The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Different Levels of Nursing (2024)

The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Different Levels of Nursing (1)

You've started to realize nursing might be the career you've been looking for. You can really help people and join an industry with a huge variety of job opportunities. Now all you need to do is find a program and earn your nursing degree, right? If only it were that easy.

Reading about nursing career options can get bewildering fast. The nursing world has so many acronyms, letters may blur together as you research. RN-BSN, ADN, I know my ABCs? What are the different levels of nursing? Do they all connect to different types of nursing degrees? More importantly, which level of credential should you look into for the nursing career you want?

"Level" here is kind of a misleading term. Nursing doesn't involve one simple ladder of leveling up the way some careers might. Types of nursing credentials are more about scope of nursing practice, area of specialization and the specific degree nurses achieve.

The truth is there are many different levels of nursing degrees and credentials, and many specialties and job titles under each umbrella. And don't even get us started on all the different pathways you could take through those nursing options.

A nursing degree isn't even close to one-size-fits-all. Your nursing journey will have its own path, focus areas and education requirements depending on the role you want.

So how is an aspiring nurse supposed to choose a path? Don't be intimidated by the many credentials you've come across. When it all comes down to it, a nursing career isn't nearly as confusing as it may seem.

We created this handy guide to give you a basic glance at some of the main levels of nursing degrees. Keep reading so you can identify which educational path aligns with your career aspirations.

5 Main levels of nursing practice

The fact that there are so many different credentials in the nursing profession is exciting news. It means there are potential opportunities out there for those wanting to make an impact in the healthcare field—no matter their level of educational attainment. And the options don't end once you're employed, either—you can mold your career to fit your passions and priorities by continuing to ascend the nursing hierarchy later in your career.

Whether you have hopes of specializing, climbing the ranks or pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors, there are types of nursing degrees or certifications available to prepare you for your professional goals.

Let's learn more about the four core levels of nursing.

1. Nursing assistant (CNA)

Nursing assistants also go by the title of nursing aides or CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants). While these professionals are not technically nurses, they are on the frontline of contact between medical staff and patients—and the role can serve as a starting point for many aspiring nurses. Nursing assistants bathe their patients and help them dress, eat, use the bathroom and perform other daily activities. They measure vital signs and listen to their patients' health concerns and transfer patients between beds and wheelchairs.

Some certified nursing assistants also may dispense medication, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), depending on their state's rules and regulations.1 The BLS adds that CNAs are often the principal caregivers in nursing homes and residential care facilities, having more direct contact with the residents than other staff members.

How to become one: To become a certified nursing assistant, you must complete a state-approved education program. A nursing assistant training program will typically take just a matter of weeks to complete. Upon completion of the program, aspiring nursing assistants must pass an exam to earn their CNA (or related) title. After successful completion, CNAs are state-certified.

Nursing assistant job outlook:

For more on this role, check out What is a CNA? The Perfect First Step for Aspiring Nurses.

2. Licensed practical nurse (LPN)

LPNs, sometimes known as licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), are responsible for a variety of patient support duties. They monitor patient health and administer basic care. Their tasks might include taking blood pressure, inserting catheters, starting IV drips (in some states) and changing bandages. They communicate with patients (and sometimes patient family members) to educate them on care plans. State regulations vary for LPNs on administering medication and supervision requirements.

How to become one: LPNs get their start by successfully completing a Practical Nursing Diploma program. These programs can be found at technical schools, community colleges or career colleges and can usually be completed in as few as 12 months. After graduation, you'll be required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN®) to receive your state license and be qualified to work.

Additional certification is also available for nurses at the LPN level. Certifications show that an LPN or LVN has an advanced level of knowledge about a specific subject, according to the BLS.1 To gain an edge in the job market or to acquire some specialty training, LPNs can earn certification in specialized areas like IV therapy, developmental disabilities, childbirth and more.

Licensed practical nurse job outlook:

If this nursing career sounds appealing to you, check out What Does an LPN Do? A Closer Look at These Versatile Caregivers.

3. Registered nurse (RN)

Registered nurses (RNs) tend to be the group most people associate with the term "nurse." They assume a wide variety of roles in patient care. RNs are responsible for recording patient medical history, monitoring symptoms and medical equipment, administering medicine, establishing or contributing to a plan of care, performing diagnostic tests and collaborating with doctors.

Some RNs can be responsible for overseeing LPNs, CNAs and other healthcare staff, the BLS reports.1 Specific job titles and duties will vary depending on where they work and the types of patients they care for. There are also opportunities for RNs to limit their work to caring for specific patient populations, such as in pediatric nursing, emergency nursing, neonatal nursing, psychiatric nursing and more.

