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A career in nursing can be suitable for those who can combine compassion with the emotional resilience required to cope with human suffering. Good communication and critical thinking skills along with physical stamina are necessary qualities to have or acquire.
The field of nursing offers a variety of options. Nurses may have the opportunity to work with a diverse range of patient groups. For example, nurses can work in the neonatology department with newborn infants, in intensive care units as critical care nurses, or become rehabilitation nurses who work with patients who are temporarily or permanently disabled. An online degree in nursing can also open up non-nursing careers options such as those of a legal nurse consultant, nurse educator or an informatics nurse specialist.
Prospective students are advised to explore the number of career options in nursing and then choose an online nursing program that aligns with their career goals. Job growth is expected to be higher in outpatient care centers for chemotherapy, rehabilitation, and surgery, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics but the overall demand for nurses across the country is much faster than the average between 2016 and 2026.
Nurses are in good demand
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists registered nurses (RNs) among the top three occupations with the highest projected numeric change in employment with 438,100 job openings projected in the decade leading up to 2026. The need for nurses is expected to increase due to a number of reasons:
- An aging population leading to a need for an increase in healthcare services for this demographic, including nursing services.
- Nurses are needed to replace those who are retiring in the coming years. An estimated one million registered nurses are expected to retire over the next 10 to 15 years, according to a report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
- Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) or Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs): They help provide basic nursing care under the guidance of RNs and doctors.
- Registered Nurses (RNs): They help provide patient care and educate public and patients about health issues.
- Clinical Rotations: Clinical rotations are an important part of earning your nursing degree. This is where you can get supervised hands-on instruction in a healthcare setting and develop practical nursing skills. Depending on the nature of your online nursing program and the type of nursing degree, your clinical rotations may be at an approved facility near your residence or workplace. This could be a hospital or clinical facility.
This 10-point guide to choosing an online nursing program is designed to be a quick reference guide to common questions prospective online nursing students may ask.
1. Finding an online nursing program that is right for you
You may be just out of high school interested in becoming a nurse, or you may be a practicing nurse interested in advancing your career. Whatever your reasons may be for pursuing a nursing career, online nursing degree programs can open up opportunities that you are seeking.
Looking to enter a career in nursing?
There are two main types of online nursing degrees you can earn as a new entrant to the nursing profession. The credentials you earn depend on the degree you earn and licensing examinations you pass. We discuss them in more detail below:
- Online associate degree in nursing (ADN): ADNs are usually two-year programs offering the basic degree you need to become a registered nurse. You may be able to take general education and nursing-related theoretical courses online.
Click here for more information on online associate degrees in nursing.
- Online bachelor of science in nursing degree (BSN): Instead of the two-year associate degree, you may enroll in an online BSN which typically takes four years to complete. RNs with a bachelor's degree have the potential to earn more money by progressing to more advanced job roles. Additionally, a bachelor's degree is often the minimum requirement for employees in hospitals which have achieved the Magnet status which is a title given by the American Nurses Credentialing Center to healthcare facilities that demonstrate nursing excellence. Those with a bachelor's degree typically have an advantage over those with an associate degree, in such cases.
Click here for more information on online bachelor's degrees in nursing.
Note: Both associate degree holders and bachelor's degree holders need to pass the state-administered NCLEX-RN examination to obtain a nursing license in order to practice in your state.
Already a nurse?
There are a number of online degrees programs you may be able to enroll in if you are already working in the field of nursing and hold a license to practice as an LPN or an RN and want to advance your career. Bridge degree programs can allow you to apply credits from your previous nursing education or clinical experience thereby reducing the hours needed for clinical rotation. Many online bridge degree programs can allow you to take your courses completely online and complete your clinical instruction at your place of work.
Note: Accelerated bridge degree programs may allow you to earn your degree faster but can also be extremely demanding in terms of time and effort as they may require you take several courses at one time.
Some options you have are outlined below.
Are you working as an LPN and want a degree to become an RN?
- Online LPN to RN programs: If you are already working as an LPN, you may be able to enroll in an online LPN to RN bridge program. There are two types of programs available:
- LPN to ADN
- LPN to BSN
Depending on how many educational credits you can transfer, you may be able to complete your ADN degree, typically, in as little as 12 months and a BSN usually takes three years.
Are you an RN who would like to earn an online bachelor's degree?
- Online RN to BSN programs: RN to BSN online programs are designed for students with an ADN to earn their BSN degree. They take into account the unpredictable nature of shift work by offering all classes online so you can continue working while still earning your BSN degree. Earning your BSN can help you take on supervisory roles in your workplace.
Are you an RN who would like to earn an online master's degree?
- RN to MSN online programs: A master of science in nursing (MSN) can allow you specialize in a particular area of nursing, enter research or become a nurse educator. They typically take two years of full-time study to complete. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) also need to pass a certification examination which can vary depending on their specialization.
