What is an RN Degree?


Updated July 18, 2023

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Nursing education typically requires students to complete classes in anatomy, physiology, evidence-based practice, and patient care to prepare for patient care in the field.

In order to become a registered nurse (RN), students need to complete specific training, obtain supervised clinical experience, and pass a licensure exam. There is no single RN degree; instead, nurses have a few options for education.

Many earn bachelor's degrees — typically in nursing — before pursuing RN licensure. Others may pursue an associate degree, also typically in nursing, or a nursing diploma. All of these nursing degrees help students build the necessarily patient care knowledge and clinical skills to provide care for patients in hospitals, doctor's offices, and other healthcare settings.

Registered nurses benefit from above-average salaries and strong demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs earn a median pay of over $73,000 per year, with faster-than-average projected job growth.

This guide introduces RN-appropriate degrees, online RN programs, and common career paths in nursing.

Popular Online RN-to-BSN Degrees

What Kinds of RN Degrees Are There?

Nursing schools offer degrees that lead to RN licensure at several levels. An associate degree or nursing diploma meets the minimum requirement for an RN license. A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) also leads to RN licensure. In highly competitive locations, a BSN helps job candidates stand out in the job market. Some specialties are more likely than others to prefer nurses with BSNs.

At the graduate level, RNs can advance their career opportunities by pursuing master of science in nursing (MSN) degrees or doctorates. A graduate nursing degree leads to advanced practice roles like nurse practitioner (NP) or nurse anesthetist. RNs with graduate degrees work as nurse administrators, nurse educators, and nursing professors, or they can pursue research careers.

Associate Degree Programs

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) prepares graduates for entry-level RN roles. Accredited ADN programs meet the requirements for an RN license and provide foundational training in evidence-based care. Students take classes in human anatomy, human growth and development, and nursing principles. Degree-seekers also complete clinical hours to gain experience in the field.

An ADN generally takes two years for full-time students to complete. Nurses with associate degrees can advance their careers by pursuing bachelor's degrees.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

BSN programs prepare RNs for competitive nursing jobs, and employers increasingly seek nurses with bachelor's-level education. Several nursing jobs, including administrative and teaching roles, require BSNs.

During a BSN program, nursing students explore health assessment, clinical nursing, and evidence-based care. Students can specialize their skills through coursework in areas like pediatrics, oncology, and gerontology. Enrollees also complete clinical requirements to build practical experience with patients.

Incoming students without nursing backgrounds can earn BSNs in four years. Current RNs can enter RN-to-BSN programs to complete their bachelor's degrees in two years or less. Some accelerated RN-to-BSN programs offer a one-year route to the degree.

Master's Degree Programs

An MSN trains RNs for advanced practice and leadership roles. During MSN programs, nurses can specialize in clinical fields, qualifying them to become NPs, clinical research nurses, or nurse midwives. The degree also offers options for nurse educators and nurse leaders.

During an MSN program, nurses take courses in advanced health assessment, nursing research, and evidence-based practice. They also complete clinical requirements related to their specialty areas. NPs, for example, can specialize in family practice, pediatrics, psychiatric-mental health, or acute care. Earning an MSN degree generally takes 2-3 years, depending on the program. Some programs offer an RN-to-MSN option for nurses without a BSN.

Doctoral Degree Programs

A doctorate in nursing qualifies graduates for the most advanced roles in the field. Nurses with DNPs can work in advanced practice specialties, like nurse anesthetist. A DNP also prepares nurses for executive and research roles.

At the doctoral level, a nurse can also pursue a Ph.D. in nursing. In contrast to the DNP, which emphasizes practice, the Ph.D. focuses on research, preparing graduates for roles in academia or nursing research. Earning a doctorate in nursing typically takes 3-4 years.

DNP programs typically do not require an MSN to enroll, while Ph.D. programs usually do.

LPN vs. RN: What's the Difference?

Early-career nurses often work as either an RN or a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Both can be entry-level roles. But what's the difference between an LPN vs. an RN?

LPNs provide basic care, such as helping patients with daily needs, taking vital signs, and administering medication, while RNs offer more specialized care in areas like pediatrics, surgery, and acute care. RNs also earn higher salaries and have more options for career advancement, including advanced practice nursing roles. However, becoming an RN requires meeting higher licensure requirements than becoming an LPN.

Learn more about the top online pre-nursing programs, online RN-to-BSN programs, and online BSN programs.

Professional Licensure and Certification

An RN must earn a professional license to practice. Each state sets its own licensure requirements, but licensees typically need an accredited nursing degree or diploma, a minimum number of clinical hours, and passing scores on the NCLEX-RN exam. RNs must regularly renew their licenses by meeting competency and continuing education requirements.

In addition to licensure, RNs can pursue specialty certifications, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, basic life support, and advanced cardiac life support. Nurses can also earn credentials to become certified pediatric nurses, certified radiology nurses, and certified emergency nurses.

Are There Online RN Degree Programs?

Many schools offer online programs for aspiring RNs who require a flexible class schedule. During an online program, nursing students complete coursework requirements through a virtual learning platform.

Nurses must also meet clinical hour requirements to earn their RN degrees. Online programs work with nursing students to meet clinical requirements, often letting them arrange their clinical hours at local hospitals or other clinical sites.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Nursing?

