Top Academic Paths to Help You Pursue Nursing and Medical Careers

Nurses and doctors are in high demand, and aspiring health care professionals should know what their higher education options are. Learn more here!

Helping patients through difficult times as a nurse or medical doctor can be highly rewarding.  This is one of many reasons why an increasing number of students have been applying to colleges for health care and medical-related degrees. The health care industry allows for many different career paths and provides a challenging and fast-paced work environment. Whether you’re choosing a career in nursing or making the decision to pursue a pre-med path to become a doctor, many factors need to be considered before applying to colleges. 

A career in Nursing

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that registered nurse employment will grow “faster than the average for all occupations” through 2029. Health care service demand due to an aging population will spur this growth. “Nurses also will be needed to educate and care for patients with chronic conditions, such as arthritis, dementia, diabetes, and obesity,” according to the BLS. This equates to over 175,000 registered nurse job openings as current nurses retire or transition to other roles. The BLS also projects that “registered nurses who have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) will have better job prospects than those without one. Employers also may prefer candidates who have some related work experience or certification in a specialty area, such as gerontology.”

As a result of the promising job prospects, competition for acceptance into Nursing programs has increased in recent years. As an example, BSN applications at the University of Virginia have tripled in the past 10 years. The four-year BSN path prepares students for state licensure requirements and provides greater opportunities for career advancement. To ensure students are ready for the rigors of the nursing profession, their college course load will include classes in human growth and development, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, and psychology, combined with hands-on clinical experiences. 

Related: Unexpected Pandemic Takeaways for Aspiring Nurses

Direct-admit Nursing programs

Direct Nursing programs have become a popular choice for prospective college students. In this type of program, students begin working on their Nursing degree in their first year of study. In Clemson University’s direct-admit program, “students are accepted as freshman into Nursing and remain in the Nursing major as long as they meet progression requirements. While freshmen are introduced to the Nursing profession in their first semester…they primarily take general education and science courses during their first two years. During the remaining two years, studies focus more specifically on nursing.” 

Other colleges may require students to apply to Nursing programs after their sophomore year. This approach gives students more time to consider a career as a nurse. However, a student could be rejected from a Nursing program, requiring them to choose another career path or possibly transfer schools. Potential Nursing students should also take into consideration a school’s National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) pass rate. A high pass rate on this nation-wide examination can indicate the strength of a college’s program when preparing students for a career in nursing 

Related: Make a Difference by Majoring in Nursing

Preparing for life in medicine

There has also been a rise in students’ desire for an education leading to a career as a medical doctor. David J. Skorton, MD, Association of American Medical Colleges president and CEO, stated that “this increased interest in medicine comes at a crucial moment. The pandemic is spotlighting the extraordinary services that physicians provide on the front lines. It’s heartening to see that more students want to pursue a career in medicine to serve their communities and make a difference.”

In line with this, medical colleges around the US have reported significant increases in applications during the past admission cycle. Tulane University’s School of Medicine received a 35% increase in applications as students looked for ways to give back to their communities during the pandemic. The school emphasized, “Tulane is more dedicated than ever to train physicians who make a difference locally, nationally, and globally.” The School offers a combined BS/MD program, the Tulane Accelerated Physician Training Program, focused on cell and molecular biology. Students take three years of undergraduate study—including public service during a summer and semester—followed by four years of medical school.

Related: Great Colleges and Universities for Health and Medicine in the West

Medical doctor program paths

There are many pathways to becoming a medical doctor. For example, Brown University offers the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), an eight-year program that brings together undergraduate learning and professional medical studies. The University says, “PLME is not an accelerated medical program. Rather, it encourages students to take advantage of the breadth of a liberal arts education, to take charge of their education, and to become active learners. At Brown, creative students need not sacrifice the benefits of a rich liberal arts education in order to gain admission to medical school.”

The traditional path to medical school is through a pre-med track, based on a core set of prerequisite courses. No college offers an actual “pre-med” major, so students have to think carefully about their intended course of study. According to the University of Pennsylvania, “although students may pursue any major they wish, they must complete a standard ‘pre-med curriculum,’ which consists of introductory biology, general chemistry, introductory physics, organic chemistry (all with lab), English, and math. In addition to these courses, some medical schools require upper-level classes in biology and biochemistry.” Pre-med courses should be taken as electives if a non-science major is selected for undergraduate studies. Medical schools don’t always require a specific major; instead, they look for well-rounded students who will be able to tackle the difficult course material and who can communicate and show empathy for their future patients. 

Related: How to Pick a Major for Med School

It’s no secret that nursing and medicine are difficult career paths, but these fields need students who are ready to be active participants in their education and eager to help others. This philosophy is spelled out to prospective students at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine: “We believe the way students become successful physicians is to learn by doing. Through our holistic, personalized approach, we help you become the physician you want to be and one your patients need—a doctor who is understanding, intelligent, a good listener, and a critical thinker”—qualities needed in the health care professionals of today and tomorrow.

Start connect with great schools for nursing and medicine on our Health & Medicine School Profiles page.

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