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There are several potential paths to take in the nursing field: does a prospective student want to be a nursing assistant, a registered nurse, a nurse with a refined specialization, or earn an advanced degree in nursing? Nurses are in high demand across various specialities and have many potential opportunities.

Becoming a nursing assistant typically entails completion of a vocational program, culminating in the passing of a state competency exam. Conditions can also vary depending on specialization:

  • Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) and Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) may need to complete an approved one-year certificate program
  • Registered Nurses (RNs) typically complete either a bachelor's of science degree in nursing or an associate's degree in nursing as well as become licensed in their state via passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses exam (NCLEX-RN)
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) must fulfill all the standard RN requirements as well as earn a master's degree in their specialization

Nursing education: Expected coursework

The typical degree required to enter the nursing profession is the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Other nursing degrees include two- or three-year associate's degree programs. Course requirements vary by school and health program, but nursing programs typically offer coursework in:

Nursing
  • Microbiology
  • Health and illness
  • Nutrition
  • Anatomy
  • Psychology
  • Patient care

Registered nurses hold a variety of qualifying degrees. According to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 18 percent hold a nursing diploma, 34 percent hold an associate's degree, 34.2 percent have a bachelor's degree, and 13 percent hold a master's or doctorate.

Nursing salary and career outlook

Depending on degree, area of specialization, geographical location and other factors, nurses and people working in related fields can expect to earn approximately the following (all data come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and are from the year 2012 or 2013, depending which year had the most recent year information available):

  • LPs and LVNs median income: $41,540
  • RNs: $69,110
  • Nurse Midwives: $92,230
  • Nurse Practitioners: $95,070
  • Nurse Anesthetists: $157,690

For nurses and other health care workers who are already working in the field, there may also be many opportunities to help educate future nurses at the university level. Many times a nurse with a master's degree may be able to teach at a college or university while also working in their field.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reported a 2.6 percent increase in enrollment for entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs between 2012 to 2013. This increase is not sufficient to match the Association's projected growth figures on demand for nurses over the next decade.

According to the AACN, 55 percent of existing nurses plan to retire between 2011 and 2020. Student enrollment in nursing schools is not growing at a rate sufficient to meet the projected demand for registered nurses. In 2006, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration announced that U.S. nursing schools will have to award degrees to 90 percent more nurses in order to meet this demand. The trend towards shortfall has not changed significantly over the last several years.

Concerns over the nursing shortage in the U.S. health care workforce prompted the enactment of the Nurse Reinvestment Act in 2002. The Act has some degree of impact, but there are still large gaps between the demand for education in the nursing field and qualified instructors to offer it. The National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice (NACNEP) continues to monitor the effectiveness of the Act and is pushing to improve work environments and assist nurses in becoming further educated, at least to the baccalaureate level.

What can you do with an MSN?

The Master of Science Degree in Nursing (MSN) is an advanced nursing degree program that allows a nurse to develop expertise in a specialized area of advanced medical practice like anesthesiology. The MSN provides the student with an opportunity to address particular interests and pursue related career training in topics ranging from hospital management to pediatric oncology. A nurse practitioner must also have an advanced nursing degree.

According to the BLS, advanced practice nursing careers include the following:

DisciplineDescription
Nurse Practitioners Nurse practitioners conduct medical exams, diagnose many acute illnesses and injuries and prescribe medications.
Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS) Clinical nurse specialists study nursing care for specific medical areas such as pediatrics, cardiac management, oncology, and others. They may also provide primary care and quality management services.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA) CRNAs administer anesthetics to patients and oversee 65 percent of the anesthetics given annually.

What do you need to do to get an MSN and what can an MSN do for you?

Full-time master's degree programs generally require 18 to 24 months of rigorous study, and some MSN students take advantage of online degree programs to tailor their studies around their personal schedules.

The future for the nursing profession

The nursing shortage trend is likely to continue. Thus, jobs will be plentiful for the foreseeable future despite the BLS-projected increase in the number of RNs and nursing assistants joining the workforce. The number of nurses working in community healthcare rose almost 15 percent over the last decade. In 2004, about 12 percent of registered nurses worked in an outpatient environment, while 6 percent worked in facilities that provided long-term care, the BLS stated. These numbers will continue their upward trajectory as more people gain access to health care insurance and the aged population continues to grow.

The AACN estimated the nation's nursing shortage would reach more than one million nurses by the year 2020. They also stated that every state in the country would be in need of a substantial number of RNs and nursing assistants.

Here's how BLS numbers break down job growth rates from 2012 to 2022 across the different specializations:

  • APRNs: 31 percent
  • Nursing Assistants: 21 percent
  • LPNs and LVNs: 25 percent
  • Registered Nurses: 19 percent

The BLS attributes this potential growth across the board to an aging baby-boomer population, changes in federal law that have increased people's access to health insurance and the fact that APRNs can perform a number of the same services as physicians. And since educating nurses and nursing assistants is the only way to meet the demand, nursing school faculty will also have to address the increased demand for their services. This may lead to expanded opportunities for educators who are qualified to teach the health care professionals of the future.

Who can earn a master of science degree in nursing?

Some students who pursue MSN degrees may already hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). However, there are some nursing schools that allow registered nurses to pursue a BSN concurrently with an MSN. Students can also choose to study for a joint degree in nursing and a related field such as public health or hospital administration.

Sources:

"Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 23, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm

"Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 23, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm

"Nursing Assistants and Orderlies," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 23, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nursing-assistants.htm

"Registered Nurses," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 23, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

"Enrollment Growth Slows at U.S. Nursing Schools Despite Calls for a More Highly Educated Nursing Workforce." American Association of Colleges of Nursing, August 20, 2014, http://www.aacn.nche.edu/news/articles/2014/slow-enrollment

"Nursing Shortage."American Association of Colleges of Nursing, August 20, 2014, http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets/nursing-shortage

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