RNs can pursue careers in many specializations. For example, they can work as pediatric nurses, geriatric nurses, or perioperative nurses. RNs can also work in oncology, critical care, emergency care, cardiac nursing, and acute care.

In many nursing specialties, RNs can demonstrate experience through board certification. Certification helps nurses compete for positions and increase their earning potential. Below are some common specializations for nurses, including related job duties, requirements, and certification options.

Pediatric RN

Pediatric nurses care for children from birth through adolescence. They work in hospitals and doctor's offices, providing primary or specialty nursing care. During an RN program, nursing students take specialized courses in pediatrics and complete clinical rotations in pediatric care settings.

A pediatric nurse must hold an RN license. Nurses can pursue certification from organizations like the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Candidates for certification must complete a minimum number of hours of clinical experience in a pediatric setting.

Geriatric Nurse

Geriatric nurses, also known as gerontological nurses, care for aging patients. They have specialized skills and experience treating medical conditions associated with aging.

Most geriatric nurses begin their careers by earning RN licensure and accruing professional experience. They may also pursue specialized training through courses on gerontology or clinical hours in geriatrics. RNs can also earn gerontological nursing board certification to help them stand out in the job market. Candidates for board certification must show clinical experience in their specialty area.

Perioperative Nurse

Perioperative nurses, also known as surgical nurses, specialize in operating room care. They care for patients before procedures, helping them prepare for surgery, then assist surgeons and oversee nursing care during the procedure. After surgery, perioperative nurses monitor patients and provide postoperative guidelines for recovery.

Typically, a perioperative nurses hold a BSN degree and have specialty certification. For example, the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses offers several certification options.

What Does an RN Salary Usually Look Like?

The median RN salary exceeded $73,000 as of 2019. However, nursing salaries vary depending on work setting, specialty, and geographic location. Nurses who work in hospitals earn salaries above the average RN salary. Similarly, locations like Los Angeles, Boston, and New York all offer higher average salaries.

Learn more about how to become an RN and check out the salary and career data below.

Salary and Job Growth for Registered Nurses

Median Salary (2019)


Job Growth (2019-2029)


Highest-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Registered Nurses
Metropolitan Area Mean Annual Salary (2019)
Los Angeles, CA $106,190
Boston, MA $96,510
New York, NY $93,280
Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN $84,400
Washington, DC $83,370
Houston, TX $81,350
Source: BLS

Professional Organizations

American Nurses Association
Dating back to 1896, this professional organization offers career advancement resources, including free webinars, continuing nursing education credits, and professional certification. Members receive discounts on initial certification and renewal. Early-career RNs also receive a Welcome to the Profession Kit.
National Student Nurses' Association
NSNA represents nursing students at all levels. The association offers mentorship opportunities, professional development resources, and nursing leadership tools. In particular, NSNA mentors students preparing for RN licensure. Members can use the career center to access NCLEX-RN resources, online education tools, and student resource guides.
This honor society for nurses was founded in 1922, and today it connects developing nurse leaders. The organization promotes nursing scholarship, encourages networking connections, and offers resources for nurse leaders. BSN and graduate nursing students who meet academic requirements can join Sigma. The organization hosts chapters at over 700 colleges and universities around the world.
National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations
NCEMNA is a coalition of five national nurse associations, including the National Black Nurses Association and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, that work together to advocate for nurses of color. The coalition produces white papers on nurses of color, creates training and research programs, and hosts nursing workshops. NCEMNA also endorses best practices for nurses and nursing education.

Accreditation for RN Programs

Nursing students should only attend accredited schools. Schools with accreditation meet high standards for educating students and follow the best practices for training nurses. Attending an unaccredited program affects job prospects and may even affect the RN licensing process, as graduates with unaccredited degrees may not qualify for licensure.

It's best to look for nursing programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. You can learn more about accreditation by checking out our accreditation guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does It Take To Get an RN Degree?

Nurses can earn the basic diploma or degree required to become an RN in about two years. After completing their program, each nurse takes the NCLEX-RN exam and applies for an RN license.

What Can an RN Do That an LPN Cannot?

RNs care for patients and assist physicians directly, while LPNs typically offer basic medical care under the supervision of an RN or doctor.

Can You Earn an RN Degree Online?

Yes. Many nursing programs offer online nursing degrees, and some offer online nursing diplomas that can set you on the path to becoming a licensed RN. Distance learners take classes online and complete clinical hours in their local areas.

Do Hospitals Hire RNs With Associate Degrees?

Yes. Nurses with ADNs or diplomas can work in hospitals. However, some hospitals prefer to hire nurses with BSNs.

How Many Years Does It Take To Get an RN Degree?

It generally takes two years to earn an associate degree or nursing diploma online. Nurses with BSNs typically spend four years earning their degrees.

What Does an RN Make Starting Out?

According to PayScale, RNs earn an average salary of around $30 an hour. Entry-level RNs make just under $27 per hour, while early-career nurses with 1-4 years of experience earn around $28.50 per hour. Exact pay rates vary by location and specialty.

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

RNs conduct health assessments, coordinate patient care with other healthcare professionals, and educate patients about health and wellness. They also administer treatments and medicines.

Header Image Credit: SDI Productions | Getty Images

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