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The Complete Guide to Becoming a Nurse

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becoming a nurse

It is not an exaggeration to state that society is evolving every day, and the fast pace of technological development has had a lot to do that. One of the most significant consequences of this is that many careers are becoming obsolete. For people who are either just starting out in the world of employment or are looking for a career change, it is important to choose a career that has a future. There are several options, of course, but none quite so rewarding as becoming a nurse. Nursing takes place in a wide range of environments and is a varied and challenging career with lots of opportunity for progression, but it also makes a positive difference to people in need every day.

If you are hoping to pursue a career in nursing but are not sure what is involved, you will find the key steps required in this complete guide to becoming a registered nurse.

How to train as a nurse in 4 steps

While the specific qualifications and accreditations required to become a nurse may vary depending on which state you wish to practice in, you will usually need to follow these steps.                   

Decide on your preferred career path

People often have a narrow view of what a nurse does and where they work, but the reality is that nurses can follow lots of different paths and there is plenty of opportunity for promotion and progression. At the start of your journey, you need to consider the type of environment you would like to work in. Nurses are found in hospitals, private clinics, schools, nursing homes, addiction and rehabilitation centers, and mental health facilities, to name just a few settings.

Nurses can specialize in a range of fields such as pediatrics, geriatrics, midwifery, or mental health. Some nursing roles are more supportive in nature, while others involve managing others, prescribing care, medication, or running a healthcare facility.

Because there are so many potential routes for qualified nurses to follow, it makes sense to at least consider where you see yourself working so you can select the most appropriate training course. Of course, your plans may change as you gain more experience, and your initial training will cover several different scenarios and skills.

Complete a nursing training program

When you have identified a potential career path, you will need to complete a nursing program that includes both theoretical training and clinical experience. In most states, you need to have a degree in nursing known as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), but in some cases, a nursing diploma from a community college or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) could be acceptable.

The clinical experience is an essential part of your training as it provides you with practical experience and first-hand knowledge of nursing in real-life settings. The clinical placements are also an opportunity to meet and learn from other nurses and to work in different environments so you can choose the best path for your interests.

When choosing a training program, you need to consider the practicalities, i.e. how will it fit around your family, existing commitments and schedule? Training in theory will take place at a college or university, but clinical placements will be elsewhere, so transport will be essential. The theoretical elements of nursing degrees can be completed online, but clinical placements must be conducted in an approved medical setting. Nursing degrees can take up to four years to complete, but there are accelerated nursing programs that can be completed online at a faster pace.

Get your nursing license

It is not enough to complete a training program, as you need to prove that you have acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to practice in your chosen state. To get your license, you will need to sit an exam. Throughout your career, you will need to sit more exams when you wish to advance to a more senior or specialized position such as a nurse practitioner, midwife, or anesthetist.

Continue learning

To be able to work in healthcare you need to be prepared to continue with your education and training throughout your career. Medicine and treatment are always developing, so it is essential that healthcare professionals are up to date with the latest information and research. This becomes even more important as a nurse's responsibilities increase. The more committed you are to continued improvement, the more likely it is that your career will continue an upward trajectory and you will be considered for promotions. There are several ways to continue your nursing education, including:

  • Completing continuing education courses every two years (each state's nursing board will have different requirements)
  • Specializing in a particular area of nursing through certification
  • Studying for an advanced nursing degree such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctoral degree.

Entry-level nursing positions

Here is an introduction to the types of entry-level nursing positions you may want to consider before you select a training program.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

A Certified Nursing Assistant, or CNA, provides basic care to patients and is required to record key information and communicate issues to more senior nursing staff. For example, a CNA may bathe and feed patients, clean rooms, answer calls from patients, etc. This position requires a diploma or certificate which takes up to 12 weeks to complete. It is an appropriate option for people who want to enter the nursing profession quickly and acquire practical experience.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

A Licensed Practical Nurse or LPN (also referred to as a licensed vocational nurse in certain states) also provides basic patient care such as dressing and re-dressing wounds, bathing, and feeding patients. In some states, LPNs are also able to administer medication. It takes a year to achieve a certificate or diploma, which enables you to work as an LPN, and the credits from this qualification may be put towards a registered nursing degree program.

Registered Nurse (RN)

Registered Nurses or RNs experience a more varied and challenging career and have more opportunities for progression. An RN will provide patients with care and medication in line with a doctor's diagnosis and prescription. They also support doctors during physical examinations and surgical procedures. To become an RN, you must complete a nursing diploma, but most employers prefer to employ a nurse with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing.

Advanced level nursing positions

When you have achieved your Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, you will be able to progress onto an advanced nursing program. In some cases, you can study a more advanced course if you have already achieved a degree in another field and you have relevant work experience. For example, an RN who has an associate degree may be able to complete a BSN and an MSN at the same college (one after the other) through a bridge course.

Here are some of the opportunities available to nurses with an advanced degree.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

A Nurse Anesthetist helps patients with pain management. Anesthesia may be required before, during, and/or after a medical procedure, and the nurse anesthetist is responsible for ensuring the correct level of anesthesia is administered, e.g. regional, local, or general. Some states allow anesthetists to work without the supervision of a doctor. To become a Nurse Anesthetist after January 1st 2022, you will need to complete a doctorate as this will be a requirement for nurse anesthetists by 2025.

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

A certified midwife provides care for women before and after they have given birth, as well as care for newborn babies. Midwives are also involved in educating women and their families on general health and wellbeing.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A Nurse Practitioner or NP is one of the most senior positions as in some states they are able to practice in the same manner as a doctor, i.e. diagnosing conditions and prescribing medication or treatment. This means that an NP can open their own medical practice in some cases. To be able to practice as an NP in 2025, nurses will need to complete a Doctorate in Nursing Practice.

Nursing Informatics

For nurses with an interest in technology and advancing the field of nursing, a career in nursing informatics could be perfect. In addition to training nurses so they can use the latest technology, you would also be researching and inventing new ways to improve the healthcare system and data management.

Nurse Leadership/Administration

If you have excellent organizational skills and are good at managing people, administration or leadership is the ideal goal for you. These nurses become operational managers who ensure healthcare facilities run as efficiently and effectively as possible, including both medical, operational, and financial aspects.

Changing your nursing career path.

One of the most appealing points about a career in nursing is that after years of the same role in the same setting, you can change it up. By returning to education, you can shake up your career, e.g. by completing a master's degree in midwifery, becoming a teacher for nurses in training, or branching out into medical research to further the nursing profession through a PhD.