Licensed Practical Nurse: A Comprehensive Career Guide

Becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) could be the perfect career option for you if you are considering a career in healthcare. 

You don’t need a college degree to pursue the position, and the required qualifications can often be obtained in a year.

licensed practical nurse

If you love to work hands-on with people and know your personality fits the mold, this may be your calling.

Use this guide to explore what it means to become an LPN, what the education requirements are, what the job and growth outlooks are, and what your career path could look like.

What Is An LPN?

The role of a Licensed Practical Nurse is critical to the healthcare system – LPNs provide patients with essential care on a day-to-day basis under the supervision of Registered Nurses (RNs) and physicians.

As subordinates to RNs and physicians, LPNs have several key responsibilities.

What Does A Licensed Practical Nurse Do?

Collecting samples, taking vital signs, and administering medication are the primary responsibilities of an LPN.

LPNs must also ensure patient comfort – helping them eat, dress, bathe, and giving them the quality care they need.

As an LPN, you will work closely with RNs and physicians to maintain clear communication about the status of a patient’s recovery and aid them in keeping detailed records.

Additionally, you must work with the patient’s families and understand procedures to care for sick relatives.

LPN vs. LVN

A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) is the same as a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN).

The title “Licensed Vocational Nurse” is used in Texas and California. 

In all other states, the title “Licenced Practical Nurse” is used.

However, the duties remain the same.

How Are LPNs Different from CNAs?

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) also works to help patients with daily living activities.

However, CNAs have a more limited scope of practice and often work under an LPN’s supervision. 

Their responsibilities include:

  • Transporting patients
  • Answering call lights
  • Checking a patient’s vital signs
  • Cleaning patient rooms
  • Reporting changes in condition to nursing staff

However, unlike an LPN, a CNA does not:

  • Administer medication 
  • Collect samples 
  • Assist with wound care
  • Insert and care for urinary catheters
  • Care for patients with ventilators and tracheostomy tubes
  • Provide feeding through nasogastric tubes
  • Perform emergency CPR

CNAs have a shorter education period, typically lasting between 4-12 weeks, and have a mean salary of $29,640 per year.

How Are LPNs Different from RNs?

The duties and responsibilities of a Registered Nurse (RN) differ greatly from the duties of an LPN.

RNs are primarily responsible for supervising LPNs, but they often assist patients with their daily living activities.

In addition to taking on the responsibility of managing LPNs, they must also:

  • Perform ACLS and PALS
  • Maintain accurate documentation
  • Develop a plan of care for each patient
  • Ensure patient safety (nonmaleficence)
  • Admit and discharge patients appropriately
  • Correctly assess and manage patient populations with appropriate intervention.

There are three educational paths to becoming a Registered Nurse:

  • Bachelors of Science in Nursing (Takes four years to complete) 
  • Associate’s Degree in Nursing (Takes between two and three years to complete) 
  • Diploma from An Approved Nursing Program (Takes between two and three years to complete) 

RNs can further specialize in areas such as critical care, emergency care, or labor and delivery. They have a mean salary of $73,300 per year

More on the LPN vs RN scope of practice.

Where Do Licensed Practical Nurses Work?

Here’s a breakdown of work environments as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

The majority (38%) of LPNs work at nursing homes and residential care facilities.

16% of all LPNs in the USA work at hospitals, whereas 13% work at physician’s offices.

A smaller number of LPNs (12%) provide home healthcare services, and 7% LPNs work at government or military facilities.

The remaining fraction (14%) of LPNs work at research centers, schools, churches, and charities. 

An even smaller number of LPNs come across unconventional opportunities, such as working as a nurse on cruise ships, in amusement parks, and even as consultants on TV shows. 

The gamut of where you could work is very wide.

What Is an LPNs Salary?

A Licensed Practical Nurse makes an average of $48,840 annually. LPNs are right in the middle of what CNAs and RNs get compensated.

The small fraction of LPNs that work at government or military facilities are paid the highest salaries, whereas LPNs employed at physician’s offices earn the lowest.

Which States Pay the Most?

If you are flexible about relocating, you could consider moving to the best-paying states after becoming an LPN.

Here’s a list of the top five best-paying states:

State Annual Mean Wage Hourly Mean Wage
Alaska $63,850 $30.70
Massachusetts $60,340 $29.01
California $60,240 $28.96
Rhode Island $59,860 $28.78
Nevada $58,470 $28.11

Source: BLS.gov

Licensed Practical Nurses in Virginia get paid the lowest salary – $37,500 annually ($18.03 per hour).

What Is the Career Outlook for LPNs​?

The BLS expects a 9% increase in the employment of LPNs over the next ten years. In context, the average growth in employment hovers around the 4% mark.

You can expect job opportunities to appear at a staggering rate. 

The estimates hold water since the baby-boomer population is beginning to age. Additionally, chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity are becoming more and more prevalent.

It is also expected that employers will favor LPNs that specialize in areas like gerontology and IV therapy.

What Career Paths Are Available​?

Becoming an LPN gives you a lot of flexibility. You can explore the different areas of nursing and find what your true passion is.

After you become an LPN, you could transition into a BSN-RN role, better known as the registered nurse role.

