nurses specialize and can work in a variety of healthcare institutions, so their responsibilities and job descriptions vary, a typical nurse could perform the following tasks on any given day:
- Conduct physical exams and perform various diagnostic tests
- Communicate with patients to determine their unique physical and emotional needs
- Provide counseling and educate patients about their health status, upcoming procedures, and overall treatment plan
- Coordinate care and treatment with doctors and other healthcare providers
- Draw blood from patients and perform various health tests
- Check and note various vital signs, such as body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure.
- Collect and record patient health histories and current symptoms
- Administer medications, dress and redress wounds, and perform other recurring healthcare procedures
- Consult with supervisors and doctors to determine the best treatment plan for each patient
- Direct and supervise other healthcare professionals, such as certified nursing assistants and nurse aides
As mentioned above, nurses perform many tasks and are trusted with numerous responsibilities linked to patient care. A nurse’s specific duties depend largely on where they work and the type of patients they care for. Nurses who work in a doctor’s office have a much different experience than those who work on a hospital floor or in an operating room.
Where Do Nurses Work?
It is a common misconception that nurses only work in hospitals. The truth is you can find qualified nurses working in a wide variety of healthcare settings, including small scale clinics, urgent care centers, pharmacies, schools, corporate offices, insurance companies, and much more.
Obtaining the certification required to practice nursing professionally opens the doors to work in a variety of locations. You can even practice your nursing skills abroad if you would like to explore other parts of the world.
The following are just some of the locations where you will find nurses practicing patient care:
- Major hospitals
- Small and large scale clinics
- High schools, colleges, and universities
- Ambulances and medical helicopters
- Remote field hospitals
- Research and policy agencies
- Residential settings practicing in-home care
- Senior and long-term healthcare facilities
- Cruise ships
- Rehabilitation clinics
- Correctional services facilities
Not only can nurses work in a variety of settings, but they can also train to specialize in specific types of care, working with patients of every age and treating countless conditions.
Types of Nursing Degrees
All nurses must complete an education that gives them the knowledge required to perform their specific duties and work directly with coworkers, patients, and their families. In the United States, nurses are generally divided into three categories, separated by their education requirements and the specific responsibilities that each undertakes in the workplace.
A Registered Nurse:
Registered nurses or RNs, as they are commonly known, form the backbone of the nursing profession in the United States. While responsibilities will differ from one type of healthcare facility to the next, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, a registered nurse’s scope of practice includes:
- Safety and infection control
- Reduction of risk potential
- Management of care
- Health promotion and maintenance
- Basic care and comfort
- Pharmacological and parenteral
- Psychosocial integrity
- Physiological adaptation
Scope of practice is an expression used to describe the services a particular type of healthcare professional is expected and permitted to perform. In terms of actual duties, registered nurses will often complete the following tasks:
- Prepare patients for exams and treatments while making assessments and taking notes
- Perform diagnostic tests on patients and analyze the results
- Record medical histories and current symptoms
- Administer medicines and treatments to patients as per the doctor’s recommendations
- Establish care plans for individual patients
- Using relevant medical equipment
- Educate patients and their families about managing medical conditions and how to continue to treat the issue after they have left the care of the medical facility
- Work with doctors and other healthcare professionals
An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse:
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) are nurses who have obtained all of the education and licensing required to be a registered nurse and at least a master’s degree in nursing. Essentially, they are registered nurses with a more advanced level of education and experience, which allows them to take on more specialized roles in patient care.
APRNs treat and diagnose illnesses, advise the public on health issues, manage chronic diseases, and provide continuing education through conferences and courses to stay up to date on all developments in the field.
Many APRNs will become a certified nurse midwife so they can provide gynecological and reproductive health care. They can also pursue a variety of other specializations, including becoming nurse anesthetists. Becoming an APRN is a great option for registered nurses who want to further their education and take a step forward in their career. It is also a good way to transition into nursing administration or become a nurse educator.
Given that APRNs have met advanced educational and clinical practice requirements, there will always be a high demand for these highly skilled healthcare workers. Considering the United State’s aging population and the need for healthcare providers, seeking APRN status is a wise long-term career move.
A Nurse Practitioner:
A nurse practitioner is a type of registered nurse that has completed an advanced, university-level education. They carry out personalized, high-quality healthcare services for their patients.
Often, nurse practitioners act as autonomous clinicians that specialize in a particular segment of the patient population. They can also subspecialize in a particular area of healthcare, such as cardiovascular health. For example, you could find a nurse practitioner that specializes in pediatric oncology.
Nurse practitioners need at least a master’s degree in nursing to practice; however, a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) is quickly becoming the preferred level of education for modern nurse practitioners.
