Types of Nursing Degrees
Learn about different nursing programs and discover which nursing degree may be right for you.
There are many nursing programs and affordable nursing education options available to the savvy nursing student. But before you attend school you need to decide which programs work best for you and your nursing career endeavors. Making a sound decision on your nursing education will help set your nursing career up for success.
LPN or LVN Education Degree
Licensed practical nursing (LPN) or licensed vocational nursing (LVN) programs typically involve one year of training at a hospital, vocational technical school or community college. Graduates are eligible for licensure as an LPN or LVN after receiving their diploma or certificate. To earn an LPN license, you must pass a state administered nursing examination called the NCLEX-PN® examination.
This is a nursing program designed for licensed practical nurses who want to earn a degree that will enable them to sit for the NCLEX® examination. It provides credit for nursing skills already learned through work experience or an LPN nursing program.
Associate of Science in Nursing
The 2-year associate degree nursing program focuses more on technical skills than theory and for 30 percent of ASN graduates, it is their stepping stone to a BSN. The Associate of Science in nursing program allows a student to become a registered nurse (RN) and earn money more quickly than a 4-year BSN program, so it works better for many students. The Associate of Science in Nursing program is the entry point for technical nursing practice. This nursing degree is one of the fastest ways to become a nurse.
This nursing degree program offers the licensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) the opportunity to attain the BSN degree in just four academic semesters.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
The 4-year BSN degree (also called a "Prelicensure BSN" program) is preferred by most nursing leaders and provides the best opportunities in today's job market. If you look at job postings, you'll find that a BSN degree is a requirement for many positions. It is the entry point for professional nursing practice. Typically the first 1- to 2-years of the nursing program are spent fulfilling general education requirements, while the last two to three years are spent on nursing education courses.
This is a nursing program designed for registered nurse graduates of associate degree or diploma programs who want to complete their BSN degree. It provides credit for nursing skills already learned through school or work experience. Most often these nursing programs are available with a very flexible schedule designed to meet the needs of working nurses.
Many schools have multiple start dates each year for these nursing programs, rather than just one date in the Fall. Several online RN-to-BSN programs are available. Approximately 30 percent of BSN graduates annually come from RN-to-BSN programs.
Second Degree BSN
Second Degree BSN programs are designed for non-nurses who have bachelor's degrees in non-nursing fields. These programs will give you credit for having completed your liberal arts requirements, allowing you to complete the nursing portion of your coursework (and earn your BSN) in two academic years or less.
Accelerated Degree BSN
A variation of the Second Degree BSN is the Accelerated BSN. In addition to giving you credit for having completed your liberal arts requirements, an Accelerated BSN program will allow you to complete your undergraduate nursing program's course requirements more quickly than students enrolled in a traditional BSN nursing program. Accelerated BSN programs usually take 12 months to complete, though some programs may run for 16 to 20 months.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
A master of science in nursing degree is an 18 to 24 month nursing program that allows a nurse to specialize in a particular area, such as an area of advanced clinical training or research. Some students take on joint degrees in related fields like business administration, public health or hospital administration. Most people working towards an MSN already have a BSN, but there are accelerated programs for ADN nurses to earn a BSN and MSN in one shot, or for non-nursing college graduates.
Typical requirements include a BSN from an accredited nursing school, an RN license, minimum GPA and GRE scores, and some period of clinical work experience.
This nursing program is for RNs who have an associate degree in nursing and want to earn an MSN immediately after earning the BSN. The courses in the program are tailored to the specific needs of the student so that they receive as much advanced placement credit for their BSN as possible and so there's no overlap between their BSN and MSN courses.
Direct Entry MSN
Direct entry MSN programs, sometimes called "graduate entry" or "master's entry" programs, are designed for non-nurses who hold bachelor's degrees in non-nursing fields. These nursing degree programs give students credit for having completed their liberal arts requirements and allow them to complete an abbreviated schedule of undergraduate nursing coursework before moving directly into graduate nursing coursework—combining preparation for RN licensure with advanced training in a master's specialty area. Direct entry MSN programs typically require three years to complete, with the first year being devoted to entry-level nursing coursework and the last two years to master's-level study.
A variation of the Direct Entry MSN is the Accelerated MSN. Although the terms "Direct Entry MSN" and "Accelerated MSN" are sometimes used interchangeably, some Accelerated MSN programs may be completed in two academic years, rather than three.
Professional Certifications are specialized exams that you can take to prove your expertise in a specific field, beyond the skills required for an RN license. The exams are provided by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which is part of the American Nurses Association (ANCC). The ANCC offers generalist, advanced practice and clinical specialist exams in almost 30 areas. Certifications show that the nurse has a commitment to excellence in their field, and can give them a leg up on career advancement.
Post-Master's Certificate programs are designed for nurses who already have a Master of Science degree in nursing who wish to qualify to sit for one of the certification exams or to expand into a new area of specialization.
In the past, many states allowed RNs to earn certification as nurse anesthetists (CRNA), nurse practitioners (NP), or nurse-midwifes (CNM) without earning a Master's degree. These requirements have generally changed, and some schools offer programs that allow these certified nurses to earn their master's degrees while earning credit for their past educational and work experience. More and more states and employers are now requiring Master's degrees to allow these certified non-master's nurses to practice.
Doctorate Nursing Degree Programs
Like nurses with master's degrees, nurses with doctoral degrees are expected to have tremendous job demand over the next ten years. These programs prepare nurses for careers in health administration (a PhD is the preferred degree for nursing executives), clinical research, and advanced clinical practice. The programs take from four to six years to complete, so they represent a significant commitment on your part.
Doctor of Nursing Education Programs
ND programs usually require 3 to 5 years of full-time study, including summers. While the focus areas of the program will vary by school, the doctor of nursing degree generally builds on the role of the advanced practice nurse and is more focused on developing advanced practice nurse specialist skills. The goal is to prepare leaders who can affect change through system redesign and evidenced-based decision making in a variety of clinical, organizational and educational settings.
Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs
This is an emerging doctoral program, thus focus areas will vary by school. DNP programs usually require 3 years of full-time study and emphasize clinical practice-oriented leadership development. The goal is to prepare graduates for leadership positions in research, clinical care delivery, patient outcomes and system management. Graduates will be experts managing the complex balance between quality of care, access and fiscal responsibilities.
Doctor of Nursing Science Programs
Graduates of a DNSc program are prepared as nurse scientists with the investigative skills of a researcher and the clinical and leadership skills necessary to influence the health care system. Health outcomes measurement, health care economics, statistical analysis and informatics are common focus areas. A clinical defense and dissertation are common requirements.
Doctor of Philosophy Programs
PhD programs prepare nurse scholars and researchers who will contribute to the growth of nursing science through scholarly research that advances the theoretical foundation of nursing practice and health care delivery. Graduates will be qualified to engage in all dimensions of professional and scholarly life, including the conduct of scholarly inquiry, leadership in health care delivery systems and public policy formation.
MSN/PhD Dual Nursing Degree
The MSN/PhD dual degree program is for highly qualified nurses with a bachelor's degree in nursing who are interested in an intensive, accelerated program simultaneously offering master's preparation and advanced research training at the doctoral level. A typical program takes five years to complete. Some schools offer programs for students entering with a non-nursing bachelor's degree.
MSN/MSHA Nursing Education Degree
A joint degree program that combines a master's degree in nursing, with a master's in health administration.
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