If you want to become a nurse, the first step is getting your nursing education.
Now, there are a lot of different types of nursing degrees (and even some non-degree credentials) you can earn. However, knowing which type of nursing degree you should pursue to achieve your career goals can be overwhelming.
So, in this post, we’ll cover all the different types of nursing degrees to help you decide which education pathway is right for you.
By the time you finish reading, you’ll have a good understanding of the different levels of nursing education and come closer to knowing which kind of program you should enroll in to start or advance your nursing career.
Table of Contents
- Nursing Certifications and Diplomas
- Undergraduate Nursing Degrees
- Graduate Nursing Degrees
- Terminal Nursing Degrees
- Which Type of Nursing Degree Is Best?
Nursing Certifications and Diplomas
Before we get into nursing degrees, there are two lower-level types of nursing education you pursue.
These include the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certification and Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Diploma.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certification
The CNA Certification is the lowest-level of nursing education you can go for.
This is the quickest route to getting involved in the nursing field, and earning your certification typically takes anywhere from four to 12 weeks.
Since CNAs require less training than other types of nursing degrees, their responsibilities aren’t as advanced as the other educational credentials we’ll discuss below.
The main role of a CNA is to provide assistance to the licensed nursing staff, and their duties typically consist of:
- Bathing and grooming patients
- Gathering medical supplies
- Answering patient calls
If you’re considering a career in nursing but aren’t sure you want to commit the time and effort to earning a more advanced degree, earning you’re certification and working as a CNA can give you a taste of what to expect as a nurse.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Diploma
The Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Diploma, like the CNA Certification, isn’t technically a degree and won’t prepare you to become a Registered Nurse. Instead, you’ll obtain the credentials you need to work as an LPN.
LPNs carry out more advanced responsibilities than CNAs, and their duties typically include:
- Providing basic patient care
- Monitoring vital signs
- Supporting the clinical care team
Additionally, the main objective for LPNs is communicating patient conditions and concerns to the rest of the clinical care team.
However, while LPNs can take on more challenging tasks than CNAs, their responsibilities are much more limited compared to a licensed RN. For example, an LPN cannot conduct exams or administer treatments to patients.
You can earn an LPN Diploma is less than a year, making this a good option for aspiring healthcare workers who want to get involved in the nursing field quickly but also want to take on more complex duties than CNAs.
Undergraduate Nursing Degrees
To become a licensed Registered Nurse, the first step is to earn an undergraduate nursing degree.
When we think of undergraduate nursing degrees, we typically think about a baccalaureate degree. However, an associate degree is also technically an undergraduate degree and can provide you the credentials necessary to become an RN.
Both types of nursing degrees allow students to sit for the NCLEX and obtain RN licensure. However, more hospitals are requiring BSN-led education as the preferred entry-level degree.
Associate Degree In Nursing (ADN)
The minimum educational requirement to become an RN is an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN).
Since RNs carry out more advanced responsibilities compared to non-degree nursing staff like CNAs or LPNs, they require more knowledge and training. This allows them to complete complex tasks like administering medication and operating medical equipment.
Typically, you can complete your ADN in about two years through a community college or technical school. This makes it a good option for aspiring nurses who don’t want to spend the time and money getting a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing.
Just beware that as an ADN-educated nurse, your salary earning potential and employment opportunities may be limited as hospitals now tend to prefer BSN-educated nurses. This is especially true if you hope to work in a Magnet hospitals, which are distinguished and innovative healthcare facilities.
However, if you do opt to go for your ADN, you can always enroll in an RN-to-BSN degree program to obtain the more advanced educational credentials later on.
Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN)
The second, and more advanced, route to becoming a licensed RN is to earn a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
The BSN is typically completed through a four-year program through a traditional university.
While the cost and time commitment can make the ADN option look preferable, we typically recommend up-and-coming nurses opt for the BSN. The BSN program will b provide you better access to new and exciting opportunities, such as:
- Working as a travel nurse
- Finding employment in a Magnet hospital or elite-level healthcare facility.
