There are many programs and affordable education options available to nursing students. But before you attend school you need to decide which programs work best based on your career goals, time frame and current lifestyle. Making a sound decision on your 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 boast the quickest length to completion, usually about a year.
Your time: Because you can receive training at a nearby hospital, vocational technical school or community college, LPN/LVN programs are often a convenient option for students who work or have other obligations. Certain courses can be taken online which allows busy students to study when it fits in their schedule.
Career track: Since the program is fast-paced, students learn the basic skills to prepare them for their first nursing job. Completing an LPN/LVN program makes you eligible for licensure after you pass a state administered nursing examination called the NCLEX-PN®.
LPN-to-Associate's (ADN) bridge programs are geared toward students interested in becoming an entry-level RN.
Your time: You'll be required to take some liberal arts courses adding a level of complexity and time to the program. Some schools offer online hybrid programs which allow you to complete some of the work at your convenience. However, you'll still need to arrange your schedule for clinical practice at a local medical facility.
Career track: An ADN is a stepping stone for a bachelor's degree if you decide to continue with school. Some employers will provide tuition reimbursement for licensed practical nurses interested in becoming an RN.
Associate of Science in Nursing
An associate degree in nursing (ADN) program focuses more on technical skills than theory, and for 30 percent of ASN graduates it is their stepping stone to a BSN. This is a good option if you haven't been working as an LPN/LVN and want to start your career as an RN.
Your time: An ADN takes about two years and is usually offered at a community college or vocational school, where you can often find night and weekend courses—perfect for students with family and work obligations.
Career track: This type of degree makes the most sense for someone interested in becoming a registered nurse and earning money sooner than a 4-year BSN program.
LPN-to-BSN bridge programs account for LPN work experience which means you won't take the traditional 4-year BSN route, although you will be given a liberal arts education. Once completed, you'll be eligible to work as an RN.
Your time: It's possible to attend class on a part-time basis, but the program can take as little as four academic semesters to complete as a full-time student. If you'll be working while in school, consider your workload since this type of program can be slightly more rigorous than other LPN options.
Career track: If your interested in managing other nurses, earning a BSN can pave the way. An RN with a bachelor's degree is considered more senior than one with an ADN and typically earns more. Getting a BSN is also a wise move if you plan to earn a higher degree later on.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
A BSN degree is preferred by most nursing leaders and provides the best opportunities in today's job market.
Your time: Enrolling in a four-year BSN program is a serious commitment. While some students manage to work while in school, you'll be devoting an extensive amount of time to coursework and lab time so consider whether you can manage your schedule effectively. Some BSNs can be done via a hybrid program meaning you can take some classes online. However, the practical lessons will scheduled at a local hospital or on campus.
Career track: 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. If you plan to pursue a higher degree, earning a BSN out of the gate is probably your best option since it will be a prerequisite for master's programs.
Your time: Instead of going through an entire BSN program from the start, RNs can save time (and money) going this route. It provides credit for nursing skills already learned through school or work experience and takes about two years. These nursing programs are usually available with a very flexible schedule designed to meet the needs of working nurses. Many schools have multiple start dates throughout the year, rather than beginning the program in September, and online RN-to-BSN programs are available as well.
Career track: Just like other BSN programs, completing an RN-to-BSN can open the doors to supervisory positions and higher salaries. It's also necessary if you plan to earn a master's degree.
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.
Your time: A Second Degree BSN usually takes two academics years or less since liberal arts credits from your other bachelor's degree will be taken into account. Online options are available for students who need more scheduling flexibility, but expect courses to be challenging. Clinical rotations are done in your local community so you'll need to set aside time to attend. Accelerated BSNs, a variation of the Second Degree BSN, can move even quicker—from 12 to 20 months.
Career track: Like other BSN programs, you'll be eligible to take the national licensure exam once you've graduated. With a BSN, you'll be qualified to work as an RN with the potential to move into supervisory roles. The BSN also serves as a stepping stone to higher degrees.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program allows a nurse to specialize in a particular area, such as advanced clinical training or research. Some students take on joint degrees in related fields like business administration, public health or hospital administration.
Your time: A traditional MSN program takes less time than a BSN—usually between 18 and 24 months—but these programs are incredibly rigorous since you'll be learning about an advanced specialty. Ideal for nurses looking to narrow their focus, most programs will require students to complete their experience with a thesis or project.
If you're a working nurse with a tight schedule, you have two factors in your favor: Many employers offer tuition reimbursement for nurses going back to school and online programs are available if you need flexibility.
A joint degree (MSN/MBA) program is designed for working nurses, but expect a demanding course load since you'll be receiving two high-level degrees at once.
Career track: Investing in an MSN can help you move to the next level in your nursing career. From nurse practitioner to nurse midwifery, you'll learn advanced skills which allow you to care for patients in many of the same ways doctors do. Nurses with MSNs can also reap monetary benefits with higher salaries.
RNs with an associate's degree have the option to enroll in an RN-to-MSN program, which allows you to earn an MSN immediately after earning the BSN.
Direct entry MSN programs, sometimes called "graduate entry" or "master's entry" programs, are perfect for non-nurses who hold bachelor's degrees in another field.
If you've worked as an entry-level RN and know you want to specialize in an area of advanced nursing, the bridge program is likely the best option for you. The courses are tailored to the specific needs of the student so that you receive as much advanced placement credit for their BSN as possible. RN-to-MSN online courses are available and some some start several times a year. This can be helpful if you're interested in attending right away.
These degree programs combine 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.
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.
3-year Doctorate Programs
A Doctorate of Nursing Education program is focused on developing advanced practice nurse specialist skills.
A Doctor of Nursing Practice program is a newer degree and emphasizes clinical practice-oriented leadership development.
Your time: ND programs usually take three to five years of full-time study, including summers, while a DNP program requires about three years of full-time study. One benefit of a DNP program: They are specifically designed with working nurses in mind.
Career track: ND programs will prepare you to make evidenced-based decisions in clinical, organizational and educational settings. Meanwhile, DNP programs will give you the skills to work in research, clinical care, patient outcomes and system management. Although time is a factor, your decision should be primarily based on which degree can bring you closest to your career goals.
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.
Your time: A DNSc program takes approximately five years if you attend full time. While part time options are available from many schools, this will tack on several years to the program. Your time will be spent with challenging coursework, in-depth research, a clinical defense and final dissertation.
Career track: With a DNSc, you'll be able to work as an educator, analyst or administrator, along with several other high-level positions. If your goal is to make an impact on the nursing field, earning a DNSc can help you get there.
Doctor of Philosophy Programs
PhD programs prepare nurse scholars and researchers to help advance the theoretical foundation of nursing practice and health care delivery.
Your time: Full-time PhD programs typically last between four and five years with part-time options available. As a PhD student, you won't complete clinical hours, but you'll be required to participate in extensive research and a final dissertation. Generally, PhD programs are not conducive to having a job while in school. In many cases, students earn scholarships or grants to pay for their degree.
Career track: You'll 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.
Another program—the MSN/PhD dual degree—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.