Nursing Degree Guide

by Brendan Gawlowski
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Nursing is a well-compensated and dynamic healthcare career that requires significant education, training, and certification.

If you're considering a nursing career, this guide can help you explore the educational, training, and certification requirements you need. Read on for an overview of the careers, job titles, and educational requirements that encompass the nursing field.

What Kinds of Nursing Degrees Are There?

The nursing field is broad with many career options. Different degree levels, from associate to doctoral, prepare nurses for particular career paths and specializations. Start your journey by picking the right kind of nursing degree for you.

Associate Degree in Nursing

The entry-level credential for licensed nursing work is an associate degree in nursing (ADN). Like most associate degrees, an ADN takes two years to complete, though some programs can be completed in 18 months. The ADN curriculum covers foundational knowledge and clinical experience, including topics such as microbiology, anatomy and physiology, and nursing fundamentals.

Earning your ADN usually qualifies you to take the national exam for registered nurses. Passing this exam allows you to work as an RN in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and other healthcare settings. In some states, an ADN only qualifies you for practical/vocational work.

What Is the Difference Between an ADN and an LPN/LVN?

An ADN is an associate degree that prepares learners for work as a licensed RN in most states. ADN nurses are either RNs or licensed practical or vocational nurses working toward becoming RNs.

LPNs/LVNs are entry-level nursing positions. They provide nursing care while under RN supervision. These nurses only need a practical nursing diploma to start working.

The titles LPN and LVN are often interchangeable. In the U.S., the term LVN is only used in California and Texas.

Bachelor's Degree in Nursing

A bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN) is the standard credential expected of RNs. It is a four-year degree that prepares learners for the national RN licensing exam. Topics in a BSN curriculum include nursing ethics, nursing assessment, and psychology.

Many schools offer RN-to-BSN programs that allow working nurses with associate degrees to earn bachelor's degrees in nursing. Once you earn a BSN, you can pursue administrative and leadership positions that are unavailable to ADN nurses. Nurses with bachelor's degrees typically earn higher salaries and can work in specialized and administrative roles.

What Is the Difference Between a RN and a BSN?

RN is the title for a licensed, registered nurse. A BSN is a type of bachelor's degree that nurses frequently hold.

While you can work as an RN in many states with only a nursing associate degree, in some states, licensed RNs must hold a BSN to practice. Many employers prefer to hire RNs with BSNs, even when it is not compulsory.

Master's Degree in Nursing

A master's degree in nursing (MSN) is the minimum degree requirement for working as a family nurse practitioner or as a nurse educator. This master's degree typically takes two years to complete. It includes topics such as quantitative and qualitative research, oncological nursing, and nurse education.

Earning an MSN opens up career opportunities for nurses. Licensed nurse practitioners can work as generalists or in specialization areas, such as oncology, family care, and reproductive health. An MSN also qualifies graduates to work as clinical instructors or nurse educators in healthcare settings.

Doctoral Degree in Nursing

Some nurses pursue a doctorate in nursing, meaning a Ph.D. in nursing or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). A doctoral nursing degree typically takes 1-2 years to complete after earning an MSN. A BSN-to-doctorate nursing program can take 3-6 years to complete.

Common course offerings for nursing doctoral degrees include ethical and legal issues in advanced nursing practice, epidemiology, and quality improvement in healthcare.

A nursing doctorate is a terminal degree that appeals to learners interested in research or education. Nursing Ph.D.-holders often work as professors or researchers. DNP-holders occupy specialized clinical practice or leadership roles.

What Is the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a DNP?

A Ph.D. and a DNP are doctoral degrees tailored for different careers. A Ph.D. in nursing is a research-oriented degree that prepares nurses for work in academia or research. A DNP is a practice-focused degree pursued by NPs who wish to work in administration or specialized clinical practice.

Additionally, DNP programs require students to complete a capstone project, while Ph.D. programs culminate with an original, research-based dissertation.

Browse the Best Nursing Programs

Finding the right online nursing program can seem daunting, but the these resources can help. The following ranking pages will help you narrow your search for the best nursing schools for your career plans.

Whether you need help finding an online RN-to-BSN degree program or an online doctorate, we can point you toward schools that fit your budget and learning needs.

Best Nursing Schools in Each State

The Best Online Pre-Nursing Programs

Best Online Bachelor's in Nursing

Best Online RN-to-BSN Programs

Best Online Nurse Practitioner Programs

The Best Online Master's in Nursing Administration Degree Programs

The Best Online Doctorate in Nurse Practitioner Programs

Popular Nursing Specialties

Both RNs and NPs can pursue nursing specialities to improve their career prospects.

