Earning a nursing degree is a great educational investment. The strong demand for nursing professionals throughout the U.S. indicates that the field will continue to grow for many years to come. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for professionals with nursing degrees will grow by 12% from 2018-2028, and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing notes that more than 3.1 million RNs currently practice in the U.S.
Generally speaking, there are three basic pathways to become a nurse:
- A two- or three-year diploma program, which allows you to become a registered nurse (RN) in less time than a full bachelor's program.
- A two-year associate degree, which also provides the RN designation without earning a bachelor's degree.
- A four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree that results in an RN designation. Once you have your BSN, you can then opt to pursue more education with a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree to choose from a full array of high-paying, high-demand nursing jobs.
Advantages to Nursing Degree Programs
Earning a nursing degree can lead to employment in many different healthcare settings. Regardless of the specific degree level, these programs teach students how to adequately care for their patients through best practices and research-driven skills training. Learners in advanced degree programs may also focus their knowledge in specializations, such as mental health and addictions, geriatrics, or pediatrics.
Nursing certifications help practicing nurses demonstrate their advanced, specialized knowledge about working with a particular illness/disease or population. Students can pursue certification at every level, but nurse practitioners (NPs) most commonly become certified in specific areas.
Specific patient populations include families and individuals across the lifespan, acute or primary adult-gerontology care, women's health, neonatal, acute or primary pediatric care, and psychiatric/mental health.
NP specialties and certifications include options such as emergency medicine, palliative care, surgery, and research. Individuals interested in pursuing certifications should check with their state board of nursing and local/online colleges to understand which types they can pursue locally.
Entry Level Nursing Degree Programs
Students can pursue diplomas, certificates, and associate degrees to earn entry-level nursing degrees. Each qualification leads to different jobs. Learners can often complete diplomas and certificates in as little as a year, while an associate-level program requires two years of full-time study. Graduates must take and pass the NCLEX examination before they can begin practicing.
Diploma in Nursing Program
Schools, hospitals, and other training facilities typically feature nursing diploma programs, which take 1-3 years to complete. These programs cover foundational topics in the discipline, including lifespan nursing concepts, foundations of patient care, anatomy and physiology, and introductory pharmacology.
Associate Degree in Nursing
An associate degree in nursing (ADN), generally offered by community colleges and technical/vocational schools, typically takes two years of full-time study to complete. These programs explore applications of basic nursing skills, population health and education concepts, nursing practice concepts, and developmental psychology.
Licensed Practical Nurse
Schools offer licensed practical nurse (LPN) training programs through diplomas and certificates, typically taking one year to complete. Requirements vary by educational institution but commonly include pharmacology for nurses, fundamentals of practical nursing, and mental health nursing.
Bridge Nursing Degree Programs
Bridge programs help nurses who already possess diplomas, certificates, or ADNs to complete bachelor's-level degrees in a shorter amount of time. Building on knowledge already gained through previous education, these programs take less time to complete than a standalone bachelor's program. Most require 1-4 years, depending on the student's education level.
Coursework covers community-based nursing, transitioning to professional nursing, health assessment, and nursing research. Each enrollee must also complete a clinical experience, which often takes place at the student's current place of employment.
Bachelor's Degree in Nursing Programs
Students can pursue BSNs in several different formats to align with their varying amounts of education experience. Programs usually last 1-4 years, and degree-seekers can pursue accelerated BSN programs to graduate more quickly.
Earning bachelor's degrees in nursing allows graduates to work as RNs and earn higher salaries than their colleagues with ADN, diploma, or certificate qualifications. After meeting all academic and clinical requirements, graduates must also pass the NCLEX-RN examination to receive licensure in their state.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing
BSNs appeal to first-time students who know they want to work as an RN. These degrees require four years of full-time study, though accelerated options also exist. Courses commonly covered include nursing anatomy and physiology, nursing informatics, statistics for evidence-based practice, and microbiology. Learners must also complete a clinical requirement and seek licensure in their state before practicing.
LPN-to-BSN bridge programs build on existing knowledge and typically take 24-36 months to complete. These differ from traditional BSN programs by allowing learners to skip some foundational courses already taken to complete clinical requirements at their current place of work. LPN-to-BSN programs explore foundations of nursing practice, nursing management of health problems, genetics and molecular therapeutics, and nutrition for clinical practice.
RN-to-BSN programs serve the needs of learners who already possess ADNs but want to take their careers to the next level. These programs usually require two years of full-time study, but some schools offer accelerated options. Common courses explore mental health nursing, advanced nursing practices for acute/chronic care, nursing care for the elderly, and community health nursing. Students typically complete their clinicals at their places of employment.
