In the last few years, the nursing shortage and the dire need for trained nurses have been in the news. Although many factors contribute to the shortage, the fact remains that a great deal of opportunity exists for those who want to work in the field. It is possible to earn the registered nurse (RN) credential in as few as two years by getting an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and passing the required exam. At this point, you are qualified for getting a job in a hospital, doctor’s office or another medical setting. However, stopping at the two-year degree level could prove detrimental to your overall career and long-term earning potential, as the 2-year RN salary is about 10 percent lower than a nurse with a bachelor’s degree at the entry level, and advancement possibilities are limited.
Most RNs are part of a medical team, working closely with doctors and other nurses and health care specialists. Their primary tasks include assessing patients, taking medical histories and reporting on condition, observing and monitoring patient condition, and administering treatments and medications. Nurses may set up and monitor medical equipment and conduct certain tests and note the results in patient charts. As part of a health care team, nurses contribute information and help devise patient care plans for both the medical facility and at home. Nurses are often the primary communicators for patients when it comes to discharge plans, as they provide information and instruction to patients and their families on how to best care for the patient at home.
Some nurses opt to specialize in a particular area, which requires additional education beyond the 2-year RN programs. Among the common areas of specialization are pediatrics, OB/GYN, geriatrics, surgical, rehabilitation, cardiovascular and critical care. Depending on the specialization, nurses may do everything from helping to deliver babies to working with Alzheimer’s patients.
Becoming an RN requires a two- or three-year associate degree or diploma program. The majority of nurses who choose the two-year route opt for an associate degree in nursing (ADN). Some nurses choose to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) via a four-year program to open up more opportunities and higher earning potential, while others choose the RN-to-BSN route, in which they get their RN status in two years, typically at a local community college, and then complete their bachelor’s degree while working. This option is attractive for many nurses because many employers offer tuition assistance or reimbursement.
Regardless of the educational path, all states and the District of Columbia require nurses to be licensed. Licensing is contingent on graduating from an approved nursing program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Every state has its own additional requirements for licensing nurses, including background checks and additional certifications such as CPR.
Although it is possible to land a good job with a two-year nursing degree, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to advance in the field or get the most coveted positions without at least a four-year degree. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine released a report calling for at least 80 percent of nurses to have a BSN by 2020, and many organizations are heeding that recommendation. Nurses working for the Veterans Health Administration, for example, must have a BSN to advance beyond an entry-level position, and the U.S. military requires nurses to have a bachelor’s degree to practice as active duty RNs. In the state of New York, a law passed in 2017 dictates that all nurses must earn a BSN within 10 years of earning their RN, with similar laws expected to pass in other states in the coming years. While an RN designation is vital to beginning your career in nursing, the trend within the industry is toward requiring a four-year rather than a two-year degree.
Years of Experience and Salary
On average, the 2-year nursing degree salary is just over $56,000 per year or $26.45 per hour. Geography plays a role in nursing salaries, with nurses in large cities like New York and Los Angeles earning more than 25 percent above the national average.
In many hospitals, it’s impossible to move beyond the entry-level salary range without earning an advanced degree, and earning a four-year degree is beneficial to your salary. The starting rate for a nurse with a BSN is around $29 per hour with an annual salary of about $62,500. The top earners with bachelor’s degrees earn closer to $89,000 annually. Overall, the earnings trajectory for nurses as they gain experience and education is positive, with an increase of $5,000 to $8,000 in annual salary for every five years of experience.
Job Growth Trend
Growth in the nursing field is outpacing almost all others, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a 16 percent increase in demand by 2026. This is a slight decline from the height of the nursing shortage a few years ago, thanks to more nurses entering the field, but it is still much faster growth than most other occupations. The need to replace retiring nurses, increase access to health care, and serve an aging population are all factors contributing to increased demand in this field.