Levels of Nursing: Ultimate Guide to the Nursing Career Ladder

Venice Nuyda
May 6, 2023

Nurses have always been an essential part of the US healthcare system. Opting for a nursing career presents various advantages. You have the freedom to select from different specialties and opportunities for job growth in your career.

Though a promising job outlook awaits, nursing isn’t exactly a one-size-fits-all career. Depending on the focus that sets your interest, you will need to complete the education requirements. Curious about how the nursing hierarchy works? This article will be your nursing ladder guide. 

I. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

CNAs serve as the starting point for many aspiring nurses. They have more direct contact with residents than other staff because they are on the front line of the network between medical professionals and patients. CNAs help their patients with everyday activities like bathing, walking, dressing, eating, and more. To become a CNA, you must complete a state-approved training program (approximately 3-12 weeks) and pass the state certification exam. 

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), more than 1.5 million CNA jobs are currently open in the United States. Experts project that this figure will increase by more than 130,000 by 2028—a 9% increase. BLS reports a median salary of $15.99 nationwide for CNAs.

II. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

LPNs are also known as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs). LPNs are responsible for various patient support duties such as: monitoring patient treatment, performing vital signs, and more. To become LPN, you must successfully complete a practical nursing diploma program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN). You can find practical nursing programs at technical schools, community colleges, or career colleges. 

The career outlook for LPNs is positive. BLS expects LPN employment to grow 6-9% from 2021 to 2031 and 698,500 job openings in 2031. The average hourly rate for LPNs ranges from $23 to $28, with an average hourly pay of $25.

III. Registered Nurse (RN)

RNs comprise the largest portion of the entire U.S. workforce and take up the widest variety of roles in patient care. They oversee the work of LPNs and CNAs, administer medications, perform patient tests, and contribute to overall patient care. 

You must earn an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to become an RN. You can be an RN through different training pathways. Most significantly, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN.

  1. Associate Degree in Nursing - You can be an RN in two years with an ADN. Earning an ADN usually means attending a community college or other academic institution. After earning an ADN, students can already obtain their license if they pass the NCLEX.
  2. Bachelor of Science in Nursing - BSN program is another route to becoming an RN. Compared to ADN, BSN takes four years to complete. Students that enroll in this program receive a more in-depth nursing education and advanced concepts. Taking and passing the NCLEX and meeting the other requirements will qualify you to be an RN.
  3. Master of Science in Nursing - A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree may result in more competitive pay and patient autonomy. This type of degree may be ideal for those who wish to take on leadership or management roles. MSN degree duration depends on the school and program you choose. Most MSN programs last two years.
  4. Ph.D. in Nursing - A Ph.D. in Nursing degree is a doctoral degree that prepares nurses for work in academic or research settings. This degree is for nurses who wish to concentrate on research and education rather than leadership roles in a clinical practice.

RNs can limit their work under specifications such as pediatric nursing, emergency nursing, neonatal nursing, psychiatric nursing, and more. MSN and Ph.D. degrees can be used for leadership roles such as nurse educator, CNO, nurse informatics, and other management positions.

A Nurse Instructor is someone qualified to train or teach nursing curricula for nursing students. Most nurse instructors have a Ph.D. or MSN. You can also qualify as a nursing instructor with an ADN or BSN if you have years of experience and additional certifications (not necessary but recommended). 

BLS reports about 194,500 job openings for RNs each year. They expect RN employment to grow by 9% in the next decade—an addition of 276,800 new nursing jobs. Basic RNs with 0-2 years of experience have an average hourly pay of $32.

IV. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRNs)

APRNs are nurses who either earned their MSN or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). You can have MSN and not be an APRN because it depends on the specialization of your MSN. 

The American Nurses Association highlights the four types of APRNs: Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, Nurse Practitioners, and Clinical Nurse Specialists. They have a median salary of $54 per hour. The job outlook for Nurse Practitioners includes a 40% growth rate by 2031. Meaning there will be 118,600 APRN job openings.

Seeing the various credentials under the nursing list can be intimidating. However, it is an opportunity to explore different careers in the healthcare field. Advancing to higher positions in the nursing hierarchy later will not be an issue. You still have options to shape your career according to your passion and priorities, even after starting to work.

Now that you already know about different nursing professions, it’s time for you to join the autonomy in the workforce. Entering the nursing field can be an incredibly rewarding career choice where you can make a positive impact on the lives of others. Be part of the U.S. healthcare industry backbone today–Apply through Dreambound!

Find top-rated phlebotomy training programs near you.
Get started today
Find top-rated CNA training programs near you.
Get started today
Written by
Venice Nuyda

Venice Nuyda is a student-support representative at Dreambound. She is responsible for helping students through their training journey in the allied health space. She is passionate about helping others and writing informative articles to aid candidates in advancing their vocational careers.

Easiest way to get certified.
Today is the day to get that certification you've always wanted. Enroll in a top-rated, state-approved training program in just a few minutes.
Get started now