Healthcare Career and Education Pathways
High earning potential in an ever-growing field, numerous routes of opportunity to help others, and a fast-paced, hands-on environment are just three reasons a career in healthcare is appealing. Whether you are taking your first step toward a career in healthcare, preparing for a career transition into healthcare, or are looking to climb the clinical ladder, the options for how to proceed are numerous and can be overwhelming. Regardless of your current situation, there are many questions to consider about earning a new degree or certification, including the amount of time it might take, the flexibility for working around other jobs or family, and the financial impact and cost of a program.
The following guide will provide information on the many education paths available and help inform you on which route may be best for your unique situation as you undertake the exciting venture of starting or furthering a career in healthcare.
The Traditional Track
The traditional track for acquiring a healthcare degree usually starts at a 2-year college or 4-year university. Plans of study include prerequisite courses (typically science based), entry into a specific program, and completion of program-specific classes and clinical hours. Often, a certification exam must be completed at the end of the program in order to acquire a license in your state and begin working.
Typical programs at a 2-year college include Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Registered Nurse (RN), Respiratory Therapist (RT), and various technician programs for areas like radiology and pharmacy.
Typical programs at a 4-year university include bachelor’s prepared Registered Nurse (BSN) and Respiratory Therapist, as well as science-based bachelor’s degrees for careers requiring additional graduate level degrees such as pre-med, pre-pharmacy, and physical therapy.
- Great option for anyone looking for a traditional campus experience, or students without full-time jobs or other commitments to balance with school work.
- A more direct path to the specific job you want, rather than advancing along the clinical ladder in stages. If you have the time and resources where you don’t need to enter the workforce as quickly, a direct route to your ideal job may be preferable.
- Continuity of education and avoiding repetitive course content that can occur when completing shorter, lower level degrees before entering a higher level program (for example, a Fundamentals of Nursing course may be required in both a CNA program and a BSN program, leading to repeat content if you choose a less direct route).
- (For bachelor’s degrees) A higher level of education upon completion, which may be more marketable or possibly required by some employers.
- More time consuming and less flexible programs for students who have to balance school work with other responsibilities and commitments. Classes are often several days per week and offer fewer options for evening or weekend classes.
- More expensive and may require student loans, especially if you are not working and earning money while you complete the degree.
- May include courses that are off-topic and less relevant to healthcare in order to receive the “well rounded” education touted by higher level degrees (English or Fine Arts classes may be required).
- Takes several years to earn a degree and enter the workforce, particularly if graduate school is required after the initial degree.
The Nontraditional Track
There are several non-traditional routes to obtaining or advancing healthcare degrees. Typically, a non-traditional route includes completing separate steps or programs, advancing the degree over time before finally reaching the desired or highest degree level. One option, for example, is starting out as an LPN and gaining experience in the workforce before returning to school to obtain a BSN.
Non-traditional programs are often designed for people who already have a degree or certification in a healthcare field and wish to further that education without repeating courses they have already taken. This includes bridge programs such as LPN to RN, RN to BSN, LPN to BSN, and even RN to MSN (master’s in nursing). Students in these programs are already licensed professionals, so these programs often include fewer hours of hands-on clinical experience and focus more on advancing knowledge of pathophysiology, pharmacology, critical thinking skills, and nursing leadership and management. A board exam may or may not be required to obtain licensure at the end of the program, depending on the particular transition program. (For example, a former LPN would be required to take RN boards as this is a higher tier of education, but an RN earning a BSN would not be required to take boards again.)
However, non-traditional programs can also be designed for people who already have a degree in another field and are just entering healthcare for the first time, such as a high school teacher who has decided to return to school to become a nurse.
These bridge programs typically include any basic science courses the person may be lacking and then move directly into degree-specific courses. Since the person already has a bachelor’s or master’s degree in another field, the “general education” courses like English, History, and Fine Arts are typically not required, meaning a bachelor’s level program can often be completed in 2-3 years rather than the full 4-5 years.
