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Types of Nursing Degrees and Levels

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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 Registered Nurses (RN) currently practice in the U.S. According to the BLS, the demand for RNs will increase 7% from 2019 to 2029.

Generally speaking, there are many 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.

There are programs that will give credit toward a registered nursing degree for licensed practical nurses (LPN/LVN) or for those with nursing assistant training and experience.

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 evidence-based skills training.

Nursing Certifications

Nursing certifications help practicing nurses demonstrate their advanced, specialized knowledge about working with a particular illness/disease or population.

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.

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. While there are many organizations that have certifications for nurses, the American Nurses Credentialing Center is one of the most common.

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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 or more years of full-time study. Graduates must take and pass the NCLEX examination before they can begin practicing.

The goal of entry-level nursing programs is to create culturally-sensitive competent health-care team members. These programs typically cover nursing related topics such as pathophysiology, foundations and communication, basic health assessment, principles of medication administration, mental health, gerontology, pediatrics, and medical-surgical nursing.

Program prerequisite courses often include basic chemistry, human anatomy and physiology and nutrition.

  • Diploma in Nursing Program

    Schools, hospitals, and other training facilities typically feature nursing diploma programs, which take 1-3 years to complete.

  • 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. Part-time options are often available.

  • 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.

Bridge Nursing Degree Programs

Bridge programs help nurses who already possess diplomas or associate degrees to complete bachelor-level degrees, by giving credit for previous educational courses and experiences. 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 and ability to attend school full-time or part-time.

Coursework covers community-based nursing, transitioning to professional nursing, leadership and nursing research. Each enrollee must also complete additional clinical experiences.

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 four years, and degree-seekers can pursue accelerated BSN programs to graduate more quickly or pursue part-time course work.

Earning bachelor’s degrees in nursing allows graduates to work as RNs and potentially earn higher salaries by being offered more opportunities for career advancement than their colleagues with ADN qualifications. After meeting all academic and clinical requirements from an accredited program, graduates must also pass the NCLEX-RN examination to receive licensure in their state.

Building on a liberal arts foundation, the BSN degree allows professional nurses to successfully function in a highly complex, ever-changing health care system.

These programs cover topics such as nursing practice across the lifespan (pediatrics to geriatrics, mental health, vulnerable populations), organizational leadership, research and evidence-based practice, information technology, health care policy, interprofessional communication, clinical prevention and population health, and professionalism.

In addition to liberal arts courses, nursing program prerequisite courses often include algebra/statistics, biology/microbiology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, psychology/lifespan development, and nutrition. Many of these courses can be taken at your local community college and transferred into your local college or university.

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing

    BSN degrees require four years of full-time study, though accelerated and part-time options also exist. For many programs, it is possible to take some courses online. Clinical courses are taken in person or through simulation experiences.

  • LPN-to-BSN Programs

    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.

  • RN-to-BSN Programs

    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.

Master’s Degree in Nursing Programs

Earning an MSN helps graduates compete for advanced practice roles such as nurse practitioners (NP), certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and nurse educators, among other roles. In addition to taking on more leadership and managerial responsibilities and being eligible to teach as a faculty member, nurses with these credentials generally 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 a BSN and an active and unencumbered RN license prior to starting a graduate program.

  • Direct-Entry MSN Program

    Also called immersion programs, 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.

  • RN-to-MSN Program

    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.

  • BSN-to-MSN Program

    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.

    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.

Doctorate in Nursing Programs

The doctor of philosophy (PhD) and doctor of nursing practice (DNP) are the two most common doctoral degrees in nursing. The PhD is a research-based degree and trains nurses to function as researchers and academics. Most nurses possessing a PhD serve as faculty in universities.

Earning a DNP gives graduates the resources and training needed to work at the highest possible level in clinical organizations. DNP graduates typically command higher salaries, and commonly find work as nurse practitioners, university professors, 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.

  • BSN-to-DNP Program

    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.

  • MSN-to-DNP Program

    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.

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 either MSN or DNP 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.

Reviewed by: Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

Reviewed by Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

With over two decades of teaching and clinical practice as a family nurse practitioner, Dr. Granger is an expert in nursing education and clinical practice at all levels of education (associate, baccalaureate, and graduate). She has published and lectured extensively on nursing education and clinical practice-related content. Her expertise ranges from student advising and mentoring to curricular and content design (both on ground and online) to teaching and formal course delivery. Dr. Granger is one of the founding faculty members of the University of Southern California’s first ever fully online graduate family nurse practitioner program.

Explore Degree and Career Related Resources

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