What is a Nursing Degree?

A nursing degree prepares students for a career in the nursing profession. Nurses make up the most significant portion of healthcare workers in the United States and are crucial for providing patient care. They work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings.

Nursing degrees equip students with medical knowledge and clinical skills to assess patient health, administer medications and treatments, operate medical equipment, assist in patient rehabilitation and recovery, provide education on health management, and more.

Pursuing a nursing degree opens up opportunities to launch a rewarding, in-demand career that makes a difference in people’s lives every day. But what types of nursing degrees are there? And what’s the difference between them? Let’s explore the major nursing credentials available.

Types of Nursing Degrees

nursing degree banner with happy nurses smiling

There are a few main types of degrees in nursing, from associate’s to doctorate level. Each successive degree leads to more advanced nursing positions in healthcare settings.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) is the minimum requirement to become a registered nurse. ADN programs, usually offered at community colleges, take 2-3 years to complete. They include courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, nutrition, and nursing skills.

Students also get supervised clinical experience in hospitals or other healthcare facilities. After graduating, students must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain their nursing license. ADN nurses provide basic bedside care and tend to find employment at the entry level with hospitals, nursing homes, and home health agencies.

Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) leads to greater career advancement opportunities. BSN programs, usually 4 years full-time at universities, build on the ADN curriculum with coursework on research, leadership, and community health nursing.

BSN nurses qualify for specialty positions such as public health nurse, nurse administrator, case manager, labor & delivery nurse, and more. Many employers prefer hiring BSN nurses, and a BSN is required to pursue graduate nursing degrees (MSN, DNP, PhD).

Here’s my review on WGU’s BSN Degree:

Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)

A Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN) prepares nurses for advanced practice registered nursing roles. MSN programs, taking 2-3 years full-time, provide specialized knowledge and clinical training for careers like:

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP): Diagnoses illness and prescribes medication. Works in specialties like family, acute care, women’s health, psychiatry, etc.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM): Cares for mothers and babies before, during, and after pregnancy and delivery. Practices in hospitals, birth centers, clinics, and independent offices.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): Administers anesthesia and monitors patient vitals during surgery and other medical procedures.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): Provides advanced care and expert advice in a nursing specialty like oncology, geriatrics, pediatrics, critical care, etc.
  • Nurse Administrator: Manages staff and operations for nursing units or departments in healthcare facilities.
  • Nurse Educator: Develops curricula and teaches nursing students or other nurses. Works in colleges/universities or hospital nursing education departments.
A Healthcare Professional Looking at a Clipboard

Doctoral Degrees

The highest nursing degrees are doctorates, which lead to upper-level jobs in advanced practice nursing, research, education, or healthcare administration.

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): Enhances clinical expertise to work at the most advanced level of nursing practice. Often required for nurse practitioner and other advanced practice nursing roles.
  • PhD in Nursing: Research-focused doctorate that prepares nurses for academic teaching positions and leadership in scientific investigations on nursing/health topics. Leads to nurse scientist roles.

ADN vs. BSN: How Do They Compare?

ADN and BSN nurses receive similar fundamental nursing education and hands-on clinical training to provide direct patient care. So what sets them apart?

A few key differences between Associate’s (ADN) and Bachelor’s (BSN) nursing degrees:

  • Program Length: ADN is 2-3 years; BSN is typically 4 years.
  • Program Cost: ADN costs less in total tuition fees.
  • Course Topics: BSN includes more science, leadership, research, public health, etc.
  • Career Advancement: BSN opens up more job options in specialty fields.
  • Salary Potential: BSN nurses tend to earn higher pay on average.

Many nurses choose to begin with an ADN for the shorter timeline and lower cost, obtain RN licensure, then enroll in RN-to-BSN degree completion programs while working. This allows them to start their nursing career sooner while still attaining a Bachelor’s degree.

Choosing Between ADN and BSN

Deciding whether to pursue an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in nursing depends on one’s career objectives and personal situation. Those planning for generalized bedside nursing may lean toward an ADN to join the workforce quickly. But students aiming for supervisory or advanced practice positions may want to invest upfront in a BSN.

Both ADN and BSN grads become registered nurses, so focusing first on an ADN can get nurses into practice rapidly at a community college. However, a BSN unlocks better job prospects. Many healthcare employers now heavily prefer or even require BSN nurses. And nurses with a BSN have an edge when applying to graduate nursing programs should they later choose to specialize. A BSN also leads to slightly higher RN salaries—on average about $5,000+ more per year than an ADN.

Ultimately, students should think about their career goals, time constraints, financial obligations, and nursing role interests when picking between ADN or BSN programs. Both degree paths can launch nursing careers – the needs and ambitions of each individual help determine the better fit.

MSN and Doctoral Nursing Degrees

After a BSN, aspiring nurse leaders, researchers, educators, and advanced clinicians can pursue graduate degrees through Master’s and doctoral nursing programs. These develop highly skilled nursing experts.

Master’s programs offer specialized tracks to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) – nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, registered nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists. APRNs perform many tasks similar to physicians such as diagnosing illness, ordering tests, and prescribing medication. The direct advanced patient care focus of MSN tracks means robust clinical practicum training.

Alternately, MSN leadership tracks help nurses move into management/administrative positions or faculty teaching roles. Executive nurse leaders possess keen insight on patient care operations and quality initiatives within healthcare organizations. And nurse educators share valuable nursing and medical knowledge with students entering the profession.