Master's Degree in Nursing Programs
Earning an MSN helps graduates compete for advanced practice roles such as NPs, certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and nurse educators, among other roles. In addition to taking on more leadership and managerial responsibilities, nurses with these credentials also earn higher salaries.
An MSN can take between 1-4 years to complete, depending on the type of degree a student holds when they start the program. Each applicant must already possess an active and unencumbered RN license. After graduating, they must earn advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) licenses.
Direct-Entry MSN Program
This type of MSN program appeals to individuals who already possess bachelor's degrees in unrelated subjects. Students usually spend three years meeting all course and clinical requirements for direct-entry MSN programs. Learners with no required prerequisites on their transcripts usually need longer to graduate than those who studied a related topic. Degree-seekers must complete coursework and clinical rotations to graduate. Upon finishing coursework, they must seek licensure.
RN-to-MSN bridge programs help students who possess ADNs to earn master's-level qualifications. These degrees usually take 18-30 months to complete, depending on whether the student enrolls on a part- or full-time basis. Enrollees must gain both RN and APRN licensure to practice. Common courses include advanced pharmacology fundamentals; leadership and the role of the advanced practice nurse; population health and epidemiology; and advanced physical assessments.
Designed for RNs who already hold a bachelor's degree in nursing, the BSN-to-MSN bridge program takes between 15-24 months of full-time study. Part-time options also exist that take between 3-4 years. Learners complete coursework in areas of healthcare technology and informatics, interprofessional organization and systems leadership, and evidence-based practice essentials.
Many schools also offer concentrations to help degree-seekers specialize their studies. In addition to coursework, learners participate in clinicals to gain advanced hands-on skills.
Dual Master's Degree Programs
Dual master's degrees allow students to complete two advanced programs concurrently. Degrees vary by institution but options often include MSN/MBA, MSN/MHA, MSN/MPH, and MSN/MPA. Learners should plan to spend 3-4 years enrolled in these programs, though timelines vary for each program. These degrees appeal to learners who want to use their nursing expertise in related fields, such as healthcare administration, public health policy, or nonprofit management.
Doctorate Degree in Nursing Programs
Earning a DNP gives graduates the credentials needed to work in the highest echelons of the profession. It also entitles them to higher salaries. DNP graduates commonly find work as university professors, researchers, or chief nursing officers.
Students usually spend 2-4 years enrolled, depending on the type of degree they held previously. Those who already possess MSNs graduate more quickly than those with bachelor's degrees in nursing. Most DNP graduates possess APRN licensure. While a DNP focuses on practice, a Ph.D. in nursing aims to build research skills.
BSN-to-DNP bridge programs support students who possess BSNs but know that their ideal roles require doctoral degrees. Most degrees require 3-4 years of study if enrolled on a full-time basis. An interested degree-seeker should already possess an active and unencumbered RN license when applying. Common coursework includes health promotion and disease prevention, clinical scholarship, advanced pharmacotherapeutics, and clinical inquiry.
Learners who already possess advanced nursing degrees can complete MSN-to-DNP programs in 1-2 years. Individuals who work as NPs or educators for a few years may decide to take their education to the next level by pursuing DNP degrees. Coursework usually includes topics such as health systems leadership, health policy and finance, research methods, and applied statistical analysis. Each student must also participate in a residency and complete a nursing project.
Careers in Nursing
Individuals with nursing degrees can pursue many different careers to align with their education level and ideal patient community. The following sections explore nursing employment opportunities by degree level.
Entry-Level Nursing Careers
Entry-level nursing jobs support individuals with diplomas, certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor's degrees in nursing.
Licensed practical nurses must hold a diploma or certificate and receive licensure in their state. The BLS projects that employment for these professionals will grow by 11% from 2018-2028. The average median pay for these professionals in 2019 reached $47,480.
RNs need to earn ADNs or BSNs. They must also pass examinations to receive licensure. The BLS projects that RN employment will grow by 12% from 2018-2028. These nurses earned a median salary of $73,300 in 2019.
Nursing Careers with an MSN
MSN graduates can find employment as nurse consultants, nurse educators, research nurses, and nurse administrators. Many schools also offer opportunities for students to pursue specializations in one of these areas, ensuring they possess the nuanced skills needed upon graduation.
Salaries for these professionals vary based on job title, location, employer, and amount of experience. Data from PayScale indicates that median salaries sit between $74,424 for research nurses and $88,125 for nurse administrators. All positions require valid nursing licensure.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses
Earning MSN degrees qualifies graduates for advanced practice roles in many different niche areas. Regardless of the position they hold, these nurses must possess both RN and APRN licensure before beginning a new role.
NPs, nurse midwives, and CRNAs all must possess MSN degrees. BLS data indicates that employment for these advanced practice workers will grow by 26% from 2018-2028 -- far faster than the national average for all occupations. They earned an annual median salary of $115,800 in 2019.