A nursing degree could put you on the path to a rewarding career in the healthcare field. As a nursing professional, you'll be in a position to bring comfort, relief, and wellness to others. In all likelihood, you'll even save some lives. Nursing is a demanding profession but if you have compassion, emotional fortitude and an innate desire to help others, it could be the most rewarding way to apply your abilities. But first, you'll need to find the degree program that makes the most sense for you.
Healthcare is a diverse and growing field. This means that there are a lot of different ways to apply your nursing education and skills.
Whether you plan to work in a small family medical practice, in the emergency room of a big urban hospital, or as a nursing administrator in a multi-facility health network; whether you plan to practice general medicine, to specialize in a particular area of treatment, or to become a nurse practitioner, there is a degree path that best suits your needs.
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.
But of course, you'll need to get an education first.
Read on and we'll tell you everything you need to know so you can get started on your way to helping others.
If you already know what you're looking for, go ahead and jump to our ranking of The 50 Best RN to BSN Online Programs.
You might also be interested in checking out The 25 Best Online Master's in Nursing Administration Degree Programs.
Or, if you need a little more information, continue on.
Covered in this article:
- What do I need to know about accreditation?
- What kinds of Nursing Degrees are there?
- What kind of Licensing or Certification Do I Need?
- What can I do with a nursing degree?
- How much can I make with a nursing degree?
- What Professional Nursing Associations or Societies should I join?
Let's start with the one thing you absolutely must be sure of before you proceed: accreditation.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
The last thing you want to do is waste time and money on a degree that won't be taken seriously by future employers. That's why it is absolutely imperative that you make sure your school has the proper accreditation before you proceed.
As with most other higher education disciplines, accreditation is of critical importance in determining where to obtain a nursing degree. Program accreditation is granted by accrediting agencies that are formally recognized by the Department of Education. Only accredited colleges or universities are eligible for financial aid. Moreover, accreditation typically indicates that an institution is both maintaining its standards and continuing to advance within its field. As you proceed in your search, you'll find both institutional accreditation and program accreditation. The former refers to school wide accreditation and the latter refers to the accreditation conferred upon your specific discipline and degree program.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
The institutional accrediting sector is divided into regional and national accrediting agencies. Generally, regional accrediting agencies confer greater credibility and merit. When you’re investigating a college or university, you’ll want to look for the “stamp of approval” from one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
- The Higher Learning Commission
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
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 particular value in cases where nursing schools or training programs are administered through hospitals or healthcare systems (as opposed to through 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).
While you might still be able to earn a license to practice nursing without completing a program accredited by one of these agencies, the lack of such accreditation will likely prevent you from advancing into future nursing programs. For instance, an associate's degree in nursing from a non-accredited program might not transfer to an accredited bachelor's degree program.
Other specialized nursing accreditation agencies to look for include:
The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA), which accredits nurse anesthesia programs at the certificate, master's and doctoral levels; and
The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM), which accredits midwifery education programs.
If either of these is your chosen area of specialization, accreditation from the pertinent agency can improve your potential standing with a 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 for any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also take a 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?
Now that you get the idea, let's take a look at some of your degree options.
What Kinds of Nursing Degrees Are There?
Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN)
An Associate's Degree in Nursing is a two-year degree. This is one you can typically earn 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's degree programs, you will also pursue a parallel liberal arts curriculum.
What Courses Will I Take?
- Basic Nursing Skills
- Emergency Care
- Pediatric Nursing
- General Human Anatomy
- Basic Pharmacology
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's degree, you could consider earning a certificate to work as an Licensed Practice 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 and the LPN/LVN can be a basic point of entry, but if you do wish to eventually enter an RN-to-BSN program (advancing from registered nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)), you will want to be sure that your program is properly accredited. Otherwise your credits may not be recognized by your next school of choice or by prospective employers.
That said, becoming an RN first can be a great way to accelerate your bachelor's degree program, significantly cutting down on the time and cost of attendance.
