Nursing is one of the most important and popular healthcare professions. Because the field is so broad, you can do many jobs with a nursing degree. Nurses work with all demographics and in all specializations. They take vital signs and draw blood in doctor’s offices, or assist surgeons in the operating room. They administer medications and perform wound care in nursing homes, or care for newborns in neonatal units. They visit patients through home health services, or closely monitor critically ill patients in intensive care units. No matter what aspect of patient care appeals to you, you can build a fulfilling career with a nursing degree.
A nursing degree gives you knowledge of anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, basic nutrition, and practice in clinical skills such as medication administration, taking vital signs, drawing blood, and administering IV or intramuscular drugs. Your degree path will determine exactly what your curriculum is, and how in–depth your studies will be.
Depending on the level of education you want to pursue, a nursing degree will open many possible career paths to you. Nurses work in healthcare at every level, from licensed practical nurses administering vaccines and checking vital signs to nurse practitioners diagnosing and prescribing medicine independent of M.D. oversight. Whether you want to give comfort and compassion to the elderly in nursing homes, to bring relief to patients in hospitals suffering from acute illnesses, or even to save lives in emergency rooms or intensive care units, a nursing degree can help put you on the path toward a rewarding and meaningful career.
There are various nursing degrees and programs, and many of them overlap to some extent. It is critical to differentiate between these varying nursing degree programs so that you can choose the path that makes the most sense for you.
You should also note that no matter what path you take, you will ultimately need to sit for the standardized National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)–RN. This license is mandatory for any practicing nurse.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are evaluated and validated. Colleges and universities that have earned accreditation have met the standards set by accrediting organizations. These organizations are comprised of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. Legitimate regional and national accrediting organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Typically, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the same institutions, although CHEA recognition isn’t mandatory. A college or university must be accredited by a Department of Education-recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal financial aid.
For a detailed look at the differences between regional and national accreditation, check out What Do I Need to Know About College Accreditation?
- What is Regional Accreditation?
- Regional accreditation is the signifier of quality education; this includes the currency of curriculum, credentials of educators, and credibility of degrees. Regional accrediting agencies only accredit institutions in their geographical area.
- The Six Regional Accrediting Agencies
- Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE)
- The Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
To find out if a college or university on your list is regionally accredited, check the Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
- What Is National Accreditation?
- National accreditation is often perceived as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation and is governed by educational accreditors agencies that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria. National accreditation is commonplace among trade schools, religious schools, and for–profit colleges.
Most regionally–accredited colleges do not accept or recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges that lack regional accreditation. However, national accreditation may be a useful indicator of quality for students pursuing vocational training, competency-based education, or other education models that operate under a for-profit model.
To learn more about National Accreditation, check out Understanding National Accreditation.
For help safely navigating the For–Profit Sector, check out our Guide to For–Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.
- What is Programmatic Accreditation?
- Programmatic accreditation certifies that an institution’s program, department, or college has met the standards of the programmatic accrediting agency. While programmatic accreditation agencies often have national jurisdiction, programmatic accreditation is not institutional national accreditation. In fact, programmatic accreditation often coexists with regional accreditation. In some disciplines, a degree with programmatic accreditation may even be required to earn a license or enter professional practice.
When it comes to national accrediting agencies, reputations may vary. In some cases, program–specific accrediting agencies may hold a great deal of importance. Some professions and places of employment will require that your degree has been conferred by a course of study with program specific national accreditation.
In the case of nursing, you’ll want to look for accreditation from one of two Department of Education–recognized accreditation agencies.
- The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) provides accreditation for a wide variety of nursing programs, from practical, diploma, and associate programs all the way up through bachelor’s, master’s, and clinical doctoral degrees in nursing. ACEN accreditation carries value in cases where nursing schools or training programs are administered through hospitals or healthcare systems (as opposed to traditional colleges or universities), and therefore lack regional accreditation.
- The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredits only master’s and bachelor’s degree programs. The CCNE was founded by the American Association of Colleges of Nurses (AACN).
Other specialized nursing accreditation agencies to look for include:
If either of these is your chosen area of specialization, accreditation from the pertinent agency can improve your potential standing with future employers. (Note: The above–noted specializations do require completion of a master’s program in nursing.)
The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice, or visit the website of any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.
Or, to learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?
What Kinds of Nursing Degrees Are There?
Associate of Nursing (ADN)
An associate degree in nursing is a two–year degree. This is a program you can typically complete through a community or online college, or a hospital–based school of nursing. The focus of an ADN will largely be on the technical aspects of basic nursing. Like most associate degree programs, you will also pursue a parallel liberal arts curriculum.
What Nursing Courses Will You Take?
- Basic Nursing Skills
- Basic Pharmacology
- Emergency Care
- General Human Anatomy
- Pediatric Nursing
What’s the Difference Between an ADN and an LPN/LVN?
If you’re not interested in completing the peripheral college coursework that comes with an associate degree, you might consider earning a certificate to work as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) — sometimes also called a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). Earning LPN/LVN certification is generally the most basic threshold for entry into nursing education, requiring between one and two years of training at a trade or technical school. Some community colleges may offer LPN/LVN certification as well.
Either the ADN or the LPN/LVN can be a valid point of entry to the nursing profession, but they may result in different career outcomes. Many nursing students start out by pursuing an LPN degree, with the intent to continue their education later. This is a perfectly valid course, but for a stronger start, you might want to consider starting with an ADN program. Like the LPN program, this is a streamlined way to earn a nursing degree without taking the typical college coursework that accompanies a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, ADN programs typically prepare students to pass the NCLEX–RN exam and become RNs. As an RN, you will earn a better salary and have a wider range of jobs from which to choose. If you choose to pursue a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) later, having RN status and training will make this a simpler transition. Either way, be sure your program is properly accredited. Otherwise, your credits may not be recognized by your next school or prospective employers.
Bachelor of Nursing (BN or BSN)
The bachelor of nursing degree program is typically a three– to four–year program and can act as an entry point to nursing careers by preparing graduates to become RNs, if they haven’t done so already. While you can take the specialized courses and extra clinical practice to become an RN with an ADN or LPN certification, your odds of gainful employment are markedly better once you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Your BN/BSN program will focus on human development, biology, and psychology; on the cultural, economic, and social issues pertinent to healthcare; on the behavioral science theories underlying nursing practice; and on the knowledge and skills needed to work across the full spectrum of healthcare settings. Again, if this is a path you’re interested in pursuing, you might consider becoming an RN first (through certificate training or an associate degree). This can reduce the length of your BSN program to as little as a year–and–a–half in duration.
What Nursing Courses Will You Take?
- Bacteriology Laboratory
- Community Health
- General Psychology
- Health and Culture
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Introduction to Sociology
- Leadership in Nursing Practice
- Principles of Chemistry
What’s the Difference Between a BN and a BSN?
The bachelor of nursing is largely focused on the theory and practice of nursing, as well as education in applicable skills. These features are part of the bachelor of science in nursing degree program as well, but the BSN will also dedicate greater focus to the sciences underlying nursing theories, including subjects like physics, biology and chemistry. Consider your level of interest in natural and life sciences before determining which path is best for you.
Master of Nursing
A master of nursing is designed to prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and will typically take about two years to complete. APRNs are considered primary care providers, and carry greater qualification and specialization than registered nurses. If you’re considering becoming a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, anesthetist, or nurse–midwife, you will likely need to earn your master’s degree in nursing. In addition to practicing healthcare from a position of leadership, this path could also qualify you to work as a nurse administrator or a nurse educator. In order to enter a master’s program, you must already have earned a BSN, and must also currently qualify as an RN.
What Nursing Courses Will You Take?
- Advanced Biochemistry
- Advanced Pharmacology
- Collaborative Healthcare
- Evidence Based Practice
- Health Care Policy
- Information Systems in Healthcare
- Medical Ethics
- Specialized Track Courses (i.e. anesthetics, midwifery, healthcare administration, etc.)
Ph.D. of Nursing
A doctoral level study in nursing is typically reserved for those with a master’s degree who wish to continue into a teaching or research role.
What’s the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a DNP?
The Ph.D. in nursing is typically for those who wish to teach or work in a research capacity. Students who choose to pursue a Ph.D. in nursing will study advanced course work and complete original research, ultimately completing and defending an original research paper. Graduates with Ph.D.’s in nursing might work in research for pharmaceutical companies or advising policy–makers in government. And as with other doctoral degrees, the degree holder can choose to teach in the university setting.
On the other hand, the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is generally advisable for those who hope to focus on administrative or leadership roles in clinical practice contexts. While the Ph.D. is geared toward research, the DNP is a practical degree. And if you want to teach, you can still use your DNP to join a college faculty.
What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do You Need?
No matter what level of education you’ve completed, you must unequivocally earn your license to practice through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Every aspiring registered nurse must sit for and pass the standardized National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)–RN.
This test is required. Registering to take a test in a location near you is a two–step process. First, you must submit an application for licensure/registration to the board of nursing where you wish to be licensed. This makes you eligible to take the NCLEX.
Also, you’ll be required to register through the company that administers the exam, Pearson VUE.
What Can You Do with a Nursing Degree?
If you are asking yourself, “What can I do with a nursing degree?” there are plenty of options for specialization. Naturally, you’ll need a nursing degree and your NCLEX–RN in order to practice nursing in a proper healthcare setting. The level of study and the areas of specialization you pursue during your education will have a direct impact on the opportunities ahead. Some of the professions listed here below may require an advanced degree. Others might require dual degree programs. Consider the Medical Career opportunities outlined here and choose your courses and focus accordingly.
- Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians and Vascular Technologists
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
- EMTs and Paramedics
- Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN)
- Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN)
- Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians
- Medical and Health Services Manager
- Medical Assistants
- Medical Records and Health Information Technicians
- Medical Equipment Repairers
- Medical Transcriptionists
- Physician’s Assistants
- Radiation Therapists
- Radiologic Technologists
- Registered Nurses
You might also be interested in checking out The Best Nursing Careers and Specialties and The 20 Best Careers for Helping People to Lose Weight.
What Kind of Salary Can You Earn with a Nursing Degree?
As with the assortment of professions outlined above, your nursing salary will vary depending on the path you choose. Below are just a few of the salary prospects associated with leading professions in the field of nursing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the annual median salaries in some nursing positions as of May 2018:
|Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses||$46,240|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||$71,260|
|Medical and Health Services Managers||$99,730|
|Nurse Anesthetists, Midwives, and Practitioners||$113,930|
To learn how to channel your nursing degree into higher earning potential, check out The 10 Highest Paying Healthcare Jobs.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Are There Professional Nursing Associations or Societies You Should Join?
Professional associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars/webinars or certifications, and improve your own credentials. When it comes to nursing, there are so many professional associations out there that it’s almost daunting. Which ones are reputable? Which associations can help advance your career?
Below are a few of the leading professional associations. From there, we would urge you to ask your professors, colleagues, and professional mentors which associations have been helpful to them. In the meantime, start here:
- The American Nurses Association
- is one of the largest professional nursing associations. Membership provides you with access to an enormous library of resources, research, magazines, and journals, as well as the ability to network with fellow nurses.
- The American Red Cross
- gives nurses the opportunity to participate in hands–on practices by leading public health seminars, teaching life–saving skills to civilians, participating in first–response emergency care, or engaging in a host of other civic activities designed to both sharpen and share nursing skills for the benefit of others.
- The National Student Nurses Association
- may be the single most valuable professional association for nursing students. While its access to educational journals, meetings, and leadership skill–building programs are valuable, its greatest value is as a resource for young nurses seeking personal connections and employment opportunities. The organization also offers scholarships to some of its standout members.