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How to Become a Nurse: Paths to a Fulfilling Career

By Ashley DiFranza
August 19, 2019

Nursing is an incredibly sought-after career, and for good reason: the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Nurses Association report that, by 2022, there will be more job openings for registered nurses than any other profession, and those numbers will continue to increase at a faster than average rate through 2026.

Although the demand for qualified professionals is high, the process for becoming a registered nurse is rigorous. While some students are able to complete these demanding requirements in a linear manner, many face obstacles that require them to find an alternative path to this career.

Read on to learn more about the various paths you can take to become a nurse, and how they can each lead to a fulfilling healthcare career.

4 Steps to Becoming a Nurse

Aspiring nurses follow a series of career-defining steps in their journey to becoming a registered nurse (RN). Below, we outline what each of these steps entails.

Step 1: Pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing

Nursing is a very popular field, and as such, many universities have developed an array of programs designed to meet aspiring nurses wherever they are in their educational journey.

The most common of these programs is the traditional, four-year nursing program, which allows students to enroll in a college or university having pre-declared a major in nursing. These students spend the first two years of their program completing their prerequisite courses—including, most notably, an array of science classes. They then spend the second two years in practical and didactic nursing courses while simultaneously practicing their skills hands-on in clinical and preceptorship experiences.

Did You Know: Many community colleges offer programs in nursing, as well.

Other types of programs—like Northeastern’s Direct Entry Nursing or Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs—provide opportunities for students with a bachelor’s in another area of study to return to school in pursuit of a nursing degree. The Direct Entry Nursing program at Northeastern allows students with an existing bachelor’s degree to obtain a second bachelor’s in nursing, become a licensed nurse, and then return to the classroom in pursuit of their master’s degree in nursing all under one program title. The Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program at Northeastern, on the other hand, allows students with a bachelor’s in any subject to return to school and complete their undergraduate degree in nursing in just 16 months.

Mary Griffin, the director of the ABSN program at Northeastern University—Charlotte, explains that the ABSN is notorious for being rigorous due to its shortened timeline, and that students in this program are committed to working hard to reach their goals and earn their degree. “Students who enter ABSN really want this nursing degree and they are willing to work for it,” she says. In 2018, for example, Northeastern University—Charlotte’s inaugural ABSN class saw 100 percent of their students pass the nursing licensure examination, a promising outcome from such a demanding program.

Step 2: Acquire Hands-On Experience 

Although Northeastern University is known for incorporating experiential learning opportunities, such as internships and co-ops, into the majority of its programs’ curricula, nursing programs across the country all require students to obtain hands-on experience before they are allowed to graduate.

Clinical Experience

One way students get this kind of hands-on learning is through their “clinical experience,” during which they work for healthcare organizations to practice applying the skills they’ve learned in the lab. This is done in a variety of healthcare settings—including hospitals and community nonprofits—which allows students to not only practice their skills in a variety of environments, but discover what area they are most interested in working in after they become licensed. Students completing clinical hours do so as part of a small group and work under the supervision of a clinical instructor who is available to answer questions and provide guidance. 


The second area of hands-on experience nursing students are required to complete is what is known as a preceptorship. In this scenario, each nursing student is paired directly with a registered nurse during the culmination of their degree, and is given the opportunity to participate in that nurse’s daily care routine. This allows students the chance to practice nursing first-hand and learn directly from a mentor in the field.

Step 3: Pass the NCLEX

Once students have completed their credit hours, they are required to sit for the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX), which is a national certification. “[Students] cannot practice as a nurse until [they] pass,” Griffin says.

While this type of career-defining examination can be intimidating, programs like Northeastern’s ABSN work to ensure students’ progress aligns with the national standards throughout their time in the program. “[We] utilize a national testing package to assess students’ level of knowledge as they progress through the program,” Griffin says. “These tests give an overall view of the content they studied that year, and where they are in their understanding based on national records. [It also comes] with resources to help students enhance their learning.”

Once students have passed the NCLEX exam, they are officially a registered nurse and can begin pursuing job opportunities as an RN.

Step 4: Become Certified in a Nursing Specialization

Although the journey to becoming a licensed nurse is technically complete after students pass the NCLEX, many choose to continue on in their education in order to specialize in a particular aspect of nursing. 

“There are many different areas of nursing students can choose to go into,” Griffin explains, listing off a few of the commonly pursued specializations which include:

  • Nurse Anesthesia
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric Nursing
  • Home Health Nursing
  • School Nursing
  • Public Health Nursing
  • Hospital-Specific Specialty Units

Nurses interested in one of these further areas of specialty must pass a second, concentration-specific exam, and obtain the necessary hands-on learning experience to become certified.

Alternative Paths to Nursing

Despite how clear the steps to becoming a nurse may seem, for many students, the path is not so direct. 

Most commonly, students may face obstacles when trying to enroll in a bachelor’s in nursing program, which can prevent them from completing the other steps necessary to become licensed.

The Factors That Prevent Acceptance

“There are various factors that contribute to students not being able to secure a seat in a nursing program,” says Earlene Avalón, assistant teaching professor for the Bachelor of Science in Health Management program within Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. Among the top factors, Avalón lists smaller class sizes, the steep price of a nursing degree, and the limited access students have to different programs, depending on their area. 

Perhaps the most prominent factor contributing to some students’ inability to enroll, however, is how competitive these programs have become. This competitiveness is due to the reduced number of seats that programs now have to offer aspiring nurses, a change which has occurred because of the national nursing faculty shortage and a need to remain within legal student-teacher ratios. 

As class sizes decrease, the requirements to land one of these coveted spots become even more extensive and, as a result, “students can have a difficult time finding a program where they can get accepted,” Avalón says.

