When first considering a career in the field of nursing, it is not uncommon for aspiring nurses to compare the roles of licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and registered nurses (RNs) side by side with one another.

However, even though both titles have the word “nurse” in them, they are in fact fairly different roles within the healthcare industry. Each plays a critical, but unique, part in furthering the health of their patients.

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Are you interested in becoming a nurse, and don’t know the exact career path you wish to follow? Are you considering whether becoming an LPN or RN is right for you? Below, we explore each of these positions and highlight the key differences you need to know to make an informed decision.

What Does a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) do?

A licensed practical nurse (LPN), also known as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) in some states, works under the supervision of doctors and registered nurses. The duties of an LPN include taking vitals, collecting samples, administering medications, and ensuring patient comfort. While a registered nurse or nurse practitioner plays an active role in conceptualizing patient treatment plans, LPNs tend to be much more task-driven in their work and are typically responsible for actually carrying out those treatments.

LPNs can oversee certified nursing assistants (CNAs), but the LPNs main focus of their days is providing care to their patients and less about management. LPNs tend to work in environments such as hospitals, nursing homes, long-care facilities, and other medical facilities.

What do Registered Nurses (RNs) do?

For many aspiring nurses, becoming a registered nurse is a good entry point into the career. With competitive salary, job stability, and the personal impact they have on the lives of their patients, registered nurses can enjoy a fulfilling career.

Tasks performed by registered nurses range from conducting patient assessments and creating patient care plans to performing wound care, drawing blood or urine samples, and recording a patient’s medical history and symptoms, among others. As such, RNs play a role similar to LPNs in terms of the actual care that they provide, but with an added layer of critical thinking and healthcare strategy that LPNs typically are not involved in.

Registered nurses can work anywhere there is a need for nurses. This may involve healthcare settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, and physicians offices, but may also include schools, college campuses, prisons, corporate campuses, community health centers, and more.

Key Differences Between RNs and LPNs

In addition to the differences in role and responsibility outlined above, there are also differences in salary and educational requirements that you should be aware of.

Training and Education

One of the biggest differences between LPNs and RNs is in the educational training required to work in each role.

To become a registered nurse, you will need to earn a degree from an accredited nursing program. In some states, RNs simply need their associate's degree, however more and more states are pushing RNs to earn their bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN) in order to obtain their license. Even in states where a bachelor’s degree is not required to become an RN, many employers will only consider applicants who have earned that degree.

With this in mind, if you’re a first time college student, a traditional four-year nursing degree might be the best plan for you. If you’ve already earned your associate's degree, or went to college for four years but not for nursing, there are many different accelerated programs that can be completed within as little as 16 months or 24 months.

In order to become a LPN, you will need to complete a state-approved certificate program, which typically lasts between 12 to 18 months. An associate’s degree may also qualify.

Before beginning your career as either an RN or LPN, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and apply for licensure in the state in which you wish to work. The exam and licensing requirements are different for RNs and LPNs.

Salary and Job Outlook

The average salary for a registered nurse is $73,300 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That translates into roughly $35.24 an hour. Between 2019 and 2029, the demand for registered nurses is expected to grow at a rate of seven percent, which is faster than average.

The average annual salary for licensed practical nurses, on the other hand, is approximately $47,480 a year, or $22.83 an hour. Between 2019 and 20290, the demand for licensed practical nurses is expected to grow at a rate of nine percent, which is much faster than the average.

While both positions are expected to see strong demand growth over the next decade, a clear difference between the two roles is salary. RNs earn, on average, more than $25,000 more each year than do LPNs. This increased salary is reflective of both the increased education that registered nurses must complete, as well as the type of advanced work that they must perform daily.

Choosing the Right Path For You

In beginning your nursing career, there are many factors that individuals should consider. To understand which role is truly the right one for you, ask yourself:

  • What salary do you need for your desired lifestyle?
  • How soon do you need to (or want to) begin working in the field?
  • Is a shortened education beneficial for your career outlook now?
  • What responsibilities are you looking for in your career?
  • Are you looking to climb the career ladder?

Your answers to these questions should inform your decisions. If you find that you want a higher salary, more autonomy at work, more opportunities for career advancement, and a wider range of responsibilities, then becoming an RN is likely the right path for you.

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