If you want to make a real difference in the lives of those around you while building a rewarding career, then nursing can be the perfect career to help you make that dream a reality.

“There are just so many opportunities within nursing to make an individual's career unique,” says Donna Glynn, PhD, RN, ANP, and associate dean of pre-licensure nursing at Regis College. “Nurses can choose to practice in the acute care hospital environment, they can practice in the community, they can advance their education to become nurse practitioners, they can work in nursing schools and education. The potential for a fulfilling career is endless.”

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Are you considering becoming a nurse? Curious about what the process looks like—how long it will take, what the educational requirements look like, and the specific steps involved in getting licensed? These are all great questions to ask, especially before you begin!

Below, we outline the steps involved in becoming a nurse, so that you can begin planning for your career in this exciting industry.

Table of Contents

Steps to Becoming a Nurse

1. Choose Your Career Path

The first step in becoming a nurse is to choose the career path that you would like to follow, at least initially. What job title do you hope to hold? What kind of tasks and responsibilities do you want as a part of your day-to-day job? This decision will impact the educational requirements that you’ll need to fulfill in order to become licensed in your chosen profession, so it’s an important one to consider, says Glynn.

There are many options to consider here. For example, you may decide to start your nursing career as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN), or you might decide that you want to go straight into the field as a registered nurse (RN). You might even decide early on that you want to eventually become a nurse practitioner.

Not sure what each of these job titles means? Here are some quick definitions:

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): These are medical professionals that help patients with needs associated with daily living, such as bathing, grooming, eating, and moving. They are also typically responsible for checking the patient’s vital signs periodically. CNAs work under the supervision of an RN, LPN, or LVN.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN): These job titles mean roughly the same thing, but vary by location. According to Glynn, LPNs and LVNs are nurses who are very task-focused. Their day-to-day activities are more about medication administration and basic patient assessments than about critical thinking.

Registered Nurse (RN): Registered nurses are responsible for direct care of patients. This typically includes managing their daily activities, assessments, medications, and any scheduled procedures they may need to undergo. Often, RNs will supervise other members of the medical team.

Nurse Practitioner (NP) or Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN): Nurse practitioners are responsible for the primary, secondary, and acute care of patients under their charge. As such, they typically enjoy a greater level of prescriptive, diagnostic, and clinical authority which in some cases rivals that of doctors.

You want to have a sense of which job title you would like to hold in the near-term so that you can choose a degree or program that will allow you to reach that goal. That being said, Glynn notes that this isn’t necessarily the job title that you’ll hold 5, 10, or even 20 years down the road. The field of nursing is full of opportunities to advance, and many who enter the field as a CNA or LPN eventually decide to go on to become RNs, while many RNs decide eventually to pursue the training necessary to become a NP.

2. Earn the Required Degree

In order to work in any of the capacities discussed above, you will need to complete certain required education. This will vary substantially depending on which career path you choose. For example:

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): According to Glynn, you can take a six to eight week program to become a CNA.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN): Most often, you can take a 12- to 18-month program to become an LPN or LVN.

Registered Nurse (RN): Depending on the state at which you wish to practice, you may be able to become an RN with as little as an associate’s degree. That being said, more and more hospitals are beginning to require RN applicants to hold at least their bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). Depending on which degree you choose to pursue and whether you pursue it on a full-time or part-time basis, it can take anywhere from 16 months for individuals with a previous degree to four years to become a registered nurse.

Nurse Practitioner (NP) or Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN): In order to become a NP or APRN, you will typically first need to become a registered nurse, which will involve earning either your associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. You will then need to pursue graduate-level education in the form of either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Which degree you will need to earn will depend on the state in which you wish to practice, though it is important to note that the DNP is increasingly becoming the required degree. Individuals who know that they would like to become a nurse practitioner right from the start and already have a bachelor's degree in a non nursing discipline can achieve this goal in as little as three years, while it may take other students five years depending on which program they enroll in.

3. Obtain Your License

After earning your degree, you will need to obtain the relevant license. The requirements for obtaining your license will vary depending on your career choice, as well as the state in which you wish to practice.

For example, in Massachusetts Glynn notes that CNAs must take a state competency test, while LPNs must pass the NCLEX-PN and RNs, NPs, and APRNs must take the NCLEX-RN. RNs take the NCLEX. NPs take a national certification exam.

Other exams and credentials are required to become nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, and other positions.

4. Choose a Specialty

While this isn’t a requirement, many nurses may choose to specialize in a specific branch of nursing. Doing so can help you become more competitive in the job search, and open new avenues for career advancement. It’s not necessary to choose a specialty immediately, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Geriatric nurse
  • Neonatal or perinatal nurse
  • Nurse midwife Psychiatric Nurse
  • Pediatric nurse
  • Critical care
  • Travel nurse
  • Virtual nursing
  • Home care
  • Case Management
  • Nurse educator
  • Trauma nurse

There are, of course, additional specialties that you may consider as well. Depending on the specialty that you would like to pursue, you may find that you need to complete a specific certification or advanced degree. Even if you don’t wish to pursue a specialty immediately, knowing whether or not you might in the future can be helpful.

5. Pursue Advanced Training

As noted above, depending on your career goals, you may eventually decide to pursue additional training in order to advance within the field. For example, someone who enters nursing as a CNA, LPN, or LVN may eventually decide that they wish to become a registered nurse or nurse practitioner; meanwhile, and RN may decide that they wish to become a nurse practitioner, and a nurse practitioner may decide to pursue a position in nursing leadership or nursing education.

In any case, advancing within nursing will typically require you to complete additional education, training, and certifications depending on your goals.

Common Questions About Nursing

Below are a number of questions commonly asked by individuals who are considering nursing as a career.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

Typically, it takes anywhere from approximately 16 months to four years to become a registered nurse. Ultimately, it will depend on your educational background, the specific nursing degree you are pursuing, and whether you are earning your degree on a part-time or full-time basis.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Becoming a nurse practitioner will require you to earn a graduate degree in nursing such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), on top of your bachelor’s degree. Therefore, how long it takes to become a nurse practitioner will vary depending on which degree you choose to earn. To give you some context, below are some average time frames for earning each degree:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): two to four years (two years with a previous non nursing degree)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): two years
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): two years

That being said, a number of accelerated degrees exist which can make completing your education quicker. For example, students who enroll in the Accelerated Direct-Entry MSN at Regis, for example, can earn their BSN and MSN in three years. It is then possible for those students to complete their DNP in as little as an additional two years, if desired.

Can I Make a Career Change into Nursing?

Yes! Many people decide to go into nursing as a second career after spending time working in another industry or field. While it will require you fill any specific knowledge gaps that you may have, it is definitely possible, and likely much more common than you may believe!

Click here to read testimonials from Regis students who specifically decided to go into nursing in order to make a contribution during the pandemic.

Taking the First Steps to a Fulfilling Career

If you’re considering becoming a nurse, it is understandable that the process might seem overwhelming or daunting at first. But by breaking the process into manageable steps and taking the time to appreciate your growth and development in the moment, you can be confident in your ability to reach your goals.

Glynn specifically recommends that anyone considering nursing as a career do their due diligence in selecting an academic program that fits their aspirations—both personal and professional. By finding the program that best meshes with your overall approach, you’ll find the support you need even during the challenging times.

“The mission of our college here at Regis is based on the Sisters of Saint Joseph—care for the dear neighbor—is embedded in our nursing education,” says Glynn. “This guides us in our approach to nursing as well as in our approach to academics.”

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