More than ever, there are many educational paths in nursing. The profession is continually changing and becoming increasingly complex.
Each degree has specific requirements and enables a variety of professional pathways. Find out which program is right for you.
Students who have graduated from high school or obtained a GED can begin their nursing education through one of several pathways.
Many trade or vocational schools and community colleges offer practical nursing programs that educate students in basic nursing practice and patient care. These programs typically take one year to complete, and prepare students to take the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN) to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (known as an LPN) in their home state. LPNs work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings under the supervision of a doctor or registered nurse. LPNs provide personal care and basic nursing to patients or residents.
An alternative for high school graduates or people who’ve gotten their GED is to pursue one of three paths to become a Registered Nurse. The first option is through nursing schools affiliated with medical facilities or hospitals. These full-time, diploma programs provide coursework and hands-on training in a medical setting for approximately three years. While this was once a common pathway for students who wanted to become registered nurses, these programs are less widespread today. Graduates of these programs are often called “diploma nurses," and their education prepares them to sit for the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).
The second option to become an RN is to pursue an associate's degree in nursing, also known as an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN), or Associate in Nursing (AN). These programs are offered at vocational schools, community colleges, or universities and take two to three years of full-time study, coupled with clinical experience, to complete. These options also prepare students for the NCLEX-RN and eventual licensure in their home state. RNs with an ADN/ASN/AN are qualified to provide direct patient care and to work on teams with other health care providers in a variety of settings. While many students still opt for this route, some schools are eliminating associate’s programs because they recognize that nursing practice is more and more complex, requiring greater training and education.
The final route to RN licensure is through a bachelor’s program in nursing offered at a four-year college or university. These programs provide a traditional undergraduate education with comprehensive nursing coursework and clinical placements.
Typically, students take a range of undergraduate courses along with nursing prerequisites during the first two years of college. In the second half of their baccalaureate program, they pursue intensive nursing classes and clinical education in order to gain hands-on experience in medical settings.
Graduates from these programs earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), Bachelor in Nursing (BN), or a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts (BS/BA) in nursing and must also pass the NCLEX-RN to be licensed in their home state as an RN. The BSN/BN/BS/BA in nursing is a generalist degree whose graduates provide direct patient care alongside other healthcare providers, as well as serve in leadership roles as they gain workplace experience.
In addition to traditional ADN or BSN programs, there are “accelerated" BSN programs for students who have completed a bachelor’s program in a non-nursing field. Nursing schools have specific prerequisites for applicants seeking admission to accelerated BSN programs, so it’s important to check each program’s requirements carefully. Because these students have previously earned a bachelor’s degree, they do not need take additional liberal arts courses. They may, however, need more extensive science and math classes than they took during their original undergraduate course of study.
These programs dive quickly into more advanced science and nursing coursework, as well as provide participants with clinical placements. Students take classes full-time and year-round for 12-18 months, without breaks during summers or other periods. They are intensive and rigorous, so students are usually carefully screened to be certain that they can meet the academic and clinical demands.
Once they've completed their program, graduates will have to pass the NCLEX-RN and apply for licensure in their home state. Graduates from these programs are sought after by employers for the combination of education, ambition, and leadership abilities that these nurses possess.
Registered nurses who have an ADN or diploma can continue their education by enrolling in an RN-to-BSN program. These programs ordinarily run for 16-18 months and build on the nursing education that diploma and ADN-educated RNs previously received. By pursuing a BSN, these RNs improve their employment and leadership prospects, as well as prepare themselves for graduate level nursing education.
There are many different pathways to master’s level nursing degrees, and each depends in part on your prior education and licensure. Many schools offer “generic" or “accelerated" master’s programs for students who have already obtained a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a non-nursing field.
These programs typically require three years to complete, with the bachelor’s level nursing coursework offered in the first year. The later portions provide graduate nursing education that will enable these nurses to serve in leadership positions and specialize in particular roles or concentrations. They are geared towards students who have demonstrated ability to handle the pace of intensive undergraduate or graduate academic demands.
For current ADN-RNs, there are RN-to-Master’s programs. They also take two to three years to complete, depending on the school’s requirements and the student’s prior educational experience. In the early portion of these programs, students take baccalaureate content that they did not get in their associate’s programs and move on to comprehensive graduate level nursing coursework. There are online, blended, and campus options, offering the flexibility needed by practicing RNs who want to continue in their jobs while pursuing an advanced degree. It’s important to ask how much support the program provides in finding clinical placements. Many schools leave this responsibility in the students’ hands, and placements can be challenging to secure in online programs.
Current BSN-RNs can apply for master’s programs at many nursing schools. Because students in these programs have already completed an undergraduate course of nursing study, they are able to deepen their education by focusing on a particular nursing role and patient population. These programs take 18-24 months of full-time study to complete, depending on the program’s requirements. They are known as Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Master in Nursing (MN), or Master of Science in nursing (MS in nursing), according to the school’s preference. These are all comparable degrees and provide the same educational competency levels.
There are online and blended options that enable current RNs to continue working while pursuing a graduate program. Since students attend part-time, these programs often take three years to complete.
In addition to graduate study exclusively focused on nursing, there are a number of universities that offer dual degrees in nursing and another graduate or professional field. Students typically study in each field sequentially, with 9 - 12 months of full-time work spent in each discipline. Some common dual degree programs are MSN/Master of Public Health (MPH), MSN/Master of Public Administration (MPA), MSN/Master of Health Administration (MHA). These are demanding, rigorous programs for students who want to practice in complementary fields related to health care.
Nurses who have already completed an MSN can also seek additional credentials in a variety of post-master’s certificate programs. This option allows experienced nurses to expand their skills and expertise in new areas of interest.
As with the other nursing degrees, doctoral options depend partly on your present level of educational attainment and partly on your area of interest. There are “fast-track bachelor’s to doctorate" programs that enable practicing BSN-RNs or recent college graduates to pursue an accelerated pathway to doctoral level nursing. These programs take three to four years to complete and, like dual degrees, are rigorous and demanding. They are offered in both research and practice-focused nursing programs.
The highest degree offered to nurses who want to continue providing direct patient care is the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). DNP-educated nurses hold roles as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), and fulfill a wide range of nursing roles from leaders in clinical practice to educators in nursing schools. Among their professional options, these nurses may collaborate on research and implement evidence-based nursing practice in hospital and community settings.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that many master’s level nursing roles move to require the DNP by 2015. As the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) recognizes the increasing demands of today’s nursing profession, it too is encouraging accredited schools to move towards greater educational attainment for their students. DNP programs take three to four years to complete and offer roles as Certified Nurse Practitioners (CNP), Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA), or Certified Nurse Midwives (CNM).
Nurses who are particularly interested in science or research may choose the Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS or DSN) or the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD in Nursing). These programs require strong science and nursing ability, coupled with interest in other science disciplines. These degrees are important achievements for nurse who want to contribute to research on evidence-based practices, advanced scientific discovery, and academic scholarship.
Beyond the doctoral level, there are a limited number of post-doctorate programs available in nursing. They are typically offered at large research institutions and allow candidates to deepen their understanding of a highly focused area of nursing practice or medical science, as well as to collaborate with other scientists.