Guide to Nursing Programs
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Compare the advantages and disadvantages of online and traditional brick-and-mortar nursing programs to determine the best mode of study for your lifestyle.
Make sure you are suited to this emotionally demanding career by assessing your personality and your strengths.
Get a head start by learning which courses you'll take as a nursing student, like anatomy, pathology, and nutrition.
Never attend nursing programs unless they have proper programmatic and institutional accreditation from the right national accrediting agencies.
Learn How You Can Study Nursing
There are two options for studying nursing: campus-based (brick-and-mortar) programs and online programs
Because of the significant hands-on component to nursing, most entry-level “online programs” are actually hybrid programs, which combine online and on-campus coursework. You can take many of your theoretical and core courses online at your convenience, while getting the valuable hands-on experience of a clinical setting in a campus lab or clinic, where you will also have the opportunity to interact with other students and professional nurses.
You should also note that many master’s nursing degrees are offered as fully online programs, because at that level students already have many years of clinical experience and just need the additional specialty knowledge that can be learned from lectures and texts. If you already have extensive clinical experience, there is no disadvantage to attending online nursing programs.
What do Nurses do?
Nurses are caregivers, medical experts, healthcare providers, nutritionists, and many other roles all rolled into one. Direct care nurses work with patients and support doctors and medical assistants in directing healthcare plans. They work in a variety of settings, from the pediatric or oncology units of hospitals, to ICUs and emergency rooms, to surgery units, to long-term care facilities, private clinics, and even in field hospitals or the military. Some nurses even conduct research for scientific institutions or take on administrative roles in medical facilities.
Before You Dive In: Decide if Nursing is the Right Fit
To figure out if nursing is the right fit, it’s helpful to look at characteristics that nurses have and to look at specific examples of their work experience.
You should be interested in:
- Medicine and human health
- Patient care
- Medical procedures
- Disease prevention and public health
You should also know that direct care nursing is shift-work. You will typically work morning, midday, or night shifts, often balancing your schedule with the needs of the medical institution that employs you. Nurses work long hours and often experience high levels of stress due to the urgency of providing emergency care; the need to deal with myriad personalities; the loss of patients due to debilitating illness, injury, or old age; and the demands on their time from managing many patients under the direction of doctors and physicians.
If you are not adept at dealing with stress, cannot resolve conflicts easily, or dislike the idea of being intimately involved with people and their bodily functions, direct care nursing may not be a good fit for you. For instance, in a field or surgical setting, you will be exposed to internal body parts, so you will need to be comfortable with blood and graphic injuries.
Finally, you should expect to spend long hours on your feet. Direct care nursing is a physically demanding career that requires you to maintain a level of fitness to perform your task throughout the course of your shift. You will be required to lift and assist patients of varying sizes, shapes and heights into and out of beds, wheelchairs, seats, and medical equipment.
Good nurses possess the following characteristics that help them persevere through the struggles of nursing and enjoy the rewarding aspects even more:
- A strong stomach
- Scientific curiosity
- Strong work ethic
- Passion for helping others
- Effective decision-making
Learn the Difference Between Theoretical Classes and Clinical Practicums
You will encounter two types of courses in traditional programs, online nursing schools and hybrid programs: theoretical and applied courses. As a nurse, you will use both theoretical knowledge and applied skills on a daily basis, such as when answering patients’ questions about a specific ailment or demonstrating medication administration to a patient.
Theoretical courses consist of core nursing requirements such as biology, anatomy, and math, as well as nursing topics in mental health nursing, community health, or pediatrics, that typically take place in the classroom rather than in the lab or in a clinical setting. You will study the following topics in any nursing program:
Nurses must be familiar with the human body and how its systems interact. You will study the functions and organization of tissues, cells, organs, as well as human biochemistry.
Nurses should be aware of how various microorganisms interact with each other and the human body. You will learn about bacteria, viruses, and fungi and how they can be beneficial or detrimental to human health.
Nurses face disease on a daily basis and need to understand its causes and treatments. You will learn about the immune system and disease treatment in a hospital setting, as well as common diseases and their diagnosis and causes.
