Nursing Degree Types: What Education Do You Need To Be A Nurse?

There are many different nursing degree types, roles, and career options.

The cornerstone to all nursing degree types is the Registered Nurse (RN) license. Once obtained, you can choose different nursing career paths.

Some degree types focus on clinical aspects of nursing. Meanwhile, others focus more on non-clinical pathways. However, they all lead to fulfilling and engaging professional nursing practice. 

According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Registered Nurses have a projected growth of 7%. This is 3% higher than the national average for all types of careers. 

Nursing degrees are alluring not only due to the national need for nurses, but because of all the different jobs offered in the nursing profession.

When you think of nurses, you often think of clinical nurses. However, nurses can work in clinical and non-clinical settings. This opens even more doors to career options.

 However, nurses have many non-clinical options as well.

Undergraduate Nursing Degrees

The RN license can be obtained through undergraduate degree types.

Two undergraduate degree types that offer RN licensure upon completion are an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

Both allow students to sit for the RN licensure. However, more hospitals are requiring BSN-led education as the preferred entry-level degree.


ADN degree types are a 2-year degree usually offered at community or junior colleges. These programs allow nurses to sit for the RN license and start practice immediately after graduation.

BSN programs require more credit hours than an ADN degree and prepare students for administration roles. The clinical hour rotations are the same for both ADN and BSN type programs.

While both ADN and BSN programs are offered online and on campus, clinical hours are always in person and usually at the local hospitals. BSN degrees are considered higher degrees than ADNs.

Residency Programs

Many hospitals offer residency programs for new nurses to help with the transition into professional nursing practice. Residency programs offer vigorous training and classes while working in a hospital unit. 

They are designed to support newly-hired graduate nurses and focus on:

  • Building decision-making skills
  • Reducing burnout
  • Developing clinical leadership
  • Incorporating research into nursing practice

Graduate Nursing Degrees

Graduate nursing degree types are offered for those with an RN license.

They include Master level degrees such as advanced practice nurses (APN) and nurse practitioners (NP).

Nurse practitioners are considered APNs, but not all APNs have to be nurse practitioners.

Non-Clinical vs Clinical Options

MSN degree types can focus on clinical or non-clinical track options.

Non-clinical options include MSN with a focus in

  • Education
  • Administration 
  • Nursing informatics
  • Forensics

Clinical options focus on patient care areas and involve direct patient care.

Nurse Practitioner Specializations

Nurse practitioners can specialize in many areas. This includes both adult and pediatric populations.

The prerequisite for obtaining an NP degree is clinical experience (usually in the hospital setting) and an undergraduate degree in nursing.

Some of the degrees offered for NP specialties include:

  • Family practice
  • Maternal and women’s health 
  • Pediatrics
  • Acute care 
  • Psychiatric and mental health 

How To Obtain A Graduate Level Degree

Graduate level degrees can take 2 to 4 years to complete once accepted into the program.

Clinical tracks require many clinical hours precepted by a medical doctor.

Non-clinical degree tracks also require preceptorship and require an end of program project. This may include a nursing thesis or capstone project.

MSN programs are offered online and on campus. They are often geared toward working professionals. Clinical-track graduate programs require in-person clinical preceptorship and lab simulation days.

Recently, some direct-entry graduate programs have surfaced to allow non-nurses to obtain graduate level nursing degrees.

Although somewhat controversial, those without any nursing experience can begin courses to obtain a graduate level nursing degree. They are granted the right to sit for RN licensure at the end of the program.

Direct-entry graduate level nursing degree types require a bachelor’s degree in another field of study. They also require several prerequisite courses in:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy
  • Chemistry

Terminal Nursing Degrees

Terminal nursing degrees are the highest degrees offered in nursing. They are obtained after undergraduate and graduate level degrees are obtained.

The most common types of terminal degrees in nursing are Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD).

Usually, a nurse will acquire a BSN and MSN prior to DNP or PhD courses.

PhD degree tracks are heavily focused on conducting one’s own research into a dissertation. The dissertation is then published in a peer reviewed journal upon completion. 

Terminal nursing degrees are offered online and in-person. Depending on the specialty track, some in-person hours are required for online programs.

There are rarely 100% online programs offered in nursing due to the clinical nature of nursing practice.

A DNP is often more practice focused and is often completed in conjunction with APN degrees, especially NP degrees.

Although you do not have to be an NP to obtain a DNP degree, it does add value to your practice as a nurse practitioner. 


How to Choose Your Nursing Degree Type?

Choosing which nursing degree type can be difficult, especially given the vast majority of options. Before beginning your nursing career journey, determine your short-term and long-term goals. 

A good place to start is by obtaining a BSN degree. With the push for this to be the designated entry-level nursing degree, you are safer and more successful when trying to find entry-level nursing jobs.

If the BSN route is not an option, you can acquire an ADN. Then complete an RN to BSN bridge program online. 

If you have a bachelor’s degree in another field of study, perhaps you should look into accelerated BSN programs or direct-entry graduate programs.

Nursing practice offers a vast variety of choices and even more paths to get there. Begin your nursing career today and help make a difference in people’s lives!.


Bureau of Labor and Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment Statistics. Registered nurses. Accessed from

Parsh, Bridget EdD, RN, CNS; Taylor, Elizabeth BSN, RN Benefits of residency programs for new grads, Nursing: December 2013 – Volume 43 – Issue 12 – p 64 doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000437485.83616.1a