Our Guide to Entry-Level Nursing

As populations age and healthcare needs increase, nursing is a field that will likely be in demand in the future. Like many jobs, there are various levels of nursing, with advancement opportunities for those who gain higher education, licensure and certifications in nursing. For those who want to start a career in nursing without much experience or education, there are also many opportunities for entry-level nurses.

The most basic nursing work involves helping patients with everyday tasks, like bathing and eating. With the proper training and certifications, you can become an entry-level nurse with just a high school diploma or GED. Whether you want to advance your career in nursing or you’re looking for an entry-level job you’ll enjoy for years to come, an entry-level nurse position can be a fulfilling career where you help patients and their families. This guide explains the common steps on how to become an entry-level nurse.

What is Entry-Level Nursing?

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, an entry-level nurse is defined (PDF, 65 KB) as a nurse who has less than a year of experience as a professional nurse. Based on that definition, an entry-level nurse can be a nurse with any type of educational background that has limited nursing experience.

Entry-level nurses work in all types of settings, including emergency rooms, doctors’ offices and nursing homes. There are also mobile entry-level nurses, who go where patients need help. Entry-level nurses may also work on disaster relief teams and for nonprofits like Nursing Beyond Borders.

Some entry-level nurses enter the field by getting a certificate or license after receiving nurse training, without having gone to college for nursing. Other entry-level nurses have completed a college education in a non-nursing field. They get a nursing diploma or attend nursing college so they can get licensed and begin a new career path as a nurse.

What is Direct-Entry Nursing?

Direct-entry nursing refers to those who enter master’s of nursing programs with no prior college nursing education. There are direct-entry nursing programs that accept both registered nurses who don’t have a bachelor’s degree, as well as college graduates who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field.

For example, a direct-entry BSN-MSN program is designed for candidates who have a college bachelor’s in a non-nursing subject. In a program like this, a student will learn nursing courses normally taught in a BSN program, then complete their master’s in nursing.

What Does an Entry-Level Nurse Do?

Entry-level nursing may look different depending on the environment the nurse is working in. In a medical office or hospital, an entry-level nurse may:

  • Obtain patient medical history
  • Prepare patient charts for physicians and nurse practitioners
  • Monitor vital signs
  • Administer medication
  • Draw blood
  • Provide first aid and immunizations
  • Insert catheters and feeding tubes
  • Change dressings
  • Discharge patients and explain doctor’s orders

While doctors and nurse practitioners diagnose patients, lower-level or entry-level nurses may gather information that helps with the diagnosis.

Entry-level nurses in a home healthcare setting may do all of the above and may spend more one-on-one time with patients. They may also provide case management and education to patients and families.

Routes to Becoming an Entry-Level Nurse

Most entry-level nursing positions will require that you hold at least a nursing certificate or license, which typically requires at least an associate’s degree in nursing or a nursing diploma. Nursing diplomas are typically awarded by hospital-based nursing schools, but you may also be able to get one from a program that’s affiliated with a college. University nursing diploma programs may qualify you for college nursing credits if you decide to later pursue a college degree.

Some nurses choose to work an entry-level nursing job while they pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing or begin a direct-entry nursing program to get their master’s in nursing. The following are pathways to consider to become an entry-level nurse.

Nursing Certificates and Nursing Licenses

Nursing certification and licensing requirements will vary by state. To become a nurse assistant, you’ll typically need to pass a nursing certification exam and complete specific training to get your diploma or associate degree in nursing.

To become an entry-level nurse with a more advanced title, you’ll typically have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The NCLEX is usually a requirement to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN), licensed vocational nurse (LVN) or registered nurse, though requirements vary by state.

LPNs and LVNs have different titles but perform similar duties, which include basic patient care such as patient intake, taking and recording vital signs, inserting catheters and assisting with documentation.

A candidate can take the NCLEX after getting an associate degree in nursing or earning a nursing diploma or higher degree, like a bachelor’s in nursing or master’s in nursing. For help with gaining additional skills that nurses may use at any level, a healthcare certificate may be useful.

