Types of Nursing Degrees

Some 3 million people work as registered nurses, or RNs, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS projects that number to grow 12% by 2028. If you’re looking to make a living in this fast-growing field, mapping out an academic path that aligns with your long-term career goals is an important part of the planning process. There are a number of different nursing degrees and programs to choose from, including options that allow individuals with an associate or bachelor’s degree in a different field of study to earn a graduate degree in nursing.

Below are the different types of nursing programs available to you:

Nursing Diploma and Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) programs

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) programs

Midwifery programs

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs

While students who earn a diploma or complete any one of these degree programs are required to take the national nursing licensure exam, or NCLEX, the career options for graduates vary and are not necessarily restricted to the role of an RN.

It is also important to note that there are dozens of specialties and certifications available to nurses looking to become experts in a specific area of practice or advance their careers. You may base your choice on the kind of care you’d like to provide, the type of environment you want to work in or how much money you’d like to make. There are other factors to consider too, like how much time it may take to complete a program.

Below you’ll find a breakdown of each of the nursing programs listed above, including the average amount of time it takes to complete, common specialty areas and some of the career options that your degree can afford you.

Nursing Diploma and Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Programs

One way to kick start a career in nursing is to enroll in an undergraduate nursing program. One type of undergraduate nursing program is a diploma or certificate program. An associate degree in nursing program is another type of undergraduate nursing program. Both of these programs equip you with the knowledge and training that you will need in your day-to-day duties as an RN, but there are some differences between the two.

While ADN graduates receive a college degree upon completion of their program, nursing diploma graduates do not. However, if a diploma student’s program is affiliated with a college or university, the student may receive college credit for certain courses. This is useful for those who wish to later pursue an ADN or BSN.

Another key difference between a diploma and an ADN program is the length of time they take to complete and where to get them. Diploma or certificate programs are typically run by hospitals, medical centers or vocational colleges. Nursing diploma candidates are only required to complete 12 months of vocational training, covering areas such as infection control, emergency procedures and personal care. ADN students, on the other hand, are required to complete 24 months of study at a community college. Behavioral health, maternal and child nursing care, and pharmacology are just a few of the courses an ADN student might take.

How to enroll in a diploma or associate degree in nursing program

Typically, you will need to have a high school diploma or GED certificate to enroll in a nursing diploma program. The subject prerequisites for an ADN or diploma program vary from institution to institution but may include microbiology, anatomy and physiology, and psychology.

Diploma and Associate degree in nursing program specialties

RNs with either a diploma or ADN can attain a limited number of career specialties and certifications, the most common being the licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN). LPN and LVN are used interchangeably across the United States — the title of the role will vary per state.

LPN/LVN education can take 12 months to complete and covers a wide variety of topics, though you have an option to gain further certification through a state organization. The program will most often combine coursework and supervised clinical practice at a hospital or vocational school, and subject prerequisites may be similar to those of the ADN.

What are my career options with a diploma or Associate degree in nursing?

Newly graduated RNs with an ADN can go on to work in the following health care settings:

  • Emergency rooms
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Nursing care facilities

Diploma graduates or LPNs can also work in any one of these settings under the supervision of doctors to provide basic care to patients. Some common entry-level nursing roles are oncology nurse, geriatric nurse or critical care nurse.

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Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

This type of undergraduate degree is designed for students without a bachelor’s degree and does not require any prior nursing experience. It thoroughly prepares students to work in a broad range of nursing roles through a program that lasts 48 to 60 months. However, some universities offer accelerated programs that take as little as 36 months. You may choose to enroll in the accelerated program if you have an ADN or bachelor’s degree in a different area of study.

BSN programs combine liberal arts education with a variety of nursing courses and clinical experience. Examples of nursing courses include community health, psychiatric care and pediatric care.   

How to enroll in a BSN program

You will need a high school diploma or GED certificate to enroll in a BSN program. Each college or university has its own set of prerequisites for BSN candidates. Some institutions may ask BSN applicants to take a basic medical terminology course, while others may require specific subject prerequisites.

LPNs or LVNs who are looking to earn a BSN can do so in less than 48 months. Some colleges offer degrees that build upon an ADN or diploma. These programs are often referred to as “bridge programs,” “re-entry programs” or “RN-to-BSN programs.” A typical bridge program takes approximately 24 to 36 months to complete.

Below is a small selection of colleges and universities that offer accelerated BSN programs:

  • Binghamton University’s College of Nursing offers a 12-month baccalaureate accelerated track for students with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.
  • Hunter College’s Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing at Hunter College offers a fast-track BSN program known as the Accelerated Second-Degree Program. Like the program offered by Binghamton University, this program is for students who already have a bachelor’s degree but not in nursing. Full-time students can finish the program in as little as 18 months.
  • Nebraska Methodist College’s accelerated BSN program can be completed in 12 months. According to the college, 100% of graduates from this program passed the NCLEX on the first attempt in 2018.
  • The University of North Carolina Wilmington ranks No. 8 in U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 list of universities with the best online bachelor’s programs. Its RN-to-BSN degree program is built on nine core health courses, including health policy. There are six nursing electives students can pick from. This program can be completed in as little as 12 months.
  • Drexel University in Philadelphia has an RN-to-BSN program that typically takes 12 months to complete. The school boasts of the innovative learning technology available to students enrolled in this program, which includes simulation labs.