Nurses need to understand the causal relationship between nutrition and a patient’s health. You will learn how diets can vary depending on the age and various conditions of patients, and how to communicate the importance of a healthy diet to the patient.
Nurses spend most of their time interacting with patients, and need to be able to understand and effectively communicate with them as well as other medical professionals. You will learn how to interact with patients as well as how to develop an effective bedside manner.
In clinical practicums, you will apply the skills and knowledge you gain from your theoretical courses in labs, clinics, or other medical facilities. Given the high patient interaction required of most nursing programs, clinical practicums are crucial to the learning process. They give you a chance to interact with patients and practice using medical equipment under the careful supervision of medical professionals.
Although students enrolled in online nursing schools can take most of their courses online, they are still required to complete a clinical practicum in order to gain essential hands-on experience under the careful supervision of a healthcare professional. A nursing practicum usually takes place in an on-campus clinic or at a private hospital or clinic, where students can apply the theories they have learned in class in a real medical setting. You will learn the following skills in your practicum:
- Taking patient histories
A patient history is very important to the treatment process and can help you rule out certain conditions and determine what treatments are suitable for a patient. In a practicum, you will learn what kinds of questions to ask patients to receive the most useful history.
- Medication dispensing
Nurses often give instructions to patients on the use of medications that a doctor has prescribed. During the practicum, you will learn about different medications and their side effects and interactions with other drugs, and will have the opportunity to practice explaining these things to patients.
- Taking vital signs
Nurses usually check the vital signs of patients, particularly those who are staying in a hospital or clinic for a longer period. During a practicum, you will gain experience checking temperature, pulse, respiration, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and other vital signs.
- Patient admission
It is generally the job of a nurse to handle the admission of new patients or residents at a hospital or other healthcare facility. In a practicum, you will practice taking patients and their families to their rooms and learn which forms patients need to complete.
- Patient interaction
Nurses must be able to effectively communicate with patients so that patients are cooperative and fully understand the treatments or procedures they are undergoing. During a practicum, you will be interacting with actual patients under the supervision of a trained nurse, who can offer advice and guidance for improving your communication skills.
Discover What Type of Nursing Degree is Right for You
The type of nursing career you see yourself having should determine which traditional or online nursing degree programs you apply to.
You should only consider accredited online nursing degrees that will allow you to pursue the appropriate certification or specialization you wish to work in. For example, if you know you want to specialize as a Nurse Practitioner or a Nurse Anesthetist, you will likely need a master’s degree in nursing. If, however, you want to be able to work in different departments in a hospital or clinic, an associate’s degree in nursing should be sufficient.
All You Need to Know About Nursing Accreditation
You should always make sure a nursing program is accredited before enrolling. This ensures that you will be able to take the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN exams after graduation, transfer credits to earn further degrees, and be eligible for most scholarships. There are different types of accrediting bodies for nursing programs. These include the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) and the Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), as well as several individual state boards for nursing. Both associations ensure that nursing programs meet certain quality standards, such as the educational level of the faculty, the student-to-faculty ratio, and assessment standards.
Getting a Job After You Graduate
Upon graduating from campus-based or online nursing schools, the majority of nurses go on to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) or for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN), which allows them to practice as a Registered Nurse (RN), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN). Most employers require an RN or LPN title.
While the major nursing shortage in the U.S. has abated, nurses are still very much in demand around the country. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has designated over 10,000 Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) in the country, and you may be eligible to receive full tuition coverage or reimbursement for your on-campus or online nursing degree if you choose to work in such an area. In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the following data on different traditional or online nursing degree levels:
- Licensed Practical Nurse
|Projected national job growth:||22%|
|Entry-level Education:||diploma or associate’s in nursing; pass the NCLEX-PN exam|
- Registered Nurse
|Projected national job growth:||26%|
|Entry-level Education:||associate’s degree; pass the NCLEX-RN exam|
- Advanced Practice Nurse
|Projected national job growth:||26%|
|Entry-level Education:||master’s degree; pass the NCLEX-RN exam and specialized exam such as CRNA, CNM, or CNS|