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Differences Between a CNA and a RN

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The jobs of CNAs (certified nursing assistants) and RNs (registered nurses) can be similar in some ways but can be exceptionally distinct in other areas. For one thing, the jobs of CNAs are focused more on patient care while RNs work more independently, dealing more with crafting nursing care plans, assessing patient health problems and needs, and keeping track of the medical histories of patients. These differences between a CNA and a RN are largely what leads to different duties, responsibilities, salary, and training requirements. After all, RNs require formal training that is substantially longer than that of a CNA.

So, which is the better occupation that will best suit you? Well, first of all, you should truly ask yourself whether you are interested in the nursing field or not. You can take our short CNA compatibility quiz to get a general idea of whether you’d do well in the field of nurse assisting. If you are sure that nursing is what you want to do, you can start finding out what the differences between a CNA and a RN are, or whether you’d rather become a LPN. If you’d like to get first hand experience in the nursing field, we highly recommend becoming a CNA first, as you’ll always have the ability to enroll in a CNA to RN or even a CNA to LPN bridge program, which takes your credits earned in a CNA training program and applies them to your continuing education. With this route, you can earn money in practically the same field while you continue to pursue your nursing education. But enough with the consultation, let’s find out what the differences between a CNA and a RN are.

Differences Between a CNA and a RN

Job Description

Differences Between a CNA and a RN - Job DescriptionAs mentioned earlier, a CNA’s job focuses more on patient care, with duties that often hinge on assisting patients with daily living needs. On the other hand, RNs have a more independent role, with job duties such as coming up with nursing care plans, assessing patient health problems and needs, and tracking the medical histories of patients. Although back then, RNs often worked under the supervision of a physician, nowadays, RNs are given much more independence in choosing what should get done in the workplace. Whatever CNAs and LPNs can do, a RN can also do.

  • Move and reposition patients
  • Change bed pans and clean rooms
  • Measure and record patients’ vital signs and symptoms
  • Maintain health reports for nurses
  • Inform patients and family about medical instructions
  • Provide emotional support
  • Prevent cross-contamination
  • Collect samples necessary for laboratory tests
  • Help patients to eat
  • Prepare and serve medications
  • Prepare, serve, and collect food trays for lunch and dinner
  • Toiletry, bathing, dressing, and oral care for patients
  • Prepare or perform physical exams
  • Analyze and maintain health histories
  • Inform patients and family about medical instructions
  • Order, analyze, and evaluate diagnostic tests to assess patient’s health
  • Observe and record symptoms and changes in patient’s health
  • Change patient treatment plans as necessary
  • Direct and supervise CNAs and LPNs
  • Implement nursing care plans with nursing team
  • Monitor patient diet and physical activity
  • Prepare and administer medications or wound care
  • Analyze patient information and make critical decisions when necessary


Being that the jobs of registered nurses are much more complicated, requires more critical thinking, and RNs are given more responsibilities, you can notice the large differences between a CNA and a RN salary almost instantly. No matter in what percentile, a RN consistently earns more than double that of a CNA across the board. This can be justified by the long training RNs must go through in order to become licensed, whereas most training programs for CNAs last under six months.

Percentile: Annual salary (2014):
10% $18,790
25% $21,340
50% (median) $25,100
75% $30,020
90% $36,170
Percentile: Annual salary (2014):
10% $45,880
25% $54,620
50% (median) $66,640
75% $81,080
90% $98,880

Training / Exam Requirements

The duration of RN training programs are a lot longer than CNA programs, which accounts for their higher salary, expanded functions, and their independent role in the work setting. Most RN training programs last anywhere from 2 to 4 years, while most state-approved CNA programs last under 6 months (some can be only 4 to 6 weeks). That’s why it’s highly recommended to become a CNA first to get not only first hand experience in the field but to also earn money should you continue your education for a registered nurse. And what’s more, there are CNA to RN programs that applies your prior credits earned to your continuing education.

If you are looking for a direct route to a RN, an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) is the shortest way to go, since they are usually completed within 2-3 years. However, there are some disadvantages, which is that nurses with a BSN have better job opportunities and that they are considered “professional-level” nurses while nurses with an ADN are considered to be “technical-level” nurses.

  • No formal training required for entry level position (requires on-the-job training)
  • Completion of a state approved CNA training program to qualify for the state exam (for certification)
  • Most CNA training programs last under 6 months (shorter programs are a matter of weeks)
  • Programs offered at community colleges, trade/vocational schools, nursing homes, or hospitals
  • Passing the state comprehensive exam grants certification for CNAs
  • 18 years old, high school diploma, and min. SAT or ACT scores for most nursing programs
  • Completion of a 2-4 year nursing program
  • 4 year for a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN) from a university
  • 2-3 years for an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ASN) from a community or junior college
  • 3 years for an Accredited Diploma (ADN) from a nursing program in hospitals
  • Applying for the NCLEX-RN exam after completing one of the 3 training programs and passing it for official licensing

Job Outlook

Differences Between a CNA and a RN - Job OutlookNow let’s take a look at the differences between a CNA and a RN when it comes to job outlook. As you may know, the number of healthcare careers are expanding at a rapid rate, just look at this article for proof. In fact, in recent years, the careers of CNAs and RNs are the most in-demand jobs, with RNs having the most job openings in the 2012-2013 year (approximately 109,201 openings), while CNAs follow behind with a total of 25,403 openings. So if you are looking for a healthcare career with high job security, there is no better time than now.

Number of Jobs (2012): 1,534,400
Job Growth (2012-2022): 21% (Faster than avg.)
Employment Change (2012-2022): 321,200
Number of Jobs (2012): 2,711,500
Job Growth (2012-2022): 19% (Faster than avg.)
Employment Change (2012-2022): 526,800

* Statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics