June 10, 2020 · 10 min read

The Basics of Online Nursing Degrees

From managing your schedule to what classroom delivery looks like, get important tips you need to prepare you for learning online.

By Anna Giorgi

female student video conferencing with teacher
online student on video chat with teacher and classmates

It’s a big decision to decide to go back to school—one that presents a number of challenges for people trying to work one more task into their busy lives. An online degree, which allows students flexibility in where and when they study, is often a great option for nursing students—whether you’re just starting your higher ed journey or you already have some experience under your belt.

Whether you’re going for your associate’s degree, bachelor’s, master’s—or even a doctorate, here’s what you need to know before jumping in.

Is an Online Program Right for You?

Prioritizing and managing course time around an already-busy personal life is the key to success in an online nursing program. The students best suited for online learning are committed, dedicated, and focused.

“You must be goal-driven because it is an environment where you can pick and choose most of the time when you’re going to sign on, when you’re going to do your work,” says Lisa Smith, PhD, RN, CNE, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions at Grand Canyon University. “You can’t be distracted by all the opportunities that come up throughout the week that pull your attention away.”

In addition to having the right mindset and skills, having support from your family or partner is important for your success in online learning.

In addition to a focused mindset, it’s also important to have the support of your employer if you think you’ll need to cut back in work or take time off to fulfill clinical hours. Support from your family or significant other is also critical to success in online learning. Your risk of dropping out increases when family members don’t understand the importance of what you’re trying to accomplish, Smith says.

What Nursing Degrees Can Be Earned Online?

Nursing degrees of all types—from entry-level associate’s degrees to upper-level graduate and doctorate degrees—can be earned through an online format, although there are varying levels of clinical, hands-on requirements that must be fulfilled in person at a clinic, hospital or other brick-and-mortar facility.

Check out the specific online requirements for the following nursing degree programs:

Online vs In-Class: What’s the Difference?

Students seeking their nursing degree online are studying, engaging with instructors, and completing most of their coursework remotely; usually from home. Still, the education you receive with an online program provides you with the same skills and experiences provided to students enrolled in on-campus programs.

The unique characteristic of online nursing programs is the flexibility they provide in allowing you to complete your studies on a timeline that works with your lifestyle rather than following a more regimented on-campus schedule. You’re able to choose when you learn while also gaining flexibility in overall program scheduling, since many online programs aren’t limited to traditional fall and spring semesters.

Degree programs delivered online require considerably more technological know-how than their on-campus counterparts, so it’s important to consider your computer skills in weighing your ability to learn effectively online. To prepare for online learning, you should understand how to upload documents, download software, and navigate your school’s website for classes and other educational resources such as online libraries. You may also have to work with software applications such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or Excel, depending on your educational program.

“Since online learning is a very different modality than face-to-face, prospective students need to think about how strong their time management skills are,” says Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB, associate dean for the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global. “Do they have a baseline understanding or comfort with technology?  Are they disciplined? Are they strong at basically carving out time in their day or throughout their week to budget and plan for the completion of certain materials?”

Take Our Quiz: Online or On-Campus? Find out What’s Right for You

Are you destined for distance learning or is on-campus life is your best bet?

If you’re thinking about going back to school and wondering whether learning in a traditional classroom setting or getting your degree online is best for you, our quiz can help nudge you in the right direction.

Which is best for you? Let’s find out.

Read each statement below and respond either: Online, or On-Campus.

Keep track of your answers.




The degree I want isn’t available at a convenient location, but I can complete it online without relocating.

The degree I want is within driving distance to my home or I’m willing to relocate to live near or on campus

Type of Experience:

I have a strong social network and don’t have an interest in experiencing campus life.

I want to experience all the activities that campus life has to offer when I’m not involved with academics.


I can finish my degree faster with an online program that allows me to progress at my own pace and take classes year-round.

I prefer traditional semester pacing at this point in my studies.


My work/family responsibilities require that I have the convenience to attend classes 24/7 and complete coursework on my own timeline.