At the doctoral level, DNP programs build tremendous clinical expertise for autonomous advanced nursing practice, while PhDs cultivate research scholarship and academic instruction capabilities. Both doctorates lead to the highest level of knowledge and responsibility within nursing.

Graduate nursing degrees open up possibilities for six-figure advanced practice nursing salaries or leadership positions influencing healthcare delivery through policy research, innovative technologies, evidence-based practice, and beyond. The specialized insight MSN and doctorate holding nurses contribute helps improve medical outcomes across populations.

A Woman Talking to a Patient

Nursing Licensure and Certification

To legally practice nursing, candidates must pass the NCLEX licensing exam and meet other state requirements to earn registered nurse (RN) status. The test assesses nursing competencies related to safe patient care. RNs must renew their license periodically by completing continuing education.

Additionally, certification demonstrates expertise in a nursing specialty – like ambulatory care, oncology, pediatric emergency nursing, and more. Certified nurses showcase commitment to their field through concentrated study and testing. Many employers offer certification bonuses since specialty credentials signal higher capability to care for patients within that domain. Certifications also bolster career mobility.

So licensure provides the baseline qualifications to practice general nursing, while certification spotlights focused training on top of that. The two go hand in hand in demonstrating nurse capabilities.

Nursing Career Paths and Salaries

Nurses work in diverse healthcare settings like hospitals, physicians’ offices, schools, public health departments, home health services, nursing homes, and corporate wellness programs. They provide varying levels of assessment and care across the lifespan. Nurses enjoy rewarding roles that improve patient outcomes through skill, knowledge, and compassion.

With advanced degrees, nurses can realize higher salaries and ascend into leadership positions as directors, executives, researchers, and professors shaping healthcare education and delivery.

Here are typical nursing careers and average national salaries by degree level, per the U.S. Glassdoor:

ADN Nurse – $82,000

nurse ADN salary

ER BSN Nurse – $86,000

Nurse Practitioner (MSN) – $128,000

nurse practitioner salary

Clinical Nurse Specialist (MSN) – $113,000

clinical nurse specialist salary

Nursing Professor (PhD) – $122,000

nursing professor salary

Nursing Exec Director (MSN) – $145,000

director of nursing salary

The job outlook for RNs and advanced practice nurses alike remains extremely positive, with employment expected to grow 6% from 2022-2032 – much faster than average across all occupations. So nurses at all degree stages enjoy bright prospects.

Admission Requirements

Students aiming for a nursing degree must meet various prerequisites:

  • Coursework: Foundational classes include biological sciences (anatomy, physiology, microbiology), behavioral/social sciences (psychology, sociology); math, English, etc.
  • GPA Expectations: ADN and BSN programs often require a minimum 2.75-3.0 undergraduate GPA overall or specifically on science courses. Graduate programs expect 3.0+.
  • Admissions Testing: Standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, or GRE help demonstrate academic readiness. Many schools have minimum score requirements.
  • Technical Standards: Physical/mental capabilities to safely perform nursing duties.
  • Immunizations: Common healthcare setting requirements to ensure student/patient safety.

Applications also examine non-academic qualities through essays, interviews, work experience, or volunteering showcasing students’ compassion, ethics, communication abilities, leadership, resilience, and team orientation.

With limited program space, admission into nursing school remains highly competitive across degree levels. Applicants who exceed minimum requirements and demonstrate significant interest in healthcare are favored.

Once accepted, nursing students undertake rigorous clinical training paired with coursework tailored to their specialization. Licensure and certification exams also necessitate focused preparation. But the payoff of starting a stable nursing career and helping others makes the hard work worthwhile.

Nurse measuring the Blood Pressure of a Patient

Decoding a Nursing Degree

  • Associate’s (ADN) = 2 year basic level
  • Bachelor’s (BSN) = 4 year broad foundation
  • Master’s (MSN) = Advanced specialization
  • Doctorate (DNP/PhD) = Highest clinical/academic practice

All nursing degrees offer means toward a meaningful vocation, improving lives through medical care and knowledge. The educational path chosen depends on individual aspirations and capabilities. Each successive level promises greater responsibility and reward for nurses dedicating themselves to patient health. Whether entering the field via ADN or progressing to an MSN/doctorate, nursing graduates across degree types power quality, compassionate healthcare.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Nursing Degree

What are the best nursing programs?

The top nursing programs, according to US News rankings, are Johns Hopkins, UPenn, Rush University, University of California—San Francisco, Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, Ohio State University, University of Pittsburgh, and New York University.

Do nursing online programs exist?

Yes, many accredited nursing schools now offer online RN to BSN programs, online MSN programs, and even some online DNP programs. These allow working nurses to advance their nursing degree through distance learning.

Is a degree in nursing worth it?

Yes, nursing degrees are very worthwhile for their high salaries, abundance of job openings, flexible work options, and rewarding patient care roles with opportunities to specialize at the Master’s or Doctorate level.

Is the nursing degree exam hard?

The NCLEX nursing exam to gain licensure covers difficult questions testing clinical judgment, critical thinking, and nursing knowledge. But thorough prep helps aspiring nurses pass this crucial test for entry into practice.

What are the nursing degree types or branches?

The main nursing credentials are Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing. Each degree leads to different nursing positions.

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