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What is a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)?

In Texas and California, they’re called Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), but in the rest of the United States and Canada, they’re called Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN). Regardless of what they are called, these nurses are a step above Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) and a step below registered nurses (RN). They work under the direction of physicians and the supervision of RN’s, caring for individuals who are injured, sick, disabled, or convalescent.

LPN’s primarily offer basic nursing care to patients, such as:

  • Making them comfortable
  • Taking their vital signs
  • Helping them bathe
  • Assisting them to dress
  • Feeding them
  • And more

They may also assist doctors and RN’s with keeping records, explaining to patients how to take their medications, communicating with families about procedures, and letting relatives know how to care for their sick loved ones.

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Steps to Becoming a Certified LPN

Becoming an LPN is a very rewarding career in itself and, provided you follow the right path, could be a stepping stone to even better opportunities in the future, like becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) or a BSN-RN.

There are a number of routes that you can take to become an LPN; the two most commonly used are by earning a diploma, or a degree and then getting certified. If you just want to take the fastest and easiest path, you can simply earn a diploma and then take the exam to become certified; however, this route will not earn you any credits toward continuing your education as obtaining an associate’s degree would.

  • Step 1: Choose which route to take; Diploma Vs Degree

  • Step 2: Get Your Diploma or Degree

  • Step 3: Pass the National Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN)

  • Step 4: Start applying for employment


Step 1: Choose which route to take; Diploma Vs Degree

Choosing which route to take to become an LPN is probably the biggest decision of your career. While obtaining a diploma or a degree are both clear paths to becoming a certified LPN now, they do have different effects on future learning.

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If you would like to become an LPN for now and then advance to an RN later where you will have more responsibilities and more pay, then you should consider pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). In a degree program, students earn college credits that can be transferred later to get a higher education.

You can earn a diploma or a degree in nursing and at the same time prepare for the certification exam from the comfort of home by taking online classes where you can obtain a diploma in as little as ten months and an associate’s degree within 24 months.

Due to an increase in the demand for nurses, an LPN’s job duties have changed significantly to where they now have more responsibilities, yet there are still many restrictions to what they can do and where they can work. For example, in the past, an LPN wasn’t allowed to work in emergency rooms or critical care units, but they do now. Still, most LPN’s work in nursing homes, assisted living, or for residential services.

Another thing to consider before making your choice is that LPN’s will always have to answer to RN’s.

Step 2: Get Your Diploma or Degree

After deciding which type of program to take, you will need to find one that is state-approved or accredited. Diploma or certificate LPN programs are usually provided by community colleges, hospitals, junior colleges, or technical schools and both degree and diplomas can be completed online.

Students in pursuit of LPN certification may have coursework that includes:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Nursing Care for Adults and Children
  • Psychology/Human Growth and Development
  • Nutrition
  • Medical Terminology

In addition, before being accepted some schools may require you to take an entrance exam. Obtaining an associate degree provides undergraduates greater career flexibility and lays the foundation for pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Step 3: Pass the National Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN)

Upon completing an LPN diploma or certificate program, you can sign up to take the NCLEX-PN, which is mandated by all states and the District of Columbia. In order to work as an LPN you must be licensed and the only way to obtain licensure is by passing the NCLEX-PN competency exam.

The NCLEX-PN is developed and administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The exam includes roughly 85 to 205 multiple choice items that focus on certain areas of nursing practice such as:

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

You must complete the exam within five hours. If you fail the exam, you will have to wait 45 to 90 days before you can retake it.

Step 4: Start applying for employment

Passing the NCLEX-PN will make you a certified LPN ready to work. Most colleges, universities, and even trade schools have a job-placement program available to help students with all their job search needs. Some services that these programs may include are:

  • An internship where students can gain some work experience while studying to earn their degree or diploma
  • Interview training
  • Help to create a portfolio or resume
  • Assistance in networking
  • Referrals to open positions in your field
  • Help to gather required documents, such as letters of recommendation, proof of skills, volunteer work, community contributions, and grades.

What Does an LPN Do?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, LPN’s earn an average median annual salary of $45,00 caring for patients.