I have the opportunity to be a full-time student or I have family/spousal support that makes it easy for me to adjust my calendar without a conflict.

Study Habits:

I’m self-disciplined and can stay on track in a way that helps me keep current on assignments and other course requirements.

I achieve my academic goals best with the structure and accountability that comes with attending on-campus classes on a set schedule.

Instructor Interaction:

I’m comfortable communicating with my instructor via email, discussion boards, or videoconferencing to clarify content and resolve course issues.

I prefer having the option to interact with my instructor and ask questions in real-time. I comprehend new material best when it’s presented in person.

Classmate Interaction:

I’m comfortable using discussion boards and social media to establish relationships and communicate with classmates that I may never meet in person.

I’m not confident reaching out to strangers in a virtual environment. I communicate best in face-to-face interactions.

Communication Skills:

I feel self-conscious speaking in public and prefer written communication when possible.

I’m not shy about raising my hand in class and asking a question or giving an opinion in front of my classmates.

Technological Skills:

I’m confident using technology to learn, communicate, and conduct research. I can usually resolve technical issues easily.

I have basic computer skills but am not comfortable navigating new software and learning platforms. Dealing with technical issues stresses me.

Home Environment:

I have a dedicated study space and all the tools I need to access online classes and interact with teachers and classmates when necessary.

Attending on-campus classes allows me to focus on my learning in an environment free from interruptions or distractions, which isn’t possible at my home.  

How’d you do?

If you answered, “Online” to seven or eight statements, you’re likely good to go for online classes. You probably have the discipline, confidence, and support system in place to handle an online classroom environment.

If you answered “On-Campus” or not sure to four or more statements, you may not be ready to tackle an online program. If you have concerns about technology or about reaching out to instructors and classmates but really want to make online learning work, instructors and advisors may be able to help you navigate the system and understand what they expect from students.

What to Look for In an Online Program

woman taking class online wearing headphones

You can ensure that you’re receiving a quality online education by checking school and program accreditation. Accreditation is a review process that determines whether your school or program meets established criteria that set educational standards.

You must attend an accredited program to qualify for most state nursing licenses and professional specialty certifications. You also need a degree from an accredited program if you want to transfer credits from one school to another.

School accreditation and program accreditation are awarded separately. You can verify a school’s accreditation on a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s also important to verify that your state board of nursing approves the program you’re taking and accepts a degree from there toward the licensure requirements you’ll fulfill later.

You must attend an accredited program to qualify for most state nursing licenses and professional specialty certifications.

How are Online Classes Delivered?

In an online learning environment, students typically access course content at their convenience. This means that some of your work and communication might not take place in real time. Even though you’re not physically sitting in a classroom, online programs offer many ways to engage with your instructor and fellow students.

Using Technology to Create a Connection

Many schools delivering online programs create virtual classrooms where web-based software such as Blackboard or Canvas creates an environment that mirrors a traditional classroom. You’ll access course content, turn in assignments, take quizzes, and interact with your professors and other students through this software.

Collaborating with Classmates and Study Groups

Online programs will often offer ways to help you engage with your instructors and classmates—often in real time. Courses may be delivered live when everyone has to sign on at the same time to a platform like Zoom that allows for real-time interaction through videoconferencing. Other courses may require group projects in which students have to work together. Additionally, many online schools also offer online clubs and organizations so students can socialize and form bonds away from the classroom in the same way they would on a campus.

Many online schools also offer clubs and organizations that allow students to socialize and bond in the same way that they would in a campus format.

Creating a collaborative learning community is critical to online nursing education. “Nursing is not a profession that you can do in a silo, so when you are learning online it’s very important that students have enough opportunity to interact with their classmates and faculty beyond just answering questions and submitting the assignments,” says Grand Canyon University’s Smith. “There needs to be interaction and dialogue.”

Connecting with Your Professor One-on-One

Many online schools require their professors to hold online office hours so students know they can connect as a set time. It will be up to you as an online student to seek out your professors when they’re available and be persistent if they’re not readily accessible. 