RNs also have a plethora of choices outside of direct patient care. The BLS notes that registered nurses might also work to promote public health, run health screenings or blood drives, or staff the health clinics in schools.1

How to become one: There are two primary levels of nursing degrees that can lead to a career as an RN: earning an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN) or earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The Rasmussen University ADN program can be completed in as few as 18 months.2 On the other hand, earning your BSN at Rasmussen University could be done in as few as 33 months, or as few as 18 months with a prior degree under your belt.2

When choosing which track to take, it's important to think ahead and determine what the educational preferences are for the type of work you want. Some employers (especially hospitals) prefer RNs to have a bachelor's degree. Many working RNs with an ADN opt to go back to school later to earn their bachelor's degree through an RN-to-BSN online program.

But whichever nursing degree level you decide on, you'll still have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN®) if you want to start working as an RN. Additional requirements may also exist depending on your state, so be sure to look into statewide RN qualifications as well.

Registered nurse job outlook:

If you think registered nursing might be your path, check out What Does a Registered Nurse Do? Understanding Their Impact.

4. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)

Nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and more nurses fall under the umbrella of advanced practice registered nursing.

If you earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Master of Science in Nursing Nurse Practitioner (MSN-NP) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), you can become an advanced practice registered nurse. These nurses have all sorts of options when it comes to career choices. They can work independently as well as in collaboration with physicians, according to the BLS.1 They can perform all of the duties of an RN as well as more extensive tasks like ordering and evaluating test results, referring patients to specialists and diagnosing and treating ailments.

Nurse practitioners, for example, can take on some of the same responsibilities as a physician, though the scope of their nursing practice will vary a bit from state to state. A nurse practitioner can also specialize in areas of nursing they prefer, such as pediatrics, mental health or gerontology.

For a better idea of how these nurses fit in the healthcare system, see this handy breakdown the American Nurses Association® offers to highlight the four types of APRNs: nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists.

How to become an APRN: The first step toward becoming an advanced practice registered nurse is becoming an RN. MSN programs typically require candidates to first have an active RN license, with most preferring a BSN degree, according to the BLS.

APRN roles include nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife and nurse practitioner (NP). Specific graduate programs exist for each of these outcomes. For instance, prospective nurse practitioners enroll in a program that aligns with specialized licensure options like psychiatric-mental health, adult gerontology, pediatrics or family primary care.

Once you decide which APRN career option to pursue, you'll need to gain acceptance into an accredited MSN or DNP program and earn your degree. Depending on the specialty you wish to pursue, there might be further requirements in order to obtain licensure, including clinical experience or additional certification.

After graduation, the BLS states that you'll likely need to pass a national certification exam in your area of expertise. Requirements vary slightly by state, so check out the National Council of State Boards of Nursing® for specifics in your area. Some advanced practice certifications will also need to be renewed after a certain number of years to remain valid.

Advanced practice registered nurse (nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners) job outlook:

5. Nursing leadership careers

Nursing career advancement can also involve shifting away from direct nursing practice into nursing leadership, management, education and even policy-making roles. MSN and DNP nurses can influence healthcare from these powerful positions, creating changes and improved healthcare outcomes for the future.

One option is to become a nurse educator and help train the next generation of nurses. Another possibility is to become a director of nursing or a director of public health.

Many nursing programs will include specialization options for their MSN programs and DNP programs. These specializations can help you launch into the sector of nursing leadership that most excites you.

Find your ideal level of nursing degree

This simple breakdown of the different levels of nursing should help you have a better understanding of your options in the field. Even so, these only scratch the surface of the career options available within each level.

Now that you're more familiar with the nursing hierarchy, you may have a better idea of which path you'd like to pursue. Regardless of which level of nursing credential you choose, completing the TEAS test is a common education requirement you'll likely encounter. Learn more about what to expect from the exam in our article "Don't Fear the TEAS Test: 5 Common Questions Answered."

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook [career information accessed April 2023]. Data represents national averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Ranges do not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.

2Time to completion is dependent on number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2023.

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX, NCLEX-PN and NCLEX-RN are registered trademarks of National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.

American Nurses Association is a registered trademark of American Nurses Association Corporation.

The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Different Levels of Nursing (2024)


The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Different Levels of Nursing? ›

Licensed Vocational/Practical Nurse (LVN/LPN)

LVN/LPNs are entry-level nurses. It can take one to two years to complete the program, depending on the school. Vocational schools and colleges may offer LVN/LPN programs.

What is the beginning level for nursing? ›

Licensed Vocational/Practical Nurse (LVN/LPN)

LVN/LPNs are entry-level nurses. It can take one to two years to complete the program, depending on the school. Vocational schools and colleges may offer LVN/LPN programs.

What is the difference between RN 1 and RN 2 and RN 3? ›

A RN I becomes an RN 2 after having demonstrated an acceptable level of competency after a year's experience. RN 3's typically are experienced and are involved in more on the unit. For example, when I first started in the NICU, I was an RN I and then after my 1- year evaluation I became an RN 2.

What is a Level 4 nurse? ›

Registered Nurse Level 4' means a Registered Nurse who is engaged as such and may be referred to as Assistant Clinical Care Supervisor – Care, Assistant Clinical Care Supervisor – Management, or Assistant Clinical Care Supervisor – Staff Development.

What is the hardest level in nursing? ›

Hardest Nursing School Classes
  • Pathophysiology. In this course, students learn how different anatomical systems work and how diseases or injuries affect these systems. ...
  • Pharmacology. ...
  • Medical Surgical 1 (also known as Adult Health 1) ...
  • Evidence-Based Practice.

What is the lowest level nurse? ›

As the name suggests, CNAs assist nurses with patient admittance and vitals. It is the lowest-level credential related to the nursing field and the quickest point of entry.

What is a Level 1 in nursing? ›

Level 1 Novice Nurse

The Level I Registered Nurse, under the direction of the Nurse Manager, is accountable for provision of direct care to assigned patients. The Level I Registered Nurse contributes to unit activities and supports enhancement of the care delivery system at the unit level.

How many levels are there in RN? ›

What Are the Levels of Nursing? There are five levels of nursing: Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Registered Nurse (RN), Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

How to pass level 1 nursing? ›

  1. Time Management. To be successful in nursing school, you must manage your time appropriately. ...
  2. Get Organized. ...
  3. Use Mnemonics. ...
  4. Study Everyday. ...
  5. Complete Practice Questions. ...
  6. Participate in a Study Group. ...
  7. Focus on course objectives when studying. ...
  8. Know your learning style.

Is it RN or BSN first? ›

Nurses in clinical practice tend to list their licensure first followed by degrees and then certifications. For example: RN, BSN, CCRN. Nurses who are academic educators list their academic degrees first followed by licensure and then certifications. For example: DNP, RN, CNE.

What does RN 11 mean? ›

The Registered Nurse II will demonstrate proficiency in administering the fundamentals of the nursing process, contribute to nursing assessment and the development of a nursing care plan, and participate in the evaluation of nursing care.

What is a level 6 RN? ›

Nurse practitioner (level six): A level six nurse is a nurse practitioner who has a master's degree in nursing and assists medical teams in an advanced clinical role.

What is Level 5 in nursing? ›

More Definitions of Registered Nurse - Level 5

Registered Nurse - Level 5 means a Registered Nurse who is in their fifth year of service, who meets the requirements of a Registered Nurse Level 4 and has completed 960 hours with a minimum of twelve (12) months clinical experience at the Registered Nurse Level 4.

Is an LPN higher than a RN? ›

LPNs will likely earn lower salaries than RNs. This is because RNs have more advanced training and can carry out more complex types of patient care. Average salaries across both professions depend largely on your education, experience and where you practice and typically do not reflect entry-level positions.

What is the easiest nursing class? ›

The Easiest Classes in Nursing School
  • Social Sciences (Intro Psychology, Sociology, etc.)
  • Humanities.
  • Intro to Speech (or Communication)
  • English Composition.
  • History.
  • Using Information Technology.

Which is the toughest degree in the world? ›

What are the hardest degrees in the world? Ranked by Experts
  • Chartered Accountancy.
  • Astrophysics.
  • Quantum Mechanics.
  • Law.
  • Aerospace/ Aeronautical Studies, Engineering.
  • Biomedical Studies, Neurosciences, Biochemistry.
  • Nursing.
  • Dentistry, Medicine.
Dec 16, 2022

Which is the easiest subject in nursing? ›

If you are about to enter nursing school, it's important to know what to expect from which class so that you can best prepare. What is the easiest class in nursing school? While this may vary from student to student, most seem to find that Nursing Fundamentals is the easiest class.

Is BSN higher than RN? ›

A registered nurse is able to practice within their field with only an associates degree, but a BSN is the preferred level of education for many nurse specialties throughout the medical career landscape.

What does a purple nurses uniform mean? ›

Nurses - the nurses are here to help you get better and wear a number of different nurse uniforms on the ward. They will wear green, blue or navy and the student nurses are wearing purple. Specialist nurses wear electric blue. Doctors - there will be many doctors helping you to get better.