While becoming a BSN-RN requires you to earn a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, you can go through an accelerated BSN program after you become an LPN.

After you finish the program, you’ll be qualified to take the NCLEX-RN exam to transition from a registered practical nurse role to a registered nurse role.

You could also use your LPN license to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP).

However, the process is challenging. After you become an LPN, you will need to:

  • Earn a BSN.
  • Pass the NCLEX-RN exam.
  • Gain 1-2 years of experience working as an RN.
  • Apply and complete your graduate degree in nursing (takes ≈1.5 years to complete).
  • Choose a specialty and complete specific coursework (and 500 hours of supervised clinical hours).
  • Pass a comprehensive exam in your specialty.

NPs are compensated very well (earning an average of $109,820 annually) and enjoy generous benefits. Watch this video on 7 reasons why you should consider becoming an LPN.

How Do I Become A Licensed Practical Nurse?

To become an LPN, you must obtain a specific certification and take the right test.

What Are the Education and Certification Requirements?

After you earn your high school diploma, you must apply for and be accepted by a school offering an accredited program.

Once you’re certified, you must take the NCLEX-PN exam. Keep in mind that while testing sites are located all across the country, spots tend to fill up fast.

You will be able to view your results within 48 hours of the test and receive your license in the mail and an official copy of your results.

How Long Does It Take to Become an LPN​?

Getting the certification to become an LPN takes anywhere between one and two years. How fast you complete it depends on your commitment. 

However, some accelerated programs will earn you your certification in as little as seven months.

But don’t forget that you need to study for the NCLEX-PN exam, which typically takes two months.  

Can I Attend Nursing School Online​?

There are no programs that offer a fully-online curriculum.

However, some schools offer hybrid LPN programs that allow you to complete a chunk of your coursework online. The remainder of your coursework must be completed at a local nursing school or medical facility.

But living within commuting distance of the facilities where the training takes place is a must if you wish to enroll in hybrid programs.

Most LPN programs require you to core classes in science and mathematics. A lot of these classes are offered online, which will give you some more flexibility.

Can I Get Financial Aid?

Yes, there are many ways for you to get financial aid.

There are several nursing scholarships you could apply for and receive financial aid. However, you must remember that these are merit-based, and it takes a lot to qualify. 

Applying for need-based grants is also a good option. The grant you get depends on your financial situation and can be used to cover tuition, housing, books, transportation, and other needs.

You could also apply for a loan, preferably a federal student loan. You don’t have to pay it back when you’re in school, and the government charges a lower interest than private lenders.

The government may allow you to defer your payments if you face financial hardships later, or transition you into a plan that fits your budget.

Nurses are also eligible for loan forgiveness if they have a federal student loan.

You could also look into getting Stafford loans or apply for Federal Perkins Loans, which most nursing students consider the go-to option.

Avoid getting private student loans. They tend to become an immense financial burden.

Do I Need A License?

Yes, getting a license is one of the primary requirements for LPN jobs.

You can apply for the test (NCLEX-PN) on the National Council of State Boards of Nursing’s official website. It costs $200.

You will be tested on four subjects:

  • Safe and Effective Care Environment
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Physiological Integrity

What Continuing Education is Required for an LPN?

You will likely need to complete CEUs to renew your license.

CEU is short for Continuing Education Units. Depending on what state you live in, you must earn a specific number of CEUs in a fixed period.

However, some states do not require you to earn CEUs at all.

Most state boards randomly audit nurses and ask for proof of completed CEUs when applying for renewal.

If you cannot prove that you have completed your CEUs, your LPN license may be suspended until you obtain them.

Can Licensed Practical Nurses Specialize?

Specializing in an area is another excellent way to advance your career.

It’s easy to transition into different areas of healthcare as an LPN. If you find that you’re passionate about a specific part of your job, or see better growth opportunities in particular specializations, getting a certification in that area is a good idea.

There are several specialty LPN certifications, some of which include:

  • Oncology LPN
  • Pediatric LPN
  • Emergency room LPN
  • Labor and delivery LPN
  • Rehabilitative and Gerontology LPN

How Can I Transition from an LPN To an RN​?

You can transition from an LPN to an RN by enrolling in either an LPN-to-ADN program or an LPN-to-BSN program.

While both the programs will help you build on existing knowledge, both offer benefits and disadvantages that you will need to gauge.

The cost of these programs varies hugely depending on the school you attend. In any case, scholarships and grants can reduce the burden. 

Depending on whether you’re pursuing an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, completing an LPN-to-RN program can take between two and four years.

Where Can I Find A School?

You can search for approved nursing programs here, or by visiting the state board of nursing website for your state. 

Where Can I Find Jobs?

You can find jobs on job posting websites, or even enquire at the facility you’d like to work at directly.

There’s no shortage of jobs – in fact, the number of positions is expected to grow astronomically.

Can I Transfer My License to Another State​?

Yes. Should you need to move from one state to another, you can transfer your license by following these steps.

If you’re passionate about healthcare but don’t have a college degree, or just don’t want to go down that road, getting your LPN license is a great way to go.

Will it take hard work? Yes.

But in addition to answering your calling, you will also avoid getting into massive debt, be compensated well, and earn a respected place in society.

Learn more about other levels of nursing.