Types of Nursing Degrees and Levels

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
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Updated April 25, 2024
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Learn about the types of nursing degrees available and how to launch your career in this field. Explore in-demand job opportunities and earning potential.
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You can become a nurse or enter the nursing profession through many pathways. Strong demand for nursing professionals indicates that the field will continue to grow for many years, which makes earning a nursing degree a great career investment.

Licensed practical/vocational nurse (LPN/LVN) diploma programs prepare you for entry-level nursing roles. You can become a registered nurse (RN) through an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). After gaining 1-2 years of nursing experience, you can pursue an advanced nursing degree, such as a master of science in nursing (MSN) and doctor of nursing practice (DNP).

Learn the types of degrees and levels within the nursing field to choose the best path for you.

Comparing the Types of Nursing Degrees

The nursing field offers opportunities for professionals at every degree level. However, prospective students should research nursing degrees that can help them achieve their career goals. The table below discusses degree options, graduation timelines, career options for graduates, projected job openings, and average annual earnings.

Students should note that many factors, such as location, experience, and work setting, can influence earning potential. Additionally, the program length listed below refers to full-time enrollment. Students considering part-time enrollment should talk to program advisors about how much additional time it will take to earn their degrees.

Earning a nursing degree can lead to employment in many different healthcare settings. Regardless of the degree level, these programs teach students how to provide safe, quality care for their patients through best practices and evidence-based skills training. Some of the figures in the following table reflect data from fewer than 50 respondents.

Comparison of Nursing Degrees
Degree Program Length Career Paths Projected Job Openings, 2022-2032Average Annual Salary
CNA diploma or certificate 4-12 weeks Certified nursing assistant +56,500$40,000
LPN/LVN diploma or certificate1-2 yearsLicensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse +34,900$59,000
Associate degree in nursing2 yearsRegistered nurse +177,400$76,000
Bachelor of science in nursing4 yearsRegistered nurse+177,400$94,000
Master of science in nursing 1-2 years Nurse practitioner, Certified nurse midwife, Nurse educator, Nurse administrator, Clinical nurse specialist+134,700$103,000
Doctor of nursing practice3-4 years
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist, Nurse practitioner, Certified nurse midwife, Nurse educator, Nurse administrator, Clinical nurse specialist
+139,200$112,000
Ph.D. in nursing 4-6 years
  • Nurse educator, Nurse researcher
+15,600$100,000
Source: BLS (May 2022) and Payscale (April 2024)

Entry-Level Nursing Degrees and Programs

Students can pursue diplomas, certificates, and associate or bachelor’s nursing degrees to qualify for entry-level nursing roles. Each qualification can lead to LPN or RN licensure. Learners can often complete certificates or diplomas in as little as a year, while degrees require two or more years of full-time study.

Graduates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) before they can begin practicing. LPNs take the NCLEX-PN, which focuses on coordinating care, while the NCLEX-RN covers managing care for registered nurses.

Entry-level nursing degrees seek to create culturally sensitive, competent nurses. These pathways typically cover topics like pathophysiology, fundamental nursing skills, health communication, and health assessment. Enrollees also explore principles of medication administration, mental health, gerontology, pediatrics, and medical-surgical nursing.

Prerequisite courses often include basic chemistry, statistics, human anatomy, and physiology.

Licensed Practical Nurse Program

Community colleges typically offer LPN programs. Students should only consider programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Graduating from an accredited program ensures that you qualify to take the NCLEX-PN, get licensed, apply for jobs, and pursue further education like LPN-to-BSN bridge programs. Students can earn their diplomas in about one year with full-time enrollment. Programs may offer part-time options, which require a longer time commitment.

While enrollment requirements vary, students should expect to need at least a 2.0 GPA. Other requirements include a high school diploma or GED certificate, official transcripts, a personal essay, and a background check. Common coursework includes the fundamentals of nursing, mental health nursing, and adult nursing. LPN programs also include labs and clinicals for students to practice their nursing skills.

Diploma in Nursing Program

Aspiring RNs can pursue several educational paths to earn licensure, including diplomas in nursing. A diploma is the minimum educational requirement to earn a license. Some states, like New York, require a BSN, however.

There are 43 accredited nursing diploma programs. Students can attend RN diploma programs through hospital-based nursing schools, technical schools, and community colleges. RN diploma graduates can sit for the NCLEX-RN and obtain RN licensure, but their NCLEX-RN pass rates are usually lower than RN degree programs.

Students can earn diplomas in about two years, depending on the program. For instance, some schools offer part-time and full-time enrollment. Admission requirements also vary by program. Requirements may include a 2.0 minimum GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and a GED certificate or high school diploma. Courses include foundations of nursing, nursing care of adults, and developmental psychology.