- Ideal for working professionals seeking career advancement or a career transition.
- Since most students enrolled in these types of programs are already working as professionals in similar or different careers, courses and schedules are designed to fit a busy schedule, often with evening, weekend, and even online options. Schedules are often consolidated to have back-to-back classes on just one day of the week so students can continue working their regular jobs.
- Employers often incentivize or reward employees who further their degrees and continue to work for the same company. Common incentives include tuition assistance, reward based clinical ladders, and pay increases.
- Allows for continued work experience while completing the degree, increasing marketability upon graduation.
- Programs can still take between 2 to 3 years to complete depending on the degree or level of education a student is starting at.
- Can be expensive if financial assistance, such as tuition reimbursement, is not offered by an employer or if changing careers entirely.
- A less direct route to obtaining the final, desired degree. The time taken to complete an RN program, gain work experience, and then complete a BSN program is overall longer than the time required to enter and complete a BSN program directly.
The Accelerated Track
For those eager to get their foot in the door and start gaining healthcare experience, or those who need to start earning money and don’t have the time or resources to dedicate to a two- or four-year degree, an accelerated program or entry level job may be the best choice for you. Even if your long-term goal is earning a BSN or MSN, approaching your education in stages and working to gain experience and earn money while moving through your education track can be an appealing option.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Certified Medical Assistant (CMA), and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) programs can often be completed in as little as 4-12 weeks and allow you to start working and gaining healthcare experience nearly right away. These programs are quick, flexible, and much cheaper than earning a more advanced degree right from the start. CNAs and CMAs are very marketable and always in high demand in various settings, so the odds are good that you can become quickly employed. Some programs can even offer guaranteed employment upon graduation and certification.
- Good choice for people who are eager to start their careers helping others or who may need to start earning money as quickly as possible to support themselves or loved ones.
- Quick turnaround from starting a program to gaining experience and earning a pay check.
- Having any kind of healthcare experience may make you more marketable in the long run if you plan to pursue a BSN or MSN degree.
- Gain an appreciation and understanding of all levels of professionals in healthcare.
- High job growth and career outlook for entry-level positions.
- Lower earning potential compared to more advanced healthcare degrees.
- Less direct route to higher-level degrees.
The Debt-Free Track
Though not as widely known, there is a unique and promising option for entering the healthcare field that not only eliminates the cost of entry-level schooling, but also guarantees you a job upon completion of the program. Free CNA training is quickly becoming a popular choice for students in all life situations, but particularly for those who need quick and quality training, the promise of employment, and the stress relief of no school-related debt.
Free CNA programs change up the traditional model of healthcare education by partnering with potential employers who are willing to pay for the tuition of entry-level medical programs in exchange for a reliable supply of dedicated and well-trained individuals. In these programs, students are paired with potential employers before entering the classroom. Once a match is found, the candidate enters a training program (paid for by the employer) and can start working right away upon degree completion. In exchange for the paid tuition, the new employee builds their loyalty to their new company by staying with them for an agreed upon amount of time.
Often, companies who are this invested in their employees will offer incentives and tuition reimbursements for further education and climbing the clinical ladder, essentially shaping and growing their own personal group of dedicated and high quality professionals.
- Graduate without debt, loans, or financial burden.
- Often guaranteed employment and mutual loyalty between you and your employer.
- Potential to work your way up the clinical ladder within the same company, which means long term job security.
- Start working, earning money, and gaining experience sooner.
- Less direct path to a higher degree, like a BSN or MSN.
- No traditional college experience for those who may prefer that route.
Choosing an Entry-Level Career Path
Now that you’ve gotten an overview of the various education paths that can lead you into a rewarding career in healthcare, you may have more questions about what entry-level career paths look like. What are the different entry-level career paths? What is the outlook for CNAs? How much can I earn? You can find answers to these questions by checking out other pages on PremierNursingAcademy.com: