Are you considering a career in nursing but unsure how long it will take to get through school? Or perhaps you’re already a nurse, and you’re curious about how much time you’ll need to invest in order to advance. Turns out, you have a number of options available to you when pursuing nursing pathways, and each comes with a different timeline. The bottom line is that nursing school can be as short as a year for accelerated programs to as long as eight years for those seeking advanced degrees.
Perhaps the best way to start this exploration is to consider some personal factors before determining the length of program that best suits you, such as:
- Do you plan to attend school full time or part time?
- Do you have previous healthcare education or experience?
- Do you plan to work during school and therefore require flexibility in scheduling?
- What learning style works best for you: traditional or online?
Your answers to these questions, along with the information provided in this guide, can help you understand the options available to you when it comes to nursing school. Let’s dive in and look at different program lengths to shed some light on the rewarding career that is nursing.
Quick Look at How Long it Takes to Become a . . .
Entering the nursing profession can be achieved by completing a diploma program, an associate degree, or the increasingly desired bachelor’s degree. All of these options result in strong job market opportunities and competitive salaries. For those seeking advanced practice degrees, industry experience and RN licensure are often required first. Below we will discuss the most popular routes for different nursing pathways and their associated education requirements.
Registered Nurse (RN)
To pursue the most common nursing pathway, becoming a registered nurse, you must be licensed and obtain education through an approved diploma program or by receiving an associate or bachelor’s degree prior to entering the profession. With 4.2 million RNs in the U.S., they comprise the largest healthcare profession. As licensed professionals, RNs are responsible for providing patient care, education, and advocacy. This field is a good fit for those who are self-motivated, detail oriented, and good with time management.
- Nursing Diploma: 12 to 26 months
- Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): 2 to 3 years
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): 4 years
Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)
Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses provide basic hands-on nursing care in a variety of settings and must be licensed after completing a state-approved program. These programs do not require previous experience to enter and most often take one year to complete with no degree awarded at the end. The scope of practice for LPNs/LVNs varies from state to state, as do diploma requirements, so be sure to check with your state’s board of nursing prior to selecting a program to ensure it will comply with all requirements.
- Practical Nursing Diploma: 7 to 12 months
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant is an excellent way to gain some experience and learn more about the nursing profession before committing yourself to a full-length nursing program. CNAs work closely with RNs and LPNs to complete patient care tasks such as obtaining vital signs, ambulating patients, and helping with patient hygiene. They are not licensed but do take an exam at the end of their training program to receive certification.
- Certification Program: 4 to 12 weeks
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Nurse Practitioners are advanced nursing professionals with a larger scope of practice. These professionals have a minimum of a master’s level of education in nursing and generally have a prerequisite of a BSN. NPs will often have prior bedside experience as an RN and will need to complete in-person clinicals as part of their advanced practice training. The advanced level of education, specialty chosen, and clinical requirements mean that becoming an NP will often take two to four years.
- Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): 2 years
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): 3 to 4 years
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
The Clinical Nurse Specialist is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) that is highly specialized in a particular area of nursing practice. This profession has been around for more than 60 years and assists with healthcare delivery by serving particular populations with specialized needs. As an APRN, the CNS is able to prescribe, diagnose, treat, and bill like NPs and must follow guidelines issued by their state for nursing practice.
- MSN: 2 years
- DNP: 3 to 4 years
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
The Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist is an APRN specializing in providing anesthesia services before, during, and after surgical or diagnostic procedures. CRNA programs are increasingly moving toward a doctoral degree (DNP) requirement, though master’s degree programs are still available. To become a CRNA, you must first have obtained your RN licensure/education and complete a rigorous hands-on CRNA training program before sitting for the national certification exam.
- MSN: 2 years
- DNP: 3 to 4 years
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
The Certified Nurse Midwife provides care to women throughout their lives. They are APRNs with a focus on gynecologic and family-planning services, including pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care. CNMs require state licensure to practice and must have a minimum education at the master’s level. This nursing path is well suited to those who are passionate about providing healthcare services to women, particularly those of childbearing age.
- MSN: 2 years
- DNP: 3 to 4 years
Mapping the Nursing Journey: From First Steps to Advanced Practice
Have you ever taken a trip that involved delays, detours, or fundamental destination changes? Preparing for nursing school can include periods of uncertainty, and it’s perfectly normal for you to change your mind about which journey you want to take along the way. Nursing is a rewarding career with many opportunities for specialization and advancement. The wide variety of specialization creates a range of timelines for completion. Remaining flexible yet dedicated to your end goal can go a long way toward making your personal nursing journey successful.
