What Is Nursing? A Complete Guide to Nursing Jobs, Salaries, and Degrees

Woman nurse smiling in hospital corridor

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What Is Nursing?

Nursing has been an honored profession for millennia. Nurses help treat and care for patients, diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, and provide emotional support and comfort.

This challenging career requires a selfless heart and a hardworking disposition. If you feel called to the nursing profession, there are many paths and educational options to get you there.

Nurses work in a variety of settings and roles. Whether you want to become a nurse practitioner in a medical office or a midwife working in a birthing center, nursing roles boast high growth rates and impressive salaries.

What Types of Nurses Are There?

Nurses come in many forms and are needed across medical fields and care facilities.

There are four main types of nursing jobs you can pursue, each with slightly different education and certification requirements.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $30,310
  • Job Growth Rate (2021-2031): 5%
  • Minimum Education Required: Diploma or certificate

A CNA is an entry-level position available in nursing that doesn’t require a degree. CNAs work directly with patients and coordinate with nurses.

Typical duties include helping patients move, collecting medical supplies, bathing and grooming patients, checking vital signs, transporting patients, cleaning wounds, and assisting with some medical procedures.

Certification requirements vary by state but generally involve taking the NNAAP exam and completing a licensing process.

If you wish to advance your career in nursing, you can complete a CNA-to-LPN program.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $48,070
  • Job Growth Rate (2021-2031): 6%
  • Minimum Education Required: Diploma or certificate

A licensed practical nurse manages general patient care in a variety of forms. This can mean recording vitals, cleaning wounds, administering medications, keeping patients clean, and helping patients eat. Most LPNs work in nursing homes and hospitals.

In Texas and California, the position is called licensed vocational nurse (LVN) but is otherwise the same. You’ll need to transfer your license if you want to work in a new state.

You don’t need a degree to become an LPN. A one-year certificate or diploma can qualify you for the NCLEX-PN exam. After passing this test, you’ll be eligible for an LPN license.

You can complete an in-person or online LPN program. LPNs who wish to become RNs can apply for an LPN-to-RN program. This program typically takes two years and can help advance your nursing career.


Registered Nurse (RN)

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $77,600
  • Job Growth Rate (2021-2031): 6%
  • Minimum Education Required: Associate or bachelor’s degree

A registered nurse provides patient care in hospitals, nursing homes, doctor’s offices, and outpatient clinics. Common duties include admitting patients, managing IVs, performing physical examinations, checking vital signs, providing bedside care, and administering medications.

To become an RN, you must earn an associate in nursing degree (ADN), a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), or a nursing diploma, in addition to passing the NCLEX-RN exam and applying for state licensure.

Most employers prefer to hire RNs with bachelor’s degrees. If you are already a licensed RN and wish to complete your BSN down the line, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program. This accelerated program takes into account your experience as an RN.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

  • Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $123,780
  • Job Growth Rate (2021-2031): 40%
  • Minimum Education Required: Master’s degree

An APRN is a registered nurse with graduate-level education. For example, you may have a master’s degree in nursing, a Ph.D. in nursing, or a doctor of nursing practice.

APRNs diagnose patients, prescribe medications, and order tests. Specific certifications will depend on the type of APRN role you pursue.

There are four kinds of APRNs:

  1. Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP): Depending on their specialty, CNPs often work in primary care settings.
  2. Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): Nurse specialists are leaders with high-level clinical expertise in a specialized field, such as geriatric care, women’s health, mental health, or community health.
  3. Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): In this role, nurses are responsible for anesthesia care during surgeries and other medical procedures.
  4. Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM): Nurse-midwives provide care for women throughout their lifespans, including routine gynecologic care, prenatal and postpartum care, family planning assistance, and newborn care.

Registered Nursing Programs


Nursing Jobs: Outlook and Salary

Nursing Jobs Outlook
Job Median Annual Salary (May 2021) Job Growth Rate (2021-2031) Minimum Education Required
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) $30,310 5% Diploma or certificate
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) $48,070 6% Diploma or certificate
Registered Nurse (RN) $77,600 6% Associate or bachelor’s degree
Nurse Practitioner $120,680 46% Master’s degree
Nurse Anesthetist $195,610 12% Master’s degree
Nurse Midwife $112,830 7% Master’s degree

Nearly every career in nursing is projected to grow over the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Nurse practitioners, in particular, are one of the fastest-growing careers overall, with a projected growth rate of 46% between 2021 and 2031.

The average salary for nursing jobs ranges from $30,000 to $150,000 and varies depending on your education level, role, and state. For example, nurse practitioners in California earn a median annual salary of $151,830, while those in Massachusetts earn $129,540 per year, according to the BLS.

Your work setting will also impact your salary. RNs who work in hospitals earn an annual average salary of $85,020, whereas RNs who work in pharmaceutical manufacturing earn $105,270.

Curious about the nursing programs near you or in a place you’d like to move? Explore below to find nursing programs in your state.


How Does Accreditation Work for Nursing Programs?

Accreditation for nursing schools ensures that the program provides a high-quality education and meets the standards you’ll need to work in the field.

State nursing licensure also requires you to attend an accredited program. Nursing certification bodies similarly require proof of graduation from an accredited program in order for you to be able to take their board exams.

When a school is accredited, this means it’s been reviewed by a recognized accrediting agency. The accreditor reviews the school or program’s curriculum, courses, faculty, and staff.

Accreditation is important if you wish to transfer credits to a different school or attend a graduate program. You’ll also need to enroll in an accredited school to be eligible for federal financial aid.

Here are some key accreditors of nursing programs to look for:

Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing

What are the qualities of a nurse?

Successful nurses often possess qualities like compassion, empathy, stamina, patience, resilience, and an even temper.

Other essential nursing skills include communication, time management, critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, a sense of humor, and a willingness to learn.

What is the easiest job in nursing?

There is no “easiest” job in nursing. The difficulty of a nursing job will ultimately depend on your skills and preferences. For example, a position as a cruise ship nurse may sound like a breeze to some people, but for someone prone to seasickness, it’d likely be more challenging.

However, some nursing roles that may be less stressful include working as a school nurse, nursing administrator, and nurse educator.

Is it hard to be a nurse?

Nursing can be demanding and stressful, but that ultimately depends on your skills and abilities. Nursing school comes with a rigorous curriculum. However, if you have an affinity for STEM subjects, you might find nursing school easier than someone who prefers the arts and humanities.

Many nurses report exhausting schedules and work that is both physically and emotionally demanding. However, the level of stress you face while working as a nurse depends on your specialty and work setting. Regardless, helping to save lives and comfort others is an honorable and worthwhile pursuit.

Which nurses are the happiest?

Happiness in a nursing role is pretty subjective and will vary by person. Nursing roles in pediatrics or maternity wards may experience less stress and more joy than emergency room or surgical nurses.

In the end, how happy you will be as a nurse depends on what you find rewarding and how comfortably you acclimate to your environment. If you aren’t great with children and thrive under pressure, you may prefer working as an ER or intensive care nurse instead of as a pediatric nurse, for instance.

Is becoming a nurse worth it?

A 2017 survey by AMN Healthcare found that 83% of nurses felt satisfied with their choice of nursing as a career.

Whether or not nursing is worth it will depend on your experience and values. Often, nurses find the satisfaction of helping others and healing people to be worth the rigorous education, long work hours, and low points of the job.

Editor’s note: The salary numbers and projected growth rate projections on this page are sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.