The Complete Guide to Pursuing a Nursing Career

The Complete Guide to Pursuing a Nursing Career

June 29, 2022

Are you ready to embark on your career in nursing? What an exciting time. You are about to follow in the footsteps of millions of other caregivers who have come before you. All of those individuals have been where you are now, at the consideration stage. So don't be deterred by the long journey. You will do well, as long as you follow the correct pathway to becoming a registered nurse. 

Getting your degree and license in nursing will not be easy. There is much work to be done. But at some point in the near future, you will be able to call yourself a nursing professional. And what a momentous occasion that will be.

How long does it take to become a nurse? With fast-track programs, you could be working as a nurse in as little as sixteen months. But for many, it will take between two to four years to obtain an associate's or bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Before you can call yourself a nurse, you need the proper education followed by a nursing license. You can then search for employment at medical facilities around the country, such as hospitals, labs, and doctor’s offices, just to name a few.

What follows is a complete guide to nursing, which will give you a roadmap to follow as you progress through your education and training to your very first nursing job. 

Nursing not only comes with an elevated salary over many employment positions, including those in health care, but nursing is as rewarding as it is lucrative. Knowing you are helping patients with care, compassion, and education makes working in this health care role well worth the effort.

Let’s get started. First, it is important that you understand what a nurse does, so that you know what to expect when you eventually land a job in the nursing field.

What Does a Nurse Do?

Nurses are considered the backbone of the modern complex health care system. The short definition of a nurse is a professional who acts as a liaison between physicians and their patients, but nurses do so much more.

No other role in health or any other industry is as far-reaching as the nursing profession. When you become a nurse, you need to be prepared to act as a:

Care Coordinator

Nurses share knowledge about patient care with other members of the care team, such as doctors, fellow nurses, and others. It is this collaborative effort that offers the most personalized and proactive care plan necessary to manage a patient’s complex healthcare needs.

Health Advocate

Patients have the right to make decisions about their own health. By being a health advocate, nurses help to promote patient equality and preserve human dignity while providing freedom from suffering. As a nurse, you can help patients make the right decision about health by assisting with expressing their thoughts and concerns to doctors and other healthcare professionals. This isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t necessarily agree with a patient’s health care decisions.


Nurses are responsible for maintaining a safe environment for patients, visitors, and their fellow staff. They need to ensure that quality of care is maintained and that the care offered aligns with the medical facility’s strategic goals. All the while, nurses need to manage human and financial resources in a way that ensures patient and staff satisfaction.


Nurses are sometimes responsible for recruiting, training, and supervising nurses, and other health care team members. This often involves work scheduling and conducting performance reviews.


Nurses are expected to lend an ear to patients and their families, which is sometimes necessary for helping patients and their loved ones make important decisions related to adequate levels of care. Listening to patients’ concerns can also help those individuals release their anxiety and stress, which is critical for health care.


While working as a nurse, you will find yourself educating patients about the medications they are taking and treatments they are receiving, as well as how to prevent and manage medical conditions.

As you can see, the role of a nurse is a profession like no other. Now let’s get to the part you came for. The following guide will help you become a nurse by laying out the details of education, licensing, certification, and job possibilities.

Nursing Education Programs

Nursing education programs are ideal for both high school and college graduates. This means you don’t need prior work experience to enter a nursing program. Although, if you do have experience in health care, this could improve your chances of being accepted to the program of your choice. Nursing programs are known to turn away qualified applicants by the hundreds every year. They do so because classes fill up quickly and there is usually less faculty on staff to handle the expansive student volume.

Prior work experience could be as a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant), which is an unlicensed role that would have you helping people with disabilities, mental impairments, and other ailments with their day-to-day living. Getting an education in the sciences can also help your case when applying to a nursing school when there is a waiting list in place.

There are many paths you can take on your way to becoming a nurse. The fastest way is to enroll in an associate degree in nursing (ADN) program. However, due to the current nursing shortage, many employers are calling for nurses with bachelor’s degrees. You would have far greater opportunities afforded to you by pursuing a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) program. There are accelerated programs you can take also. For instance, if you have a bachelor’s degree in another field of study, some nursing colleges offer second-degree bachelor’s programs that can help you become an accredited nurse in record time.

You can further improve your chances of landing a job directly out of school by pursuing an advanced graduate degree. Only 13% of nurses hold graduate degrees and less than 1% hold doctorates. You would become a rarity in the field by pursuing one of these programs and you’d have your choice of lucrative job offers upon graduation.

Associate degree in Nursing (ADN)

You can find ADN programs at community colleges across the country. These programs are ideal if your budget is tight, and you want to pursue a nursing degree without spending four years on a bachelor’s program. The program takes around two years to complete.

