Levels of Nursing Explained

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Written by Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN Freelance Writer, IntelyCare
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Many people choose to go into nursing because of the almost unlimited potential for professional growth. There are many levels of nursing, including three main entry-level positions that all provide comprehensive patient care at various healthcare facilities.

Different levels of nursing have different educational and licensing requirements. They also have different responsibilities in terms of patient care. For example, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) will not have the same duties as a registered nurse (RN).

If you’re interested in pursuing nursing career paths, you may be wondering, Exactly what are the levels of nursing, and what makes them different from one another? Great question.

It can be helpful to learn about the levels of nursing so that you’ll have a better understanding of your potential journey. Keep in mind that you don’t have to take nursing step-by-step: You may instead choose to enter the profession at any entry level since they don’t usually require extensive experience to be successful. Now, let’s take a look at the levels of nursing degrees.

Four Levels of Nursing

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs)

Like other types of nursing professionals, CNAs make up the backbone of the healthcare profession. In many cases, CNAs work in facilities offering long-term care, such as assisted living or a rehabilitation clinic. In some states, CNAs are referred to as licensed nursing assistants (LNAs) or state-tested nursing assistants (STNAs).

The educational requirements to become a CNA aren’t as lengthy or comprehensive when compared to other types of nurses. You’ll need to already have your high school diploma or GED to get started. Then, you’ll need to complete an accredited certified nursing assistant training program. These are often offered at community colleges and, in some cases, healthcare facilities. Training typically only takes a few weeks.

After completing the program, you’ll take a licensing exam to receive your nursing assistant certification. Passing this exam prepares you to begin working. Wherever you’re employed, you’ll perform several important patient care duties, such as taking vital signs and helping patients bathe and dress. You’ll work under the supervision of a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse.

In terms of nursing career paths, you can further your own by receiving additional certifications as a CNA. This may permit you to be able to take on more shifts for a potentially higher rate without needing to move to the nurse level. For example, you can become a certified medication aide (CMA), which has all of the same duties as a CNA, but you are authorized to administer certain medications to patients.

The median salary for CNAs is $30,290 per year, or $14.50 per hour. The job outlook over the next decade is as fast as average as the estimated growth for all other occupations.

See all CNA jobs and CMA jobs on IntelyCare.

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

The next level of nurses after CNA is the licensed practical nurse. In some states, these same people are known as licensed vocational nurses. LPNs often work in long-term care facilities and in acute care, providing basic patient care to those in need.

The educational requirements to become an LPN are similar to those of CNAs, although LPN training programs are generally more intensive. You don’t need an advanced degree to become an LPN, although you will be required to complete a training program geared toward licensed practical nurses. Such programs may take up to a year to complete, and you’ll need to take a licensing exam afterward to start working.

LPNs complete patient care tasks that are typically more involved than those performed by CNAs, although some duties may overlap. As an LPN, you’ll hold more responsibility for care provided. You may perform tasks like taking vital signs, changing bandages, administering medications, or starting IVs. Most LPNs work closely with registered nurses and other healthcare professionals.

The median salary for LPNs/LVNs is $48,070 per year, or $23 per hour. The job outlook over the next decade is as fast as average as the estimated growth for all other occupations.

See all LPN jobs and LVN jobs on IntelyCare.

Registered Nurses (RNs)

Of all entry levels of nursing, the highest is that of the registered nurse. You don’t have to be a CNA or an LPN before you become an RN, although it can be very helpful to have that experience first. Registered nurses have the most stringent educational requirements of any of the entry levels of nursing. An associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) is required to practice as an RN.

Both degree programs usually take several years to complete, and you’ll still need to pass a licensing exam before you can work. RNs work in many healthcare settings, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, medical offices, and nursing homes. There are also a variety of nursing specialties you can pursue to enhance your education and sharpen your skill set.

As the highest of the entry levels of nursing, RNs are responsible for more than LPNs and CNAs. Your RN duties may include assessing patients, performing diagnostic tests, administering treatments and medications, providing education to patients and families, and communicating with all other members of the healthcare team. You’ll also be responsible for accurate, appropriate documentation of the patient’s condition and response to treatment.

Some RNs eventually go on to become nurse managers where they work. Nurse managers make sure each nursing unit runs smoothly and that each member of the staff has the resources they need to succeed. It’s important for nurse managers to have strong leadership and administrative skills since they’ll be used every day.

Beyond these positions, there are also several advanced levels of nursing in the profession. However, these three entry-level positions provide the foundation for the profession as a whole. Which one you choose ultimately depends on your career goals, but all can lead to a successful, rewarding career.

The median salary for RNs is $77,600 per year, or $37 per hour. The job outlook over the next decade is as fast as average as the estimated growth for all other occupations.

See all RN jobs on IntelyCare.

Advance Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs)

If you want to further your career in healthcare, the next step you can take after being an RN is to pursue advanced levels of nursing degrees. Start by earning your master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) to become an APRN. You’ll then have to pass a certification exam from an accredited national body, such as the American Midwifery Certification Board if you were to be a nurse midwife, and apply for your license. Not only will you amass more critical knowledge as an APRN, you’ll also open yourself up to a bunch of other career options.

Examples of advanced nurse position titles include nurse anesthetist, certified nurse midwife, nurse practitioner, and clinical nurse specialist. Each of these roles has its own defined career path, as well as scope of duties and salary expectations. For example, in addition to performing all the usual tasks of an RN, a nurse practitioner can also diagnose and treat patients, order tests, and prescribe medication in some states.

The median salary for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners is $123,780 per year, or $60 per hour. The job outlook over the next decade is a whopping 40%, which is much faster than the average estimated growth for all other occupations.

Doctorate Degrees in Nursing

After completing a master’s degree, you can extend options for your nursing career paths even further by entering a nursing doctoral program. This is the highest level of education in nursing and is held by many of the most influential nurses in hospital leadership, healthcare research, and public policy. You can earn either a PhD or a DNP at this level.


A nurse with a DNP is often focused on leadership in clinical practice and can take a career path to becoming a Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) or Nurse Executive (both pay a median salary of just over $250,000). These nurses keep hospitals, long-term care facilities, and private practices running efficiently. This level of management also is referred to as health care executives.


While a DNP focuses on clinical practice, the nursing career paths for a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing) are usually more research and science focused. The top universities and medical schools hire nursing professors that have PhDs in nursing. A nurse researcher with a PhD conducts medical research that can lead to breakthroughs in nursing care.

The median salary for nursing professors is $102,270. The median salary for a nurse researcher is $89,9989.

See all nursing jobs on IntelyCare.

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