Decoding Nursing Careers: LPN, RN, APN? Get the Facts Behind the Abbreviations

Nurses are always in demand, and job security is an appealing concept-especially in light of the recent economic turmoil. If you have an interest in medicine and science and are motivated to provide care for others, consider the types of nursing careers available and the education required for each as you decide on your future career.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)*

LPNs care for patients under the supervision of registered nurses (RNs) or physicians in nursing homes, hospitals, private practice, and other health care settings. As an LPN you will provide basic bedside care such as taking temperatures, measuring vital signs, cleaning wounds, and collecting samples.

To become an LPN you’ll need to study for one year at a hospital, vocational-technical school, or community college. After you finish your studies, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).

*This occupation is called Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) in Texas and California.

Registered Nurse (RN)

RNs provide many levels of patient care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, outpatient surgical centers, hospices, the military, and mental health agencies. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports that there are more than 3 million RNs nationwide (four times greater than the number of physicians).

All RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN licensing exam, but there are three paths to follow to get to that point:

  • Bachelor’s degree (BSN)-Four-year program at a college or university.
  • Associate degree (ADN)-Two- to three-year program at a community college or nursing school.
  • Diploma-Three-year program at a hospital.

Is it worthwhile to spend the extra time (and money) pursuing a BSN, when an ADN or diploma can get you into the workforce sooner? In the end it’s a personal choice, but you should be aware that there is a growing movement to require all RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree; you’ll have greater career options with a BSN in hand. Also, bachelor’s degree programs offer more training in areas that are critical to nursing practice, such as leadership, critical thinking, and communication.

Advanced Practice Nurse (APN)

If you’re looking for more challenge and responsibility, consider pursuing graduate study to become an APN. There are four categories of APNs:

  • Nurse practitioners-NPs can prescribe medications and, in 23 states, can practice independently without a physician. These individuals are often found in rural and inner-city areas that do not have an adequate number of physicians to provide for the community’s health care needs.
  • Clinical nurse specialists-CNSs become experts in a specialized area of nursing practice, such as pediatrics, emergency room care, diabetes, oncology, or stress.
  • Certified nurse-midwives-CNMs provide prenatal and gynecological care, helping women to deliver babies in many settings (hospitals, birthing centers, and private homes).
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists-CRNAs administer anesthesia during surgical procedures, either on their own or in collaboration with physician anesthesiologists.


This article was written by Sarah Engel

Sarah Engel is a staff editor for Sarah writes extensively on the topic of undergraduate studies and the college search process.


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  2. Roy Johnson

    I heard about a new course entitled Physician’s Assistent. Is the school offering this course?

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  4. Excellent article. I am facing some of these issues as well..

  5. Nice Decoding Nursing Careers topic you posted about. It’s funny because me and my cousin were just talking about it the other day.

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