Nursing is one of those careers that has more career paths to choose from than you might think. In the world of healthcare, nurses can play a variety of roles with varying levels of responsibility. Some are even able to practice independently of physicians in certain circumstances.

While it is true that the classic role of a nurse working in direct care under the jurisdiction of a physician is one that the medical community simply can’t function without, some nurses opt to take the experience that they gain in such roles and carry it through to other areas. The value of such nurses when it comes to contributions and development in medicine cannot be overstated.  

Career path choices for nurses

The fact of the matter is that the numerous career path options available to nurses make this career choice one of the most dynamic and versatile out there and with the average salary of rn around $80,010 annually or $38 per hour, this career option is equally financially rewarding as well.

While there are different requirements and steps that must be taken into account when you are looking to pursue a particular track, you can take your career in any direction that you choose.

Here are five of the most popular career path options available to nurses today. 

1. Doctor of Nursing Practice

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is the highest degree that a nurse can hold. It is also the degree that allows nurses to pursue career options that offer the highest salaries on average that a nurse can earn. A DNP degree opens so many doors for a nurse including, but not limited to, administrative roles and research-based roles.

Earning your DNP degree is a track that can also take various paths. Many nurses choose to pursue a master’s degree first before taking the next step and earning a doctorate. This is mainly done in cases where a nurse has a specific field of interest in mind for which they want to obtain as much knowledge and experience as possible. A nurse who holds both an MSN and a DNP will be a very strong candidate for positions of much higher levels within the world of medicine.

Strong candidate options

That being said, an MSN degree is not completely necessary if you know that the direction in which you want to take your career involves a DNP. Some RNs choose to skip a master’s degree altogether. You will, though, need to at least hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in order to enroll in a DNP program.

It isn’t difficult to find excellent BSN to DNP programs for nurses aspiring to work in roles only accessible to DNPs. There are even online options available that make it easier for you to earn your degree while still maintaining your current position. While it is certainly no easy task to earn your DNP while working as an RN, the long-term rewards are well worth the investment of your time and energy.

2. Master of Science in Nursing

Master of Science in Nursing degrees are incredibly popular among nurses who want to work in a specific niche of medicine. These degrees offer quite a few options when it comes to career paths. The growing field of nurse midwifery is one option that is becoming more and more common in the world of prenatal care and labor and delivery. These nurses administer care to pregnant mothers and can play a major role in the labor and delivery process. Postnatal care is also generally handled by a nurse midwife in these cases.

MSN degree holders can also choose to work as nurse practitioners. This is a role in which a nurse oversees the care of patients in all states of health and in various age groups. A nurse practitioner might also seek to work in a particular area of medicine if they wish to go down that route.

In some states, nurse practitioners are permitted to work in clinical settings independent of physicians. This is done as a result of the growing need for qualified practitioners who are able to diagnose, prescribe medications, and offer all levels of patient care in the primary care setting. Nurses who hold an MSN are perfectly qualified to fill such roles and oversee the healthcare of their patients.

Similar to the DNP, an MSN is a degree that takes dedication to earn. It is possible to enroll in expedited programs, but even these take an investment of both time and money on the part of the student. Thankfully, the increasing popularity of online degree programs make it possible to achieve your goals without having to press pause on your professional career.

Management roles for nurses

The time that you spend on your degree will depend upon what area of medicine you want to pursue. A non-clinical MSN degree is not as intensive of a program and makes an excellent choice for those looking to work in management roles. Those who want to work as nurse educators should also consider taking this track.

An advanced practice nursing degree (APRN) is the right fit for a nurse who wants to work as an advanced practitioner. This includes those hoping to work as nurse midwives or nurse practitioners. This is also how you would become a Nurse Anesthetist, which is the nursing role that earns the highest salary on average in the U.S.

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3. Bachelor of Science in Nursing

One of the most popular routes to becoming a licensed RN in the United States at this time is the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. If you choose to take this career path, you will be earning a four-year degree from an accredited university. Such programs generally entail two years of general education courses, much like other bachelor’s degree programs, followed by two years of clinical study and experience particular to nursing.

A BSN is the sort of degree that one would obtain if they don’t wish to remain limited to direct care for the duration of their career. It is by holding a BSN that you make yourself eligible to enter into more advanced degree options down the line. When you become an RN via a BSN, your career options are more versatile than that of a RN who only holds a certificate or associate degree.

