Nursing Credentials 101: From LPN & LVN to BSN & DNP

eye chart with L P N B S N letters on it with nursing credentials

Nursing isn’t the easy path. It’s tough and not for the faint of heart, but the idea of supporting your family while helping others really appeals to you. That’s why the nursing vocation is an excellent choice. Once you’ve completed the program, passed the necessary exams and earned your certifications, you’re ready to begin working. And with the current nursing shortage, you’ll be needed more than ever!

But if you’ve dipped your toe into the nursing pool, you’ve probably seen all of the acronyms and nurse jargon firsthand – everything from CNA to LPN and RN to DNP. It’s confusing with so many options to choose from. Where do you start? What’s the right option for you? What do these letters even mean?

Before choosing the program that best fits with your career aspirations, you have to decipher the alphabet soup of nursing credentials. We created this guide to help you wade through the sea of abbreviations as you start down the path of identifying which one might appear after your name one day.

CNA: Certified nursing assistant

Education level: High school diploma

Mean annual salary: $36,4871

As its title suggests, CNAs assist nurses with patient admittance and vitals. It is the lowest level credential that one can have in the nursing field and the quickest point of entry – though it is important to remember, CNAs are not technically nurses.

CNAs are required to pass a specialized exam that is tied to a single course in order to work in the field. A CNA provides basic care duties under the direction of the nursing staff, including feeding, dressing, bathing and transporting patients.

TIP: Becoming a CNA is a great option for individuals who are considering a career in nursing, but aren’t quite convinced it’s the right path for you. Certification can take as little as one month, meaning you can get a taste of the nursing profession with minimal time and financial investment.

LPN: Licensed practical nurse

Education level: Diploma

Mean annual salary: $50,266

Becoming an LPN requires a diploma and can be accomplished in as few as 12 months. After completing a program from an accredited school, LPNs sit for the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-PN) to become certified.

Many LPNs work in clinics or private home settings and are responsible for registering patient vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure, collecting blood samples and administering medications.

TIP: LPN tracks are often the first choice for those who want to begin a career as a nurse but do not have time to commit to a longer program right away.

LVN: Licensed vocational nurse

Education level: Diploma

Mean annual salary: $50,266

LVNs have identical positions to LPNs. The only difference is that the term “vocational nurse” is the title used in California and Texas. Like LPNs, they complete a diploma program and must pass the NCLEX-PN for certification.

RN: Registered nurse, ADN

Education level: Associate degree

Mean annual salary: $72,778

RNs, or professional nurses, are the most in-demand positions in the U.S. One can become an RN by earning an associate or bachelor’s degree. There are also opportunities for LPNs to continue their education and earn an RN credential through an LPN-to-RN bridge program. RNs are certified through the NCLEX-RN examination which contains higher level nursing topics than the LPN version.

RNs assess patient needs, monitor patient symptoms, recommend care plans and educate patients on disease prevention and maintenance.

TIP: Increased training gives RNs the tools to be responsible for more holistic care of patients from beginning to end of their treatment and allows them to work in a variety of settings from hospitals to critical care.

RN: Registered nurse, BSN

Education level: Bachelor’s degree

Mean annual salary: $75,222

An RN credential can also be earned through a bachelor’s degree in nursing, or a BSN. Nurses attain their bachelor’s degree through a traditional four-year program or an accelerated BSN program. Those with an ADN can also advance their education through an RN to BSN program in as few as 12 months.

Registered nurses with a BSN credential perform similar duties to their ADN counterparts. However, nurses with the BSN credential are afforded more employment opportunities. The BSN is essential to nurses hoping to advance to leadership positions and managing roles. Many high-paying specialties in nursing also require a BSN.

TIP: The Institute of Medicine called for 80 percent of nurses to hold a bachelor degree by 2020. A real-time analysis of nursing jobs posted over the past 12 months revealed that nurses with a BSN were qualified for about 262,000 more jobs than those with an ADN.2

APRN: Advanced practice registered nurse

Education level: Master’s degree

Mean annual salary: dependent on title

Advanced practice registered nurses are those who have obtained an advanced nursing degree. The most common graduate-level degree in nursing is the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), but there are several variations including Master of Nursing(MN) and Master of Science(MS) or Master of Arts(MA) with a major in nursing. As with any profession, you can continue to open advanced career opportunities by bolstering your nursing degree with additional education.

TIP: A master’s degree in nursing can open doors for your career in many specialty positions, such as a Clinical Nurse Leader, Nurse Administrator, Nurse Midwife or Nurse Informaticist.

Nursing at the doctorate level

Education level: Doctorate degree

Mean annual salary: dependent on title

There are several options for doctorate level degrees for nurses, including the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD). The DNP is more focused on patient outcomes and the nursing practice, while the DNS and PhD are paths that are more focused on research.

TIP: A doctorate degree is preferred for entering the field of Nurse Education. Nurse researchers also typically have a doctorate degree.

Whew! Did you get all of that?

There’s no denying it – there are plenty of paths to pursue in the nursing field! Besides this overview of nursing credentials, there are countless other tongue-twisting titles when we venture into the nitty-gritty of nursing specialties — everything from CRNAs and COHNs to NPs and CNMs.

To learn more about the degrees needed to attain your nursing credentials, check out the nursing programs at Rasmussen College. If you’re still a little unsure about where you fit in the flourishing healthcare industry, check out this resource to help you map out your nursing career path: Types of Nursing Degrees: Diagnosing Your Ideal Healthcare Career [Infographic].


1Salary Source: (Analysis of 730,865 CNA, LPN, LVN and RN job postings, Dec. 01, 2014 - Nov. 30, 2015) Data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Source: (Analysis of 1,310,878 nursing job postings, Dec. 01, 2014 - Nov. 30, 2015).
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2013. It has since been updated to reflect information relevant to 2016.

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Kristina Ericksen

Kristina is a Digital Writer at Collegis Education where she creates informative content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about the power of education and enjoys connecting students to bright futures.


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