Individuals who are interested in a meaningful and rewarding career field may want to consider pursuing a career in nursing. The nursing field enables professionals to make it their life’s work to serve others. This field can be particularly attractive given that it does not take as long to become a registered nurse as many people might think.
How long does it take to become a nurse, exactly? There is no one universal answer, as people can travel different paths to this career field. Below are detailed explanations of the various paths a professional might take to become a registered nurse (RN) and then to pursue advancement opportunities.
Becoming a Registered Nurse (RN)
High school students who already know that they would like to become a registered nurse can begin preparing right away. It is advisable to take as many science, math and health-related classes in high school as possible. Computer applications courses can also be helpful, as nurses are expected to be proficient with electronic health records (EHRs) and related technologies.
After high school, the process of working toward a career in nursing can officially begin. Students can look for a university that offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN). It is important to choose an accredited pre-licensure program. BSN programs can be accredited by organizations that indicate that the curriculum has met certain quality standards.
A pre-licensure BSN program will take four years of full-time study to complete. This degree program will blend classroom instruction with hands-on learning experiences. Some of the more modern nursing degree programs also include experiential learning in simulation labs, allowing students to practice interacting with “patients” in mock clinical experiences. All nursing programs allow offer the opportunity to work with healthcare organizations to obtain real-world experience.
After graduating with a BSN, aspiring nurses must then take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). It is mandatory to pass this exam before an individual can legally practice as a nurse in the United States. It is best not to wait too long after graduation to take the exam.
Passing the NCLEX-RN is not the only requirement necessary to obtain a state nursing license. Aspiring nurses must also meet other state requirements, such as submitting official transcripts and undergoing a criminal background check. Once the individual receives their state license, they are legally able to begin working as a registered nurse.
How Long Would It Take With an Associate’s Degree?
Not every aspiring nurse earns a BSN right after graduating from high school. There is a second possible pathway. It is not currently required to earn a BSN before working as a registered nurse. In fact, it is possible to do so with an associate’s degree and a passing score on the NCLEX-RN.
An associate’s degree will take two years of full-time study. Like a BSN program, an associate’s degree will combine classroom learning with hands-on lab experiences. Earning an associate’s degree rather than a BSN can allow individuals to enter the career field more quickly. However, it comes at a potential cost.
A study found that increasing the number of BSN-prepared nurses in a hospital unit by 10% resulted in a 10.9% reduction in patient mortality.1
Nurses with associate’s degrees often decide to return to school to earn a BSN. As professionals who are already working, licensed nurses do not need to attend a four-year BSN program. They can opt for an RN to BSN degree program, which draws on previously acquired knowledge and skills. The length of time needed to complete an RN to BSN program will vary, but it may be possible to earn the degree in as few as 12 months with credit transfers.
GCU just lowered the price of our accredited RN to BSN program by 30% to help make college more affordable!Learn More
Can I Become a Nurse With a Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree?
The first two career pathways mentioned to become an RN are for individuals who decide to earn a nursing degree after high school.
However, there is a third career pathway for working professionals who have an academic background in a non-nursing field. It is the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) degree program. By enrolling in an ABSN, it is not necessary for someone to start from square one and work toward a four-year BSN.
At GCU, students can earn an ABSN in as few as 16 months. Do note, however, that the ABSN is not a program that can be completed after working hours and on weekends. It does require a full-time commitment, and students can expect a rigorous curriculum that calls for long hours of study. In order to graduate fully competent, knowledgeable nurses, ABSN programs offer:
- Hands-on learning experiences in nursing skills laboratory classes
- Real-world experience in clinical rotations at healthcare facilities
- Nursing simulation allow students to practice clinical interactions
Despite the rigor, a typical ABSN program can offer some flexibility. Students can expect to take many classes online which can cut down on their daily commute and provide more time for studying. An ABSN program cannot be completed entirely online, however. Like other nursing degree programs, the ABSN requires hands-on learning experiences.
