How to Build a Successful Career in Nursing

If you have decided to pursue a career in nursing, you have made an excellent decision. Nursing is one of the most worthwhile career paths a person can choose, and provides plenty of variety, challenges, and opportunities for progression. In addition to medical knowledge and professional and technical skills, registered nurses need to develop an extensive range of soft skills to enable them to thrive in the busy and often pressurized healthcare industry. 

Building a career in nursing takes several years of study, training, and experience, but there are steps you can take in the earliest stages to establish a strong foundation. This article outlines the key stages of building a successful career in nursing, from choosing the right nursing school, to qualifying as a registered nurse, completing an RN to MSN bridge program, and continuing to advance your education.

Start your career before you leave high school 

While some people do make the decision to start a nursing career later in life, many people make the choice to become a nurse in high school (or even before). There are some high school classes that can be useful when you come to your nursing education and professional career. Registered nurses who are comfortable with math, chemistry, and biology (including anatomy and physiology) may find their nursing training easier. Other useful preparatory subjects that can help nursing students include English language, social studies, and a foreign language. 

Decide which training route is best for you

There is more than one training route into nursing, so it is important that you choose the best option for your circumstances. The route you choose could affect your future opportunities for progression and earning potential, so take your time to consider all your choices. Some nursing programs take longer to complete and are more demanding than others in terms of the credits you need to complete, but there are ways to cut down on your study time, including bridging courses like the RN to MSN.

The most popular training routes are the associate degree in nursing (ADN) and the bachelor of science (BSN) degree in nursing. This can then be followed by an optional master of science in nursing (MSN). Alternatively, the ADN can be followed by the RN to MSN bridge course to combine both the BSN and MSN in one RN to MSN course. 

An ADN is a course that can be completed at many community colleges and vocational schools. The course takes between 18-24 months, at the end of which you can apply for a license to become a registered nurse. Many people are attracted to the ADN as it does not take as long as the BSN degree, the fees are cheaper, and students can start their career sooner. 


However, despite these potential benefits, an ADN does have some disadvantages when compared to the bachelor’s degree. Employers generally prefer their registered nurses to have a bachelor’s degree, which means that nurses with a BSN (or, even better, an MSN) may find it easier to secure employment, to progress, and to access the higher salaries. Therefore, many nurses with an ADN or ASN choose to advance their education with an RN to MSN bridging course.

It can take up to four years to complete a BSN degree, but once it has been completed, graduates have a strong foundation on which to launch their career, and can pursue a nursing career in a wide variety of settings. While an ADN provides its graduates with the core learning and experience needed to become a nurse, a BSN goes deeper and provides a more comprehensive learning experience, including management, nursing informatics, social science, leadership, communication, critical thinking, and research skills. With a BSN, you can also move on to study for an MSN degree, which is often needed to enter more senior positions and obtain the highest salaries

Completing an RN to MSN bridging program

Choosing to study an ADN (or ASN) now does not mean you cannot advance your career at a later date. It is worth noting that it is possible to complete an ADN initially, become a registered nurse, and then complete an RN to BSN bridge course, at the end of which you will have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. 

In fact, with an RN to MSN bridge course you can take this one step further. For registered nurses wanting to progress to the highest level of nursing, the RN to MSN bridge program enables registered nurses to study both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in succession. RN to MSN courses can be completed online, which enables nurses to continue to work while they study. 

Of course, whether you choose the ADN, the BSN, or you go on to complete the RN to MSN course, you need to choose an accredited nursing college for your training. 

Choosing a nursing school

There are thousands of colleges, schools, and online nursing programs in the United States, so deciding where to study can be a challenge. It is essential that you choose a college that suits your professional ambitions, learning style, budget, and personal circumstances. 

When comparing nursing programs, you should ask yourself some key questions:

  • Do you need or want to study close to home?
  • Do you need to be able to work while you study? If so, an online course might be more appropriate than one which requires you to be on a campus.
  • Is the school connected with local medical facilities?
  • Does the college address technology in the healthcare industry?
  • Does the college prioritize student development?
  • Does the college offer bridge programs such as the RN to MSN?

Your need to ensure that your RN, BSN, or RN to MSN nursing program is accredited. If it is not, the credits you get from your degree may not be accepted by your state’s board of nursing and you may not be able to sit the necessary exam or to apply for a registered nursing license. Obviously, this would be a huge waste of time and money, so it is important to check your chosen college’s accreditations thoroughly.

