Dr. Jan Olson By: Dr. Jan Olson
How long does it take to become a nurse?

So you want to be a nurse? Nursing is a rewarding career, and also offers excellent job prospects; as our population ages, demand for nurses is only expected to grow in the years ahead. But like many careers, nursing requires education and licensing. Before you go into nursing, it is important to understand the levels and duration of education based on different nursing credentials.  So, how long does it take to become a nurse? The short answer is “it depends”. It is dependent on the degree track you wish to pursue, whether or not you attend full or part-time and whether or not you have an existing degree or credits to apply.

So, how long does it take to become a nurse? The short answer is “it depends”. You might be able to take out loans and attend school full time. Or you might have other demands that require you to attend school part time. Let’s take a closer look, and break down your options.

Before we go any further, we should clarify that there are actually four different kinds of nurses. Let’s take a quick look at each of these, and then we can talk about how long it takes to become a nurse in each field.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

CNAs are not licensed nurses, rather they perform a variety of duties under the supervision of licensed nurses. Their job is to provide basic care to patients, so licensed nurses can perform more advanced functions. Some of these duties include:

  • Cleaning rooms and making beds
  • Answering patient call lights
  • Serving meals to patients
  • Helping patients with daily tasks like getting dressed, bathing, and going to the bathroom
  • Transporting patients within a healthcare facility
  • Monitoring patients and reporting changes to licensed nurses

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

An LPN, sometimes referred to as a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) is a licensed nurse who can perform all the functions of a CNA. In addition, an LPN can perform a variety of other duties. These include:

  • Assisting with wound care, dressings, etc.
  • Collecting blood and urine samples
  • Administering medication
  • Performing emergency CPR
  • Providing food for patients who are intubated
  • Caring for patients with ventilators
  • Inserting and managing catheters
  • Performing other nursing duties under the supervision of an RN

An LPN/LVN differs in their scope of practice  because there are limitations on what LPNs can do, for example, they cannot administer IV drugs, blood products, insulin drips or Total Parenteral Nutrition for example,  and that may not personal health assessment or oa nursing care plan without oversight of a registered nurse, for example. 

Registered Nurse (RN)

An RN’s duties are similar to those of an LPN. However, their scope and standards is broader with more responsibilities in nursing assessment, care planning, high acuity patients and delegation.  Registered nurses also provide oversight to CNAs,  LPNs, and other medical staff, creating nursing plans and analyzing diagnostic results. Because of these additional responsibilities, RNs will generally earn a higher salary than LPNs.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A nursing practitioner is a nurse who has completed, at minimum, their master’s degree with additional clinical practicum hours and passed additional advanced practice licensing exams. A nurse practitioner can work independently, without a doctor’s supervision. Depending on their specialization, they often have prescriptive authority.

The length of time you will spend in nursing school will depend on the type of nurse you plan on becoming.

How Long Does it Take to Become a CNA?

Becoming a CNA does not require a college education. All you need to do is have a high school diploma or a GED. At that point, you need to complete a training course in your state. Depending on the state and the type of course, a CNA training course will last between 4 and 12 weeks.

There are also more comprehensive courses that last as long as 6 months. It’s important to note that these courses won’t actually give you any more credits than a 4 to 12-week course. However, they provide a better foundation if you want to move on to becoming an LPN or RN.

How Long Does it Take to Become an LPN?

Becoming an LPN/LVN requires an associate’s degree in nursing. The exact requirements will depend on your state of residence. However, most states require 36 to 40 credit hours of coursework. If you’re attending school full time, this can generally be done in two semesters, or about 9 months.

If you attend school part time, you can generally get the work done in about 18 months. This is a good option for prospective nurses who need to work a full-time job. Regardless of which route you choose, you’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED in order to get started.

To become a licensed LPN, you’ll need to get the permission of your state’s licensing board to take the NCLEX-PN exam. This generally requires an application, as well as your associate’s degree. Depending on your state, you might be able to do this prior to graduation if your nursing program is willing to certify that you’re on track for graduation.

In addition to these requirements, some states require a drug test, CPR training, a physical exam, and/or a background check. The good news is that the NCLEX-PN exam is a national exam. Once you’ve passed in one state, it’s generally easy to become licensed in another state.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Registered Nurse (RN)?

