Wait, those do stand for something, right? You might have guessed that these are all different credentials, or levels of education in nursing. Here’s a rundown on each. We’ll go over the salary, advantages, and disadvantages of each one.
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CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant)
Also known as: PCT (Patient Care Tech)
Certified Nursing Assistants take an 8-16 week class to receive a certification. They work under LPNs and RNs and assist patients with day-to-day activities. In layman’s terms, you can think of the CNAs as doing a lot of the “dirty work.”
Being a CNA can be hard work, but if you can brave being one, you’re definitely tough enough to be a nurse (or just about anything, for that matter).
A CNA class is a prerequisite of most nursing programs except some 4-year Universities. Even though you take the class and get your certificate, it doesn’t mean you ever have to work as a CNA. However, many do and it’s good experience.
The class includes the classroom setting, practice lab, and on-site clinical rotations. Think of it as a miniature nursing school. There’s even a State Exam at the end to qualify for certification.
CNA’s make $10-14/hour. Nursing homes are a common starting point for new CNA’s. Hospitals also have many CNAs, but depending on your area, they might be looking for CNAs with experience. Many work at a nursing home then seek a hospital job.
LPN – Licensed Practical Nurse
Also known as: PNC (Practical Nursing Certificate), LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse)
LPNs go to school for 1-2 years to get their license. If you want to get started and working quickly, this is the fastest and shortest nursing degree out of the three.
Technically, LPNs don’t receive a degree, they receive a license. A lot of people get an LPN, then bridge to getting an RN or BSN afterwards. That way, they can start working earlier.
On the job, the main difference between LPNs and RNs is something called the scope of practice.
The scope of practice means what tasks a health care worker is qualified to do. On the most basic level, the scope of practice means the level of responsibility you are accountable for.
For example, hanging blood, transcribing orders from doctors, and working in specialty units are often outside the LPN scope of practice, but inside an RN scope of practice. Scope of Practice is determined by the state you live in and varies from area to area. In general, though, LPNs have a narrower scope of practice.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2011 shows that LPNs make a mean (average) hourly wage of $20.21 nationally, making a median yearly salary of $41,150.
LPNs often work in different settings as well. LPNs are less common in hospitals and more common in rehab settings, nursing homes, home health, and doctor’s offices. LPN’s often take a more central role in rural areas.
- Takes the shortest amount of time.
- You can get it for great prices at Community Colleges.
- Less legal responsibility at work.
- There are many LPN-RN Bridge Programs for further education.
- Less Income
- May cost more time and money for school in the long run if you plan to get your RN or BSN.
- May limit job opportunities. Most LPN’s work in nursing homes, home health, rural hospitals, and rehab care settings.
- Less independence: you might work under the supervision of RNs
“What type of school should I go to?”
Read about Community Colleges, Universities, or Private School Pros and Cons.
RN – Registered Nurse
Also known as: ADN (Associate’s Degree in Nursing)
Most RNs go to school for 2-3 years and receive an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). A lot of people use the terms ADN and RN interchangeably.
RNs are the mainstay of the nursing workforce. When you think of a typical nurse you see at the hospitals, they are probably an RN
As an RN, you would have a variety of job opportunities. RNs work in hospitals, nursing homes, home health, and many other settings.
The RN scope of practice is different from the LPN and more focused on critical thinking, assessments, and making nursing judgements. Since you’d be specifically trained to do this, you’ll be allowed to handle more “risky” job situations, such as administering potentially dangerous medications and working with critically ill patients.
There are many paths you can take once you become an RN. Although most work on hospital floors, nurses can be seen doing research, working with healthcare information technology, management, legal nursing, and more. A nursing career can be truly diverse.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that RNs make a median hourly wage of $31.71, with a median annual salary of $65,950. (This was the report for 2011, numbers may vary slightly since then.)
- Takes a reasonable amount of time
- You can get it for great prices at Community Colleges
- Very little difference in income between RNs and BSNs (unless in a management/specialty position).
- There are many RN-BSN Bridge Programs. Often, your workplace helps you pay for them.
- Many job opportunities.
- You only get your Associate’s Degree. May need more schooling to continue your education.
- May limit advancement opportunities. Less qualified for management, education, and specialty nursing positions.
- Update (2013): May also limit your job opportunites. Hospitals who apply for Magnet Nursing Status have a certain quota of BSN nurses to meet. They will often only hire BSNs
BSN – Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing Degree
A BSN is a Bachelor’s degree in nursing. Bachelor’s degrees usually take 4-5 years of schooling. There is more emphasis on a well-rounded degree with general education and nursing theory.
There are many ways to get your BSN Degree.
There are online schools, technical schools, and universities that bridge from an RN to BSN. They are often called RN-BSN programs. Some bridge from LPN-BSN also.
Universities, on the other hand, are 4-year schools that award you the BSN at the end. You skip your Associate’s Degree and get right to the Bachelor’s.
For a more in-depth look at the types of nursing schools, read my article Community College or University?
As a nurse with a BSN, you’d be more eligible to take on management responsibilities. Most areas of specialty nursing require a BSN as well. There is very little concrete change in the BSN’s scope of practice compared to an RN.
There is a trend in some hospitals for hiring more BSN’s, or requiring nurses to get their BSN within a number of years after being hired there. However, RNs with associates degrees are still extremely common and will have no serious disadvantage in the initial job search.
If you are thinking about going to school for an advanced degree, seriously consider getting your BSN right from the start. A BSN opens many opportunities for advanced and specialty nursing. All graduate programs (programs that offer master’s degrees) require a BSN first.
This is a tricky one, because nurses with BSNs don’t automatically make more than those with ADNs. Some employers do pay a higher starting hourly differential, but some don’t. The main difference is that those with BSNs are better qualified for higher-level or more competitive nursing jobs that often pay more than a ‘regular’ staff nurse job. Examples are ICU, higher education, and management positions. To sum it up, getting a BSN will help you make more money and open up opportunities throughout your career rather than give you an instant pay hike.
A BSN is also required if you want to get your MSN (Master’s degree) and become a nurse practitioner. Being a nurse practitioner does give you a big instant pay increase (but that may be a subject for another article).
- You can get your Bachelor’s Degree all at once, or bridge from LPN or RN.
- Most are at State Universities. Good for high school graduates.
- Eligible for management, education, and specialty nursing
- Eligible to enter a Master’s Degree in Nursing Program
- As many job opportunities as an RN, possibly more.
- Takes at least 4-year commitment.
- Universities can be very expensive.
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