- Earning advanced degrees or speciality certifications
Fortunately, online BSN degrees are often a faster and more affordable option than on-campus programs, making them more accessible.
Additionally, there are several different pathways you can take to earn your BSN, including:
- Pre-licensure BSN: For non-nurses with no prior degree
- RN-to-BSN: For licensed RNs who already hold an ADN or Nursing Diploma
- Accelerated BSN: For those with a non-nursing undergraduate degree
- Concurrent Enrollment BSN: For those enrolled in an ADN program who want to work toward their BSN simultaneously
ADN vs BSN
While they’re both considered undergraduate nursing degrees and prepare you to become a licensed RN, there are a few key differences between the ADN and BSN.
The best reason to opt for an ADN is that it is the quicker and more affordable option. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it the better choice.
A BSN will provide you with a more advanced education and training, preparing you to take on more impactful roles in top-tier healthcare facilities. Additionally, the BSN is quickly becoming the standard at many facilities across the country.
While we typically recommend opting for the BSN, the undergraduate nursing degree type that’s right for you will depend on your personal goals, and there’s no right or wrong choice.
Once you complete your undergraduate nursing degree and pass the NCLEX, you can choose to enroll in a Nursing Residency Program.
Many hospitals offer residency programs for new nurses to help with the transition into professional nursing practice, offering 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
While Residency Programs are optional, they’re a great way to make the transition from student to professional after you graduate.
Graduate Nursing Degrees
Once you obtain your undergraduate degree and become a licensed RN, you may opt to pursue a graduate nursing degree.
This can prepare you to take on several advanced nursing roles which we’ll discuss in more depth below.
Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)
The Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is the second-highest level of education you can obtain in nursing.
There are several reasons to consider getting your MSN, like:
- Higher earning potential
- More advancement opportunities
- Improved ability to contribute to better patient outcomes
Typically, these advanced nursing degree programs take two to four years to complete. While the programs can be challenging and rigorous, the greatest barrier to getting an MSN degree is often the cost and time commitment.
Fortunately, however, online MSN programs allow you to obtain your advanced credentials at a lower cost and with more schedule flexibility than traditional, on-campus degree programs.
You also have multiple options when it comes to pathways for getting your graduate nursing degree, including:
- BSN-to-MSN: For those who have completed their BSN degree
- Direct-entry MSN: For those with a non-nursing undergraduate degree
- RN-to-MSN: For RN’s with no BSN that want the quickest track to an advanced degree
- Dual Enrollment MSN: For those who want to obtain an advanced degree, like an MBA, in addition to their MSN
Finally, there are a number of different types of Master’s of Science in Nursing degrees, both clinical and non-clinical.
Clinical MSN Roles
If you complete a clinically-focused MSN program, you’ll be considered an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).
There are four main types of APRNs, including:
- Nurse Practitioners
- Certified Nurse Midwives
- Clinical Nurse Specialists
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists
Additionally, Nurse Practitioners have plenty of specializations to choose from. By completing an NP-focused MSN program, you’ll have the ability to become a:
Non-Clinical MSN Roles
There are also several non-clinical nursing roles for those who earn their MSN. This includes positions like:
- Nurse Educators
- Nurse Administrators
- Nurse Informaticists
Whether you opt to complete a clinically- or non-clinically-focused MSN degree program comes down to your personal goals. Both types of nursing professionals play a key role in healthcare facilities.
BSN vs MSN
The key difference between a BSN and MSN degree is that the MSN is designed to prepare nurses to take on more advanced leadership roles in nursing.
Though some MSN programs accept non-nurses, a BSN is usually a prerequisite for enrollment in a graduate program. This means it will take additional time and money to obtain your MSN.
However, with the additional education also comes a higher earning potential and more opportunities for advancement.