What is a 2 in nursing? ›

The Associate's degree in Nursing, or ADN, is a 2-year degree and is the minimum amount of school required to become licensed as a registered nurse, or RN. Once the student graduates, he or she is eligible to take the NCLEX-RN examination which must be passed to become licensed by the State.

What is a RNA nurse? ›

Restorative nursing assistant (RNA)

RNAs assist the patient in performing tasks that restore or maintain physical function as directed by the established care plan. The role of a RNA is an extension to that of the CNA and a CNA license is required for certification.

What is a first level general registered nurse in the US? ›

A first-level nurse is called a “registered” or “professional” nurse in most countries. A second-level nurse, often called an enrolled, vocational, practical nurse or nurse assistant, is not eligible to be licensed as a registered nurse in the U.S., and therefore, is not eligible for the Certification Program.

What is the passing score for RN? ›

While it's possible to pass the NCLEX after answering all 135, it's also possible to pass the test with a minimum of 70 questions or any number in between. Keep in mind NCLEX has a time limit of five hours. If you haven't answered enough questions correctly when the clock runs out, you will fail the test.

How do you level up as an RN? ›

5 Best Ways to Level-Up Your Nursing Career
  1. Specialize in Areas of High Demand. The world of nursing has changed dramatically in the last generation and from many nurses' training days. ...
  2. Further Your Education. ...
  3. Subspecialize. ...
  4. Get A Mentor. ...
  5. Look for the Next Trend.
Apr 2, 2020

How long is the RN exam? ›

The NCLEX-RN has a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 145, and you have five hours to complete the exam. If the maximum amount of time has elapsed and you have not answered the minimum number of questions, this indicates you failed the NCLEX in 2023.

How hard is first year nursing? ›

You will be challenged academically, physically, and emotionally as you begin working with real patients. Developing this new skill set may feel unfamiliar and overwhelming at first, which is why many nursing students report the first year as being the hardest.

Is nursing one of the hardest degrees? ›

Obtaining a nursing degree is difficult. There's no arguing it. Whether it's the “hardest” degree to obtain or not is irrelevant. It is a demanding curriculum and it requires more than a little sacrifice and dedication to secure certification.

Is passing nursing exam hard? ›

Rather than using memorization skills, logic and critical thinking skills are required to succeed on this exam, making it more comprehensive and challenging. So, if you find yourself asking, "How hard is the NCLEX-RN? - The short answer is, it's very hard.

Is there a difference between RN and nurse? ›

What is an RN? A registered nurse (RN) is a nurse who has completed all educational and examination requirements, and has been licensed to practice nursing in their state. You will also see 'registered nurse' as a job title or position.

What does RN Level 3 mean? ›

Registered Nurse Level 3 means a Registered Nurse who may be referred to as: Clinical Nurse Consultant or Nurse Manager or Staff Development Nurse. A registered Nurse - Level 3 shall be appointed to Clinical, Management or Staff Development stream.

Does MSN or RN go first? ›

For example, a nurse executive might choose Nancy Gordon, MBA, MSN, RN. Note that the highest non- nursing degree is listed first followed by the highest nursing degree. A nurse who has a master's in a non- nursing field might choose Anne Peterson, MEd, BSN, RN.

What is the order of credentials? ›

How to order your credentials after your name
  • Include your academic degrees. ...
  • List your professional licenses. ...
  • Add your state designations or requirements. ...
  • Include your national certifications. ...
  • List any other certifications you have.
Mar 10, 2023

What is the difference between a LPN and a RN? ›

LPNs usually provide more basic nursing care and are responsible for the comfort of the patient. RNs on the other hand, primarily administer medication, treatments, and offer educational advice to patients and the public. LPNs earn your ADN or BSN degree online in up to 1/2 the time and cost of traditional programs.

Why do RNS wear blue? ›

It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, and intelligence. Along with the many symbolic factors, blue hospital scrubs are also obviously much easier to keep clean, especially seeing as in modern day it is each nurses' responsibility to keep their uniform clean.

What is a GS 13 nurse? ›

GS-13. Introduction. The Nurse Practitioner Position is located within the National Institutes of Health, (Institute, Branch). The nurse practitioner is a Masters' prepared independently licensed nurse who provides medical evaluation and care to patients enrolled in research studies conducted by the (Institute, Branch) ...

What is the difference between a Level 1 and Level 2 nurse? ›

This is an entry level position for a nurse with limited experience. The Clinical Nurse I is distinguished from the Clinical Nurse II in that the latter is expected to have more professional experience in a healthcare setting including Public Health and Mental Health.