Most professors announce their preference for email, discussion boards, or even social media, at the beginning of the course so you know what to expect.

The Best Tech Set-up for Online Learning at Home

Setting up an appropriate at-home learning space can make all the difference in your success as an online student. While you may not have the luxury of designating a separate room for your studies, try to establish a personal workspace that allows you to concentrate.

To set up a home study space that positions you for success:

  • Avoid spaces that have distractions from TVs or central social areas of your home.
  • Consider using headphones if you can’t shut out nearby noise.
  • Choose a spot near a source of natural light, which helps keep you more alert and focused than fluorescent light.
  • Store study essentials like notebooks, pens, and textbooks nearby.
  • Select a chair and writing space that allow you to stay comfortable and focused.

Consult with your school for specific technology requirements and check your equipment against their standards. Most schools operate with high-speed internet. While a phone or tablet may be adequate for checking assignments, a desktop or laptop is recommended for proctored tests and live video. Schools typically provide required software for free or at a discount.

How Much Does an Online Nursing Degree Cost?

The costs of online nursing degree programs vary widely. Many online schools charge by credit hour or quarter credit hour, which is often used for part-time students. Other programs charge by semester. In a program that offers a modularized curriculum, you may be able to progress through as many courses as you can for one flat fee per semester.

In addition, some state schools may differentiate between resident and non-resident tuition for online students while others charge the same online tuition for everyone. Ask the schools you’re exploring for specifics.

To compare prices, use a school’s net price tuition calculator to determine the cost of your degree.

The best way to compare prices among programs is to use a school’s net price tuition calculator tool to determine the total cost of your degree. All schools that participate in the federal financial aid program are required to have a net price calculator on their websites. If you have to complete clinical hours, you’ll likely have to add fees for background checks, fingerprinting, equipment, uniforms, and other supplies.

Can I Get Financial Aid to Help Pay for an Online Degree?

Like traditional on-campus students, those seeking a degree online can also apply for financial aid and income-based scholarships. To qualify, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and financial institutions use this standard form to determine your eligibility for financial assistance and student loans. Other potential sources of financial aid include school or program awards, nursing scholarships, and military service credits.

Will an Online Degree Make a Difference to an Employer?

Whether you receive your degree online, in a classroom, or a combination of both, isn’t as important to employers as the fact that you attended an accredited program. An online degree prepares you to be just as competitive in the workforce as one earned on campus.

In reality, so much study has been done that validates the quality of online learning that most employers don’t typically consider an online degree as a deterrent to hire, says Smith.

Give Online Learning a Shot!

Online education is becoming more and more mainstream, especially in light of recent global events that shifted the way education is delivered. The proliferation of robust networking and collaboration tools only make pursuing your online nursing degree easier.

“Online learning is an accepted and credible way to earn a high-quality nursing degree,” says Carla D. Sanderson, PhD, RN, provost at Chamberlain University. “Prospective students are encouraged to select the program that best fits their learning preferences and lifestyle needs.”

For even more resources, check out our seven page guide to online learning.

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Nursing Programs You Can Finish in About a Year or Less

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first year nursing student raises hand in class

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has been heralding the warning for years: The U.S. needs nurses and it needs them now. By 2050, the population of people over age 65 is projected to hit more than 83 million, bringing with them an increased need for healthcare related to aging and chronic disease. What’s more, a survey published in 2018 found that roughly half of the nursing workforce is over the age of 50, meaning more than one million nurses are expected to reach retirement age within the next 15 years.

Thankfully, nursing-related jobs that don’t require years of education are rapidly on the rise, and many are among the fastest-growing occupations in the nation. If you’re looking to join the field—whether you have a month or a year or more for your education—there’s a program that’s right for you.

Want to Knock It Out in as Little as 4–6 Weeks? Become a Home Health Aide

Length of Time

1–6 months, with at least 75 hours of training, depending on your state

Average Program Cost


Average Annual Salary


With a whopping projected job growth of 37% over the next decade, home health jobs are the third fastest-growing occupation in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The hottest job prospects in particular are those that require certification in order for you to work within hospice care or for home health agencies that receive reimbursement from Medicare or Medicaid. Not only are aides in high demand in these services, but some agencies might even pay for the training you need to get certified.

