Career Advancement
Opportunities for CNAs
How to Increase Your Salary and Advance Your Career in Nursing

Meet the Expert

Elena Pettycrew, RN Read bio

CNAs who want to delve into other branches of the nursing field could find potential job growth, increased pay, added responsibilities, and opportunities to explore areas of healthcare that interest them as they pursue higher nursing degrees. Learn more about the educational and training paths available to CNAs.

Career Advancement for Certified Nursing Assistants

CNAs pursue their career through a combination of practical, working experience and certificate or degree programs that help develop a deeper understanding of the practice of nursing. Below is an example of the path to becoming a registered nurse.

  1. CNA 1 Certificate programs prepare students to become CNA 1, certified and registered through the state.

  2. Entry-Level Job CNA 1 can assist in many healthcare facilities, but not hospital settings.

  3. CNA 2 and 3 Further training to work in hospitals as a CNA 2 and labs as a CNA 3.

  4. Associate/Bachelor’s Degree Undergo educational and clinical experience in an associate or bachelor’s degree program in nursing.

  5. NCLEX Take this exam through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and become a nationally registered and certified nurse.

  6. Registered Nurse Work in various healthcare settings with teams of healthcare professionals.

CNA Levels: What Do They Mean for Career Advancement

CNA training proceeds in three levels. CNAs who complete a basic training course and take a state certification test are CNA 1, and additional training establishes them as CNA 2 and CNA 3. Each level brings additional responsibility and a new work environment where CNAs can assist nurses and other healthcare professionals.


Duties & Responsibilities

Certified nursing aides who complete an entry-level training course are qualified to assist licensed practical nurses or registered nurses working in various healthcare facilities, though not in hospitals. CNA 1s perform healthcare tasks, such as taking patient vitals and measurements and other daily care needs, and communicate information between nurses and patients.

Work Environment
  • Skilled nursing facility
  • Long-term care center
  • Assisting living facility
How to Become One

Because CNA 1 programs teach the basics of healthcare work, students have a large workload that consists of classroom and lab work as well as clinical requirements. Students then must pass an exam administered by the state, which includes a written and a practical component.


Duties & Responsibilities

After completing the basic training to become a CNA 1, students take additional courses to learn about working under nurses in acute care and hospital settings. They perform the same patient care duties as a CNA 1 under the direction of a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse.

Work Environment
  • Skilled nursing facility
  • Long-term care center
  • Assisting living facility
  • Hospital
  • Acute or urgent care facility
How to Become One

CNA 2 programs require a CNA 1 license before a student can apply to the program. Students then train in classroom, lab and clinical settings to build on their CNA 1 knowledge and prepare them for their responsibilities in the more stressful environment of a hospital. Students who complete CNA 2 training may need to take additional tests before their CNA license is upgraded in the state registry.


Duties & Responsibilities

Sometimes referred to as a patient care technician, this level of CNA training prepares students to perform specialized nursing aid in several different departments, such as phlebotomy or repertory tests. A CNA 3 may be trained to run an electrocardiogram or perform other tests.

Work Environment
  • Skilled nursing facility
  • Long-term care center
  • Assisting living facility
  • Hospital
  • Acute or urgent care facility
  • Blood banks
  • Laboratories
How to Become One

CNA 3 training programs teach students specialized terminology and skills involving medical devices or testing techniques. Students narrow the scope of their studies to learn the procedures that are a part of everyday work in their healthcare divisions, such as phlebotomy or acute care.

Top 5 Careers for CNAs Looking for Advancement

Nursing specializations are wide-ranging and diverse, and CNAs interested in advancing in the field can typically find a potential career that aligns with their interests. Below are a few of the most common careers a CNA could pursue in the nursing field, along with the skills, education and training necessary to succeed in each career.

Licensed practical nurses work under the direction of doctors and registered nurses. They provide basic medical care and discuss healthcare strategies with patients. They also keep records of patients’ health and communicate information between doctors, registered nurses and patients.

