A Comprehensive Guide to Nursing Career Levels: From CNA to DNP

If you’re considering a career in nursing or already an experienced nurse exploring further opportunities, understanding the various levels and hierarchy within nursing is essential.

From entry-level positions to advanced practice roles, each level offers unique challenges and rewards.

In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the different nursing levels, educational requirements, salaries, and career outlook.
Let’s dive in!

1. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA):

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) provides essential healthcare support to patients under the supervision of an RN or LPN. CNAs assist with daily living activities and offer basic patient care.

Education: Complete a state-approved training program (4-12 weeks) and pass the CNA certification exam.
Salary: Average annual salary is around $30,290.
Job Outlook: Expected to grow by 8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

2. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) / Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN):

LPNs/LVNs provide patient care in medical facilities and work under the guidance of RNs or MDs.

Education: Graduate from an accredited LPN/LVN program (1-year program) and pass the NCLEX-PN licensing exam.
Salary: Average annual salary is about $48,070.
Job Outlook: Expected to grow by 9% according to BLS.

3. Registered Nurse (RN):

RNs administer hands-on patient care in various settings and work closely with healthcare teams to provide optimal treatment and patient education.

Education: Obtain an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) followed by passing the NCLEX-RN exam.
Salary: Average annual salary is approximately $77,600.
Job Outlook: Expected to grow by 9% according to BLS.

4. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN):

APRNs hold a master’s degree or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and fulfill advanced clinical roles as Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, or Nurse-Midwives.

Education: Complete a 2-3 year MSN or a 3-4 year DNP program with specialization and certification exams.
Salaries: Vary depending on the role – Nurse Practitioner: $120,680, Clinical Nurse Specialist: $106,407, CRNA: $195,610, CNM: $112,830.
Job Outlook: Positive growth projected for APRNs.

5. Non-Clinical Advanced Nursing Specialties:

Nurses can pursue non-clinical roles in nursing leadership, administration, informatics, research, and education.

Opportunities: Nurse Director, Nursing Educator, Nurse Administrator, Healthcare Administrator, Nursing Informatics Specialist, Research Nurse, etc.

The Levels of Nursing Degrees (Ranked from Lowest to Highest):

RN Diploma: Hospital-based program leading to RN licensure.
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): 2-year degree qualifying for RN licensure.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): 4-year degree for RNs; offers diverse nursing specialties.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): Advanced practice or non-clinical specialties.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): Highest level of nursing education and leadership.


Nursing offers a wide range of career levels, from entry-level CNAs to advanced practice APRNs and DNPs.

Pursuing higher education and certifications opens up numerous opportunities for career advancement and specialization in various nursing fields. With a positive job outlook and increasing demand for nurses, this is an excellent time to embark on a fulfilling and rewarding nursing career.

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