Associate Degree in Nursing

Technical schools, community colleges, and some universities offer ADNs. These nursing degrees offer a flexible pathway to becoming an RN. Full-time attendance typically takes two years. Part-time options extend this timeline but allow students to balance their studies with professional or personal obligations.

Graduating from an accredited ADN program ensures eligibility for the NCLEX-RN examination and licensure. Enrollment requirements vary among programs, but on average, each candidate must submit a high school diploma or GED certificate, completed prerequisite courses, and a minimum GPA of 2.5. Some admissions departments also require personal statements, interviews, or letters of recommendation. The programs generally include a blend of classroom instruction and clinical practice.

Coursework includes anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and psychology. Clinical experience allows enrollees to develop practical skills through hands-on, supervised work in healthcare settings.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Employers commonly seek nurses with BSNs. This level of nursing degree is linked to better patient outcomes and prepares students for comprehensive nursing roles. Full-time programs take four years to complete, while part-time enrollment can extend the duration of the program for a period defined by the program.

Accredited programs ensure graduates qualify for the NCLEX-RN and licensure in the state. Admission requirements for BSN programs vary depending on the pathway, such as direct from high school, early admission, or LPN-to-BSN bridge. For example, an applicant who applies directly from high school must be 18 years or older by their first clinical course and have a 3.2 GPA or higher in prerequisite college courses.

BSN programs cover nursing theory, research, leadership, and evidence-based practice. Advanced topics include patient care, community health, psychology, and health policy. Clinical experiences help develop patient assessment and medication administration skills, proper wound care management, and patient education and communication skills.

Entry-Level Nursing Career Opportunities

RNs and LPNs play a crucial role in healthcare delivery. LPNs work in physicians’ offices, nursing homes, hospitals, home health care, and immunization clinics. They perform basic care, including patient education. However, in most states, LPNs must be supervised by RNs or physicians.

RNs, ADN-prepared RNs, and BSN-level nurses also have different responsibilities. While each position works in hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, and community health centers, their scope of care differs. In each setting, diploma-prepared RNs have strong clinical skills but do not have a foundation in leadership, research, or advanced clinical care.

ADN-prepared nurses are qualified for entry-level positions as technically proficient RNs capable of day-to-day care such as medication administration, prescribed wound care, patient education, recording patient history, and assisting with diagnostic procedures.

BSN-prepared nurses can perform these tasks but qualify for leadership and administrative tasks, such as training and educating nurses. They can work in specialized areas such as quality control, healthcare recruiting, risk management, and nurse consulting.

BSN Bridge Programs

These bridge programs allow candidates to use the coursework they previously completed in accredited nursing programs to complete BSNs. Many schools offer bridge programs online, increasing flexibility and lowering the cost for working professionals.

Bridge programs must be accredited. This status ensures the student can receive financial aid and pursue more advanced studies. The time to complete a BSN bridge program depends on the number of credits that transfer to the program.

Prerequisites include documented completion of an accredited program and an active LPN or RN license in the state. Many programs have a minimum 2.5 GPA requirement, though some waive this requirement. General education courses include English, anatomy, physiology, statistics, and microbiology.

Other required coursework includes health issues, informatics, evidence-based practice, leadership, and transition to BSN practice. The benefits of completing a BSN bridge program include better pay, more job opportunities, and a stronger pathway to graduate study.

LPN-to-BSN Programs

LPN-to-BSN bridge programs can provide career advancement opportunities for LPNs and LVNs. These programs differ from traditional BSNs. They involve students earning an RN license before focusing on RN-to-BSN coursework. Nursing bridge programs award students credit for their prior coursework, reducing overall program length.

Students can earn degrees in 2-3 years of full-time attendance, and many schools offer online or evening classes. Admission requires an active LPN license, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

RN-to-BSN Programs

RNs considering the next step in their careers can enroll in RN-to-BSN programs, typically offered by colleges and universities. Students can take courses on campus and/or online. RN-to-BSN programs differ from traditional BSN programs because they account for what enrollees already know and build on existing nursing skills. This pathway may include courses on nursing leadership, nursing informatics, and healthcare policy.

Additionally, many RN-to-BSN programs waive the clinical component, and graduates do not have to pass another licensing exam as they already hold active RN licenses. RN-to-BSN programs may follow a year-round format. School admissions typically require a minimum 2.5 GPA, an active RN license, official transcripts, a personal essay, and letters of recommendation.

Popular Online RN-to-BSN Programs

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Increased Career Opportunities for BSN Graduates

BSN graduates have more career opportunities beyond RNs and LPNs. Payscale data from April 2024 indicates that RNs make an average annual salary of $74,040, while LPNs earn $51,980 on average. With a BSN, the average yearly pay increases to $94,000 per year.