In a home health aide (HHA) program, you’ll learn how to help individuals who are elderly, disabled, or are suffering from a critical illness to take care of daily activities like bathing, dressing, and cooking, as well as health-related tasks such as checking vital signs and administering medication. Your program will also include education on basic nutrition, safety techniques, and infection control.

Though not all states or agencies require certification to work as a home health aide, those that do require at least 75 hours of training in a state-approved program. Depending on the program you choose, you might be able to complete this education in as little as four to six weeks, though semester-based programs could take up to a few months. Online options can be excellent for students who want to take classes at their own pace, but keep in mind that you’ll still need in-person clinical training—at least 16 hours in most states.

Next steps for advancement: As a home health aide, you might choose to pursue a program to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN), which will give you the chance to take on much more responsibility, oversee nursing aides and assistants, and potentially double your salary.

Have 1–6 Months? Go for Your Nursing Assistant Certification

Length of Time

1–6 months, with between 75 and 180 hours of training, depending on your state

Average Program Cost


Average Annual Salary


A nursing assistant program will prepare you to work in settings where you’ll be responsible for tasks such as taking vital signs, assisting with patient grooming, cleaning rooms, dressing wounds, and helping with minor medical procedures. Your program will also cover basic medical terminology, body mechanics, communication skills, and patient/resident rights.

The job prospects are good here too, with 9% growth predicted over the next nine years. Changes in patient preferences and federal funding have increased the need for nursing assistants who work in home healthcare and community rehab services. Nursing assistants with specialized experience in heart disease, dementia, and diabetes could be especially in high demand.

To work as a nursing assistant, you must be certified by your state’s department of health. But first, you’ll need to complete a state-approved program with at least 75 hours of training, though some states require as many as 180. Because of this broad range, programs can last anywhere from one to six months, with the majority of your time spent in clinical training. No matter the length of your program, you’ll have to pass your state’s certification exam and be able to demonstrate three to six skills in front of a registered nurse (RN).

Next steps for advancement: Without having to change jobs, CNAs can increase their employment opportunities and salary potential by earning a certification as a medication aide (CMA). This allows you to legally administer certain medications and report patient changes to the rest of the staff. Depending on the requirements of your state, you could complete a medication aide course in as little as six weeks before taking the MACE certification exam.

What About 9–12 Months? Consider a License in Practical Nursing

Length of Time

9–18 months, including various hours of clinical experience

Average Program Cost


Average Annual Salary


Licensed practical nurses (LPNs)—known as licensed vocational nurses in Texas and California—have much of the same responsibilities as CNAs, but take on advanced duties and work more closely with doctors and senior nurses in specialized areas such as pediatric, medical-surgical, and geriatric nursing. With the aging baby boom population, there’s expected to be a growing need for LPNs—11% over the next nine years—especially in home healthcare and assisted living facilities. Those with specialty certification, particularly in gerontology, could have even greater opportunities.

All LPNs are required to become licensed in the state where they work. Licensing involves completing a board-approved program of roughly nine months to a year, though some might be closer to 18 months. You might have the option to accelerate some of your classroom coursework online, but most LPN programs consist of about 60% clinical training. Once your program is complete, you can earn your license by passing the NCLEX-PN exam given by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

Next steps for advancement: LPNs can often apply the credits they earned in their program to associate’s level coursework, earning a registered nursing degree in as little as a year. By doing so, you can increase your level of responsibility, save money on a higher degree, and give yourself the chance to significantly boost your salary.

Have a Year or More? Earn a Registered Nursing Degree at an Accelerated Pace

Length of Time

At least 1 year, including clinical experience

Average Program Cost


Average Annual Salary


Due to financial reasons, many hospitals are facing increased pressure to discharge patients as soon as possible. They’re moving more patients through the system at a given time, which leads to higher demand for nurses in outpatient and long-term care centers. Facilities that specialize in the treatment of conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease especially need registered nurses.

