Nursing Career Path: LPN, RN, BSN. What Does it All Mean?

Learn how to decipher the alphabet of the various nursing careers.

nurse in scrubs holing a clipboard

So you're thinking about a nursing career. But as you browse the course catalog, instead of basic nursing programs you see LPN, RN or BSN and wonder, "What do these letters mean?"

Each abbreviation represents a specific type of nursing degree you can earn. LPN is licensed practical nurse, RN is registered nurse and BSN is bachelor's in nursing. The distinctions between these affect not only your area of practice, but also such things as income and professional advancement opportunities. And, each degree level has specific requirements in terms of the amount of education required.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Nursing Career

Typical Education Requirements: One to two years of training in such areas as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and practical patient care. LPNs must pass either a state or national board exam and periodically renew their professional license.
Practice Limitations: Licensed practical nurses are allowed to perform simple medical procedures under the direct supervision of either a doctor or a registered nurse. Common tasks include administering medications (but not an IV); dressing wounds; measuring blood pressure, heart rate and temperature; collecting samples; and maintaining patient records.
Median Annual Salary: $41,540*

Registered Nurse (RN) Nursing Career

Typical Education Requirements: There are several educational routes that can be taken in pursuit of an RN degree. The most common is a 2-year program that cumulates with earning an Associate of Science in Nursing degree (AND). Other options include a hospital diploma program that involves a 3-year course of study, or earning a 4-year Bachelor's in Nursing degree.
Practice Limitations: A registered nurse often supervises the work of an LPN and is responsible for the overall safety and care of patients. RN's also have a wide array of nursing career options available and often times work for insurance companies, attorneys, schools, surgical centers and even as independent medical consultants.
Median Annual Salary: $65,470*

Bachelor's in Nursing (BSN) Nursing Degree and Careers

Typical Education Requirements: To earn a BSN, you must successfully complete a 4-year course of study that typically focuses on the sciences and principles of nursing career practice.
Practice Limitations: A BSN generally has the same job duties and responsibilities as a registered nurse. A nurse with a BSN often supervises the work of other nurses, along with providing personal patient care. BSN's have a more direct and independent role in administering medications and IVs, as well as assisting physicians during complex surgical procedures.
Median Annual Salary: $65,470*
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses; Registered Nurses.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.