What is a Grade 7 nurse? ›

Band 7 – Advanced Nurse / Nurse Practitioner

Within this level, the job responsibilities are a significant jump from Band 6. The most important responsibilities include their ability to conduct detailed assessments, make diagnoses and prescribe medicine to patients – responsibilities very similar to a doctor.

How many years is a novice nurse? ›


Stage 1 Novice: This would be a nursing student in his or her first year of clinical education; behavior in the clinical setting is very limited and inflexible. Novices have a very limited ability to predict what might happen in a particular patient situation.

What does a DNP do? ›

Instead of conducting nursing research or teaching at the college level, a DNP-prepared nurse might provide direct patient care, provide clinical training for nurses and NP students, serve on a hospital board or in a nursing administrative position or work on emerging health policies.

What are the 4 A's in nursing? ›

As a systematic process for change, this article offers the AACN's Model to Rise Above Moral Distress, describing four A's: ask, affirm, assess, and act. To help critical care nurses working to address moral distress, the article identifies 11 action steps they can take to develop an ethical practice environment.

What can an RN do that a LPN Cannot? ›

RNs have a more expanded scope of practice than LPNs, in that they can perform diagnostic tests, administer medications, and educate patients on how to manage their health after treatment. RNs also oversee LPNs, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), and home health aides.

What is an LPN vs CNA? ›

The main difference between a CNA and an LPN is the kind of care they give. CNAs help patients eat and bathe, which they would typically do independently. LPNs do basic nursing tasks like giving patients their medicine, updating their medical records, and helping other nurses.

What is the difference between a LPN and a NP? ›

LPN. A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse with advanced education and clinical training, while an LPN is a nurse that provides more basic care to patients. A nurse practitioner often provides specialized care to groups of people with specific medical needs.

What are the 5 stages of nurse? ›

The nursing process functions as a systematic guide to client-centered care with 5 sequential steps. These are assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation.

What are the 4 phases of nurse? ›

Hildegarde Peplau describes four sequential phases of a nurse-client relationship, each characterized by specific tasks and interpersonal skills: preinteraction; orientation; working; and termination.

How many levels are needed for nursing? ›

Nursing Required Qualification/s

A 4-year bachelor degree in nursing. A 3-year diploma. A 1-year higher certificate in auxiliary nursing. 1-year postgraduate advanced diploma in nursing and midwifery on top of your degree or diploma.

What is the rule of 5 in nursing? ›

Most health care professionals, especially nurses, know the “five rights” of medication use: the right patient, the right drug, the right time, the right dose, and the right route—all of which are generally regarded as a standard for safe medication practices.

What are the 4 major domains of nursing? ›

Fawcett has named person, health, environment and nursing as the four main concepts of nursing that need to be comprehensively defined.

What are the big 5 in nursing? ›

Its five dimensions include extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

Should I do RN or BSN first? ›

Nurses in clinical practice tend to list their licensure first followed by degrees and then certifications. For example: RN, BSN, CCRN. Nurses who are academic educators list their academic degrees first followed by licensure and then certifications. For example: DNP, RN, CNE.

Is MSN or BSN better? ›

Nurses with an MSN can earn more than RNs with a BSN. That's partly because a nurse with an MSN is better positioned to work in management or become licensed as a nurse practitioner. As of 2021, the average annual salary for a nurse practitioner is $120,680.

Is BSN higher than NP? ›

Registered nurses need a bachelor's degree in nursing, to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), and to obtain a state licensure to get started in the medical field. Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, must have earned a master's degree in nursing (MSN) or higher.

What are the 3 levels of nursing? ›

What Are the Levels of Nursing?
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA) Position description: Although a CNA is not an actual nurse, they're the main line of communication between the patients and the nurses. ...
  • Licensed practical nurse (LPN) ...
  • Registered nurse (RN)
May 19, 2022

What is Stage 3 of nursing? ›

The Level III Registered Nurse is accountable for the provision of expert patient care including service to patients with complex needs. The level III nurse has increased responsibilities that may include staff orientation, patient care coordination, or other unit/service activities.

What are the 4 elements of clinical nursing? ›

According to Wiedenbach there are four elements to clinical nursing: (1) philosophy, (2) purpose, (3) practice, and (4) art.

What grade do you need to pass a nursing exam? ›

The minimum passing grade for the Nursing Program is 75%.

What are the levels of nursing from lowest to highest? ›

Levels of Nursing Credentials (Ranked From Lowest to Highest)
  1. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) ...
  2. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) / Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) ...
  3. Registered Nurse (RN) ...
  4. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) ...
  5. Non-Clinical Advanced Nursing Specialties.


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