Designed for aspiring nurses with a bachelor’s degree in a different field, the accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) allows you to apply credits from your first degree to a program for registered nursing. Your previous education must have covered the specific science and humanities prerequisites of your program, but if it does you could earn your BSN in as little as a year. These programs are rigorous but let you focus on completing nursing-specific coursework and clinical experience. The amount of clinical hours you’ll need varies, so it’s important to make sure that your program at least meets the minimum requirements for licensing in your state.

Like LPNs, RNs must have a license in the state where they work. Licensing requirements are widely different across the country but all require having at least an associate’s degree in nursing, completing the number of supervised clinical hours as defined by your state, and receiving a passing score on the NCLEX-RN exam.

Once you have your RN license, you can work in many medical settings such as emergency rooms, physicians’ offices, outpatient clinics, and nursing homes. If you choose to specialize, you could go into less traditional roles such as legal nurse consulting or forensic nursing. Travel nursing is also an excellent opportunity, letting you explore new cities while bringing your nursing talents to areas in desperate need of care.

Next steps for advancement: If you wish to take on greater responsibility and earn a higher salary, you might choose to pursue a master’s degree to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Depending on what you study as an APRN, you could work as one of the following:

You could also choose to go into administration, such as working as a hospital’s director of nursing, or move into nurse education. While job growth for RNs is projected at 12% through 2028, many roles within advancing nursing are expected to see an average of 26%. What’s more, APRNs make the most of any nurses in the field, often more than $100,000 a year.

Have More Time Than a Year to Earn Your Education?

In just two to three years, an associate’s degree program can help you get the training you need to immediately begin working as an entry-level RN. But keep in mind that as the field evolves, more and more nurses are earning their bachelor’s degrees. In fact, the Institute of Medicine has recommended that 80% have their BSN by 2020, and some employers are demanding that nurses with associate’s degrees go back to school within the next five years. If you want to increase your job opportunities, earning potential, and competitive advantage in the field, use the Find Schools button to research BSN programs in your area.

Source: Salary and job growth data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor States, as of 2018

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Five Important Nursing Upgrades

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Nursing Degrees and Credentials

In the health care market, the more education you complete, the more demand there is for your skills. Right now, there is an incredible demand for nurses with continued nursing education nursing degrees. Here are five upgrades for your nursing education that can help you advance up the career ladder.

However, the majority of new registered nurses (RNs) today come from lower-level programs such as associate or diploma programs. Tuition costs and timing play a central role in the number of lower-level nurses entering the job force each year.

Opting for Nursing Continuing Education

If you are a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a nurse with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and would like to upgrade your nursing education, do not despair! A large number of working nurses eventually decide to go back to school and upgrade their nursing degrees. The reason is simple. With a higher degree you are more employable, you’ll earn a higher salary and you’ll have much more freedom to chart your own nursing career path.

Common Nursing Degree Upgrades

You can upgrade your nursing degree in as many ways as there are nursing acronyms. Regardless of where you’re starting, you are sure to find an appropriate path since many schools have special programs that are customized to meet the needs of students starting from different points. Here are some of the most common upgrades:

1. From LPN-to-RN

To become an RN, you must pass the NCLEX exam in your state after earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. If you opt for the former, simply go back to a technical school or community college for another year to earn an associate’s degree, then take the exam.

The other way is to enter an LPN-to-BSN program. Some colleges have special programs which will allow you to get credit for some of your prior courses, and then go on to earn a BSN degree and become an RN.

2. From ADN or RN-to-BSN

If you already have a nursing license (having earned a diploma or associate’s degree) then you could qualify for a special program at many nursing schools that will take less than the normal 4 years to complete your nursing degree. Usually referred to as an RN-to-BSN Program, they are typically oriented toward working nurses who must balance school with their job. They offer flexible schedules and credit for previous experience.