In order to become accredited, an educational institution needs to be reviewed to ensure its faculty, facility, and programs are of a high enough standard. The institution needs to be approved as meeting national standards in nursing education. Most nursing programs in the United States are accredited by the Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), although some are accredited by the Commission on Nursing Education Accreditation or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Applying to nursing school

Whether applying for an ADN, BSN, or an RN to MSN, each college or university will have slightly different entry criteria for its students. However, many require their applicants to have the following:

  • A high school diploma (or equivalent)
  • Standardized test scores (SATs)
  • An official transcript with GPA of at least 2.75 (many BSN programs require a minimum of 3.0)

It is true that there is a high demand for nurses, but nursing schools are often oversubscribed, so many institutions are strict about their entry criteria. Because applying to nursing can be so competitive, you should take the time to ensure that your application sets you apart from the crowd. If you can, look for opportunities to volunteer and get involved in the community. Your application should highlight your leadership qualities, commitment to healthcare, organizational skills, and a strong work ethic. 

Completing clinical rotations

Alongside your theoretical nursing education, you will be required to complete clinical rotations, i.e. to get real-world experience in a range of healthcare facilities and hospitals. During those placements you will be supervised by experienced nurses and will have to complete coursework to demonstrate your learning. You will be able to put what you have learnt in theory into practice and will have the opportunity to develop your technical and soft skills as part of a team and in a more pressurized environment. You can also learn more about the importance of safety and hygiene in healthcare facilities and begin to develop your own clinical judgment. 

Each clinical rotation will vary in length, but you should experience a range of different healthcare environments. For every hour of classroom learning you receive, you should have at least three hours in a clinical setting. 

Apply for Your Registered Nursing License

When you have completed your initial degree and the required number of clinical hours, you can apply to become licensed as a nurse in the state you wish to work in. To do this you need to apply to the board of nursing in your state. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, you must provide proof of graduation from your accredited nursing program, pass a criminal background check, and pass the National Certification Licensing Examination (NCLEX).

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing regulates healthcare standards across the country and has nursing boards in every state. This standardizes the quality of nursing care received by US citizens so that no matter where a person lives they receive a minimum standard of care. You need to register for the exam and pay a fee before being granted “authorization to test.” You then have 30-45 days to take the test in your state.

The NCLEX is a computerized test, which is different for each person who sits it as the questions you are asked will change depending on the answers you have given to prior questions. The exam is split into four main categories and six subcategories, as follows: 

  • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
  • Reduction of Risk Potential
  • Physiological Adaptation
  • Management of Care
  • Basic Care and Comfort
  • Physiological Integrity
  • Safety and Infection Control
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Safe and Effective Care Environment

The NCLEX addresses medical problems and potential challenges that a nurse is likely to come across in their work and tests their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. 

Once you have sat the exam, some boards (i.e. those which take part in the Quick Results System) will reveal unofficial results in a matter of days and they are often published on the board’s website. A pass in the NCLEX exam means that you can call yourself a licensed registered nurse and can now study for an RN to MSN. 

Advance your career 

If you choose to become a registered nurse through an ADN or ASN course but are hoping to advance your career prospects, you can study an RN to BSN bridge course. By completing an RN to BSN bridge course, you can turn your ADN or ASN into a BSN, which can open a lot more employment opportunities and potentially a much higher salary. 

If you are hoping to move into more senior positions in administration, management, or even to become a nurse practitioner or a nurse educator it may make more sense to choose an RN to MSN course. An RN to MSN course enables registered nurses who have an ADN or ASN to study for their BSN before moving straight on to their MSN. Studying for an RN to MSN qualification can be a quicker and cheaper way of reaching the highest level of nursing. An RN to MSN course is also a great choice for registered nurses wanting to specialize in a particular field such as pediatric or geriatric care. 

Some institutions offer an online RN to MSN course, which enables registered nurses to keep working while they study

Continue to develop and learn

No matter what initial training route you choose and whether you decide to pursue an RN to MSN course or not, all registered nurses must continue to learn and develop. Society, healthcare, and technology is moving at a rapid pace, and nurses must be up to date with the latest in medicine, treatments, and medical research. It is also important that registered nurses continue to develop their soft skills and expand their professional network to ensure they are performing at their best and have every opportunity to progress. 


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