Entry-Level Registered Nurse (RN)

Entry-level registered nurses (RNs) perform more advanced nursing care than LPNs and LVNs. In addition to LPN/LVN duties, RNs may administer medication, draw blood, insert IVs, operate medical equipment, perform diagnostic tests and collect lab samples. RNs also collaborate with doctors and nurse practitioners to create patient plans.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a bachelor’s degree in nursing is typically required to become an RN, though those with an associate degree or nursing diploma may qualify, depending on state requirements. Each state will have its own RN requirements, but candidates must typically pass the NCLEX exam to get licensed as an RN.

Direct-Entry Nursing Assistant (NA)

Direct-entry nursing assistants (NAs), also known as certified nursing assistants (CNAs), are nursing assistants to RNs and LPNs. They provide assistance for patients with everyday activities, like dressing, bathing and eating. They may work in nursing care facilities or in hospitals.

Each state will have its own NA requirements. Typically, nursing assistants will have to pass a state certification exam, where a postsecondary non-degree certificate or diploma is the minimum requirement to take the exam. To complete a certificate or diploma program, typically a high school education or GED is required.

Direct-Entry Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Nurse practitioners are primary- and specialty-care providers who perform advanced nursing services. These professionals assess patients and create patient healthcare plans. Nurse practitioners typically specialize in nursing for a specific population, such as pediatrics or geriatric health.

A direct-entry nurse practitioner (NP) is a professional who had no prior nursing experience but who entered a nurse practitioner master’s program to become an advanced nurse. These master’s of nursing programs take around four years to complete, teaching students entry-level nursing knowledge before moving on to more advanced nurse practitioner topics.

Some direct-entry NP programs will require that you have a bachelor’s degree to enter the program, which can be in a non-nursing field. You may also be able to qualify for a direct-entry NP program with an RN license.

To become an NP, candidates must typically have RN licensure. A direct-entry NP program prepares students for RN licensure while they’re in the program, so by the time they graduate with their master’s degree, they’ll be ready to apply for NP licensure.

Direct-Entry Master’s in Nursing (MSN)

Similar to a direct-entry NP, a direct-entry master’s in nursing (MSN) nurse enters the MSN program without prior nursing education. Some MSN candidates have a bachelor’s degree, but it can be in a non-nursing topic. Other direct-entry MSN programs may accept students who have an associate’s degree in nursing and an RN license.

In a direct-entry MSN program, students spend the first part of the program learning nursing fundamentals a student in a bachelor’s nursing program would learn. The second part of the direct-entry MSN program is spent on more advanced nursing topics. These programs take around two years for full-time students to complete.

Entry-Level Nurse Salary and Career Outlook

The career outlook and entry-level nurse salary you can expect will depend on your role as a nurse and where you work. Typically, nurses with higher education have higher earning potential, since they can apply for more advanced nursing licensure and perform more advanced nursing duties at work.

According to the BLS, the following are the 2019 median annual salaries and job outlooks (projected growth between 2018 and 2028) for various entry-level nurse positions.

Among all nursing positions, the job outlook is in high demand across the country. Entry-level nurses who get the proper certification or licensure can start working in the nursing field and pursue higher education while they work, if they choose.

Should You Become an Entry-Level Nurse?

If you enjoy helping people, there’s plenty of potential in the nursing field. According to the United States Census Bureau, adults ages 65 and older are one of the fastest-growing groups in the country. As more adults age and live longer, healthcare will continue to be in high demand. That means so will nurses.

The bare minimum education requirements to become a nursing professional is a nursing diploma or associate’s degree in nursing. Nurses have many career advancement opportunities, from nursing assistant, to LPN or LVN, to RN, to NP.

There are also doctor of nursing practice degree (DNP) programs available for RNs and degree holders who want to advance their nursing education. DNP program completion can lead to nursing careers in nursing administration and nursing management.

Wherever you want to go with your nursing career and nursing education, there are diverse nursing degree programs and specialized nursing certifications you can pursue.

Last Updated August 2020