For most nurses, nursing is a calling. The day to day life of a nurse is challenging, gritty, and as far from "glamorous" as a career could be. Not everyone is cut out to be a nurse, but nurses are a unique breed that, despite having a ringside seat to some of the ugliest situations, go to work day in and day out to try and make a complete stranger's life a little bit better.

Many people know they want to be a nurse from the very beginning and head straight through school to get out into the field in their early twenties. Some may have always wanted to be a nurse, but due to individual circumstances, they are unable to achieve that dream until later in life. Regardless of when someone starts on their journey to be a registered nurse, different stepping stones and levels of nursing occupations will help get them there. There is no proper path a person can take to become a registered nurse; it depends on where they are in life, and what time and money they can invest in the process.


A good starting point for those wanting to become a registered nurse is to volunteer. For teenagers from about age 14-15 to age 18, applying to become a "Candy Striper" is a valuable way to start in the healthcare field. Some of the requirements are to be up-to-date in immunizations, submit a letter of recommendation, and complete an interview. "Candy Stripers" (called that historically due to the striped pinafores they wore) perform non-medical tasks such as passing out reading materials, assisting visitors to find an area of the hospital or clinic, working in gift shops, and transporting items throughout the hospital. While direct patient care can be limited depending on the facility, it allows the volunteer to observe workflows and experience the day-to-day routine of a specific area of a healthcare facility.

Volunteering is not just limited to teenagers; adults can also volunteer. Many senior citizens also enjoy volunteering. The duties are similar to that of a teen volunteer.

Volunteering in the healthcare field can be critical when it comes time to apply to nursing school. Many nursing programs are impacted, meaning there are more applicants than available spots in the program. Some programs count volunteer experience as "points" that may increase a student's chance of being admitted into the program. Additionally, it gives the future nurse a glimpse into various healthcare settings.

Medical Assisting (MA)

For some, graduating high school and going right to college (and subsequently a nursing program) is not an option. Financial concerns or family obligations may not allow for a student to meet the demands of college coursework. Medical Assisting is a career in which training is short, and jobs are readily available. MA programs can take six months to a year to complete. Medical assistants usually work in a clinic or office-type settings. Duties are both clinical and administrative and can include preparing patients for their exam, taking vital signs, taking and delivering messages to and from a provider, and sometimes even giving vaccinations.

Because of the more hands-on experience, MAs gain important on-the-job healthcare experience that may help them when it comes time to apply for nursing programs. As stated earlier, prior healthcare experience may increase a student's chance of getting admitted to a nursing program. Additionally, once in the nursing program, the skills learned as a medical assistant can make it easier for the student nurse to transition from an "assistant" role to a "nurse" role.

Learn more about how to become a medical assistant

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) are typically based in inpatient settings such as hospitals or skilled nursing facilities. Training and certification can take anywhere from a few weeks to nine months. Duties are less administrative and more clinical as compared to an MA and may include feeding and bathing patients, assisting with mobility (ambulating or repositioning patients), taking vital signs, and sometimes administering ordered medications under the supervision of a physician or RN.

Becoming a CNA can be a great starting point for those hoping to become a registered nurse. CNAs can work in many different clinical areas and provide hands-on care to diverse patient populations. This helps them not only when it comes time to apply for a nursing program, but when they begin the program as well. Much of the first few months of nursing school is learning the duties that a CNA performs. A CNA would already have an advantage in the early part of nursing school.

Moreover, CNAs work very closely with nurses - both LVN/LPNs and RNs. They become familiar with their roles and can become quite adept at recognizing potential complications and reporting to the RN. They may be present during physician rounds and nurse-to-nurse reports. In short, they learn quite a bit about patient care and nursing as they spend a lot of time at the bedside of patients. Becoming a CNA is a great way to lay the foundation for a future in nursing.

Learn more about how to become a CNA.

Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

For those who aren't interested in pursuing a lengthy college degree or want to start working right after high school, becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) is a great option within the healthcare field. In addition to a high school diploma or GED, this career only requires completion of a course usually lasting less than six months, and often provided by several institutions in every state. With the passing of this state-approved course, you can obtain your certification and licensure through exams, and begin work. EMTs can be found working for hospitals, city or county governments, private ambulance services, or firehouses, so the opportunities are diverse and the job description will likely vary with each day's events.

After gaining sufficient work experience, many EMTs go on to pursue a more advanced career as a paramedic, which allows you to expand your scope of practice and often pays a higher salary. Becoming an EMT is also a great career option as they are generally in demand no matter what part of the country you live in. While the job is often very exciting, it can also be stressful, and requires professionals who work well under pressure and can communicate effectively.

Learn more about how to become an EMT.