The following list includes examples of career opportunities open to nurses with BSNs. Note that some of the salaries are based on data from fewer than 50 respondents.

Burn Care Nurse

These professionals stabilize burn victims, including those who need wound care, ventilation, and pain control.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $102,000

Health Administrator

Leadership is key in nursing practice. These healthcare workers lead teams of nurses in medical settings to evaluate and implement healthcare policy, improving efficiency and quality of services.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $96,440

Nurse Educator

These professionals provide education and training for student nurses and professional development education for experienced nurses.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $83,650

Clinical Research Nurse

To expand the professional knowledge base and influence patient care outcomes, these professionals perform research on emerging areas of nursing.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $76,000

Master’s Degree in Nursing Programs

MSN programs prepare RNs for advanced practice roles, senior leadership positions, and specialized fields within nursing. Completing a master of science in nursing degree on a full-time basis typically takes two years, but students can often take advantage of accelerated and part-time options.

Requirements generally include a BSN, a valid RN license, and two years of clinical experience. Coursework covers policy, ethics, research methodologies, and specialized clinical skills. Students also focus on developing leadership, education, and patient care management skills.

Graduates can pursue roles as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse leaders, nurse educators, and nurse administrators. An advanced nursing education can provide a significant opportunity to expand career options and positively affect the healthcare system.

Direct-Entry MSN Program

Direct-entry MSN options are accelerated programs for people with bachelor’s degrees in other fields. Students can typically complete their programs in 15-36 months after completing prerequisite coursework.

Examples of prerequisites include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, nutrition, and ethics. The time to complete the prerequisite coursework depends on the number of transfer credits and chosen enrollment type but may extend to two years.

Most direct-entry MSN programs are limited to full-time options once the student has completed prerequisite courses. Universities and colleges with accredited MSN programs typically offer direct-entry programs.

Admission requirements depend on the program but generally include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college, a minimum 3.3 GPA, and completion of the prerequisite coursework. The early curriculum covers fundamentals in nursing and patient-centered care, while the remaining semesters include biostatistics, specialized nursing focus, leadership, and research.

RN-to-MSN Program

These bridge programs suit RNs looking to skip their BSN and enter an MSN program. Colleges and universities offer this accelerated nursing program to help RNs quickly meet their professional goals.

RN-to-MSN programs differ from a traditional master of science in nursing degrees, requiring students to complete general education courses in traditional BSN programs before moving on to MSN coursework. Enrollees also complete hands-on clinical hours and take BSN-level and MSN-level advanced nursing courses, depending on their specialty and past credits.

Additionally, learners can earn their degrees in about three years of full-time attendance. Admission requirements include an unencumbered RN license, two years of relevant experience, and official transcripts.

BSN-to-MSN Program

BSN-prepared RNs seeking advanced types of degrees in nursing can earn BSN-to-MSN. Students should explore local colleges and universities to see which schools offer these programs. They may also qualify for online or part-time options, allowing them to earn their degree while working.

BSN-to-MSN programs allow enrollees to select MSN specializations. They can focus on patient care, advanced health assessment, and evidence-based practices through classwork and clinicals.

Admission often requires at least one year of work experience, a resume, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Schools may also request that each applicant participate in an interview.

Dual Master’s Degree Programs

RNs often pursue advanced nursing degrees to increase their earning potential and advance their careers. Nurses interested in more than one healthcare area can consider dual master’s degrees in nursing.

For instance, a practitioner interested in the business side of healthcare can benefit from a dual MSN-MBA program. Nurses interested in community or public health can consider dual MSN-MPH programs.

Students enrolling in dual master’s programs should anticipate earning their degrees in 2-3 years, depending on their enrollment and the dual degree they choose. Admission requirements generally include a 2.75 GPA at minimum, an active RN license, professional experience, and letters of recommendation. Students may also need to complete interviews.

Popular Online MSN Programs

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MSN Career Opportunities

Nursing professionals with MSNs qualify for some of the best-paying MSN jobs, including senior nurse leader and nurse educator, along with advanced practice nursing roles such as nurse midwife and nurse practitioner (NP).

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 46% increase in NP employment from 2022-2032, making it one of the fastest-growing careers in the U.S.

Nurse midwives administer care throughout pregnancy and at the time of birth. Responsibilities include conducting physical exams, treating medical conditions, and prescribing medication. Nurse midwives also hold the necessary credentials to provide primary and gynecological care.

NPs can access several different specialties. The most common NP practice areas include family practice, acute care, and mental health. However, NPs can also explore roles in telehealth nursing, caring for at-risk youth, and even performing cosmetic procedures.

While earning potential varies by role, geographic location, and institution, graduates with MSNs earn $104,000 on average, according to Payscale data from April 2024. BLS figures also indicate a 38% projected increase in employment from 2022-2032 for advanced practice nurses.

Doctoral Nursing Programs

Doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) and DNP degrees are the two primary doctoral programs in nursing. The Ph.D. is a research-focused degree and trains nurses to work as researchers and academics. Most nurses holding Ph.D. degrees serve as faculty in universities.

Ph.D. students have to write and defend dissertations, while DNP students complete capstone or thesis projects, which do not require a defense. Ph.D. programs generally take longer due to lengthy research requirements.

Earning a doctoral-level nursing degree gives graduates the resources and training to work at the highest level in clinical organizations. DNP degree-holders typically command higher salaries and work as nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, nursing administrators, or university professors.

Students usually spend 3-6 years enrolled, depending on whether they get a Ph.D. or a DNP and their highest nursing degree. Enrollees with MSNs can often graduate more quickly than those with bachelor’s degrees in nursing. Most DNP graduates possess advanced practice licensure.

BSN-to-DNP Program

BSN-to-DNP programs are offered at institutions with established and accredited DNP programs. Admission requirements typically include a BSN, a valid RN license, up to two years of clinical experience, and a minimum 3.0 GPA. Full-time students can complete these nursing degrees in as little as three years, with part-time enrollees typically taking four years.

Programs often require students to choose specializations when applying. The curriculum depends on the specialization, but all students complete core courses in leadership, ethics, policy, informatics, and quality improvement.

Each enrollee completes at least 1,000 clinical hours during the program, with a minimum of 500 in their specialty. Some programs allow students to complete clinical requirements at their current places of employment.

MSN-to-DNP Program

DNP and Ph.D. programs are the highest levels of degree a nurse can earn, also called a “terminal degree.” Some universities offer bridge programs for people with master’s-level credentials, known as MSN-to-DNP programs.

Schools deliver these degrees through traditional, online, and hybrid delivery, typically allowing students to complete assignments while working. Clinicals require in-person attendance, however, and may make it difficult to maintain employment during this period. Students can complete most programs in five semesters or two years of full-time enrollment, and some programs allow students to request part-time attendance.

Students must complete core curriculum and coursework in their specialty areas. Core courses can include evidence-based decision-making, health policy, epidemiology, and biostatistics.

Admission requirements can vary by program, but they generally include official transcripts, proof of a valid RN license, and a 3.0 GPA or higher. Some programs require an interview, an advanced practice specialty certification, and employment in advanced practice.

Ph.D. in Nursing Program

Students can complete Ph.D. programs in 4-5 years of full-time enrollment. They spend the first two years completing coursework before beginning their dissertations, which can take three years. Some programs offer part-time enrollment, which extends the time it takes to complete the coursework but not the dissertation.

Core coursework examples include philosophy, health determinants, statistics, and responsible conduct in research. Students complete clinical experiences in research and advanced clinical practice. However, some Ph.D. programs require a reduced number of clinical hours.

Ph.D. programs typically require a BSN or MSN from an accredited program, a 3.0 GPA or higher in undergraduate and graduate coursework, and an interview.

Popular Online DNP Programs

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Doctorate Career Opportunities

DNP graduates have greater autonomy, more career opportunities, and higher salary potential than RNs with diplomas, BSNs, or MSNs. There are advantages to seeking a BSN-to-DNP option rather than a master of science in nursing degree — by 2025, advanced practice nurses will need to hold DNPs to become nurse practitioners.

At this time, a DNP is not required to practice as an NP, clinical nurse specialist, or certified nurse midwife. Still, several nursing organizations, including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, are working to move the entry-level requirement to a DNP. As such, NPs may need DNP degrees to stay competitive in the job market and distinguish themselves from other applicants.

According to Payscale, the average annual salary for a professional with a Ph.D. in nursing is $100,000 as of April 2024.

The following list explores several nursing roles for Ph.D.-level professionals. Note that the following data may reflect fewer than 50 respondents.

Nurse Executive

These professionals possess the leadership skills to strategize, coordinate, and direct healthcare services while adapting to changes in technology.

Median Annual Salary (May 2022): $104,830

Healthcare Lobbyist

Graduates who enjoy politics and want to influence policy can represent the interests of professional nursing organizations to legislatures in this role.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $88,470

Clinical Researcher

Nursing researchers work for hospitals and other healthcare organizations and conduct original research on improving nursing practice.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $81,500

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

CRNAs administer anesthesia in healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and dental offices. They manage airways, including intubation and extubation, and provide preoperative and postoperative consultation and assessment.

Average Annual Salary (April 2024): $182,000

Page last reviewed on March 17, 2024

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