Essentially, nurse practitioners are amongst the most highly trained and educated nurses out there and they tend to have a high level of autonomy and responsibility in the workplace. In some healthcare facilities, nurse practitioners are almost used as cost-effective substitutes for doctors.
Due to their advanced qualifications, most nurse practitioners are authorized to diagnose illnesses, treat various conditions, and provide health education to patients. Nurse practitioners can write prescriptionsin all 50 states and controlled substances in 49 states, which are privileges that diploma or bachelor’s prepared nurses do not have.
Again, becoming a nurse practitioner is an admirable goal for any aspiring nurse. Nurse practitioner status would allow an individual to practice a more advanced and specialized form of healthcare, as well as increase their earning potential and status within the workplace.
Best Nursing Degree Programs
Now that you know a little bit about what nurses do and understand how the three main types of nurses differ from one another, you are likely wondering what credentials you need to become one.
While there are several routes one can take to become a registered nurse in the United States, we will first outline the traditional route. After taking a closer look at the typical path people take to become nurses, we’ll get into the fastest nursing degree pathways.
Step 1: Complete an Accredited Registered Nurse Program
The traditional path towards a career as a registered nurse requires graduating from an accredited nursing program. There are a few options available for this step, including obtaining a nursing diploma, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree.
An associate’s degree in nursing typically takes two years to complete, while a bachelor’s degree in nursing takes four years of full-time study. Often, an associate’s degree in nursing is not preferred by employers, so the individual would then have to transfer to a non-community college to complete a further two years of schooling.
Four-year bachelor’s degree programs in nursing often involve two years of general education classes, followed by two years of nursing-specific coursework. While a student will learn much of the same information about nursing during the completion of an associate’s degree, the bachelor’s program will be more advanced.
As the field becomes more competitive, expectations for education credentials become more demanding. Those that graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing will be better off when it comes to applying for nursing positions.
While in school, students will complete coursework that will help them gain an understanding of the following subjects:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Biochemistry, chemistry, and microbiology
- Healthcare law, ethics, and policy
- Patient care
- As well as a variety of subjects specifically related to the profession of nursing
Step 2: Take and Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam
No matter what level of the registered nurse a person aspires to be, they will have to take and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Almost every nursing program will prepare students for the exam, but the exam taker would still have to study the relevant test material beforehand.
Upon graduation from a nursing program, aspiring nurses should register with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, which allows them to sign up for the exam. After the student has signed up, they will later receive a notification that they can select an exam date and location.
The test itself is a computerized exam that has an average of 119 questions. Exam takers have up to six hours to write the exam, after which time the test is over, regardless of whether or not the individual has completed the full test. If the individual does not pass the exam, they must wait at least 45 days before they can retake it. On average, 70 to 75 percent of nursing student exam takers pass.
Passing the exam is a mandatory step, so it is well worth properly preparing for. Once a person has earned a passing grade, they can move towards the next steps.
Step 3: Obtain a State License and Meet All Other State Requirements
This step in the process will vary from state to state, as each particular state and territory has its licensure requirements for nurses. Since state-specific requirements for nurses are so varied, aspiring nurses should contact their particular state’s board of nursing to get a full breakdown of the steps required to obtain a license to practice nursing in that area.
Step 4: Find Employment as a Nurse
Once a person has completed the necessary education and obtained the relevant licensing to practice in their state, they can apply for nursing opportunities.
Given that registered nurses are in high demand across the country, recent graduates often have the luxury of choosing where they would like to work. As mentioned previously, there are many different environments and facilities where nurses can find employment, so it is worth putting some serious thought into where you would like to work.
Many aspiring nurses will volunteer in various work environments before they graduate, which helps give them an idea of where they would like to find full-time employment after graduation. Some aspiring nurses will also complete a certified nursing assistant program, so they can work in the field before deciding if they want to go through the steps necessary to become a fully qualified nurse.
Step 5: Pursue Additional Training and Keep the Nursing License in Good Standing
Once a registered nurse has entered the workforce, they will still be required to keep their license in good standing. Again, requirements will vary from state to state, so it is worth the effort to make sure you are knowledgeable about your state’s license requirements.
There are also plenty of opportunities to advance a nursing career. If a registered nurse has ambitions to become an advanced practice registered nurse, or a nurse practitioner, they will have to complete at least an MSN program. It is always recommended that registered nurses explore their field and see if a particular specialization is appealing.
After completing a master’s program and obtaining the other relevant qualifications to become an APRN or nurse practitioner, graduates can pursue specializations. Those that would like to take their education even further have the option to pursue a doctoral program. DNP and Ph.D. programs usually appeal to nurses that enjoy the research and scientific areas of the field.
As new healthcare methods evolve, the field of nursing will continue to change. This is why it is so important that nurses always keep an eye out for new certifications and courses they can pursue to advance their careers and healthcare skills.
What is the Fastest Way to Become a Nurse?
As mentioned earlier, there are faster paths a person can take to become a qualified nurse. For people who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field or recent graduates who would like to become nurses but did not study nursing at the undergraduate level, some shortcuts make the journey much quicker than the traditional path to a nursing career.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you do not necessarily have to start from scratch and start a new four-year degree in nursing. People in this situation have the option to pursue an accelerated BSN degree.
What is an Accelerated BSN Program?
Essentially, an accelerated BSN is a degree specifically for those that already have a bachelor’s degree in another field but would like to become a registered nurse.
Depending on the program’s structure and intensity, accelerated BSN programs usually take between one and two years to complete. During this period, the student will take nursing-related courses, many of which are shorter in duration than those taken by students in standard nursing programs. Condensed nursing classes allow the student to graduate faster, but they often involve demanding coursework and a busy schedule.
While the program is relatively short, it does not include any of the time required to complete the prerequisite courses. If the applicant did not complete those courses during their previous bachelor’s degree program, then they have to take them on their own before applying for an accelerated BSN program.
Requirements and Prerequisites for an Accelerated BSN Program
While the accelerated BSN program is designed for those that have previously earned a bachelor’s degree, just having a bachelor’s degree is not always enough to apply. There are specific prerequisite courses the applicant must have already completed, as well as other requirements.
- Prerequisite Courses: In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree from a recognized institution, most accelerated BSN programs also demand that the applicant has completed many core prerequisite courses. Often, these courses are in subjects like microbiology, statistics, anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. If the applicant did not complete the prerequisite courses during the pursuit of their bachelor’s degree, they can complete the individual courses before applying to the program. It is also worth noting that some schools only recognize prerequisite courses if they were completed within a certain period. So, if you earned your bachelor’s degree many years ago, you should inquire about their prerequisite recognition policy before applying.
- Completion of an Entrance Exam: The accelerated BSN program at most schools will have a mandatory entrance exam, which must be passed before an applicant is allowed into the program. The entrance exam will mostly cover subjects that are relevant to a nursing program, such as a math and science background, as well as reading and writing competency. There are several types of entrance exams out there, including the HESI, ATI, or TEASE. There are plenty of resources available to prepare when applying to an accelerated BSN program.
- The Applicant’s GPA: The applicant’s GPA will be one of the most important factors when it comes to admitting an individual into an accelerated BSN program. While each school will have its standards, almost every program will have a minimum GPA required for admittance. In most cases, the minimum GPA for entry into the program will land somewhere between 3.0 and 3.5.
Tips for Getting Accepted into an Accelerated BSN Program:
Given that nurses are really in demand right now, accelerated nursing programs can be difficult to get into. Schools have limited seats and most programs will receive a high number of applicants. This is why the following tips can help you get started on your fast track pathway to becoming a registered nurse.
- Make sure your GPA is above the minimum entrance requirement. If you need to increase your GPA, you can always take additional classes that can boost your average.
- Some programs require applicants to write a personal statement for why they would like to enroll in the program. If the school you are applying for asks for a personal statement, make sure you are writing a compelling and detailed explanation for why the program and nursing industry is important to you. You can also set yourself apart by pursuing relevant work and volunteer experience. Essentially, you want to demonstrate that you have a real interest in the field and will go on to become a passionate nurse after you graduate.
- Since accelerated BSN programs are relatively competitive, you should consider applying to more than one program. If you are willing to relocate to schools that are outside of your commuting limit, you will increase your chances of being accepted to a program.
- Make sure you have completed all of the necessary prerequisite courses before you apply to an accelerated nursing program. Do not waste time and money applying to programs that you are unqualified for.
Decide if an Accelerated BSN is Right For You Before You Apply
Enrolling in any nursing program is a serious commitment. Given the money, time, and effort that goes into the pursuit of higher education, it is not a decision you should take lightly.
We should also note that the condensed nature of an accelerated program makes it challenging and time-consuming. Make sure you are prepared for that challenge.
If you know that nursing is the right career for you, an accelerated program might be the fastest way to get started in the exciting and rewarding career of nursing.
If you still have questions about a career in nursing or the healthcare industry in general, there are plenty of useful resources out there.
PayScale.com provides useful information regarding average RN salary and hourly rates for registered nurses across the country. The link above will take you to their registered nurse information portal.
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing is a non-profit organization that acts as a council for all matters related to nursing. They can be an excellent resource for aspiring nurses and they are also the organizing body responsible for many of the nursing license exams you will be required to take in the pursuit of a nursing career.