The length of time required to become a nurse largely depends on the level of nursing one aspires to. At the most basic level, a nursing career can begin within a matter of months, while more advanced nursing roles require more than four years of study. Certified Nurse Assistants (CNAs) and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)* typically work under the instruction of nurses who have a more senior role, such as an RN (Registered Nurse) or ARPN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse). These nurses usually hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees and have several years of experience.
The primary difference in these roles is that Registered Nurses and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses may be responsible for creating a plan of care, while Certified Nursing Assistants and Licensed Practical Nurses would not design a plan of care, but carry out plans of the senior health professionals. APRNs require additional certification. Though it’s possible to earn an RN with a diploma or associate’s degree, typically, RNs who hold a supervisory role have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Prerequisites for nursing programs vary by institution and are a large factor in determining an individual student’s course of study. The nursing profession is regulated and subject to the board of nursing requirements in each state. Ultimately, the amount of time required varies by state and program, though there are some general guidelines according to nursing qualification.
CNA (Certified Nurse’s Assistant)
A Certified Nurse Assistant is the first step in becoming a nurse. Programs can vary in length from one month to one quarter of study. Many nurses are able to earn a nurse aide certification while enrolled in an LPN or RN program. The CNA is a regulated nursing profession at the certificate level and requires passing a state-level exam. CNAs work under the supervision of both LPNs and RNs attending to basic patient needs often related to personal care.
LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse)
Most LPN programs require just over one year of continuous study including both coursework and clinical training. LPNs are also referred to as LVNs (Licensed Vocational Nurses) in some states. To obtain certification, an LPN must take the NCLEX-PN exam after completing coursework.
Undergraduate Level Nursing Degrees
RN (Registered Nurse)
RNs are considered independent nursing professionals. They supervise LPNs and RNs and work directly with doctors, head nurses and other medical staff. Becoming an RN without any previous experience generally requires two to four years of study for the ADN and BSN respectively. The final step in becoming an RN is passing the NCLEX-RN exam to become licensed. While the ADN and BSN prepared student can earn the same qualification, the BSN is the standard for advanced roles and career opportunities with an undergraduate education.
There are some exceptions to the two and four year institution programs. Accelerated nursing degrees for students that have a baccalaureate degree or higher in a field other than nursing allows a student to become an RN in two to three years. Though very rare, a select few RN programs are offered through hospitals that offer a diploma in lieu of an ADN or BSN degree for the RN. Most diploma programs can be completed in three years.
Graduate Nursing Degrees
MSN (Master of Science in Nursing)
The MSN degree is offered in a variety of settings. In some institutions, students can enroll in a joint undergraduate and graduate degree program, while other institutions offer the MSN program independently. The MSN can take anywhere from one to three years to complete. If a student is seeking certification, the master’s degree program can be three or even four years if taken on a part-time basis.
Masters degree programs often involve certification as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN). Certification is through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or other professional nursing body. The APRN can obtain certification in one of four key areas:
-Nurse Practitioner (NP)
-Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
-Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
-Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
CNMs primarily work with women’s health and CRNAs with patients going under anesthesia. However, NPs and CNSs further specialize, usually with a specific population (e.g., Family, Pediatric, Geriatric) or type of care (e.g., Acute, Psychiatric, Obstetrics). Types of Nurse Practitioners and Clinical Nurse Specialist include but are not limited to the following:
-Neonatal Nurse Practitioner -NNP
-Adult Nurse Practitioner –ANP
-Adult Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist –AGCNS
-Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist -PCNS
PhD in Nursing (Nursing Doctorate)
The Nursing Doctorate degree requires extensive full-time study in an academic setting. It usually requires students to attend courses on campus, and takes approximately three years for students who have a master’s degree in nursing
DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
Unlike PhD in Nursing programs, many DNP programs are conducted solely online. Since it is a practice degree designed for nurses in the healthcare setting, many DNP candidates will continue working while attending school. DNP programs can be completed in three to five years of study.
In Texas and California, the role of the LPN is performed by an LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse).