The path to becoming a nurse can be a little bit confusing. With so many letters, initials, titles, and programs, there are a variety of ways a person could gain the label of “nurse.” If you’re interested in becoming a nurse and are curious as to how to get there, we’ve compiled a handy guide to the different types of nursing degrees you could pursue in the United States. Keep reading to learn more about which degrees are available and how to go about becoming certified and licensed.
The Path in a Nutshell
In this article, when we talk about becoming a nurse, we are generally referring to an RN, or registered nurse. There are other options that we’ll discuss briefly, but suffice it to say that obtaining the RN is the basic level of “nurse-hood” that one could have.
In order to get those fancy new initials after your name, you must first complete a state-approved nursing school program. We’ll talk about these in detail in a moment. Essentially, these courses will offer you the knowledge and skills that you’ll need to succeed at the next stop on your career path: the NCLEX-RN examination. The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses is a notoriously difficult exam, which is why you need to go through the initial nursing training program for a degree. Upon passing the exam, you’ll become a registered nurse, licensed in your state to practice nursing. Your state may also include stipulations for continuing education or other requirements in order to keep your nursing license valid.
And now, without further ado, here are the types of US nursing degrees that you can pursue along your way to become a registered nurse. We’ll start with the least-demanding or time-consuming degrees/diplomas first.
- Licensed Practical Nursing/Licensed Vocational Nursing Degrees
If you are looking to get into nursing but aren’t sure you are ready to commit to a full-blown university degree, starting with the LPN or LVN could be a very good option for you. While not technically a degree program, these courses will allow you to become a licensed practical or vocational nurse (they are the same thing).
Usually, this type of program can be taken at a community college, a vocational school, or even a hospital itself. It usually takes just a year to complete and once you pass the course, you are eligible to take the NCLEX-PN examination for licensure. Ultimately, with this pathway, you won’t have a degree, but you will have a diploma or certificate that will allow you to become licensed.
- Associate Degree
Depending on your chosen college or university, this could be called the Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). They are essentially the same degree program. This program generally takes about two years to complete, though it could take a little more, depending on your ability to take classes full time. Because this is a sort of introductory degree to nursing, it is not uncommon for Associate Degree holders to continue on to get their Bachelor’s degree (more on that in a moment).
The focus of this degree program is more on the technical skills of nursing work. There isn’t as much focus on theory as you will see in the Bachelor program. This means that you’ll be able to start working as a nurse after just two years instead of four because you’ll have enough foundational understanding to work with patients. If you are anxious to get started working, starting with an Associate degree is a good way to get your foot in the door; then, you can finish the rest of your Bachelor’s degree as you work.
- Bachelor Degree
The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is probably the most common pathway that many people take to become a nurse. If you aren’t in a rush to begin working, you might consider forgoing the Associate degree and begin immediately out of high school working on a four-year Bachelor program.
Depending on the university you are taking the course in, you will most likely need to fulfill a set of general education requirements. This is fairly common for American universities; you may spend the first year or two of your degree simply fulfilling these requirements for basic math, English, and science classes. Once those are completed, you’ll move on to your core classes related to your nursing major.
There is a common misconception that you must have a BSN to become an RN, but this is not true. It is possible to become a licensed registered nurse with an Associate degree. However, most nurses choose the BSN as a more comprehensive and practical method of being trained as a nurse. Once you receive your degree, you are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN exam.
It is important to note that there are many people who pursue a BSN after already having received a Bachelor’s degree in a different discipline. The benefit of getting the BSN as a second degree is that you won’t have to re-do all of the general education requirements.
- Master Degree
A Master of Science in Nursing is the next step up in the degree pathway. Usually, these courses take anywhere from a year to two years to complete, though the majority require about 18 months. The goal of this degree type is to train nurses in a specialty. The assumption is that you would already have your BSN and RN license for practical and theoretical knowledge and that the Master’s degree gives you a more specialized focus on a certain interest. This could range from research to public health to administration and lots of areas in between.
The requirements for this degree, as we mentioned above is that you’ll have a BSN and an RN license. However, most Master’s programs dictate that you fulfill certain other requirements, like a minimum GPA from your BSN. You may also have to take the GRE exam and have a certain score, as well as complete a certain number of clinical nursing hours and work experience.
- Advanced Practice Registered Nurses
Once you have obtained a Master’s degree in nursing, there are several opportunities to further your education and your certifications without going back to school for a doctorate. The following are a few specialties that are popular among MSN nurses. For all of the following options, the minimum requirements are that you be an RN with at least a Master’s degree and that you provide direct care to patients.
- Nurse Practitioner (NP) – Nurse practitioners are nurses that have the capacity and training to offer primary and preventative healthcare to a variety of patient populations. They may be able to prescribe medication, diagnose illnesses, and treat these illnesses or injuries. They often work in nursing homes, private clinics, or large hospitals.
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) – This specialty is appropriate for nurses who lean more towards administration than direct patient contact. They will still work with patients and doctors regarding physical and mental health issues, but they tend to specialize more in consultation, research, and education.
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) – One of the most difficult and demanding specialists there are, the CRNA is responsible for administering anesthetics to patients during procedures and surgeries. The training is intense and quite demanding, but there are a lot of job options and it is always in high demand.
- Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM) – These nurses specialize in women’s health, with a focus on gynecology and obstetrics. Because babies will never stop being born, this is another specialty that has a high scope for job security. Furthermore, there are a lot of opportunities for CNMs to work outside of hospitals if they prefer to work in birth centers or even from home as an on-call midwife for women looking to give birth in an alternative setting.
- Doctorate Degree
Many people aren’t aware, but it’s entirely possible to be a doctor and a nurse at the same time! Many universities offer a Doctorate Nursing degree program in order to prepare RNs for a step into administration, research, or even advanced practice. These degrees usually take four to six years to complete. They are very demanding and time-consuming programs, so you’ll want to make sure you’re ready to commit before you go ahead with it. However, the payback in terms of career advancement and monetary gain is massive and completely worth it.
There are a few different options for the Doctorate Degree in Nursing:
- Nursing Education – There is a huge need right now for educators in nursing. Completing a Doctor of Nursing degree with a specialty in education will prepare you to become an instructor to new nurses.
- Nursing Practice – Usually a course of three years (full time), this type of program prepares nurses specifically for leadership positions as well as for improving patient outcomes, offering clinical care, and system management.
- Doctor of Philosophy – While this sounds like a strange degree to obtain for a nurse, theoretical knowledge is imperative for creating a healthcare system or facility that ensures ethical behavior. Furthermore, this degree will allow a nurse to take leadership roles and guide the creation and implementation of policies that will guide the facility and its employees to even better patient care in all areas.