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Requirements to Be a Nurse in the U.S.

A career in nursing centers around helping to care for patients in a variety of skilled healthcare settings. Continue reading for an overview of essential job duties, education and certification requirements; as well as career and salary information for different areas of focus.

Essential Information

Individuals interested in entering the nursing field may become registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs), also called licensed vocational nurses (LVNs). Educational requirements differ by type of nurse. Becoming an LPN or LVN requires the least amount of formal education, a year-long training program; while individuals interested in becoming advanced practice nurses need to complete a master's degree program.

Licensed Practical/Vocational NurseRegistered Nurse
Required EducationTypically, a year-long training programAssociate's Degree at minimum, and more advanced studies depending upon specialization
Other Requirements State licensureState licensure
Projected Job Growth (2012-2022) 25%*19%*
Average Salary (2014) $43,420*$69,790*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

LPN and LVN Training Programs

Entry-level training for licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses can be obtained via 1-year educational programs offered at technical schools, vocational schools or community colleges. LPN/LVN programs involve both lecture-type classes and hands-on clinical practice in a hospital or clinic. Typical courses include anatomy, first aid, nutrition and physiology.

Associate's Degree in Nursing

In order to become an RN, candidates need to have earned at minimum an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN). Completing this degree program allows graduates to take the licensing examination to become RNs. Common courses include anatomy, nutrition, adult care and medicine practices.

Bachelor's Degree in Nursing

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree programs allow nursing students to learn about providing care and obtaining work experience in medical settings. Common courses include human development and healthcare, nursing theory, chemistry and infant care.

Master's Degree in Nursing

Another type of registered nurse, known as an advanced practice nurse, must complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program. Some MSN programs accept applications only from licensed RNs. Advanced practice nurses include nurse-midwives, nurse anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners. Courses in graduate nursing degree programs vary because they are usually focused on the area of concentration.

Career Requirements to Become a Nurse

All nurses have to earn state licensure after they graduate from an educational program. Part of earning licensure is taking the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This exam is given by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), a nonprofit organization involved with regulating nurses in the U.S. (www.ncsbn.org). Other licensing criteria may be required for nurses by each state. Continuing education credits are usually required for a nurse to renew her or his license.

Licensure Examination for Nurses

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exists in two forms: one for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN) and one for practical nurses (NCLEX-PN). Both exams require candidates to pay a fee, and exams can be taken via computer. The number of questions varies from person to person, depending on performance. The computer keeps giving questions until it is certain whether or not the test-taker is qualified.

Both the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN include questions about keeping patients and nurses safe by preventing accidents, using ergonomic principles, and correctly handling infectious items according to the NCSBN. Students answer questions about supporting culturally diverse patients in stressful situations, such as abuse, loss, mental illness or chemical dependency. Exam takers must know how to keep patients comfortable, identify appropriate use of medications, calculate doses and recognize adverse effects.

Certification

Certification is a way that nurses can show their ability to care for certain groups of people, such as children, the elderly or patients with mental illness. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), though these credentials are earned voluntarily, some employers may insist that the nurses they hire have additional certifications (www.bls.gov).

Professional organizations, such as the American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC), offer a wide array of certifications in diverse specialty areas, including pediatrics, psychiatric care and diabetes management (www.nursecredentialing.org). Another professional organization, the National League for Nursing, offers certification for nurse educators (www.nln.org). Additional education may be required for some certifications.

Advanced Practice Nurse Certification

After earning degrees and obtaining RN licensing, nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses may need to undergo an additional process of certification, determined by the state in which they work. Certification allows an advanced practice nurse to perform specific care, depending on the state's regulations. For example, certified nurse practitioners may be able to prescribe medications (which needs additional licensure), or serve as a patient's primary health care provider.

Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov) estimated that from 2012 - 2022, job opportunities for RNs were expected to grow 19% while job opportunities for LPNs/LVNs were expected to grow 25% -- a good deal faster than average across all occupations. The BLS also reported in May 2014 that the average annual salary for RNs was $69,790; while LPNs/LVNs earned an average annual wage of $43,420 during that same reporting interval.

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