After graduating from an ABSN program, graduates will be prepared to take the NCLEX-RN exam. They will also need to meet any other requirements established by their state licensing board.
Should Professionals Earn a Graduate Nursing Degree?
Regardless of which of the three career pathways a registered nurse has taken to complete their BSN degree, they should consider whether they would like to earn a graduate degree in nursing. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree will allow professionals to gain stronger competencies and a better understanding of how to improve patient care. The time it can take to complete these programs will vary.
If an RN decides to temporarily stop working in order to study for an MSN on a full-time basis, it may take between 18 months and two years to complete this degree. However, many RNs decide to continue working while earning their graduate degree. It may take three or more years to earn an MSN on a part-time basis.
A DNP—a terminal degree—will take even longer. It may take two or more years to earn a DNP if the student is studying and working on their clinical project and manuscript on a full-time basis.
Although it can take a long time to earn a graduate degree in nursing, the rewards are well worth the effort. MSN- and DNP-prepared nurses are in high demand by healthcare employers, who recognize the value advanced education brings to healthcare organizations. In addition, a graduate degree can pave the way for pursuing career advancement opportunities.
Career Advancement Opportunities Within the Nursing Field
RNs who do decide to earn either an MSN or a DNP—or both—have the opportunity to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). An APRN is an RN who is able to provide advanced, specialized care to various patient populations. Highly educated and trained APRNs play an important role in the healthcare system, and are able to assess, diagnose, treat and manage patients’ healthcare conditions.
There are four main types of APRNs, as follows:
- Nurse Practitioner (NP) – An NP is able to deliver primary, acute and specialty healthcare to patients across the lifespan. They focus on health management and disease prevention, and can order and interpret medical tests. An NP can choose a subspecialty, such as adult-gerontology, acute care pediatrics, neonatal care or psychiatric care.
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) – A CRNA specializes in anesthetics. They work with patients before, during and after surgery, performing pre-operative assessments, delivering patient education, administering anesthetics, monitoring the patient’s health during the operation and providing post-operative care.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) – A CNS specializes in a particular patient population, disease, medical sub-specialty or healthcare setting. For instance, a CNS might specialize in pediatrics, geriatrics, women’s health, diabetes, oncology, critical care or psychiatric care, just to name a few possibilities.
- Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) – As the job title suggests, a CNM specializes in providing well woman care. These professionals deliver preconception and prenatal care, as well as care during labor and delivery and the postpartum period. A CNM can also provide newborn care, family planning and gynecological care.
RNs who would like to become an APRN will first need to earn a graduate degree and complete the necessary hours of clinical experience. Then, they will need to pass an APRN certification exam for the specialty they have chosen. The final step is to obtain licensure as an APRN.
Are Registered Nurses in High Demand?
There is a critical need for more registered nurses to care for patients in the U.S. The shortage of nurses is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, creating new opportunities to individuals who decide to pursue this career field.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for registered nurses to increase by about 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than average, accounting for the addition of an estimated 221,900 jobs in the field.3 More nurses are needed to care for the aging population, for patients with chronic diseases and to replace current nurses who are expected to retire in the years to come.
Similarly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners to increase by about 45% from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as average, accounting for an estimated increase of 121,400 jobs in the field.4 The strong job growth rate for APRNs reflects the increasing perception of these professionals as a source of primary healthcare and the acknowledgement that nurses who are more highly educated have a better understanding of how to improve patient care.
You can work toward pursuing a rewarding career in the nursing field when you become a student at Grand Canyon University. In addition to our pre-licensure Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, we’re pleased to offer the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. By enrolling in the ABSN program, you could earn your nursing degree in as few as 16 months, regardless of your field of undergraduate study. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about becoming a nursing student at GCU.
1 American Association of Colleges of Nursing, The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice in May 2022.
2 Cannot be used in conjunction with other GCU scholarships or awards.
3 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2020, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses.
4 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners retrieved on 06/02/22.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.