BSN specialties

BSN courses vary depending on the program you are enrolled in, the institution offering it and the specialty you choose to get. The curriculum may include subjects such as nursing research, nutrition and diet, and geriatric nursing. There are numerous specialties available to BSN students. When picking a specialty, it’s important to consider what area of nursing care interests you the most or what patient group you’d like to serve. Common specialties include emergency care and pediatric care, among others.   

What are my career options with a BSN?

You may be wondering what you can do with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The BSN education prepares you to practice across a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings, including:

  • Intensive care units
  • Operating rooms
  • Administrative departments
  • Oncology floors

BSN graduates can work as clinical research nurses, nurse educators and public health nurses, among other positions. 

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Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)

Combining general nursing subjects with coursework in a chosen specialty, MSN degree programs are for nursing students and professionals who might be looking to build a career in advanced practice nursing, whether that means working in a position of leadership, becoming an expert in a particular care area or actively seeking opportunities to implement change in health care policy.

How to enroll in an MSN program

There are different ways to earn your MSN depending on what type of degree you already hold or what stage you are in your career. If you have your ADN, you may qualify to enroll in an ADN-to-MSN program, which takes anywhere between three to five full-time years to complete. 

A BSN-to-MSN program is another option. This type of nursing program typically takes 18 to 24 months to complete. You will need a BSN for admission. 

A similar type of fast-track nursing program is an entry-level MSN degree called a Direct-Entry MSN program. These programs, aimed at students with a bachelor’s degree outside of the nursing discipline, are designed to help them build on their previous learning and prepare them to sit for the NCLEX in just 24 to 36 months.

You may want to consider enrolling in an RN-to-MSN bridge if you have an active RN license. This type of program takes approximately 24 to 36 months to complete. Depending on the university, this type of nursing program can be completed in the classroom, online or through a combination of the two. 

Top MSN degree specialties

In terms of direct care, an MSN graduate can attain specialization as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). APRNs are responsible for providing advanced nursing care that includes diagnosing conditions, prescribing medication, ordering and analyzing diagnostic tests, and even performing minor procedures. The four types of APRNs are nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) and certified nurse midwife (CNM).  Below is a short description of each type of APRN’s duties.

  • Nurse practitioners’ duties include examining patients, diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medication.
  • Clinical nurse specialists’ duties include clinical practice, conducting research and management.
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists’ duties include administering anesthesia and other medications to patients.
  • Certified nurse midwives’ duties include delivering babies and providing advanced nursing care to new mothers before, during and after the childbirth process.

Due to the breadth and depth of their training and knowledge, APRNs can also work in any one of the following roles:

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AG-ACNP)

This type of nurse practitioner provides advanced nursing care to adults and elderly patients with acute, chronic or critical conditions.

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AG-PCNP)

This type of nurse practitioner provides advanced nursing care to adolescents, adults and the elderly.

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

This type of registered nurse provides care to patients of all ages, ranging from infants to seniors. Day-to-day responsibilities may include treating minor acute injuries and diagnosing chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)

Neonatal nurse practitioners take care of newborn babies with mild or severe health conditions in neonatal intensive care units.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

This type of nurse assesses the mental health needs of patients and develops a plan of care for them.

Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

A women’s health nurse practitioner specializes in comprehensive care for women of all ages.

What are my career options with an MSN?

Outside of direct care, nurses with their MSN can also pursue career paths in education and

administration. Holding an advanced-level degree like the MSN may potentially allow you to earn a higher salary than someone with just an undergraduate degree. 

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Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree (DNP)

The highest level of nursing education is a doctoral degree, and the doctor of nursing practice degree is just one type. The DNP degree is designed for individuals who want to become cutting-edge leaders in the field of nursing. As it suggests by the degree’s name, a DNP focuses on the practical, clinical aspects of advanced nursing.

It is important to keep in mind that a DNP is different from a nursing Ph.D., which would be necessary if you are interested in becoming nursing faculty at an academic institution.  While both require rigorous amounts of research, a nursing Ph.D. may not necessarily prepare students for the depth of practical application necessary for advanced clinical practice.

How to enroll in a DNP program

Prerequisites for admission to a DNP program will vary by institution. The type of DNP program you chose to enroll in may also dictate that. There are BSN-to-DNP programs as well as ADN-to-MSN programs which prepare you transition into a DNP program. Universities may ask applicants to present a current RN licensure, professional references and a resume as proof of field experience, among other application materials.

A DNP program can take anywhere from four to six years to complete depending on whether a student is part time or full time. To complete the program, you will be required to write a dissertation based on an original research project. The curriculum for this type of nursing program focuses on research that is “innovative and evidenced-based,” according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

DNP specialties

There are multiple DNP specialties to choose from, such as pediatrics, women’s health and psychiatric mental health. It’s not uncommon for DNP graduates to end up in an APRN role. 

What are my career options with a DNP?

Nurses who complete their DNP have career options in nurse administration, nurse management, nursing faculty, as well as any of the APRN roles.

Whether you’d like to complete a DNP program online or learn a little bit more about a specific specialty, there are numerous resources to help you determine which program is the best fit for you.