Feeling the pull of a career in healthcare but not certain whether nursing vs. med school is right for you? You are definitely not alone.
Prospective students often tell us that they planned on going to medical school before deciding nursing was a better fit for them. In fact, quite a few students of our Direct Entry Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program intended to become doctors at one point in their lives.
There are many reasons students cite for choosing nursing vs. med school. Some are deeply personal, the result of a life-changing experience. Others are more pragmatic — you can become a nurse in a fraction of the time it takes to become a doctor. Still, many just find the compassionate dedication of nurses inspiring and see nursing as a ticket to a rewarding career that will let them make real differences in people’s lives.
Two Very Different Career Paths
Before diving into any comparisons of the two professions, one thing must be said: Doctors and nurses have very different roles and responsibilities. While some TV shows and movies may paint a picture of doctors and nurses in a state of constant competition (sometimes bordering on mutual distrust), the truth is that both play equally critical roles in providing patient care and each brings a unique set of skills to the table.
To understand why the education requirements differ so greatly between nursing and medical school, it helps to look at what each does. Essentially:
- Collect subjective and objective data
- Observe symptoms and diagnose
- Interpret data (lab results, CT scans)
- Prescribe a treatment plan
- Perform procedures
- Collect subjective and objective data
- Report critical information
- Implement treatment plan
- Help patients with activities of daily living (ADLs)
- Collaborate with the care team to ensure treatment plan is carried out
- Advocate for the patient
To understand why the education requirements differ so greatly between nursing and medical school, it helps to look at what each does. Essentially, doctors diagnose and nurses treat, though there are exceptions. Doctors, for example, perform surgeries, and nurses may make preliminary diagnoses or — in spending more time with patients — uncover information that leads to new diagnoses.
Here are four reasons to choose nursing over medical school:
1. Nurses Can Start Working Sooner
It’s no exaggeration to say that medical school takes far more time and effort than nursing school. In fact, it can take upward of 15 years (sometimes more) to become a practicing physician. In other words, you really need to be sure medical school is right for you before starting down the long road to becoming a physician.
On the other hand, it’s possible to become a registered nurse in less than two years, depending on your educational experience. It takes about four years to earn a BSN through a traditional program; however, some accelerated programs allow you to use your existing college experience to earn a BSN in around 16–18 months. Better yet, if you already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, Marquette University’s Direct Entry MSN program lets you earn a master’s in nursing in 18–21 months, which brings us to our next reason to become a nurse instead of a doctor…
|Becoming a Doctor||Becoming a Nurse|
|The process for becoming a doctor is an arduous one. First you have four years of undergraduate studies (pre-med), after which you must take the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT). Four intensive years of medical school follow, along with clinicals. Next comes three to seven years of residency, after which you can finally apply for a license and take your board exams. For many students, this is the end of their long journey toward becoming a physician; however, others may go on to undertake several years of a fellowship depending on their subspecialty area.||While the increased emphasis on RNs holding at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) means that fewer nurses today are starting with associate’s degrees, compared to the process for becoming a doctor, the path to becoming a registered nurse is relatively straightforward. You just have to graduate from a nursing program (during which you will do labs and clinicals), pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and apply for a license.|
2. Nurses Have More Career Opportunities
A nursing degree is your ticket to a world of opportunity. As the demand for healthcare increases, so too does the demand for registered nurses, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 15 percent employment growth between 2016 and 2026 — and that’s not even factoring in the jobs that will need to be filled as Baby Boomer nurses continue to retire.
“There are lots of different paths nursing can take you and that makes me really excited,” says Marlyn, who recently passed the NCLEX-RN. “There’s a lot of room for growth and movement.”
However, it’s not just demand that gives nurses the upper hand career-wise — the United States needs more doctors, too. However, unlike physicians, whose opportunities may be limited by their specialty area, nurses can work in a variety of settings both in and out of the hospital. For example, nurses can find work at insurance companies, as health coaches, case managers and nurse navigators, as on-staff nurses at non-healthcare companies, and even at law firms, as medical forensics investigators.
Plus, graduating with a masters in nursing gives you a leg up on recent BSN graduates by more thoroughly preparing you academically, as well as positioning you for nursing leadership roles, which often require an MSN. An MSN also puts you a certificate away from many advanced nursing careers, including:
- Nurse Practitioner
- Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Nurse Midwife
- Nurse Anesthetist
“I know that with that masters [degree] is going to come a lot of opportunities,” says Allysa, a current student of Marquette University’s Direct Entry MSN program. “If I want to go into education in the future, if I want to take on leadership roles — I might want to become an NP [nurse practitioner] someday — and having that masters is the stepping stone to all of those future career opportunities. It made the most sense.”
3. Nurses Develop Stronger Patient Relationships
If developing strong relationships with patients is important to you, nursing may be a better fit for you.
While nurses may not diagnose patients, prescribe treatments or perform operations, the effect they have on their patients is indelible. Doctors are often in and out. In many cases, they may see a patient for a few minutes a day. The same cannot be said of nurses, especially in hospitals, where a nurse may spend the entire shift attending to a small handful of patients.
For Shelby, a current student of the Direct Entry MSN program, the relationships nurses develop with patients and their families were a big part of her decision to become a nurse after weighing medical school.
“My dad was a critical pain patient all my life, and so I was raised in the hospital at MD Anderson because those were the doctors that would work on him, and that’s why I wanted to go to med school,” she says. “After he passed away, I realized I wanted more one-on-one time with patients because my dad spent a lot of time with nurses and not too much time with doctors.”
4. Nurses Are at the Forefront of Patient Care
It’s this time nurses spend with patients – monitoring their conditions; administering IV fluids, chemo and other medications; and providing critical physical and emotional support — that positions nurses on the front lines of care. Nurses are often the first to recognize when something is wrong, and must act quickly, whether that means reviving a patient, administering emergency medication, calling for immediate support or consulting with a doctor.
“I love what we can do as nurses,” says William, a current student of Marquette’s Direct Entry MSN program, who planned on going to medical school until he got to see firsthand what nurses do while working as an ER technician.
“Even though sometimes it’s going to be stressful and demanding, we’re the people who get to help patients,” continues William. “We’re the ones who are on the front lines. We’re one of the healthcare providers who spend so much time interacting with the patients. We can make an impact on their lives…helping them, comforting them, explaining to them what needs to be done. We have a lot of patient interaction and can influence patient care to an extent.”
Getting to know patients and their families on a much more personal level also means that nurses almost by default play the important role of patient advocate. This could mean explaining a condition or procedure to a patient in language they understand, acting as a liaison between a physician and the patient, or having honest conversations with family members.
Use Your Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree to Earn an MSN
If a career in nursing is the right path for you and you already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, our Direct Entry MSN program may be your best path forward. With two start dates each year, you can start working toward your nursing degree sooner.