Choosing a specialization early can boost your earnings and job opportunities, especially for in-demand disciplines. For example, the growing number of older patients with chronic conditions has increased demand for pain management nurse specialists.

However, keep in mind that focusing too much on one nursing specialization can also limit your scope of expertise and job opportunities. Here are a few common nursing specialties.

  • Anesthesiology
  • Childbirth
  • Clinical care
  • Critical care
  • Diabetic care
  • Education
  • Family care
  • Gerontological care
  • Health policy
  • Informatics
  • Management
  • Medical-surgical
  • Pain management
  • Psychiatric
  • Reproductive health
  • Research
  • Trauma

Paying for a Nursing Degree

Following these guidelines can help reduce the cost of your online degree or traditional degree.

You can reduce your tuition costs by picking the right school. For example, public schools offering in-state tuition cost less than private institutions. You can also start at a community college and then transfer credits to a four-year institution.

For financial aid, nursing students can access nursing scholarships, student loans, and grants. Remember that accessing financial aid requires you to submit your FAFSA form.

What Kind of Accreditation Should My Nursing Program Have?

Accreditation for nursing programs is essential. Both the Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) provide programmatic accreditation for nursing programs.

Nursing students should only consider nursing programs from schools with regional accreditation. Learn how accreditation can affect your educational experience and professional career.

What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do You Need?

Working as a nurse requires state licensure. That means attaining board certification from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) after finishing your degree. Next, you must seek certification for your area of specialty.

There are over a hundred specialty-related certifications, including oncology, midwifery, and gerontological care. Each credentialing body has its own certification requirements, and some require a master's degree in that specialization. For instance, the Critical Care Nursing (CCRN) credential requires RN licensure and two years of critical care practice.

RN state licensure requires you to pass the NCSBN's National Council Licensure Examination for RNs. For NP state licensure, you typically need RN licensure and a nursing master's. Educational requirements vary by state, and only some states have nurse license reciprocity agreements. States have different continuing education (CE) requirements, but most require around 30 CE hours every two years to stay licensed.

What Can You Do With a Nursing Degree?

A nursing degree prepares is the first step toward a nursing career. You can start at the entry level as a certified nursing assistant. With a master's degree and a specialized career niche, you can work your way up to advanced practice registered nurse. Picking the right nursing degree will help you find a rewarding career in nursig.

Popular Nursing Career Paths

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

A CNA, or certified nursing assistant, is a healthcare aide who performs basic patient care tasks under the supervision of LPNs, RNs, and other healthcare providers. To become a CNA, you need a high school diploma/GED and CNA certification from a community college or medical facility.

CNAs typically perform tasks such as moving, feeding, and dressing patients, along with documenting information and treating wounds. CNAs usually take a 4-12 week CNA certification course from a local community college.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

LPNs, also known as licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), are nurses who work under the supervision of RNs and other healthcare professionals. To become an LPN, you need a high school diploma/GED and a LPN/LVN diploma from a two-year institution or training facility. This diploma typically takes a year to earn.

LPNs have more responsibility than nursing assistants, performing tasks such as administering medication, collecting samples, and executing nursing care plans. They usually work under RN supervision.

Registered Nurse (RN)

Registered nurses, or RNs, are nurses who provide unsupervised, hands-on care to patients in healthcare settings such as hospitals, outpatient health clinics, and residential care centers. RNs provide comfort, administer treatments, and design care plans for patients.

To work as RNs, nursing students must complete at least an associate in nursing program, though in many states bachelor's in nursing programs are the new standard. If you want to become an RN, take courses in psychology, anatomy, and nursing care.

Nurse Midwife

Nurse midwives provide holistic care for pregnant people prior to, during, and after childbirth. These specialized nurses work in hospitals, public health centers, and birthing centers, though some provide in-home services. Their duties include designing birth plans, assisting in delivery, and providing aftercare post-delivery.

To become a nurse midwife, you must earn nurse midwife certification from the American Midwifery Certification Board. This requires RN licensure and an accredited master's in nursing with a midwifery specialty.

Nurse Practitioner

NPs — nurse practitioners — are primary care providers who can assess, diagnose, and treat illnesses. One of the main differences between NPs and RNs is that NPs can prescribe medications. NPs often work in hospitals, physicians offices, and private practice.

To become an NP, you need at least a master's in nursing. MSN programs typically offer specialization options to prepare learners for professional certifications like nurse midwife, family nurse practitioner, and gerontological care.