<1 Year: Certificate Programs
Certificate programs offer a quick, hands-on learning experience. These programs are designed to work with those looking to enter the nursing field that have little to no prior healthcare experience. Certificate programs allow those interested in working in healthcare to complete training and enter the workforce in a timely manner, gaining valuable experience that can easily transition to more advanced nursing practice down the road, if desired.
Career Paths Unlocked: CNA
1 Year: Nursing Diplomas
Diploma programs are an excellent option for those seeking licensure as a nurse to enter the workforce. They can be completed in as little as one year and require no previous healthcare experience. At the end of the program, graduates can take a licensure exam and become an LPN/LVN. While clinical hours are required, many LPN/LVN programs are flexible and designed to work with those who are working or seeking an alternative learning experience.
Career Paths Unlocked: LPN/LVN
2-3 Years: Nursing Diplomas & Associate Degree in Nursing
Associate Degrees in Nursing (ADN) are programs that teach basic nursing principles and clinical skills required to become a registered nurse. The timeline for these programs can vary based on if you plan to attend full time or part time but can be completed in as little as 18 months or as much as three years, with the typical program taking two years to complete. After completing an ADN program, students are eligible to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).
Career Paths Unlocked: RN
4 Years: Bachelor of Science in Nursing
Obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing unlocks several future educational and job opportunities. BSN programs offer a broader and more comprehensive nursing education than ADN programs and can result in higher starting salaries. These programs can vary in length depending on prerequisites, prior experience, and type of program. For RNs with a diploma or ADN, a BSN can be completed in as little as one year; however, the typical BSN program, assuming no prerequisites completed, will take four years to complete.
Career Paths Unlocked: RN
6-7 Years: Master of Science in Nursing
Advanced practice nursing starts at the Master’s of Nursing (MSN) level. Many RNs will choose to gain some experience and then apply for advanced programs, such as an MSN. For those who opt to go straight into advanced nursing practice, expect the degree to take six to seven years in total to complete. For those with a BSN already completed, MSN programs will usually take an additional two to three years to complete beyond that.
Career Paths Unlocked: NP, CNS, CNM, CRNA
7-8 Years+: DNP & PhD in Nursing
Like many doctoral programs, obtaining a Doctor of Nursing Practice will require a total time commitment of seven to eight years. These are highly educated nursing professionals who tend to specialize and are committed to advancing the nursing profession. DNP programs are often designed to flex around working nursing professionals, and a variety of options are available to serve particular areas of interest, experience, and preferred learning styles.
Alternative Pathways to Nursing and How Long They Take
Whether you’re looking for a traditional brick-and-mortar learning experience or one that is more flexible with online offerings, nursing programs come in many shapes and sizes to fit learners of any background or interest. With the demand for nursing professionals remaining high, you can be sure that choosing a career in nursing will offer many opportunities, no matter how far you choose to take your education.
Accelerated Nursing Degree Programs
Accelerated nursing degree programs are a good option if you are highly motivated to enter the nursing field quickly and can focus your time solely on school. By obtaining a degree at an accelerated rate, programs must pack a lot of information into shorter timeframes. It can be beneficial to have prior healthcare experience before entering an accelerated program, but it is not necessarily required.
Direct-Entry Master of Science in Nursing
The direct-entry Master of Science in nursing is geared toward individuals who already have a bachelor’s degree but no prior nursing experience. Many who choose this route are making career changes to nursing from another field and want to obtain an advanced degree at the same time. This option offers online or traditional programs, but it’s important to note that in-person hours will be required for labs and clinicals as part of the degree path.
RN to BSN
RN to BSN programs are becoming increasingly popular as health systems move toward a preference for bachelor’s degree-holding nurses. Obtaining a BSN can offer more career advancement opportunities in addition to higher earning potential. These programs are ideal for experienced nurses who would like to complete a bachelor’s degree. There are many programs and flexible options available to those pursuing this path, considering candidates are already licensed RNs.
Fast FAQs: Your Common Questions Answered
You now have more insight into your most pressing question: How long do nursing programs take? In a nutshell, you learned that it depends on your background and goals. Now with this in mind, you likely also have additional questions regarding a career in nursing. Take a look below at some common questions and answers that could better help you decide if nursing is right for you.
How difficult is nursing school?
Nursing school has a well-known reputation for competitive entry and for being a challenge to complete. You’ll learn a lot of information in the classroom and perform hands-on procedures during clinical rotations. Most students agree that the experience is challenging but rewarding, and the wonderful thing about nursing is the diversity of paths a person can take to enter the field.
How long does it take to become a nurse?
This really depends on the career goals you have as a nurse and the education path you take to get there. Licensed nurses will need to dedicate longer periods of time to school than a certificate program. Expect to spend one to two years to become an entry-level nurse up to eight years for those seeking advanced, doctoral-level education.
What degree do I need to be a nurse?
Anyone with a diploma all the way to a DNP is considered a nurse. Becoming an LPN/LVN requires a diploma that can be earned in as little as one year, while RNs will spend two to four years in school to meet requirements that make them eligible to sit for the NCLEX.
What is the difference between a CNA, RN, and NP?
CNAs are certified nursing assistants able to assist nurses with patient care tasks. RNs are licensed nurses that have completed a diploma or degree with clinical training and passed the national licensure exam (NCLEX). NPs are advanced practice registered nurses that have a minimum of a master’s level of education and additional clinical training, allowing them to diagnose and prescribe medication.
What is the fastest way to become a nurse?
The fastest way to become a licensed nurse is by completing a diploma program, which can be done in as little as one year and result in the ability to practice as an LPN/LVN. Another year of training beyond that can provide you with an ADN and open up additional job opportunities and income as an RN.
7 Questions to Ask Yourself to Decide Your Path
Now it’s time for some introspection: You already know you want to be in the nursing field, but you’re undecided about which specific path is right for you. These questions will help you determine which route to follow.
Am I interested in furthering my education in the future?
If you’re looking for a nursing position that is a stepping stone to one with more responsibilities (and requiring more education) in the future, you may want to consider starting with an RN to BSN program. Already having a BSN in hand will fulfill the requirement for future advanced degrees (MSN, DNP) down the road.
Do I prefer a particular healthcare setting?
Nurses are equipped to deal with a variety of patients and typically work with diverse populations. However, if you’re specifically hoping to help patients through childbirth, specializing as a CNM may be in order. Or if you’re seeking to help a different specialty, like pediatrics, gerontology, or neonatology, you may want to consider becoming a CNS. In most cases, choosing a specific setting will require more specialized education.
Do I see myself in a leadership role or in a specialized field in the future?
If you know from the outset that your goal is to work in nurse leadership, education, or in a specialized nursing field, you’ll be well advised to pursue your BSN or an advanced degree. This will equip you with the necessary education and experience to continually refine your career trajectory.
How much time and money am I willing to invest in education and training?
Because nursing paths are so diverse, you also have a variety of levels of financial and time investment. While you can become a CNA or LPN quickly and without paying tuition for a 4-year degree, you’ll also earn far less money. Conversely, investing in graduate education requires more time and money initially, but will likely result in more pay down the road. You’ll need to analyze your financial/time resources to determine what you can afford to commit.
How comfortable am I with direct patient care?
Are you interested in nursing because you want to work directly with patients and impart high-touch, high-quality care? If so, you’ll want to consider some of the more practical roles: CNAs, RNs, LPNs, NPs, or a specialty like midwifery or anesthesia. However, if you want to make your mark on the nursing field through management with less direct patient contact, consider pursuing a nurse leadership path, which often requires a master’s or doctoral degree.
What are my long-term career goals?
Many of the nursing pathways offer steps toward career advancement, so it might be best to consider long-term goals as early as possible. If you know you ultimately want to be a director or chief nursing officer, for example, it may be better to begin with an advanced degree in mind. But if you’re not convinced you’re passionate about nursing for the long-term, it might be better to start with CNA or LPN experience to test the waters.
What level of responsibility am I comfortable with?
Regardless of your specific career path, all nursing positions hold a great deal of responsibility. But there is somewhat of a spectrum, with CNAs having the least amount of delegation opportunities and big-picture decision-making (though again, they’re responsible for many facets of patient care), and doctoral-level leadership positions holding the most. Determining your comfort level within that spectrum may help guide your career direction.