There are several different paths to becoming an RN. Depending on your degree program, it can take as little as 18 months, or as much as 4 years. Your first step will be getting accepted into nursing school by doing well on your HESI or TEAS entrance exam.

Let’s take a look at each of these degree paths, as well as each of their benefits.

Associate’s Degrees (ADN)

Associate’s degree programs are two-year programs that are offered both through universities and community colleges. Generally, these programs are called either an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN), or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). They involve both classroom instruction and hands-on learning in a clinical setting. In the classroom, you might be expected to study subjects such as microbiology, health assessment, nutrition, medical terminology, and pathophysiology.

Bachelor’s Degrees (BSN)

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree generally takes 4 years to complete, but can sometimes be completed in under 3 years or 18 months for prior non nursing bachelor degree holders in a Accelerated Bachelors of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. The advantage of a BSN is that it gives you the most comprehensive education, with a larger balance of didactic and clinical courses, so it’s easier to enter a leadership role. It’s also required for more advanced training, such as obtaining a graduate degree or becoming a nurse practitioner. In addition to strictly technical training, you’ll also be asked to study subjects such as population-based health, ethics, healthcare policy, and chemistry.

Graduate Degrees

Graduate degrees in nursing are typically post licensure, meaning they are sought out following the degree completion of a BSN.  However, there are an increasing number of programs that include ADN to RN,  or for individuals who have existing degrees, they may select a masters of science in nursing (MSN) as their licensure track without a prior nursing degree or license. These program lengths vary,  but are typically marketed as 1 to 2 years in duration.

Masters degrees fall into a wide range of areas, outside of the nurse practitioner role, such as Executive leadership, Education, Informations, Public Health, etc.

Nurses may also choose to go on to a doctorate in nursing, either a Philosophy Doctorate (PhD) or a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Getting Your RN License

Regardless of what educational path you choose, you’ll need to become licensed in order to be a practicing RN. To do this, you’ll have to pass the national NCLEX-RN exam. Similar to earning your LPN license, you’ll need to get the approval of your state licensing board to do this. Generally, this will require a background check, and it may include a drug test or a physical. It may also require certifications in CPR, life support, and other emergency procedures. Also similar to an LPN license, the NCLEX-RN exam is a national exam, so licensure is generally easy to transfer from state to state.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Once you’ve obtained your RN license, you’re fully qualified to work in a hospital or doctor’s office. However, many RNs decide to specialize in a particular area. This requires more advanced education, but can help you to boost your salary later on down the line. Various options include nurse midwife, nurse anesthetist, or nurse practitioner. All of these require a master’s degree, but we’ll focus for now on becoming a nurse practitioner.

You would do this through a nurse practitioner program. Note that this option is only available if you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree. An associate’s degree or diploma will not be sufficient. That said, you don’t technically need to be a licensed nurse to study as a nurse practitioner, although having your license can help you gain admission.

Nurse practitioner programs are available through many colleges and universities. They’re master’s degrees, and can take between 2 and 4 years to earn depending on your specialization. Many of the program requirements you need to meet are similar to the requirements for becoming a physician. This is because you’ll be performing many of the duties of a physician. Not only will you be supervising nurses, but you’ll be performing many primary care responsibilities. You may even be prescribing medications.

Regardless of your specialization, you’ll need to get your license, just as you would to become an LPN or an RN. That said, NP licenses are specific to each individual state. In order to get licensed in a different state, you’ll need to take that state’s individual NP licensing exam. On the other hand, you’ll also be earning a higher salary.

It is fair to note that there are a variety of graduate programs.

Here is a summary of how many years it will take to become a nurse:

Type of Nurse Degree/Path How Many Years of College/Nursing School
CNA Certificate 4 -12 weeks
LPN/LVN Diploma 12 - 18 months
Registered Nurse (RN) Associate's (ADN) 1.5 - 3 years
Registered Nurse (RN)  RN to BSN 1  - 1.5 years
Registered Nurse (RN) BSN/Already have Bachelor's Degree 1.5 to 2 years
Registered Nurse (RN) Bachelor's (BSN) 3 - 4 years
Nurse Practioner (NP) or Non Nurse Practitioner Advanced Degree Master's (MSN) 2 - 4 years after BSN
 Doctor of Nursing  DNP or PhD  2-4 years after MSN