See All Nursing Career Guides

Career Overview for Nursing Students

The Best Nursing Careers and Specialties

Best Medical Careers

Certified Nursing Assistant

LPN and LVN Careers

Registered Nurse Careers

Nurse Practitioner Career Overview

How to Become a Nursing Midwife

What Kind of Salary Can You Earn with a Nursing Degree?

Nursing degree graduates enjoy comfortable salaries. The BLS reports that RNs make between $50,000-$115,000 annually. Depending on the state, registered nurses can make even more. Salary expectations for nurses are higher for NPs and specialists.

According to 2010 data from the Medical Group Management Association, nurse anesthetists average $151,000 annually, placing them among the highest paying healthcare jobs.

Are There Professional Nursing Associations or Societies You Should Join?

Joining a professional nursing association or society can help both students and professionals build their networks, find mentors, and access continuing education. If you are in a nursing master's program, a professional organization can help you find scholarships or prepare for certification exams.

The following organizations can help you pursue your career plans:

Advice From a Nursing Graduate

Before embarking on your journey, get tips from those with experience. Talking with graduates from a degree program you want to pursue can help you make smart choices.

Read our interview with a nursing graduate to learn how to approach your post-graduation trajectory.

Eileen K. Mahler, PhD, RN-BC, NE-BC, has established herself as a leader in her profession. A registered professional nurse for over 40 years, she is the director of nursing education, professional development, and practice and research, as well as the Magnet Program director, at Mount Sinai South Nassau, a not-for-profit teaching hospital in Oceanside, New York.

Why did you choose to study nursing?

I was raised by my grandmother. She was not trained as a nurse, but she had all the attributes I aspire to as a nurse. During my early life, I witnessed her caring for my grandfather and an uncle during complex illnesses, whom she kept at our home as much as possible.

I was impressed by my grandmother's strength — and the nurses who came into our home to provide care and support during my family members' illnesses and passing.

What degrees and licenses in nursing do you hold?

I graduated with my BSN and then went on to earn a master's in nursing and a Ph.D.

What did you specialize in, if anything? Do you have specialized certifications?

In my early career, I specialized in perinatal nursing, the care of women and newborns, and I obtained certification in obstetrical nursing. I progressed in leadership from nurse manager to director of nursing and achieved certification as a nurse executive.

Currently, I serve in a dual role as director of nursing education, nurse educator and nurse leader. I have attained certification as a nursing professional development specialist.

What do you do for a career now?

I am the director of nursing education and Magnet Program director in my organization.

What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing an educational path in nursing?

I would recommend first deciding on your goal. There are so many paths to take in the nursing profession: clinical, education, and leadership.

Then, explore the programs to determine if they meet your goals and align with your philosophy of nursing. There are options for traditional and online programs or a hybrid.

It is important to assess your current responsibilities in deciding on a program that matches your lifestyle needs. If you know someone attending the program you are interested in, I recommend speaking to them about their experience.

What degree do you recommend for people interested in an entry-level career in nursing? For people looking to advance their careers?

I recommend nurses begin with a BSN, but [they] should ultimately pursue master's and doctoral degrees to keep pace and advance alongside other disciplines to higher levels of education. We need the knowledge and skills to meet the increasingly complex needs of our patients and adapt to a changing and dynamic healthcare environment.

What assumption do people have about nursing that you would like to correct?

I think the public has learned more about what nurses do in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clinical nurses are pivotal in coordinating interdisciplinary patient care and providing direct care.

Nurses practice in varied and multifaceted roles. They serve as educators, nurse executives, legal consultants, and on boards of directors. They also work in informatics, finance, risk management, quality improvement, and within regulatory agencies. The commonality for nursing within these roles and fields is the caring and connection nurses maintain with patients, families, and the communities they serve.

Popular Questions About Nursing Degrees

true What Are Three Types of Nurses?

The three main types of nurses are LPNs, RNs, and NPs. More specialized roles are also available, such as midwife or nurse educator.

true How Many Years Do You Study for Nursing?

It takes at least two years to earn an ADN, which the minimum credential to become an RN in most states. However, becoming an LPN takes even less time — usually twelve months.

true What Is a Nurse Salary?

According to the BLS, RNs earned a median annual salary of $75,330 in 2020. NPs and nurse specialists can earn $100,000-$150,000 annually, depending on the specialization.

Latest News and Resources for Nursing Students

Staying up-to-date with new development can help your nursing career flourish. The resources below can provide nursing students and professionals with an insider's perspective on everyday issues that affect nursing practice. They also include a simplified explanation of nursing education, training, and certifications.

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