When you earn your BSN, you become qualified to work in areas such as forensic nursing, nurse educator, and case management. You also have the ability to take on leadership roles if that is what you are looking to achieve. The value of a nurse’s practical experience in patient care is becoming more recognized as something that can positively contribute to changes and developments in medicine.

Online options

There are a few ways in which you can earn your BSN. If you already have an associate degree in nursing, you can transfer those credits into a BSN program and earn it faster than if you were starting out fresh. Otherwise, you would be looking at attending a four-year university that offers an accredited nursing program.

There are also instances of students earning a bachelor’s degree in a different area of study and then deciding after graduating with said degree that they would instead like to pursue a career in nursing. Such an individual would want to find an accelerated BSN program.

The amount of time that it would take in such cases to earn a BSN would depend entirely on what credits you have under your belt from your original bachelor’s degree. Ultimately, anyone who takes this route will need to dedicate somewhere between 11 and 18 months in order to earn their BSN. There are online degree programs designed to help those in these situations earn their degrees in as timely and efficient a manner as possible.

4. Associate Degree in Nursing

When someone decides that they would like to become an RN, they might not wish to take the necessary four years that are required for a BSN degree. They might very well wish to work in direct care for the duration of their career. Some want to enter the world of nursing as an RN, work for a few years, and then decide if they want to pursue a more advanced degree later on.

Any of these situations might be solid reasons to earn an Associate Degree in Nursing. This is a two-year program that qualifies you to become a licensed RN and take the NCLEX examination. While one’s options are limited in terms of career progression with an ADN alone, the ability to work as a RN is still a valuable career path.

Essentially, an ADN is the degree that you would want to go for if your goal is to work in direct care as a fully licensed RN as soon as possible. This is also the most affordable option as far as degrees are concerned. If you find later down the line that you want to explore more career options, you can use the credits from your ADN in order to do so.

5. Licensed Practical Nurse

It is a common misconception that in order to work in the field of nursing, you have to obtain a RN license. This isn’t exactly the case, though. While RNs certainly make up the majority of nurses out there, you can also choose to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) instead.

The reason that this is not as popular an option as becoming an RN is that the limitations on your practice are more significant. As an LPN, a nurse isn’t able to administer certain types of medications to patients that an RN can under their license. While such limitations tend to be specific to the state in which you work, they can still be enough to make it more difficult to obtain a well-paying position as a nurse.

Quicker and more appealing

On the other hand, becoming an LPN as opposed to an RN is a track that generally takes less time. While an RN might have to be in school for a minimum of two years in order to obtain their license, many LPN programs take less than 15 months to complete. This is certainly a quicker way of becoming a nurse than many find appealing. Provided that you can find work in a state that doesn’t place as many limitations on LPNs, this is a great way to enter into the world of nursing.

6. Certified Nursing Assistant

If you are in a situation where you aren’t entirely sure if nursing is your true vocation in life but you would like to obtain some practical experience in order to help you make your decision, you might opt to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). CNA functions exactly as the name might imply. Working as a nurse’s assistant, you can gain exposure into the world of nursing that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

CNA is only able to work under the supervision of a fully licensed nurse, either an RN or LPN. Their role is to assist patients while they are receiving medical treatment or are under medical observation for some reason or another. As a CNA you might also be called upon to aid in the administering of tests or evaluations. However, this will provide you with a great opportunity to discover whether nursing is the right vocation for you or not before you commit to taking the necessary degrees.

Great way to earn a salary while studying

Because the job of a CNA allows someone to directly participate in and observe the administration of patient care, many nursing students opt to obtain this certification while they are in nursing school. It is a great way to earn a salary while studying and bridge any gaps in knowledge that one might have about nursing.

One of the main benefits of becoming a CNA is that a program can be completed in as little as four weeks in some cases. The salary of a CNA is also fairly reasonable, with the average in a few cases being around $35,000 a year. Some programs are available online, making this the simplest and quickest way to get into the world of nursing.


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Em Sloane

I am an introverted nature lover, and freelance writer. I love sharing new insights on how to live a healthier life using nature's gifts. Be kind. Be generous. Love. Peace. Humanity.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.

One Comment

  • Megan Alder says:

    My sister is a nurse, and she told me that she wants to start her doctor of nursing practice (DNP), and I want to know more about it. It’s interesting to know that this degree is actually the highest degree that a nurse can hold. I will definitely support her in finding the ideal place to start her degree so she can be better than the average.