Most often, these requirements center around students’ GPAs, focusing on their academic grades in science courses specifically, as these are often the prerequisites for classes in nursing. “Unfortunately, many students, regardless of how many times the apply, may not be able to secure a seat in their desired nursing program,” she says. “And that can be really difficult for someone who has worked so hard to accept.”

Pursuing an Alternative Path

Those struggling to be accepted into a nursing program may feel derailed in pursuit of their degree; but in reality, these individuals are actually in a unique and exciting position to take control of their future.

By pursuing a similar health-related bachelor’s degree, for example, students are able to make one of two strategic moves. They can either translate their passion for healthcare into a different (but related) career, or complete a bachelor’s degree in another area of healthcare in order to improve their GPA, then reapply to nursing programs like Northeastsern’s ABSN as a more competitive candidate.

Below we explore the extent of both of these options, and how students can strategically use an alternative degree in healthcare to help them reach their personal career goals.

Related Healthcare Degrees

One common degree for those interested in nursing is a Bachelor of Science in Health Management. This degree is popular among those with an interest in healthcare and a desire to work in the non-clinical side of the field. Students in this program gain knowledge and experience in the administrative, financial, and managerial aspects of healthcare, and graduate prepared to take on an exciting array of health management careers.

Learn More: What is a Health Management Degree?

Another option for those with an interest in healthcare is to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Health Science degree. At Northeastern, this program includes courses tailored to the sciences, including biology, chemistry, and human anatomy and physiology, and allows students to pick elective courses—including public health, nutrition, and pharmacology—that align with their specific area of interest or future career goals. A bachelor’s in health science is also an ideal stepping stone for students looking to continue on and get their graduate degree in a healthcare specialty, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language pathology, dentistry, public health, and many more.

What’s more, the skills and traits that make someone a good candidate for nursing often make them a good fit for a health management or health science-aligned career, as well. For example, Griffin and Avalón both name a passion for working with people as the most important personality trait for aspiring nurses and healthcare professionals alike. Individuals in both fields should also both be very empathetic, communicate effectively, and possess a passion for collaboration.

Interested in learning more about Northeastern’s Bachelor’s Completion programs?

Get your questions answered by our enrollment team.


Parlaying An Alternative Bachelor’s Degree Into A Nursing Career

Avalón explains that one of the most popular workarounds for students who are having trouble getting into a nursing program is to “complete their bachelor’s degree in another field, and then apply to a direct entry [or accelerated] nursing program.”

Although direct entry or ABSN programs are known for accepting students who have received a preliminary bachelor’s degree in any subject, there actually are several advantages to completing a bachelor’s in another health-related field before transferring into nursing. Most notably, the time spent pursuing another healthcare degree gives students the opportunity to expand their industry knowledge while simultaneously bolstering their GPA.

“Having a little more time before applying to those nursing programs can really have a positive impact,” Avalón says. “Some students [just] need that additional time to really strengthen their GPA, particularly in those science courses, which count for prerequisite classes in nursing.”

Obtaining a bachelor’s in a healthcare-related field before embarking on an ABSN program like Northeastern’s is not just beneficial for the grade boost, however. Often times, having a health management or health science degree can actually make a positive impact on students’ future career advancement options, even after they’ve successfully become a registered nurse.

“Eventually some nurses have the opportunity to advance into a nursing management role, and that’s where it really comes in handy having the health management background,” Avalón says. “It teaches you about healthcare policy, health informatics, healthcare operations, risk assessment and quality; all the things that a nurse manager needs to be effective in their role.”

Pursuing a Degree at Northeastern

The industry-leading faculty at Northeastern are aware of the challenges facing hopeful healthcare professionals, and have made strides to provide students with the opportunities they need to achieve their career goals.

Bachelor’s Completion Programs

Students of any educational background—whether they attended a four-year college, associate’s program, or community college—may face obstacles when trying to transition into a bachelor’s in nursing program.

In any of these scenarios, the students have also likely already completed their prerequisite science courses during their previous education, making an alternative bachelor’s degree—like a bachelor’s in health science or health management—a viable option to pursue before reapplying to nursing programs down the line. However, it’s likely that pursuing a full bachelor’s from scratch in this situation may require them to take prerequisite or university-required core courses over again before they’re able to embark on their major-specific classes, which can be a waste of time and money.

Instead, these students should seek out offerings like Northeastern’s Bachelor’s Completion programs, which include over 30 degree and certificate options for students who have existing credits they are looking to transfer toward the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Whether they choose to do so in a related healthcare field or not, these programs offer a simple, straightforward next step for students looking to transfer into a program or go back to school after time away.

Northeastern’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program

For students who have received their bachelor’s degree either in healthcare or in an entirely different area of study, the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program offers students a fast-track to a fulfilling career at one of the top 50 universities in the country.

In the same way that Northeastern’s general nursing and other healthcare bachelor’s degrees are offered in Boston—which is known worldwide for its high-quality healthcare systems—the ABSN program is offered in several other strategic locations. One of these locations is Charlotte, North Carolina, a city with excellent opportunities for aspiring nurses. 

The program in Charlotte “has two large healthcare systems with multiple facilities that [students] are able to access for clinicals,” Griffin says, emphasizing that these systems draw many top nurses in the area who, in turn, share their industry experience and insights with students by leading both clinical and didactic courses through Northeastern.

“We’re quickly gaining name recognition in Charlotte,” Griffin continues, “[And] we have a lot more opportunities for interested students to join our program as it becomes even more established.”

Learn more about the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in Charlotte and the various Bachelor’s Completion degrees offered at Northeastern, and take your first step toward a career in healthcare today.

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About Ashley DiFranza

Ashley DiFranza is a content marketing producer for Northeastern University’s Enrollment Management team.