  1. Develop healthcare communication skills Because LPNs are a source of patient information for doctors and convey doctors’ information to patients, cultivating the ability to communicate with many different people is essential. Students should learn common healthcare terminology within their chosen field and how to express these terms to people without previous healthcare knowledge.

  2. Cultivate a compassionate bedside manner LPNs interact with patients extensively and should make all of their patients feel as calm, comfortable, and cared-for as possible.

  3. Complete additional training in record keeping and more intensive healthcare functions Some of the duties of an LPN include changing dressings, administering and maintaining IVs, and recording patient healthcare information. These tasks require extensive clinical work and trainings so students can practice this delicate, vital work.

Registered nurses plan and administer patient care plans, record patients’ medical histories and symptoms and consult and collaborate with other healthcare professionals. They monitor and diagnose patients during the treatment process in a medical facility and also help patients and families manage illnesses or injuries when they are at home.

  1. Find an accredited certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing program Becoming an RN is a great increase in responsibility. CNAs looking to become RNs should have a lot of experience in their field and expect to study medical terminology, record-keeping, and medical technology more in-depth in registered nursing certificate or degree programs.

  2. Prepare for the NCLEX The NCLEX is a national nursing certification exam that all registered nursing students must take to work as RNs. The exam tests entry-level nurse skills in promoting, maintaining and restoring health in patients.

  3. Pursue specialties in areas of interest within nursing RNs can work in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, nursing facilities, schools and home healthcare services. Pursuing certifications in a particular area of nursing is a great way to specialize and find more specific employment opportunities in this wide-ranging field.

CNAs working with senior communities can take on leadership roles as nursing home administrators. These professionals are the liaison between staff, doctors, family members and patients. They handle staffing and bookkeeping duties and ensure their facilities comply with state and federal procedures.

  1. Develop excellent communication skills, particularly with elderly patients Discussing healthcare options with senior patients may be difficult depending on their mental faculties. A CNA preparing to become a nursing home administrator will be patient and communicate clearly with patients and their families as well as doctors and faculty.

  2. Earn a master’s degree in healthcare administration or a similar field Taking on an administrative role in healthcare requires specialized training and intensive practical study. The ideal healthcare administration degree program will address management principles, leadership skills, and current strategies for resident-centric nursing home care.

  3. Keep up to date on healthcare codes on a state and federal level Translating state and federal laws into effective practices ensures that residents are cared for compassionately and their rights are protected. Healthcare laws change frequently, and an administrator must prioritize these laws in running their nursing home.

Professionals in this area of nursing help develop and implement healthcare plans and long-term care for elderly. They are experts in navigating the healthcare field, connecting clients with healthcare professionals as well as legal and financial advisors. They may also serve as mediators between family members and the elderly patients they are hired to assist.

  1. Cultivate communication and mediation skills Geriatric care managers work with families to make difficult choices. These people need the help of a calm, professional compassionate expert. The ability to communicate both with an elderly person, members of their family, doctors and legal and financial professionals is an essential component of this job.

  2. Explore the intersection of social work, gerontology and psychology There are many fields of study that geriatric care managers draw from in performing their jobs, particularly health and human services. In developing the knowledge and experience to pursue this career, CNAs should seek out higher education programs that delve into the many different fields that contribute to this career.

  3. Research elder care possibilities and laws Families hire geriatric care managers to advise them on legal, financial and healthcare choices. These professionals must know the many options available for their clients.

CNA students and current CNAs looking to advance their nursing careers will encounter a diverse range of teachers in their education programs. Educators work in classrooms and in practical settings, guiding and preparing future nursing professionals. They typically work for nursing schools, but may also teach in hospitals, public health agencies and other professional education associations.