Click here for more information on online master's degrees in nursing.
Looking for an online doctoral degree in nursing?
- While these may not be bridge degrees, they may certainly be worth pursuing if you enjoy academia. There are two degrees at the doctoral level:
- The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
- Ph.D. in nursing
Click here for more information on online doctoral degrees in nursing.
2. Online nursing degree programs can be available in different formats. Which one is right for you?
Most online nurse practitioner programs designed for LPNs and RNs are actually hybrid programs. This means you complete some courses online while receive face-to-face instruction for others. This in-person instruction can be especially important for aspiring nurses with little or no practical experience of working in a healthcare facility.
Fully online programs are typically found at higher degree levels for students and are usually suitable for people who already have their RN license and a certain amount of work experience. However, even these programs, like an RN to BSN bridge degree program, may need you to complete an internship or a capstone project as a part of the degree requirements.
3. Choosing your nursing specialization
Specializations in nursing can start right from the LPN level. The BLS reports that LPNs may be able to earn certifications in areas of their choosing like gerontology and intravenous therapy through professional organizations. RNs and APRNs may be able to choose specializations while still in school or obtain professional certifications in fields like:
- Clinical nursing
- Critical care nursing
- Cardiac and vascular nursing
- Psychiatric nursing
- Surgical nursing
4. Admission tests and other requirements online nursing colleges may require
Becoming a nurse is not easy and studying online takes a certain amount of dedication and a passion for the profession. Apart from looking at SAT and ACT scores, online colleges in nursing may also require potential students to pass entrance examinations which can vary from school to school. Common examinations you may be required to pass are:
- National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Exam (NLN PAX)
- NLN RN Pre-Admission exam (NLN PAX-RN)
- Health Education Systems, Inc Exam (HESI) A2
- Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS)
5. Look for online nursing schools or programs that are accredited by a recognized body
Attending an accredited school can allow eligible students to apply for federal financial aid and funding but more importantly, attending an accredited school is one of the prerequisites for gaining nursing licensure. The two main accrediting bodies for nursing programs are:
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
Accreditation is also important for students who want to transfer their learning credits from one nursing program to another.
Click here for a list of the top online accredited nursing colleges by degree level.
6. Choose an online nursing program approved by the state board
Apart from accreditation, many online nursing programs are recognized by their state nursing boards. Prospective students may want to take a look at the NCLEX pass rates for that program before they enroll. This information can often be found on the school website or the website of state nursing boards. A high percentage of students passing the NCLEX can indicate how well the nursing program prepares students for NCLEX.
Usually, nursing licenses allow nurses to practice only in the state where you obtained the license. However, if the state belongs to nurse licensure compact, it may be easier for registered nurses to practice their profession across multiple states. About 50 percent of the states participate in the nurse licensure compact, according to NursingLicensure.org.
7. Consider the location of clinical sites offered by the online nursing program
Prospective students should consider how far and how frequently they have to travel for the practical component of their online nursing program. Additionally, knowing which clinical sites the school partners with can give students an idea of the kind of clinical experience they might have. Ask the college about the variety of experience you may be able to gain through your practical education and evaluate whether it aligns with your future career goals.
8. Take a peek at the online faculty for nursing
Learn about the online faculty for the program. What are their specializations? Who are you likely to be working with during your supervised clinical rotations? Do they have a variety of experience in nursing? Apart from knowing the different digital instruction tools that are being used, prospective students should be assured that faculty is available to answer questions when needed either through instant messaging platforms, video conferencing or over the phone.
9. Finding financial aid for your online nursing program
Apart from tuition, the cost of attending an online nursing program can go beyond simply tuition and books. You may need uniforms for your clinical rotations and have to factor in the cost of transport for practical, hands-on exposure at hospitals and clinics. Prospective students may find funding for their online nursing program through federal and state financial aid programs as well as scholarships offered by the school. Students are advised to contact the school's financial aid office to explore possible funding options that may be available to them. Click here to see more about financial aid options for prospective nurses.
10. Advice from students who have succeeded in online nursing programs
On a final note, here is some advice from students who have graduated from online nursing programs.
"I feel associate-level nursing programs are basic preparation for the NCLEX-RN exams and a basic working knowledge, but a bachelor's degree is necessary in today's health care world. This degree is a stepping stone for advance practice practitioners such as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists or clinical nurse specialists. Take it from someone who has been a nurse for 25 years now: you'll never regret getting it. A BSN can only help your career."
BSN & hospital supervisor: Joseph Julian:
"Online education is an excellent option for certain people but I'm not convinced it would be a good option for everyone. It takes self-discipline to be successful when deadlines are not necessarily as fixed as in traditional education. My advice is to make sure you have the self-discipline to stay on track."
Cancer survivor, founder and director of the nonprofit Project Helping Hands, nurse: Jeff Solheim: