When pursuing a career in nursing, there are several different avenues you can take. Two common paths include becoming either a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or a registered nurse (RN). While each of these positions has the word “nurse” in their titles, each individual has different responsibilities.

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In this article, we discuss the differences between CNAs and RNs, and explore which career option may be better suited for your goals.

What do Registered Nurses (RNs) do?

Registered nurses enjoy a competitive salary, significant job stability, and the emotional satisfaction that comes with knowing they have had a positive impact on the lives of those under their care. As such, becoming a registered nurse is an excellent entry point in the healthcare industry.

The duties required of registered nurses can vary significantly depending on where they are employed and who the patient population is that they are working with. That being said, the job commonly involves:

  • Collecting medical samples (blood, urine, stool, etc.)
  • Performing wound care
  • Treating and preventing infections
  • And more

The tasks discussed above can be performed by a number of different members of the nursing team, from RNs to LPNs and CNAs. RNs are, however, also required to add a layer of critical thinking and healthcare strategy to the responsibilities of their jobs by conducting patient assessments, recording medical history, creating healthcare plans for patients, and more.

RNs are most commonly employed in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, and private practice, but can be found wherever there is a need for nurses, such as schools and prisons.

What do Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) do?

Depending on where they are employed, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) works under the supervision of LPNs and RNs. They perform a range of duties related to the daily care of their patients. This can include activities such as:

  • Taking vital signs
  • Helping patients eat
  • Helping patients bathe and dress
  • Transporting patients for treatment or testing
  • Cleaning rooms
  • And more

CNAs often act as an intermediary between the patient and other members of the nursing team. If a patient complains about pain, discomfort, or raises a question about their treatment, it is the CNAs responsibility to relay that communication to their supervisor in order to ensure it is answered and addressed.

For many, becoming a certified nursing assistant is a good entry point into the field of nursing. Typically, it is possible to become a CNA with a high school diploma (or GED) and the completion of a training program which can typically be completed within a few months. It is very common for an individual to work for a few years as a CNA before deciding that they would like to advance in their career by progressing on to either become a licensed nurse practitioner or a registered nurse.

The Differences Between RNs and CNAs

Below, we explain the different responsibilities, education and salary outlooks between the two nursing roles.


As noted above, CNAs mostly perform tasks associated with everyday care of their patients. This is typically done under the supervision of either an LPN or RN. Registered nurses, on the other hand, tend to have more responsibilities than their CNA counterparts, and are often accountable for developing healthcare plans for their patients and analyzing symptoms.

Training and Education

In addition to the differences in responsibility, CNAs and RNs must both complete fairly different educational paths in order to work in their respective roles.

In order to become a CNA, you will typically be required to hold at least a high school diploma or GED. You will then usually need to complete a CNA certification program which will prepare you to play a hands-on role in the care of your patients. CNA training is often available at many community colleges, technical schools, and through organizations such as the American Red Cross.

After completing the program, you will need to pass a state-approved CNA certification exam in the state in which you wish to practice. Other criteria for certification will vary significantly by state, but typically include completing a certain number of hours of training, submitting to some form of background check, and more.

The biggest difference between becoming a CNA and becoming an RN is that becoming a registered nurse will require you to earn a college degree. Exactly what degree is required will depend on the state in which you wish to practice. Some states will only require an associate’s degree, while other states will require at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). Even if your state does not require you to hold a bachelor’s degree, it is important to note that employers can set their own requirements, and many will only consider applicants who have completed their bachelor’s degree.

There are many different degree programs available for aspiring registered nurses. Those who have completed their associate’s degree, for example, can likely enroll in an accelerated nursing program that can be completed in anywhere from 16 to 24 months. Meanwhile, new college students who know they would like to one day work as a registered nurse are typically recommended to earn their BSN.

Once you have completed your degree, you will need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and apply for a license in your state.

Salary and Job Outlook

The average salary for a registered nurse is $73,000 yearly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), whereas the average annual salary for a certified nursing assistant is $29,640. The higher salary enjoyed by RNs is due to the increased responsibility they have and the advanced training they must complete.

Both registered nurses and CNAs are expected to enjoy significant job stability and growth over the coming decade, with both fields experiencing a growth of seven to eight percent between 2019 and 2029. This is much faster than the average expected growth rate of all careers as a whole.

Choosing the Right Path Into the Field of Nursing

At the end of the day, only you will be able to decide whether a career as a registered nurse or CNA makes more sense for your personal goals. Considering your salary requirements, how quickly you would like to begin working, and the types of responsibility you’d like in your day-to-day activities will help you answer the question.

The good news is that you can always pivot within the field and take on more responsibility when you are ready to do so. It is not uncommon for an individual to enter the field as a CNA before moving on to become an LPN and then eventually an RN or higher. Even if you believe that becoming a CNA is the right move for you right now, you can always decide to become an RN in the future when you are ready.

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