An LPN may work in a variety of healthcare institutions which include:

  • Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing Homes
  • Rehabilitation Centers
  • Extended Care Facilities
  • Private Practices
  • And anywhere else that serves patients

These licensed nurses are overseen by a physician or registered nurse and help with the basic comforts and personal care of patients by:

  • Taking, monitoring, and recording patients vital signs and blood pressure
  • Helping patients to bathe, eat, use the bathroom, dress, and more
  • Inserting catheters
  • Handling intravenous drips (IVs)
  • Assisting to deliver babies
  • Caring for newborns including feeding, bathing, changing their diapers, checking their vitals, and monitoring their status
  • Administering medication and giving shots
  • Communicating with family members
  • keeping patient records like history, progress, diagnosis, and new conditions
  • Communicating the status of patients with doctors and RN’s
  • Answering phones
  • Setting up appointments
  • Supervising new nurses aids
  • Relaying messages to doctors from patients or vice versa
  • Talking to patients or entertaining them
  • Cleaning and dressing wounds and incisions
  • Performing health assessments to make medical treatment plans
  • Prepping patients for exams
  • Evaluating patients living conditions
  • Assisting with physical therapy routines
  • Working with relatives to teach them home care tips
  • Escorting patients on outings
  • Assisting doctors with minor procedures
  • Changing bedpans and bedding
  • Keeping patients warm and comfortable
  • And more

LPN Skills to Acquire

Because LPN’s will be caring for patients; it is vital they possess medical knowledge and empathy. In addition, nurses must also possess the following skills:

  • Physical stamina
    Being physically fit is necessary to be able to partially lift patients to help them get in and out of bed or get dressed and more.
  • Communication skills
    LPN’s must have the ability to speak clearly and concisely so that they can relay to the doctors, RN’s, and family members improvements or worsened conditions of patients they are caring for.

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  • Empathy and compassion
    LPN's must be able to express compassion while communicating with patients and relatives. This is why LPN’s must have empathy and a true passion for caring for others.
  • Organizational skills
    Nursing is a fast-paced job that is also demanding, in which the health and well-being of people depend on their ability to multi-task and manage information. Even the simplest mistakes can be detrimental; therefore, LPN's must have good organizational skills with good methods in place.
  • Tolerance for blood, bodily fluids, smell, and other things related to the human body
    Not everyone can handle the sight of blood or certain odors that come from bodily secretions. Before making the decision to become a nurse, you should think this through; will you be able to handle these kinds of things?
  • Decision-Making and Critical Thinking Skills
    This may be one of the most critical skills, as you may need to make some quick decisions in emergency situations with confidence. These skills come into action when performing effective procedures.
  • Detail-Oriented
    LPN’s should always remain detail-oriented, agile, and focused during treatments of patients as they may be required to provide medications and diagnose patients and then report back to the patients' doctors. Even the smallest mistake could be detrimental to a patient's health or even life-threatening.
  • Computer Skills
    LPN’s must have computer knowledge to be able to enter information and record data. Computers are used to maintain patient records and important information, which is why LPN’s must know how to access and store information.
  • Time Management Skills
    Nurses are assigned to many patients at the same time per shift, in order to ensure that each patient gets the care they need, an LPN must know how to manage time spent with each.
  • Supervisory Skills
    LPN’s usually supervise new LPN’s and CNA’s, which is where supervisory skills will be needed.

Alternative Paths

Most states have alternate pathways to become a licensed practical nurse that allows candidates to take tests to become a practical nurse or offer fast-tracked training needed to sit for the exam. These programs may be available to those who started a high-level nursing program but did not complete it, or who finished the higher-level program but didn’t pass the exam for licensure. Some may also accept equivalent military training as well.

Just to note, every state has different methods, just because one state offers special pathways does not mean the others will. There are states that will not allow you to be licensed without completing a valid nurses training program even if you already have been working as an LPN.

LPN Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Licensed practical or vocational nurses can be trained in all different aspects of healthcare. Some specialize in particular areas and may work in a variety of medical settings such as clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, and physicians’ offices. In addition, some LPN’s may work in home care where they care for their patients in their homes instead of in a facility.

Depending on where they work, LPN’s might have different responsibilities that are included with their general duties. For instance, LPN’s that work in a private physician’s office might also take on administrative tasks as well, like making appointments, answering phones, and calling in prescriptions, where other LPN’s might find themselves taking on more advanced duties while working in an emergency room setting.

