When it comes to the nursing profession, there are hundreds of different pathways you can take. We’ve talked about the ABC’s of nursing credentials, and the various types of nurses you can become to make an impact in this field. We also know that there are different levels of education required for the different nursing titles out there. So, how does it all stack up? How do you make sense of your options, and the different levels of nursing degrees and titles you can pursue?
Below, we break it all down. Whether you are an aspiring nurse breaking into the field, or a seasoned nurse looking to advance your current role, this list of nursing degree levels will prove useful to you.
Levels of Nursing Degrees
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
Career Outcomes: Registered Nurse
An associate degree in Nursing is the standard level of degree needed to become a Registered Nurse. Registered Nurses – commonly referred to as RNs – are the nurses you’ll find most often in the medical field. Currently, there are over three million Registered Nurses employed in hospitals, private practices, schools, and other clinical facilities throughout the United States.
Registered Nurses provide direct care to patients. They are licensed to treat patients, administer medications, conduct health assessments, operate medical equipment, and coordinate care plans. Because they have such a large scope of work, Registered Nurses require at least an associate degree to practice. Associate degree programs prepare students with the fundamentals of nursing practice and the clinical skills needed to excel in a patient care setting.
ADN programs typically take two to three years to complete. The program includes a combination of classroom and clinical work. During clinicals, students receive hands-on training in a real healthcare setting. They also practice in laboratory settings to hone their skills. After graduation, aspiring RNs are eligible to take the board examination and become licensed professionals.
Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)
Career Outcomes: Registered Nurse
Some Registered Nurses choose to pursue their Bachelor’s in Nursing, due to the advanced skillsets they can achieve in a longer-term program. A Bachelor’s in Nursing can also qualify Registered Nurses for expanded job opportunities in the field. For example, BSN-educated nurses are more qualified for leadership positions, and can apply for certain jobs (like a U.S. Military Nurse, which requires a BSN).
There are different pathways you can take to earn a BSN degree. For those new to college and just starting out in the nursing field, a traditional, four-year bachelor’s degree program is the best option. For those who have a degree in a non-nursing major, an accelerated BSN (ABSN) program may also be an option for you. If you are already a Registered Nurse, you may pursue a fast-paced RN-to-BSN program, which takes 16 months or less to complete.
While associate degree programs cover the clinical components and fundamentals of nursing, all BSN degree programs go beyond the basics. Because of the added time investment in school, you can expect to take advanced classes in topics like Public Health Nursing, Professional Nursing Leadership, Nursing Research, and Healthcare Policy. These areas of study will enable you to tackle larger roles in the nursing field, to make an even greater impact on the healthcare system, and may even advance the quality of care provided to your patients. Additionally, a BSN degree can make you eligible for higher salary potential.
Bachelor’s degree programs also prepare nurses for graduate coursework if they wish to continue their education and advance through the upper levels of nursing.
Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)
Career Outcomes: APRN or Nurse Leader
To become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), you must have at least a Master’s in Nursing. MSN programs prepare students for advanced practice, such as a Nurse Practitioner role, as well as for advanced leadership positions, like a Nurse Administrator.
There are different types of MSN programs out there, taking anywhere from one to three years to complete. Most MSN programs will be structured for students who already have a Bachelor’s in Nursing, and are looking to obtain a master’s level degree. These MSN programs are the shorter option, as well, taking only about one to two years to complete.
Depending on the type of MSN program you pursue, coursework will vary. Most MSN programs are tailored to a specific area or specialization in nursing. It’s important to choose an MSN degree that supports your career goals. For example, Goodwin offers three types of MSN programs today:
- APRN-FNP degree program, for aspiring Family Nurse Practitioners
- APRN-PMHNP degree program, for aspiring Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners
- Population health-focused MSN program, for aspiring leaders in nursing and community health
After graduation from a specialized program, you may need to complete the license exam in your field of choice. For example, to become an APRN, you may pursue certification from the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB), the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), and/or the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB).
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) & Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Career Outcomes: Nurse Administrator, Nursing Professor, Nurse Researcher
A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a postgraduate program that prepares nurses for leadership positions. A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is also a postgraduate option for nurses looking to enter the research and academic sides of nursing. Both programs can take an additional two to four years to complete, depending on the level of nursing degree you had earned previously. Doctorate programs are less common than MSN programs, and are considered the highest levels of nursing degrees available.
Nurses with a DNP have advanced, doctoral-level knowledge of healthcare policy, patient advocacy, health information systems, and healthcare leadership. Graduation of a DNP program, therefore, can prepare you for executive-level positions in clinical organizations and healthcare settings.
Nurses with a PhD have been trained to function as nurse researchers and educators. Often, those with a PhD work in universities, teaching the next generation of nurses. Some nurses with PhDs, however, will fulfill research positions – exploring the latest treatments, technologies, and breakthroughs in the field. Most students in these programs already have APRN licensure.
Non-Degree Nursing Credentials
Of course, the nursing field is not just limited to those with postsecondary degrees in hand. You can pursue a certificate or diploma in nursing, as well, to achieve entry-level, support careers in the field. While these careers have limited scopes of practice, and therefore less salary potential, they can be a solid steppingstone in regards to nursing education.
Certificate in Nursing Assisting (CNA)
Career Outcomes: Certified Nursing Assistant
For those who are interested in being a part of the healthcare team, but are not able or ready to commit to a full-time nursing career, becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) can be a great choice. Much like their name implies, CNAs assist other, licensed nursing staff in helping deliver care to patients. They typically work in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes. On a daily basis, CNAs can be found feeding and bathing patients, transporting patients between rooms, and ensuring each person is comfortable throughout their stay.
Because the scope of work for CNAs is limited, it does not take a significant investment to get started in this career path. To become a CNA, you simply need to complete a postsecondary certificate program, not a nursing degree. CNA programs typically involve 4-12 weeks of training, preparing aspiring caregivers to earn certification.
Diploma in Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN)
Career Outcomes: Licensed Practical Nurse
Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) act as the primary communicator between patients and Registered Nurses. They handle some clinical tasks, like taking patients’ vital signs, starting IV drips, and changing bandages. However, an LPN’s chief role is to ensure the entire care team is up to date on each patient’s conditions, and that patients’ needs are being met by their care team.
LPNs provide basic patient care and, in most states, are not licensed to administer treatments or perform patient exams. They support Registered Nurses and other members of the medical staff. In turn, LPNs require less education than Registered Nurses. While requirements vary by state, LPNs typically need a diploma in practical nursing to earn licensure. LPN programs typically take about one year to complete.
Level Up Your Nursing Career
No matter which degree path you choose, every level of nursing stands to make an impact. From Certified Nursing Assistants to Nurse Administrators, each nursing professional is a change-maker in the lives of their patients, their care team, or even in the greater healthcare system.
Now that you’re familiar with the different levels of nursing, you can make an educated decision regarding your next step. You can fulfill a successful career as a Registered Nurse, or level up with a postgraduate degree. The beauty of nursing is the many options available. Where will you go?
If you are interested in the nursing degrees offered at Goodwin University, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Goodwin is here to answer your questions, supporting all levels of nurses, and help you land your dream nursing career. Learn more by calling 800-889-3282 or exploring our nursing school online.
Goodwin University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), formerly known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Goodwin University was founded in 1999, with the goal of serving a diverse student population with career-focused degree programs that lead to strong employment outcomes.