Earning a nursing degree is undoubtedly one of the best educational investments that you can make today. The strong demand for nursing professionals throughout the US is a compelling indicator that nursing will remain a strong career path for many years to come. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the demand for all nursing jobs will skyrocket 19% by 2022.
What is driving this demand? Several factors are, but one of the biggest is just that Americans are getting older and living longer. As people are aging and living more active lives, there are more health care workers and nurses being employed. For example, there are many more nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, and full registered nurses that are providing more and more care for our large, aging population.
Further, highly skilled nurses, such as nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses (such as nurse anesthetists, clinical nursing specialists, and nurse midwives) can do many of the jobs that used to be only done by physicians – but at a lower cost. This economic reality is driving the demand for nurses yet more. Note also that the demand for the above advanced practice nursing professions will soar by 31% by 2022, and those jobs pay a median salary of $96,000 per year.
There also are other non-clinical occupations that require an RN degree and certification. Some of these high-paying jobs include nurse educators, health care consultants, hospital administrators and nurse researchers.
If you want to get a good start in the nursing field, you will need to learn all there is to know about the various educational options. There are some career paths that are very clear cut in terms of their education. But with nursing, there are many educational paths that you can take, whether you are interested in becoming an LPN, an RN, a nurse practitioner or another type of advanced practice nurse. It all depends upon what your career goals are, how much money you want to make, and what exactly you want to do in your nursing work.
Generally speaking, there are three basic pathways to become a nurse:
A two or three year diploma program, which allows you to become an RN at a lower level than an RN with a full bachelor’s degree.
A two year associate’s degree, which also provides the RN designation at a lower than bachelor’s degree level.
A four year Bachelor of Science degree that results in an RN designation. Once you have your BSN, you can then opt to receive more education with an MSN or DNP degree. This offers you the full array of high-paying nursing jobs that are in such demand today.
The highest number of nurses currently graduate from associate degree programs, followed by bachelor’s degree programs, and then diploma programs.
There also are many different certifications that you can earn with more education after you become an RN, including nurse practitioner (NP), licensed practical nurse (LPN), clinical nurse leader, certified nurse anesthetist and many more. You also can choose a bridge program, which can allow, for example, an LPN, to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees simultaneously. This will take you considerably less time than if you got both degrees separately.
The good news in nursing education is that you can begin at a relatively entry level, such as with an associate’s degree or diploma. This is enough education to get your foot in the door, and to get some nursing experience. Then, you can go back to school to earn your bachelor’s degree or master of science degree if you choose.
If you just want to become a nurse to help people and to just get your career started, we recommend that you earn your LPN or RN diploma. These entry level designations will allow you to gain the experience and education you need to go back eventually and earn your bachelor’s or higher degree.
Below are more details about the various levels of nursing degrees.
One of the most important things to know as an entry level nurse student is that no matter what kind of RN you become, you need to pass the NCLEX examination. There are different exams, based upon whether you have earned an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree. Still, you need to pass the exam to become an RN. The first way to become an RN and pass that all-important NCLEX exam is to earn your associate’s degree in nursing. Earning your associate’s degree in nursing will mean you must complete an 18-24 month program in nursing at an accredited career college. This is a good option for entry level nurses: The up front education commitment is less than a full bachelor’s degree; you can start earning money after 1.5-2 years, and then consider moving on to earning your BSN. You also can choose to enter a bridge program, where you can earn your BSN and MSN simultaneously in less time than if you took both programs separately. More about Entry-level nursing options.
Diploma in Nursing
Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ASN)
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
For aspiring or current nurses who want to expand their career options, earning your bachelor’s in nursing is an excellent option. Nurses who hold a bachelor’s degree are eligible for many more nursing jobs than nurses with only an associate’s degree. You will qualify for 88% or more of the available nursing jobs if you have your BSN; that falls to only 37% with an associate’s degree. This is a four year degree that combines learning in the classroom with clinical training. There are some BSNs available that allow you to earn your degree in less time if you already are an experienced RN with an associate’s degree or a diploma. See Accelerated BSN Program options.
Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN)
LPN to BSN (LPN can earn bachelor’s in four semesters)
RN to BSN (Associate’s holder can earn bachelor’s)
Overall, nurses earn $65,000 per year, with the lowest wage being around $45,000, which is usually for those who have only an associate’s degree.
One of the best options for maximizing your career potential in the nursing field is to earn your Master of Science in Nursing, or MSN. This degree allows you to become a nurse practitioner, or NP. According to US government statistics, 94% of active nurse practitioners have an MSN degree, and their median salary is $82,000 per year. In fact, the only nurses who are NPs without an MSN were trained more than 20 years ago. Earning your MSN is mandatory for you to work in advanced nursing practice as a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse specialist. Some MSN programs also have a specialized track or focus in many types of specialties, such as oncology or pediatrics. See MSN programs with No BSN requirements.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
Direct Entry MSN (for non-nurses with bachelor’s in another field)
RN to MSN (for RNs with an associate’s degree)
MSN – Nurse Practitioner (NP)
MSN – Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
MSN – Clinical Nurse Leader
MSN – Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
MSN – Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA)
More than 95% of nurse practitioners with an MSN degree work in clinical practice. About three percent work in faculty teaching roles, and one percent work in medical administration. This graduate degree remains a very flexible and attractive option for enjoying a profitable and rewarding nursing career.
The highest level of nursing degree that you can earn is a doctor of nursing practice, or DNP. You need to have a bachelor’s degree at least to enter a DNP program. You also usually already have your MSN in this program, but there are some DNP programs that allow you to earn your MSN and DNP at the same time.
If you are considering becoming an advanced practice nurse, such as a nurse practitioner, be aware that there is a growing movement to require all advanced practice nurses to hold a DNP degree. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing now recommends that advanced practice nurses earn their DNP. So, it could be a requirement in the not too distant future for all advanced practice professionals to have their DNP to work in a clinical setting. If you want to teach nursing in a university or conduct extensive research, the DNP may be for you. See also Nurse Practitioner MSN vs DNP vs BSN.
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)