  1. Pursue teaching experience as well as a higher degree Working in hospitals and clinics can develop a CNA’s knowledge, and a master’s or doctoral degree are the preferred credentials for nurse educators, but teaching students is a skill that also must be cultivated. It is important to communicate information clearly to students in classroom, clinical, and professional development settings.

  2. Gain practical experience in areas of interest Nurse educators typically teach courses in a chosen area of expertise as well as entry-level classes. Imparting practical knowledge from personal experience is a valuable part of a nurse educator’s job. Nurse educators also may work part-time in clinical settings to maintain their clinical experience.

  3. Consider full- or part-time teaching and research opportunities Earning a higher degree can lead to research and publishing opportunities in addition to teaching and clinical work. There are many possible jobs that a nurse educator can hold in addition to teaching part-time, or a nurse educator can choose to focus exclusively on teaching.

Advancing Your Education to Advance Your Career: Benefits to Each Nursing Degree

Basic and advanced nursing education programs award graduates with certificates, undergraduate degrees and advanced degrees. All programs require a high school education or GED, and most have GPA requirements that applicants must meet in order to be accepted. CNAs considering higher education should be working in healthcare settings, gaining experience and learning on the job.

The table below explores different levels of certification within the nursing field, the requirements to apply for different programs, and jobs graduates are qualified for with those certifications or degrees.

In-Depth: CNA, LPN, and RN Salaries by State

CNAs exploring the nursing field in order to increase their salaries should not only look at the institution that can employ them, but also the state where they will be working. Pursing a nursing career in one state may lead to more financially generous opportunities than finding employment in another.


Is it Time to Advance My Nursing Career? Questions to Ask

The nursing field is challenging and has essential responsibilities at every level of employment. CNAs should carefully consider their commitment to their work before advancing in the nursing field, as it will mean devoting a greater of time, energy, and focus. Below are some questions to help CNAs reflect upon their goals.

Being a CNA is challenging, but for current CNAs interested in greater responsibility, a good time to progress professionally is when they feel comfortable with the routine of their current position.
With the greater responsibilities that nursing professionals take on, there is an increase in pay as well. Nurse salaries differ by states and healthcare facilities as well as by the area of nursing CNAs wish to pursue.
Skilled, professional, dedicated nurses are highly employable, but employment opportunities vary by job title, location, and employer. Pursuing an aspect of nursing with a shortage of employees increases the chances of getting hired after completing a higher education program.
Earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in nursing can take years. While there are nurse education-based loans and scholarships available privately and through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources and many programs have degree time frames for part-time students, it is still a huge commitment of time and money. Carefully consider taking on this commitment.
Because nursing is such a wide field and there are so many possible nursing careers, knowing what specific discipline to pursue can help direct educational program choices. It is also easier to find jobs when an applicant has clear, narrow certifications.
It can help employment opportunities to attend a program in the community a student wants to work in, as they will most likely be assigned to local clinical work through their program. Learning online is another way to learn certifications and gain greater knowledge and experience.

Additional Career Resources for Nurses

American Association of Colleges of Nursing

Students in college nursing programs can find financial aid and other support for their education through this organization.

American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants

For registered nurses interested in legal nurse consulting, this membership organization is a way to network, explore professional development and education resources, and find certification through the American Legal Nurse Consultant Certification Board.

National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards

State boards that are members of this national organization develop standards, resources, and tools to assist administrators of nursing home and assisted living communities.

National Association of School Nurses

This membership organization supports school nurses in their mission to promote and maintain student health.

National Council of State Boards of Nursing

This nonprofit membership organization is the regulatory body for all nursing programs in the United States and administers standard licensing exams such as the NCLEX.

National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses

This professional organization fosters high standards of education, certification, professional development, and care in the field of licensed practical nursing.

National Student Nurses’ Association

Currents students in registered nursing programs can find professional development mentorship, education resources, and career guidance through this membership organization

Red Cross CNA Training

There are Red Cross CNA training programs in various cities in thirteen states; other programs are available in individual states.

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