Careers in Nursing

The U.S. healthcare industry is in the midst of dramatic change. Patient populations are swelling to accommodate aging Baby Boomers, while medical advancements are increasing lifespans of average Americans. Sweeping legislative change on the horizon also promises to shift the standard of care away from hospitals and toward preventive treatment.

According to the American Nurses Association, more than 3 million licensed registered nurses (RNs) are currently working in U.S. medical facilities. Roughly 62% of these professionals work in hospitals and the rest are employed by private practices, home health care providers, and residential rehabilitation facilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 26% growth in new nursing positions throughout 2020.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) / Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)

The entry-level qualification for a career in nursing is called the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN), depending on the state. LPNs and LVNs must complete a one-year educational program and pass a certification exam, the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).

This credential is typically the best choice for those who do not have time to invest in a long educational program, but still seek a rewarding career. According to the BLS, the 2010 median salary for LPNs and LVNs is $40,380 and a 22% increase in the number of jobs is estimated through 2020. Since this is an entry-level credential, LPNs and LVNs perform basic nursing duties and often work under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN).

Registered Nurse (RN)

Nurses essentially have three educational options: a diploma from an accredited nursing program, an associate degree, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Nursing programs are heavily science-based and the BSN option also provides its graduates with a liberal arts education.

In May 2010 the BLS reported the median annual salary for RNs at $64,690. Nurses who obtain specialized credentials can earn an even higher salary. For example, a clinical nursing specialist (CNS) or an nurse practitioner (NP) could earn well above the average; the top 10% of nurses reported yearly earnings over $95,000.

Nursing school classes generally include:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Nutrition Science
  • Psychological, Social and Behavioral Theory and Practice
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Introduction to Pharmacology
  • Nursing Standards of Practice

All nursing programs require supervised clinical experience once their courses are completed. Associate degree and diploma programs usually take two or three years to complete, and a BSN takes four years. Regardless of their educational path, all RNs are required to pass a national licensing examination.

The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and qualifies nurses to work in every state. Nurses who choose to pursue a specialization often earn additional certifications granted by professional associations. Some common specialties within nursing include:

  • Nurse Anesthetists
  • Nurse-Midwives
  • Neonatology
  • Critical Care
  • Addiction Recovery
  • Rehabilitation

While any specialization is likely to result in a higher salary, the BLS predicts the biggest gains in gerontology. Gerontology nurses can find work in hospitals or residential facilities for the elderly, as well as in physician’s offices and home healthcare agencies, which will grow significantly with the shift toward preventive care.

Nursing salaries also vary by location. Generally coastal cities offer higher wages, but the cost of living is also a factor. California is home to the four U.S. cities with the highest compensation; San Jose nurses earn an average of $95,000 per year, followed by Salinas, Oakland, and San Francisco. Several Texas cities also award relatively high salaries to nurses.

Nursing professionals today can expect a fruitful job market, with even greater potential for those who specialize and continue their education.