RN vs. PN: What Nursing Program Is Right for You?

Before you decided to study nursing, you might have thought that a nursing program was a nursing program, and that was all there was to it. Like most things in life, it’s not quite that simple.

There are two major categories of nurses working in medical settings across the U.S.—the registered nurse (RN) and the practical nurse (PN)—also called a “vocational nurse” in California and Texas.

As an aspiring nurse, it’s important to know the similarities and differences to help you choose the best path for you:


The Similarities

Both RNs and PNs must take and pass at the NCLEX licensure exam before they can be employed. Thus, there are two versions of the NCLEX: the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN.

Both roles are crucial to nursing, and some of their duties overlap. The actual scope of practice for RNs and PNs varies by state and by facility.

RNs and PNs can be found in just about every care setting from hospitals to home health and from long-term care facilities to doctor’s offices.

The Differences

The main difference between the two types of nurses comes down to educational requirements, job responsibilities, salary, and career advancement potential.

Education Requirements

To become an RN, you will need to earn a professional nursing degree. There are several options: a hospital-based diploma program, a two-year associate degree (ADN), or a four-year bachelor of science degree (BSN).

To become a PN, you don’t have to get a college degree. You must finish high school and complete a practical nursing course, which usually takes about one year. This type of nursing program is often offered at a technical school or community college. When you finish, you’ll receive a certification.

Depending on what state you live in, both RNs and PNs may be expected to complete regular continuing education courses to maintain their nursing licenses.

Job Responsibilities

On the floor, many of the duties of an RN and a PN will look the same, but RNs have more responsibilities.

RNs oversee other workers like PNs, nursing students, and aides. They are responsible for creating care plans and executing doctors’ orders, administering medications and treatments, performing diagnostic tests, analyzing test results, and instructing patients.

RNs must be trained in seeing the big picture and using critical thinking skills to analyze information, consider underlying medical conditions, and make changes to care plans as needed. They are also responsible for complex and potentially more high-risk tasks like adjusting a patient’s medication dosage or inserting a central venous catheter.

PNs focus on basic bedside care. This includes: taking vital signs, dressing wounds, assisting with bathing, dressing, standing, and walking. They are chiefly concerned with making sure the patient is comfortable. PNs work under the supervision of an RN or physician, which means they aren’t allowed to assess a patient, interpret data, or make decisions for patients.

Salaries and Rates

As for a nurse salaries and rates, RNs typically earn more money than PNs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean hourly wage for PNs in the U.S. as of May 2015 is $20.80, while the mean hourly wage for RNs is $33.55.

Career Advancement Potential

Whether you’re a PN or RN, your job outlook for the coming years is excellent. According to the BLS, employment of PNs is expected to grow 25 percent from 2012 to 2022. For RNs, the job outlook is 19 percent.

As an RN, you’ll have more options for career advancement and pay increases within your field—especially if you earn a BSN degree. There are also some care settings that only hire RNs, such as most schools.

However, responsibilities can vary according to the medical setting you choose. If you’re a PN employed at a nursing home, for example, you’ll likely have more opportunities to move up in the ranks than if you’re employed at a hospital.