A paramedic offers a great opportunity for someone who is interested in healthcare or medicine and has a knack for responding to emergencies, but may not be financially or mentally committed to the long road of education and training required to become a nurse or physician. While paramedic programs do take longer than basic emergency medical technician (EMT) courses, they can often be completed in one year, and allow you to learn and use more advanced skills and also receive a higher salary.

Many paramedics start out as a more basic EMT and gain experience in the field before deciding to pursue this more advanced course. Either way, as long as you have a high school diploma or GED and are 18 years old, the state-approved educational courses are followed by sitting for national certification exams and obtaining a license to practice in your state. Once this is completed, you have many options for work environments including hospitals, city or county government, firehouses, private ambulance services, and more. While the job is often very exciting, it can also be stressful, and requires professionals who work well under pressure and can communicate effectively. There are specialty Paramedic to RN programs designed for those who decide they do want to advance to a registered nursing role.

Learn more about how to become a paramedic

Licensed Vocational/Practical Nurse (LVN/LPN)

LVN/LPNs are entry-level nurses. It can take one to two years to complete the program, depending on the school. Vocational schools and colleges may offer LVN/LPN programs. Once the program is completed, the student may test and become licensed in their state.

LVN/LPNs work in a variety of settings. They may work in hospitals, clinics, and skilled nursing facilities. They must work under the direction of a registered nurse. Duties may include everything a CNA performs, plus medication administration, wound care, and assessments/data collection (which is then reported to the RN to develop a plan of care). In many healthcare settings, LVN/LPNs and RNs work together in a "team nursing" model. This means that the RN and LVN/LPN are assigned a set of patients, and each role performs their duties to their respective scope of practice.


Prior experience as an LVN/LPN may allow for preferred admission to an RN program, depending on the school. Additionally, LVN/LPNs perform many of the same functions as an RN does, which makes the transition to an expanded role easier.

Learn more about how to become an LPN/LVN.


Because LVN/LPNs work alongside RNs and in a variety of healthcare settings, they gain the critical knowledge needed to eventually transition to an RN role. LVN/LPNs who wish to become an RN have an advantage - there are many LPN/LVN to RN bridge programs available that allow an LVN/LPN to become an RN in a reduced amount of time- usually about a year.

Although the job functions of LVN/LPNs and RNs can be similar, there are critical differences that reflect their scope of practice. For example, RNs are responsible for administering and monitoring IV medications, developing and revising a plan of care, and performing advanced life support in various populations. They also assume a supervisory role, overseeing LVN/LPNs and CNAs.



A career as a phlebotomy technician is a great pathway for those who want to enter the medical field without having to complete a lengthy training program. Most phlebotomy certificate programs can be completed in just 8-12 weeks of study and are offered regularly at community colleges and vocational training schools. Phlebotomy techs are trained in venipunctures and skin punctures, drawing blood for medical tests, research purposes, blood donations, and more. Phlebotomists are also trained in proper labeling for blood samples as well as maintaining clean equipment and a sanitary environment. Job prospects for phlebotomists are good, with employment opportunities in hospitals, clinical labs, nursing homes, blood donation centers, and more.

Phlebotomy programs are available to those with no prior medical experience, including those who have just graduated high school. Having phlebotomy certification is a definite plus for those who wish to move on to nursing or other medical careers down the line. Programs are also available for those with some medical experience who want to become certified to expand their skillset, such as certified nursing assistants and medical assistants.

Learn more about how to become a phlebotomist.

Bachelor of Science (BS) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

This transition may be considered a "linear" move towards becoming an RN. Those who hold a BS in a non-nursing field can take advantage of an BS to BSN bridge program. Bridge programs are usually accelerated and offer online options, although clinical hours are required. The length of time to complete a BSN is about four semesters.

One of the benefits of a BS to BSN career move is that much of the prerequisite coursework is already completed, and can be transferred. The catch is that the prerequisites often must be completed with a grade of "C" or better, or admission into the BSN program will not be considered.

Learn more about BSN Degrees, Accelerated BSN Programs, and LPN to BSN Programs

Military Nursing

Becoming an RN through the military is an alternate path to nursing. The process to become a military nurse is similar to traditional methods, with a few exceptions. For example, the cost of education is usually paid for by the government, as with additional expenses. According to, military nursing can also offer specialized training in leadership that reflects army doctrine. Military nurses are also provided with benefits and bonuses. Also, the military strongly prefers BSN-prepared nurses.

Luckily, nursing is a career in which there are many paths which allow people from all backgrounds to become an RN. In today's world, increased demand for healthcare services means more nurses are needed. Students are fortunate to have so many options available.

Read more in our military nursing education and service guide.