If that's something you might eventually be interested in doing, check out The 50 Best RN to BSN Online Programs here!
Bachelor of Nursing Degree (BN or BSN)
The Bachelor of Nursing Degree program is typically a three to four year program and, in a great many healthcare settings, is considered the basic point of qualification for work as a Registered Nurse. While you can sit for a licensure exam and 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 might be interested in pursuing, you might consider becoming an RN first (through certificate training or an associate's degree). This can reduce the length of your BSN program to as little as a year-and-a-half in duration.
What Courses Will I Take?
- Principles of Chemistry
- General Psychology
- Bacteriology Laboratory
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Introduction to Sociology
- Community Health
- Health and Culture
- Leadership in Nursing Practice
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.
Now that you know a bit more, check out The 50 Best RN to BSN Online Programs here!
Master of Nursing Degree
A Master of Nursing is designed to prepare you to become an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) and will typically take about two years to complete. APNs 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 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 already qualify as an RN.
What Courses Will Will I Take?
- Health Care Policy
- Medical Ethics
- Advanced Biochemistry
- Advanced Pharmacology
- Evidence Based Practice
- Collaborate Healthcare
- Information Systems in Healthcare
- Specialized Track Courses (i.e. anesthetics, midwifery, healthcare administration, etc.)
Now that you know what to look for, check out The 25 Best Online Master's in Nursing Administration Degree Programs.
PhD of Nursing
A doctoral level study in nursing is typically reserved for those with a master's degree who wish to continue on into a teaching or research role.
What's the Difference between a PhD and a DNP?
While the PhD is typically of interest to those who wish to teach or work in a research capacity, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is generally advisable for those who hope to focus on administrative or leadership roles in clinical practice contexts.
If you're not sure where to start on your program, check out The 50 Best RN to BSN Online Programs here!
What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do I 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 aspirant Registered Nurse must sit for and pass the standardized National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)-RN.
This test is absolutely 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.
Next, you'll be required to register through the company that administers the exam, Pearson VUE.
Other nursing licenses of note—depending upon your chosen areas of specialization—include:
The National Nurse Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP) and the Medication Aide Certification Examination (MACE). These exams are both administered by the NCSBN as well.
What can I do with a nursing degree?
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/Vascular Technologists/Technicians
- Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
- EMTs and Paramedics
- Home Health/Personal Care Aids
- Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN)
- Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)
- Medical and Clinical Lab Tech
- Medical and Health Services Manager
- Medical Assistant
- Medical Records/Health Information Tech
- Medical Transcriptionist
- Nursing Aid/Attendant
- Physician's Attendant
- Psychiatric Aid/Technician
- Radiation Therapist
- Radiologic Technologist
- Registered Nurse
The list above is by no means exhaustive. When you get a degree in nursing, you're gaining a point of entry into the medical profession. From there, your opportunities are numerous and considerable. Decide how you think you can best help people while applying your unique talents and gaining a sense of personal gratification. From there, it's only a matter of finding the courses and institutions that best suit your needs and ambitions.
You can get started by taking at look at The 50 Best RN to BSN Online Programs here.
What kind of salary can I earn with a nursing degree?
As with the array 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 Median salaries in each position as of 2016:
- Registered Nurse: $68,450 per year
- Nurse Anesthetists, Midwives, and Practitioners: $107,460 per year
- Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse: $44,090 per year
- Nursing Assistants and Orderlies: $26.590
- Medical and Health Services Managers: $96,540
Are There Professional Nursing Associations or Societies I 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 one's are reputable? Which associations can actually 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 professionals 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 the ability to network with fellow nurses.
The American Red Cross gives nurses the opportunity to participate in hands on practices, by creating opportunities to lead public health seminars, teach life-saving skills to civilians, participate in first-response emergency care, or engage 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.
Now that you now a bit more about how to earn a nursing degree, jump to our ranking of The 50 Best RN to BSN Online Programs and find the best school school for you!