Potential Career Paths

While there is only one career involved with becoming an LPN, and that’s being an LPN, there are many paths an LPN can take which would mean working in different settings. The following are some of them:

  • LPN in Home Healthcare Services
    Being an in-home healthcare LPN is common for these nurses who provide private care for patients in their homes. These LPN’s are employed by a home healthcare agency or in a healthcare facility that sends them out to care for patients.
    Common duties may include:
    • Assisting patients with hygiene
    • Evaluating patients living conditions
    • Talking to patients and entertaining them to help improve mental health
    • Escorting patients on outings
    • Working with families to teach them basic home care
  • LPN in Nursing Care Facility
    The most common employers are residential treatment agencies such as group homes for terminally or mentally ill patients, rehabilitative or hospice services where most of the patients are elderly although some may be younger with disabilities or illnesses.
    Common duties may include:
    • Health assessments to make treatment plans
    • Supervise nursing aids
    • Clean rooms
    • And more
  • LPN in Medical and Surgical Hospital – Private
    Common employers are hospitals who need LPN’s to work in maternity, surgical, and ER departments.
    Common duties may include:
    • Supervising new nurse’s aides
    • Assisting with advanced medical practices

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  • LPN in Community Care Facility for Elderly
    These LPN’s are usually employed by assisted living centers, private or public nursing homes, and retirement homes.
    Common duties may include:
    • Provide patients with companionship and friendship
    • Assist with physical therapy routines
    • And more
  • LPN in Physician’s Office
    The most common places for these LPN’s to work are at clinics, doctors’ offices, ER medical centers, and ambulatory surgical centers.
    Common duties may include:
    • Giving patients shots and medication
    • Prepping patients for exams
    • Dressing incisions
    • Helping with minor procedures

LPN Career Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Licensed Practical Nurse $31,000 $45,000 $61,000
LPN w/Hospice Skills $40,000 $44,000 $57,000
LPN w/Pediatrics Skills $26,000 $44,000 $58,000
LPN w/Geriatrics Skills $35,000 $47,000 $61,000
LPN w/Long-term Care Skills $34,000 $47,000 $62,000
LPN w/Home Care Skills $35,000 $48,000 $62,000
LPN w/Family Practice Skills $30,000 $44,000 $57,000
LPN w/Psychiatric Skills $33,000 $42,000 $58,000
LPN w/Dialysis $36,000 $48,000 $61,000

Career Outlook

Although there have been rumors of LPN’s being faded out eventually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth overall will be at 22% in 2020, which is very high for in-home healthcare. However, the BLS also anticipates a shift in the near future in which LPN’s will switch from working in private hospitals and nursing care to community cares and home healthcare services.

They also foresee the following projected growth percentages taking place by 2020:

  • LPN in Home Healthcare Services - 72.1%
  • LPN in Nursing Care Facility - 11.7%
  • LPN in Medical and Surgical Hospital – Private - 8.1%
  • LPN in Community Care Facility for Elderly - 49.4%
  • LPN in Physician’s Office - 30.8%

Advancing From Here

Just because you decide to start out being an LPN, doesn’t mean you have to continue to be one throughout your life. There are many ways that you can advance your career to higher levels. For example, holding only an associate’s degree will allow you to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam, meaning if you pass, you can become an RN (registered nurse) without a bachelor’s degree.

RNs hold the largest place in the nursing workforce, and there are plenty of opportunities for an RN just waiting to be filled. At this level you could find yourself working in nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, and more where you will be using critical thinking skills to make judgments and do assessments based on your training and education. You will also be responsible for managing complex situations such as administering drugs while working with critically ill patients. In addition, RN’s can follow even more paths and can specialize in certain areas including research, legal nursing, and information technology.

The BLS estimates that the average LPN earns an average annual salary of $45,000 where an RN earns an annual salary of $65,950. That’s over a $20,000 difference in wages.

To transition from an LPN to an RN, you may need to complete additional training or attend professional development courses in order to pass the RN exam.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does an LPN do?

An LPN is responsible for caring for the patients by providing basic care, checking vital signs, and administering medications.

Where can you work as an LPN?

As a licensed practical nurse you are qualified to work in hospitals, long term care facilities, and in hospice. Generally, it is more difficult to land a job in a hospital as the demand is so high.

What is the difference between an LPN and an LVN?

An LPN and a LVN is essentially the same thing. Most programs fall under the LPN category but if you are in Texas or California, you will be looking for an LVN program. Both positions require the same licensing and certification process.

How long does it take to go from LPN to a RN?

To go from LPN to RN typically takes about 2 years. You can find a program specifically designed to help you transition from LPN to RN.

What is the job outlook for licensed practical nurses?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the estimated growth rate for LPNs will increase by 9% by 2029.

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