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 16% by 2024.
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, nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses (such as nurse anesthetists, clinical nursing specialists, and nurse midwives) can perform many of the same tasks that were once only done by physicians – but at a lower cost. This economic reality is driving the demand for nurses even more. It’s also worth noting that the demand for these advanced practice nursing professionals will soar by 31% in the ten-year period leading up to 2024, and those jobs pay a median salary of $107,460 per year.
There are also other non-clinical occupations available to RNs. Some of these high-paying jobs include nurse educator, health care consultant, hospital administrator and nurse researcher.
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 in less time than with a full bachelor’s degree.
- A two-year associate’s degree, which also provides the RN designation without earning a bachelor’s degree.
- 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 option to choose from a full array of high-paying, high-demand nursing jobs.
Currently, most new nurses graduate from associate degree programs, followed by bachelor’s degree programs, and then diploma programs.
There are also many different certifications that you can earn with more education after becoming an RN. If you choose to go on to earn a graduate degree and become a nurse practitioner (NP), for example, your would earn certification in one or more of the six patient population focus areas (adult-gerontology (acute or primary care), pediatrics (acute or primary care), family/lifespan, neonatology, women’s health, or mental health). Nurse practitioners can also choose to become certified in specialty areas specific to practice setting and disease type. The other advanced practice roles that involve earning additional certification are certified nurse anesthetist, certified nurse-midwife, and clinical nurse specialist.
Bridge programs that allow ADN-educated RNs to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously are available to RNs interested in entering advanced practice. These bridge programs take considerably less time than earning each degree separately.
The good news in nursing education is that you can begin at the entry level 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 degree you earn, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN examination.
The most common way to become an RN and pass that all-important NCLEX exam is to earn your associate’s degree in nursing. This would involve completing an 18-24 month program in nursing at an accredited college. This is a good option for entry level nurses for a couple of reasons: The up front education commitment is less than it is for a full bachelor’s degree, and you can start earning money after just 1.5-2 years in school. You can always consider moving on to earn a BSN later. You may even choose to go on to enter a bridge program where you can earn your BSN and MSN simultaneously in less time than if you took both programs separately. Learn more about entry-level nursing degree options.
There three most common options for entry-level training below the bachelor’s level are:
- Diploma in Nursing (2 – 3 year hospital-based training programs)
- Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) (18 month – 2 year college programs)
- Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) programs (1-year certificate/diploma college programs)
For aspiring or current nurses who want to expand their career options, earning a 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. In fact, job market studies have shown that you would qualify for 88% or more of the available nursing jobs if you have your BSN; but that number falls to just 37% with an associate’s degree.
Though the BSN is typically a four-year degree that combines learning in the classroom with clinical training, there are some BSN programs available that allow you to earn your degree in less time if you’re already an experienced RN with an associate’s degree or a diploma. See Accelerated BSN Program options.
Different BSN options are available for nurses at different stages of their careers:
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) (pre-licensure degree for those that want to enter practice with a bachelor’s)
- LPN to BSN (allows LPNs to earn a bachelor’s in as little as four semesters)
- RN to BSN (post-licensure degree for ADN and diploma holders who want to earn a bachelor’s)
The median salary for RNs is $68,450 per year, while the entry-level salary for RNs entering the field with an associate’s degree is around $47,000.
One of the best options for maximizing your career potential in the nursing field is to earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), which would allow you to become a nurse practitioner (NP). According to US government statistics, 94% of active nurse practitioners have an MSN degree and earn a median salary of $82,000 per year. In fact, the only NPs without an MSN were trained more than 20 years ago. Earning your MSN is mandatory if you want to work in advanced practice nursing as a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife or nurse anesthetist. Some MSN programs also offer a specialized track or focus in a particular nursing specialty, such as oncology or pediatrics.
If you hold an associate’s degree in nursing or nursing diploma and want to earn a graduate degree, you’ll enroll in an RN-MSN bridge program with no BSN requirements.
The different types of MSN programs include:
- Direct Entry MSN (for non-nurses with a bachelor’s in another field)
- RN to MSN (for RNs with an associate’s degree or diploma)
- 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 those looking to advance to more rewarding and lucrative nursing roles.
The highest level nursing degree you can earn with a clinical focus is a doctor of nursing practice, or DNP. Though many nurses enter DNP programs after first earning an MSN, there are also many post-bachelor’s DNP programs available to BSN holders. These post-bachelor’s programs would allow you to earn your MSN and DNP all in one program.
If you are considering becoming an advanced practice nurse, such as a nurse practitioner, be aware that there is a growing movement backed by organizations like the American Association of Colleges of Nursing now recommends to require all advanced practice nurses to hold a DNP degree. Though this movement has lost steam in recent years as the current demand for NPs and other advanced practice nurses makes implementing more stringent education requirements impractical, it is entirely possible this movement could regain momentum in the future.
If you want to teach nursing in a university or conduct extensive research, a nursing PhD would be right for you. A PhD should not be confused with the practice-focused DNP, which is designed specifically for clinical practitioners.
Learn more about the difference between an MSN, DNP and BSN.
DNP options include:
- BSN-to-DNP – Post-bachelor’s DNP (allows nurses with a BSN to earn both an MSN and DNP in one program)
- MSN-to-DNP – Post-master’s DNP (designed for MSN holders interested in pursuing more advanced training in their current patient population or adding an additional patient population or specialty)