The coursework and clinical experiences include nursing theory and the development of the practical skills needed in the nursing field. Many ADN holders return to school to obtain a BSN, which improves the chances of landing a high-paying job.

Bachelor of Sciences in Nursing (BSN)

This four-year degree program is offered at various nursing colleges and universities. While enrolled in a BSN program, you will learn nursing theory and gain clinical skills that give you a foundation in the sciences including biology, chemistry, human growth and development, nutrition, and psychology.

By obtaining a BSN degree, you will gain the skills and abilities required to work as a Registered Nurse in hospitals, labs, doctor’s offices, and other medical facilities.

While the training is more extensive and costlier than an ADN degree, you can improve your career prospects immensely by getting a bachelor's degree. BSN degree holders tend to possess superior critical thinking skills and decision-making skills than ADN holders, which makes them better equipped to handle a wide scope of nursing scenarios.

Once again, if you already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can complete a second-degree BSN program in as little as eighteen months to two years. A bridge program, which is available for nurses with ADNs, is another option that allows you to easily transition into a BSN degree program.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Getting an MSN degree is the final entry route into the nursing field. You can pursue this pathway to nursing by holding a BSN degree. Once you graduate from a master’s degree program, you would then become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN). This is where you can specialize and get on the radar of employers for more lucrative job opportunities, such as a certified registered nurse anesthetist, which is the current highest-paid role in nursing.

If you hold a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can apply directly to a master’s degree program. There are strict enrollment requirements, and the coursework can be challenging, with demanding clinical rotations. But once you are enrolled, the program takes around three years to finish.

Nursing Licensing and Certifications

After graduating from an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree program, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to practice as a registered nurse. This exam is divided into four areas – health promotion, providing a safe and effective care environment, physiological integrity, and psychosocial integrity. You need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam within one year after registering for the exam, which comes with a $200 test-taking fee.

Once you pass the exam, you will become a registered nurse (RN).

Nurse Certifications

Obtaining a nurse certification allows you to validate your knowledge, skills, and abilities. You will also be able to function in a defined role and clinical area of medical practice.

Certification is obtained through the American Board of Nursing Specialties (ABNS). Employers in health care have been placing focus on the value of nurse certification in recent years.

To qualify for nurse certification, you must enroll in a specialized education program through agencies accredited by the ABNS. You will then need to pass a qualifying exam.

Nurse certifications are open to RNs with both ADN and BSN degrees. The list of certifications is extensive, with titles such as a pediatric nurse, perinatal nurse, pain management nurse, gerontological nurse, cardiac-vascular nurse, public health nurse, and many more.

Job Prospects for Nurses


Most hospitals hire ADN degree holders. And you might be surprised to learn that beginning salaries for ADN and BSN holders are roughly the same. However, long-term career prospects for associate degree holders are limited.

Most advanced nursing positions require a BSN at the minimum. And many hospitals are now requiring nurses to have a BSN degree with the list of medical facilities requiring bachelor’s degrees growing by the day. Some legislators are also working on bills that require nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree within their first ten years of practice.


BSN degree holders have terrific job prospects. And due to the nursing shortage, BSN holders are in high demand.

If you hope to specialize in a certain field, such as emergency care or oncology, you will need a BSN degree first. If you want to move up from a beginner nursing salary, you will also be required to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Obtaining a BSN is one of the surest ways to earn a higher salary and gain the greater responsibility needed to make the most impact and earn the highest levels of respect in the nursing field.


You have even greater long-term job prospects as an MSN holder than you will with an ADN or BSN degree. Getting your master’s gives you access to a wide range of high-paying nurse specialties. You are also unlikely to be left looking for a job post-graduation. More than 70% of MSN holders get job offers by the time they graduate from a nursing program. And more than 90% of them have jobs within six months of graduation.

MSN holders are able to advance through the ranks quickly, with many working as supervisors, administrators, and teachers.

Further, if you have your sights set on a high-paying specialty, such as nurse anesthetist, mental health nurse, or oncology nurse, you will almost always have to have an MSN first.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

This is the highest degree a nurse can possibly earn. Because it takes years of training to obtain one of these degrees, the job opportunities and salaries are abundant.

DNP degree holders work as nurse educators and as Advanced Registered Nurse practitioners, which pays over $100,000 per year.

Are You Prepared to Pursue Your Degree in Nursing?

You now have several avenues you can take to become a registered nurse. The duration of the program you enroll in, and the cost of that program will depend on your goals, the availability of schools, and financing options in your geographical area. Hopefully, this guide has helped you envision the ideal path you should take to follow your dreams of becoming a nursing professional. With further research into the various nursing programs available, you should be able to make an informed decision about your future in health care.

For more information on becoming a nurse, visit Prolink. You can also get an idea of the various jobs in nursing that are available by searching our exclusive nursing jobs list.

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