Earning your BSN is a great way to get started in nursing. On the other hand, if you’re looking to become a leader in the field of nursing, an MSN degree could be essential.
Terminal Nursing Degrees
The highest level of education you can achieve as a nurse is a terminal degree. This includes both the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctorate of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD).
For both types of terminal nursing degrees, you’ll first need to get your MSN before you can enroll in a program.
Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)
The Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is the more clinically focused of the two types of terminal nursing degrees.
A DNP provides students with critical insights into topics like healthcare policy and leadership. This prepares them to take on executive-level roles like nurse management and organizational leadership.
Nurses with a DNP focus less on conducting research, and more on implementing research at their organizations to improve quality of care.
Additionally, nurses with a DNP are considered expert-level practitioners who can serve as part of the clinical faculty.
Finally, if you hope to become a CRNA, a DNP is set to become a requirement by 2025. In fact, as of 2022, all students matriculating to an accredited CRNA program must be enrolled in a doctoral program.
Doctorate of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD)
The other type of terminal nursing degree, the Doctorate of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD) degree, is more research focused.
Nurses who earn a PhD tend to work in universities where they teach nursing students and conduct research to promote positive change in the field of nursing. However, you can also find PhD-educated nurses working in administration roles at traditional healthcare facilities.
Coursework for this type of nursing degree typically includes topics like:
- Scientific research principles
- Data analysis
- Statistical measurement
The most important thing to remember about the Nursing PhD is that it will require lots research, analysis, and management.
DNP vs PhD
The key difference between DNP-educated nurses and PhD-educated nurses is that whereas PhD-educated nurses conduct research, DNP-educared nurses implement that research.
So, while nurses with a DNP tend to work in leadership roles in healthcare facilities, nurses with a PhD usually work in universities and non-clinical settings.
Additionally, a PhD typically takes longer to complete than a DNP. While the PhD usually takes anywhere from four to six years to obtain, DNP programs typically last two to four years.
Which type of degree is right for you depends on your goals and whether you prefer to work in a clinical or non-clinical setting.
MSN vs DNP
Both an MSN and DNP prepare nurses to take on more advanced leadership roles. However, the main difference between the MSN and DNP is that the DNP is the highest level of nursing education one can obtain.
Additionally, a DNP is likely better suited for those who want to effect nursing at the organizational and policy level. They’ll weigh in on key decisions and look at the big picture when it comes patient outcomes.
Meanwhile, an MSN is better suited for those who want to provide the best possible care to patients directly. While the scope of responsibility for MSN-educated nurses isn’t quite as all-encompassing as the DNP, they both play a vital role in the success of any healthcare institution.
Which Type of Nursing Degree Is Best?
Choosing which type of nursing degree to pursue can be challenging. You’ll need to think deeply about your goals and aspirations before committing to a program.
If you’re not sure nursing is right for you, it may make sense to start off with a CNA Certificate or LPN Diploma to dip your toes in the healthcare industry.
For non-nurses who are highly-interested in the field, the best place to begin is likely a BSN. However, you can also get started by earning your ADN.
If you’re already an RN and you’re interested in taking on more responsibility (as well as the accompanying salary increase and employment opportunities), then finding an MSN program is probably a good choice. Just be sure to think about whether you want to follow a more clinically-focused or non-clinically-focused track.
Finally, if you’re a nurse with an MSN degree, you may want to consider going for your terminal degree. Be sure to consider whether you want to follow a research-oriented pathway or whether you’d prefer a leadership role where you get to implement research. This will help you decide whether a PhD or DNP is a better option for you.
To find a degree program suited to your needs and interests, click here!
Nurse Luke is a CRNA who specializes in Nursing content and still enjoys a very busy career with Locum, Per Diem and Travel nursing in the greater midwest. He has over 25 years of experience in the healthcare field and received his CRNA masters degree from the Mayo Clinic School of Healthcare. He is passionate about helping nurses explore the options of becoming a travel nurse as well as spending time with his Family.