As the U.S. population continues to grow and we live longer and more active lives, there is an increasing need for nurses, especially those with advanced education and skills.

As the U.S. population continues to grow and we live longer and more active lives, there is an increasing need for nurses, especially those with advanced education and skills. Health-care costs are increasing, doctors are becoming more specialized and spending less time with patients, and nurses are becoming more responsible for providing direct health care to patients. Additionally, the current shortage of nurses is expected to grow from more than 300,000 to more than 600,000 over the next ten years. Subsequently, nursing has emerged as a profession with one of the highest starting salaries of any field and merits consideration as a respected and viable career path.

Reasons to consider a nursing career
Nursing has a variety of benefits besides a good salary and job security. The hours are flexible and you can work in a variety of places: hospitals, private-practice physician's offices, a federal nursing agency, schools or the military. You have the option of working part-time to accommodate your family demands. You can spend your days tending to the general comfort of a patient or working as an administrator, manager or researcher.

Nurses can specialize in a variety of different areas and choose to work as a pediatric nurse, psychiatric nurse, critical-care nurse, neonatal nurse, nurse anesthetist, or any other specialty that interests you. Nowadays, many nurses even form their own new businesses providing services such as nursing informatics (combining nursing and computers), legal nurse consulting (combining nursing and law) and home health-care businesses. A traditionally “feminine” career, men are starting to realize the potential that nursing presents as a challenging and rewarding career. Currently, approximately 5 percent of all nurses are men, and the number is growing.

How to become a nurse
Each state has a Board of Nursing that sets the licensure requirements for that state. The most basic-level license is the L.P.N. or Licensed Practical Nurse (or L.V.N., Licensed Vocational Nurse, depending on the state). To earn the license, you must complete an approved L.P.N. nursing program and then sit for a state-administered nursing exam known as the NCLEX-PN or the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses.

The most commonly sought-after license is the R.N., or Registered Nurse. There are a few different paths to becoming an R.N. You can enter a two-year associate degree nursing program at a nursing school (where you focus more on technical skills than theory), earn an associate's degree in Nursing (A.D.N.), and then sit for the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses). This is a state-administered, five-hour, multiple-choice exam. You could also take this route if you are planning to go on to earn your bachelor's degree in Nursing (B.S.N.) at a school of nursing, but wish to work and earn money as an R.N. while studying for your bachelor's degree. A B.S.N. is preferred in the job market.

You could also choose to go directly to a four-year nursing college, take the standard bachelor's degree prerequisite courses, and then apply to the college's nursing program. Each college has different requirements for entering their programs, so you need to check the procedures carefully. Upon graduation, you would then take the NCLEX-RN exam.

Whichever path you plan to take, keep in mind that accreditation is very important! The nursing schools' LPN program must be accredited in order to sit for the exams given by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, and the nursing schools' bachelor's degree program must be accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commissions (NLNAC) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Certification and graduate degrees
Once you are a registered nurse working in the field with a bachelor's degree, you may discover an area in which you'd like to specialize. At that point, you can choose to pursue a certification, for example, as a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist or a nurse midwife. There are two- to three-year master's degree programs that enable you to specialize in areas such as geriatric nursing, neonatal nursing or school nursing. Some nurses continue on to earn joint degrees in fields such as business or public health. There are also four- to six-year Ph.D. programs that prepare nurses for careers in health administration (nurse executives), in clinical research and in advanced clinical practice. The possibilities for personal fulfillment and career satisfaction are unlimited.

Whatever path you choose, one thing is clear. Nurses, who have always given so much to others in terms of care, comfort and compassion, are now getting the respect, recognition and reward they truly deserve.