Guide To CNA Careers And Specialties

Working as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) can be a good long-term career, or a transitional position between other jobs. While CNAs are required to have a certain level of training and professionalism, the barrier to entry for the job is much lower than for many positions in the medical industry. Whether you want the job for the long haul, or just want to test the waters, working as a CNA might have something to offer you.

How to Get a Job as a CNA

The path to becoming a CNA isn’t necessarily easy, but it is fairly straightforward and doesn’t take long:

  1. Take a training course. These take only a few weeks, and will let you meet the legal requirement of 75 hours of state-approved training before you can work as a CNA.
  2. Pass the test. As implied by the title of Certified Nursing Assistant, CNAs need to pass a certification exam before they can legally work as a CNA. This requirement does not apply to general medical assistants.
  3. Apply for jobs. There are a lot of job openings for CNAs, and a high rate of turnover because of the relatively low pay compared to other medical professions. You shouldn’t have any trouble securing a position once you’ve received certification, though if you’re particular about what type of facility and which part of the country you work in, your job search might be more difficult.

Career Mobility for CNAs

While being a CNA offers a good salary and the satisfaction of helping people in medical need, it may not be a very desirable long-term career path for someone who wants to be deeply involved in the diagnosis and treatment of illness and injury. For many CNAs, their current position is just a jumping-off point for a more involved career in medicine. Whether that means working as a CNA to pay for nursing school, or assisting in various offices to see what type of medical career they’re most interested in, CNA work can help students gauge their interest in different types of medical work without having to commit to a long, expensive degree program at first.

Becoming a CNA can be a great way to break into the medical industry. The stats collected by The Bureau of Labor Statistics show an expected increase in job availability, and pay has increased in the past several years. The following information from The BLS offers some insight into the employment situation for CNAs in the near future.

  • ”Employment for nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants will grow 19 percent, faster than the average for all occupations, predominantly in response to the long-term care needs of an increasing elderly population.”
  • “Median hourly wages of nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants were $11.46 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.71 and $13.76 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.34, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $15.97 an hour.”
  • “High replacement needs for nursing and psychiatric aides reflect modest entry requirements, low pay, high physical and emotional demands, and limited opportunities for advancement within the occupation…Many aides leave the occupation to attend training programs for other healthcare occupations. Therefore, people who are interested in, and suited for, this work should have excellent job opportunities.”

Different areas of the country offer different median wages for nursing aides. The infographic below, from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, displays the mean annual wage of nurse aides in different parts of the U.S.:


Source: United States BLS Employment Program

Certified Nurse Assisting: A Place to Start

CNAs in the U.S. earn a lower median salary than the national average across all careers, so unless the work really suits your schedule and lifestyle, you’ll probably want to move on and either go deeper into the medical field, or start a new career altogether after being a CNA. If you want to keep with a medical career, but earn more money and have more authority, a degree in nursing could be your next step. Here are a few tips on how to transition from a job as a CNA into a nursing degree program and eventually a career in nursing:

  1. Keep Your Day Job: If you can continue to work as a CNA while taking some nursing classes online or in the evening, or both, you can alleviate some of the stress of taking on debt to finance your education. Some employers will even pay for continuing education if you promise to work for them for a certain amount of time after you finish school. Take advantage of that assistance if it is available to you.
  2. Pick a Specialty: It will look good on your application to nursing school if you’re applying to an acute care program and you have already worked in a facility where such care is provided. If you have a supervisor who is the type of nurse you want to be, ask for a letter of recommendation. Who you know and what you’ve done can be great tools for securing yourself a position at a top school.
  3. Network: If you’re already working in a medical facility, chances are you know someone with hiring power, or someone with a good name in the nursing community. Letting them know that you plan to go back to school, but that you’d love to work with them again in the future, can go a long way toward getting you a job when you’ve finished your degree. If someone within an organization recommends you, you have a much higher chance of being hired than if you apply “cold.”
  4. Keep on Learning: Continuing education is crucial in any job in the medical industry. The field changes quickly. New technologies come into common use regularly, and constant research can provide new treatment plans for old problems. Even if you feel comfortable with your current knowledge level, it always helps to keep up with the latest innovations by taking classes or just reading reliable sources, such as peer-reviewed medical journals, on your own time.

Potential Specialties for CNAs to Grow Into

If you’re a CNA looking to grow your career and move forward with your life, it helps to know your options. The following are some specialties of nursing and other medical support jobs that may pay better and offer more growth opportunities than being a CNA can:

  • Psychiatric Aide: As a psychiatric aide you can work in a mental health ward or hospital, alongside psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health workers. You may work with housed patients over a long period as well as shorter term patients needing acute care.
  • Radiology/Sonography: Working as a radiologist or sonographer, you’ll use heavy duty machinery to take images of patients’ bones, organs, and other soft tissues, which doctors will use to diagnose illness and injury.
  • Advanced Practice Nursing: Many specialties are available to nurse’s assistants who decide to pursue their own career in nursing. Gynecology, critical care, psychiatric nursing, and palliative care are just a few of the niches that nurses can move into.
  • Medical School: If the medical environment suits you fantastically, and all you want to do is practice medicine, becoming a doctor is the way to go. This can take up to 12 years of school, and can easily put you in over $100,000 of debt, but the salaries doctors earn have no trouble paying that off, and if an M.D. is your dream, the time commitment is worth it.

Where to Begin

If you’re ready to start out your career in the medical field with a job as a CNA, check out the schools listed on this site for programs to help you get qualified. If you’re already a CNA and looking for an upgrade, these programs can also qualify you for more supervisory or managerial positions, or even get you into a whole new career, such as nursing or sonography, within the medical field.

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Research your CNA program options with our database of over 300 schools. Search by subject, tuition, campus or online to find a CNA program that fits your needs.

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