3. From Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree to BSN

If you have already earned a bachelor’s degree but you now want to become an RN and earn a nursing degree, you can enroll in special accelerated programs designed for people like you. These are called Accelerated RN BSN Programs and they take the form of 1 to 2 years of intense training in nursing.

4. From BSN to Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree

An MSN degree is an 18 to 24-month program that allows a nurse to specialize in a particular area—such as an area of advanced clinical training or research. Some students take on joint degrees in related fields like business administration, public health or hospital administration. Most people working toward an MSN already have a BSN, but there are accelerated programs for diploma nurses (to earn a BSN and MSN in one shot) and for non-nursing college graduates.

Typical requirements for admission into an MSN program include a BSN degree from an accredited nursing school, an RN license, minimum GPA and GRE scores and some period of clinical work experience.

5. From BSN or MSN to Doctoral Nursing Degree

You can earn a doctorate in nursing after completing either a BSN or MSN. Like nurses with master’s degrees, nurses with doctoral degrees are expected to have tremendous job demand over the next ten years. These programs prepare nurses for careers in health administration (a PhD is the preferred degree for nursing executives), clinical research and advanced clinical practice. They take from four to six years to complete, so they represent a significant commitment on your part.

In a doctoral nursing degree program everyone receives training in research methods (including statistics and data analysis), education, the history and philosophy of nursing science and leadership skills. But it’s up to you to focus in on a specific research area for your degree. Compared to a BSN or MSN, it’s important to match your particular interests with those of a particular faculty member.

Nursing Education Certifications

Professional Nursing Certifications are specialized exams that you can take to prove your expertise in a specific field, beyond the skills required for an RN license. The exams are provided by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The ANCC offers generalist, advanced practice and clinical specialist exams in almost 30 areas.

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Nursing as a Second Career

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Is nursing the right career for me?

Whether you are a college student or a seasoned professional in a different field who is looking for a career change, a nursing career can be a very rewarding professional path, and now is a great time to become a nurse with the nursing shortage and demand for qualified nurses all over the U.S. There are many opportunities, not to mention financial aid resources, available to nursing students. Whatever the reason, if you are considering nursing as a second career, get more nursing career information by reading the nursing education Q&A below.

I have a bachelor’s degree. Can I earn a nursing degree faster?

Yes. Many nursing schools offer Second Degree BSN, Accelerated BSN or Direct Entry MSN programs designed specifically to allow students with previous bachelor’s degrees to complete their nursing degrees on an accelerated schedule. This helps many people expedite their education to begin their nursing as a second career within 1- to 2-years of starting their nursing education.

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Can I work while earning my nursing degree?

Yes. Many nursing schools offer part-time nursing programs designed to accommodate the schedules of working students.

Can I earn my degree faster with medical field experience?

Because each person’s educational and work experience are unique, the best way to figure out if yours will allow you to gain advanced placement in a nursing program is to talk to the nursing schools you’re interested in directly.

I’m over 40. Am I too old to begin a nursing as a second career?

No. While you should keep in mind that nursing is a physically (and at times emotionally) demanding job, if you have an aptitude for math and science, thrive on working in an intense atmosphere, and love working with people, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider nursing as a second career after 40. If you’re not convinced that your age won’t be a handicap, here are some things to consider:

  • According to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, 45 percent of RNs are 50 years or older.
  • According to the same survey, the average age of all licensed registered nurses is currently 47, and this average is increasing every year—indicating that more and more students are entering the field after having pursued another career.
  • Nursing school administrators report that second-career nursing students typically bring an energy and intensity of focus to their studies that their younger counterparts lack, and are often top performers academically.
  • Potential employers value the maturity, professionalism, and advanced decision-making skills that older workers bring to nursing.

Is it hard for an older student to get into school or find work?

No. It would be illegal for any nursing school or employer to take your age into consideration while evaluating your application. What’s more, with nursing school enrollment just beginning to increase after a long decline and no sign of an end to the nation-wide shortage of nurses, both nursing schools and health care providers are actively seeking to recruit non-traditional nursing students—including second-career students.

What are the physical demands of a nurse job?

