LPN Vs. RN Nursing: What Are the Differences?

Updated on November 11, 2017

The two major nursing designations used within the United States are LPN which stands for licensed practical nurse and RN which is a registered nurse. Deciding which career path to take requires a good understanding of what each one involves in terms of education, time commitment, financial investment, potential salary, and accessibility. If you are new to nursing and the related terminology, the differences may seem confusing at first.

This article will give you a working overview of the key points you should consider as you make your decision. There is no right or wrong path and much of it will depend on which nursing school program fits best with your personal career goals and lifestyle.

In doing your research, you may come across a bit of discussion and debate over which one is better. I urge you to keep an open mind and remember that what works for one person will not necessarily be right for you. As you go through the process, you should make it your goal to identify which one is a good fit for your personal situation.

Here are the two most common questions prospective nursing school students have:

What is the difference between an LPN and RN?

There are several major differences between the two designations across a broad spectrum of characteristics ranging from job responsibilities to the amount of education required. One of the biggest differences is in the amount of education required before you can begin working in the field. Students can usually complete most LPN programs after about one year of study and on the job training. RN programs on the other hand generally require a more traditional two to four-year degree program.

As a general rule, a registered nurse will have greater responsibility for patient care with duties that include treating patients, administering medication, providing patient education, and conducting diagnostic testing. LPNs usually work under the supervision of a registered nurse performing functions such as recording vital signs, treating or dressing wounds, and reporting patient conditions. A registered nurse will typically have a bit more of an independent role while being expected to handle more complex situations.

While both nursing designations can command a respectable salary, the average earnings for a registered nurse are higher than that of an LPN. Salaries for a licensed practical nurse start at around $30,000 and can go as high as the mid $40,000 range with experience while an RN can expect to start at around $45,000 with the potential to earn as much as $70,000 per year. In recent years, LPN jobs have become more common in nursing home and long-term care facility settings than in hospitals so that is something to keep in mind as you decide on your potential career path.

Is it better to start with an LPN program and bridge to RN or go straight for an RN program?

While enrolling directly in an RN degree program may seem like the most direct path to reaching your goal of becoming a Registered Nurse, there are several compelling reasons to consider starting as an LPN. Many RN programs are very competitive and it is not uncommon to see waiting lists as long as several years just to get into the program. If you are an accomplished student with a very strong educational track record, you might be able to bypass some of the waiting by presenting yourself as an attractive candidate to your program of choice.

One of the biggest draws to starting a career as an LPN is the speed at which you can begin earning a living and gaining on the job experience. This is especially attractive to those who have families to support or those who do not wish to accumulate a great deal of student loan debt. This is a major reason LPN to RN bridge programs have become so popular in recent years. Many students are opting to complete the shorter LPN course of study so they can start earning money almost right away and then signing up for an online LPN to RN bridge program where they can complete their classes while actively working in the field.

Job opportunities for both remain plentiful in most parts of the country so landing a position once you have completed your licensure exam is usually easy as long as you interview well and have personality traits that potential employers are looking for when hiring nurses. Those who are confident, outgoing, and work well with others are usually considered the best candidates.

Making Your Decision

Whichever path you decide to take, have confidence that you are training for a career that will offer you plenty of opportunities for advancement and further education. In the event that you aren't able to get into an RN program without having to wait, you can always investigate getting certified as an LPN first and completing your RN education at a later date.

Much of the coursework is similar in nature and in some cases you can actually put yourself in a more favorable position to succeed in school by having some experience with relevant coursework already under your belt. My best advice to anyone who is trying to decide between the two potential career paths is to meet with an advisor from a program of interest before you attempt to make a final decision. Prepare a list of questions beforehand so you can cover topics that concern you the most. Requesting a meeting is as easy as filling out an online information request form and having someone contact you to set up an appointment in person or over the phone.

Once you have taken that step, make contact with someone who is actively working in the field as a Licensed Practical Nurse and someone who is working as a Registered Nurse. Have them describe what a typical day is like and ask them if they are happy with the educational route that got them to where they are today. By simply taking the time to do this extra research, you will greatly improve your odds of making a choice that you will find rewarding for years to come!


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    • Susan Sears profile image

      Susan Sears 8 months ago

      Very interesting article. I am an RN that was an LPN...the RN program was much easier after working for a period as an LPN. I used to joke that the letters for LPN stood for Lesser Paid Nurse, as I found I was doing almost everything the RN's did but received less money.

    • profile image

      Joe 15 months ago

      This article is terrible.

    • Iolani profile image

      Iolani 3 years ago from USA

      The revealing comparison and information on LPN and RN will surely help students who are aiming to become a nurse and pursue nursing career, but not yet decided the stream they should follow to achieve their goal.

    • profile image

      Nikki 6 years ago

      questions were answered and now im sure of what I want to do....very helpful.

    • blairtracy profile image

      blairtracy 6 years ago from Canada

      Things around here are changing so fast. The LPN program is now a 2 year diploma rather than a 15 month certificate. And they no longer teach the RN program. This is due to the increasing responsibilities of the LPN. LPN's here are now working in places such as surgery and the ER. And practicing skills such as starting IV's and administering IV medications. Things that were never done by an LPN in the past. Therefore, I totally agree that talking to an educational advisor would be best due to the huge differences currently across the world!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Great, helpful information for people wanting to go into a career as a health professional as well as for those of us who don't know the difference. Voted up!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Good info! My mom was an RN and my daughter is an LPN.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      Thank you, lender, for a very thorough and revealing comparison between RN and LPN programs. Should be extremely useful for anyone contemplating a nursing career.