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How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse?

A male and female nurse working on a laptop while discussing how long it takes to become a nurse

The field of nursing is constantly evolving, as nurse shortages, changing technology and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to significant shifts. If you want to make an impact and get started in an in-demand field, then nursing may be right for you. But how long does it take to become a nurse and what kind of job opportunities will be available?

No matter what nursing career you’re interested in, job opportunities are growing fast. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030, with about 194,500 new jobs created each year in the field.

Salaries for nursing professionals are also strong. Registered nurses earned a median annual wage of $77,600 in May 2021. Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses earned an average of $48,070 that same year.

If you’re ready to join this growing field, the first step is to understand the educational options available and how long it takes to become a nurse.

How Many Years Does it Take to Become a Nurse?

You could start working as a nurse in as little as two years, though your journey may take longer depending on the nursing degree you earn and the type of nursing job you hope to land.

While becoming a registered nurse is a common nursing career path, there are many other nursing opportunities that could impact the education you need and how long it takes to start your career.

Some common credentials, licenses and types of nursing include:

  • Certified nursing assistants (CNA)
  • Licensed practical nurses (LPN)
  • Registered nurses (RN)
  • Advanced practice registered nurses (APRN)
  • Clinical nurse leaders
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Nurse educators
  • Nurse anesthetists

Becoming a CNA and LPN typically requires fewer years of schooling to get started, while becoming a registered nurse or pursuing a leadership role in nursing could take longer.

No matter which of these careers you pursue, the process of becoming a nurse generally includes three primary steps:

  • Earning a nursing degree from an accredited institution
  • Taking the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)
  • Applying for licensure in your state

How Long Does it Take to Become an RN?

With a career as a registered nurse, you could find work in hospitals, physician’s offices, nursing homes, care facilities and many other types of organizations.

Typically it takes anywhere from two to four years to become a registered nurse. But exactly how long it will take you depends on the degree program you choose, your clinical experience, and the licensing requirements in your state.

Nursing Degree Options for RNs

For most registered nurses, their career path begins with either a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Earning a nursing associate degree is the fastest, and often the most affordable, path to becoming an RN. ADN programs generally take about two years to complete and prepare you to take the NCLEX licensure exam to become a registered nurse.

A BSN degree is typically a four-year program. While it will take you longer to complete than an ADN, it also offers a highly sought-after credential.

Nurses with bachelor’s degrees are in high demand. Studies have shown that nurses who hold BSN degrees tend to deliver safer, more effective care. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) also recommends the BSN as the entry-level nursing degree, saying BSN graduates are better equipped to meet the demands of the evolving healthcare field.

If you’re already working as an RN, many colleges and universities offer accelerated programs that build on your existing nursing credentials. These programs are typically transfer-friendly and include:

  • LPN to BSN
  • RN to BSN
  • RN to MSN

In the RN to BSN program from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, you can get 45 credits toward your degree with an unencumbered RN license and transfer up to 45 more credits into the program. If you transfer in the maximum 90 credits, you could complete a BSN degree in as little as one year.

Learn more about the difference a BSN could make for RNs.

Getting Clinical Experience

Another key piece of preparing to be a nurse is completing clinical hours. These real-world learning experiences are typically completed toward the end of your degree program and can be done in a hospital, physician’s office, nursing home or another care facility.

The number of clinical hours required varies from program to program. Similarly, while some states require a specific number of clinical hours to qualify for nurse licensure, other states do not have a specific requirement, according to data from NurseJournal.

Gaining RN Licensure

How long does it take to become a nurse once you’ve completed your coursework, done your clinical hours and earned a degree? It depends on when you apply for licensure and take your licensing exam.

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), nursing graduates must submit an application for licensure to their state nursing regulatory board in order to be eligible to take the NCLEX exam. Once you are made eligible for the test, you can register for the NCLEX test at a location near you and start preparing for the exam.

Official NCLEX results are available about six weeks after the exam is taken, according to NCSBN. If you pass the test and have met all other requirements, you will be licensed as an RN in your state. If you don’t pass, you must wait 45 days before you’re eligible to take it again.

Advancing Your Nursing Career

Working as a registered nurse may be a common nursing career path, but your career doesn’t need to stop there. There are many advanced nursing roles you can explore once you’re working in the field.

Some of these positions include:

  • Clinical nurse leaders
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Nurse educators
  • Nurse anesthetists

How long does it take to become a nurse leader or land another advanced nursing role? It depends on your past experience and your desired career path.

In most cases, advancing your career will require not just professional experience, but also an advanced nursing degree such as a Master of Nursing (MSN). With an MSN, you could focus your degree on any number of nursing specialties, including:

Most master’s degree programs will take about two years to complete. Depending on your past educational and professional experience, you may be able to complete your degree faster. If you take fewer courses each term, it may take you more than two years to graduate.

Depending on your career path, you may also need to apply for additional certifications and licenses after completing an MSN. To become a nurse practitioner (NP), for example, you must pass an NP licensing exam.

Learn more about what an MSN is.

See Yourself Succeed in Nursing

No matter what you hope to achieve as a nurse, you can expect to spend at least two years working toward a new career.

With an associate degree in nursing, you can get the skills you need to work as an RN, practical nurse or nursing assistant and get started in the field faster. Earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing can give you a valuable credential that is in demand across the healthcare field. Though there are different options, both degrees can assist students in achieving their goals as nurses.

No matter what path you choose, you’ll be entering a discipline with growing opportunities for nursing professionals that can help you make an impact on your community.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online nursing program that can best help you meet your goals.

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, institutionally accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.