Working in a hospital or nursing home may be very demanding, for example, while working in an out-patient clinic, government agency or school may be much less stressful. Similarly, working as a staff nurse may be more physically demanding than working as a nurse administrator. Depending on where you work, some of the physical and mental stresses you’ll face may include:

  • Shift work, working on-call, or working weekends and holidays
  • Being on your feet for long periods of time
  • Moving (lifting and supporting) patients
  • Working in inadequately staffed facilities
  • Working with critically/chronically ill people and their families
  • Working in emergency situations

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Tips for choosing the right nursing as a second career program

To read more on these topics, please visit the Types of Nursing Programs sections of our Nursing School Education Resource Center. To learn more about upgrading your education in the nursing field, please see our Nursing Continuing Education page.

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Yes She Can! Single Mom Balances Work, Parenting, and Nursing Studies

Writer Liz Murtaugh Gillespie talks to Monica Zamora about juggling school, work, and parenthood.

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Author’s title or background

Working parents juggle a lot. Single working parents juggle so much, they tire of answering the question everyone always asks: “How on earth do you do it all?”

Monica Zamora juggles so much, she barely has time to field such a question. She’s a nurse and single mom who went back to school in her early 40s, finished her bachelor’s degree in nursing, and is now studying for her master’s degree at the University of Washington, where she’s on track to graduate as an advanced registered nurse practitioner next spring.

She took the plunge at an extraordinarily difficult time. When she was five months pregnant with her youngest child, now 5, the girl’s father left without warning—no explanation, no good-bye. “I was terrified!” Monica said. “After I made it through the most difficult period, I began to realize that if I had the strength to go through that, at the age of 42, there was no reason that I couldn’t accomplish anything.”

I’ve learned about Monica’s Superwoman life in snippets…as we pick up or drop off our daughters at preschool and on the sidelines at birthday parties. I asked her to share some of the ins and outs of her crazy-at-times juggle, knowing it would inspire others – maybe enough to encourage some of you busy-as-all-get-out working parents to overcome your misgivings about going back to school.

Here are excerpts from an email exchange we had after months of trying to coordinate her impossibly packed schedule with mine:

What time do your days usually start and end?

5:30 a.m. I’m usually in bed by 10:30, but if I am behind on school I can sometimes make it until midnight.

What’s your work schedule?

I’m working 28 hours per week [Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday as a clinic nurse manager at the 1811 Eastlake Clinic, run by Harborview Medical Center and part of a housing program that provides health care and other support services to residents with chronic alcohol addiction; plus a clinic shift at Harborview].

What’s your class schedule?

It’s different every quarter. I have four classes this quarter and spend 10 hours in class total on Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus the 8-hour day at my clinical placement on Friday.

When do you study?

Between patients at work, on the couch in the evening while the family is watching TV and at family get-togethers in the middle of the chaos.

What motivated you to pursue your master’s degree?

In my current position, I work independently most of the time and so have learned a lot about providing primary care. Thanks to a wonderful MD who has become my mentor, I decided that the most logical thing to do was to become an ARNP.

How long will it take you to get your master’s?

One-and-a-half years of full-time study for my MSN.

What do you like about nursing?

I love the human connection. I get to hear such great stories from my patients and meet such an interesting array of people that I would never have met in almost any profession. I get to help people through difficult things and advocate for folks who would have no power behind their voices. It really is a privilege that I am constantly aware of, to be present with someone in an intimate time in their life or death, and it’s so rewarding to know that sometimes I make a big difference in their physical or emotional comfort.

What’s not to like?

I guess in the beginning the hours were difficult. It can be difficult to work within a budget- and rule-conscious system, but I feel like if you are good at what you do and passionate about serving the populations you care for, then you can create your own path and end up in positions that allow you to be creative and flexible.

How did you get past the fear that you wouldn’t have the time, money or energy to go back to school?

I just decided not to think about the energy required, and as for the expense, I would rather be in debt in order to have the education and career I want than to have extra money to spend on accumulating more things. It’s all a trade-off.

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