Take Your Nursing Education to the Next Level

stephanie behring

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing writer

nurse studying on laptop computer
nurse studying on laptop computer

A nursing career is filled with options. Although many people still think of nurses as delivering patient care in hospitals or doctors’ offices, this is only part of the picture. There are many paths a nurse can follow. If you’ve been considering changing the trajectory of your nursing career, or want to advance the path you’re already on, pursuing additional education is one of the best ways to meet that goal. Taking your education to the next level can put new workplaces, advanced nursing roles, and more within your reach.

Taking your education to the next level can put new workplaces, advanced nursing roles, and more within your reach.

Plus, you’ll be adding to the skills and knowledge you already use every day as a nurse. In fact, if you attend a bridge-style program such as an LPN-to-BSN bridge, RN-to-BSN bridge, or RN-to-MSN bridge, your program will be designed to build on everything you’ve already learned. And an additional bonus: These programs are structured with working nurses in mind, making them a great fit for many nurses looking to advance their education.

“Bridge programs are often accelerated because the curriculum depends on the knowledge base that nurses already have,” says Jenna Liphart Rhoads PhD, RN, CNE, an assistant nursing professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “Another advantage of these programs is that students generally find school to be easier than someone who is not a nurse because of the experience they have.”

Bridge programs are often accelerated because the curriculum depends on the knowledge base that nurses already have.

Bridge programs aren’t your only option to advance your career. You can also enter a traditional bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral-level nursing program. If you want to advance in your specialty but not change roles or directions, earning a certification is another good option.

“It is a personal decision that depends on personal lives and employer support,” Rhoads explains, “especially since some employers offer financial assistance to nurses who wish to obtain a higher degree or certifications.” 

Already an LPN? Consider Making a Career Move and Earning RN Licensure

If you’ve been working as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and are ready to advance your nursing career, working toward registered nurse (RN) licensure is an ideal next step.

Moving from being an LPN to an RN will not only increase your pay but will allow you to work in a broader range of nursing specialties,” says Rhoads. LPN jobs tend to be limited to long-term care facilities, nursing homes, and physicians’ offices, while RNs, with their additional skills and expanded licensure, can work more autonomously in a greater number of workplaces.

Moving from being an LPN to an RN will not only increase your pay but will allow you to work in a broader range of nursing specialties.

Two Bridge Programs Toward RN Licensure

There are two bridge program paths LPNs can take to become an RN: by earning a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or earning a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Both programs will build from your existing LPN education and experience and position you to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for RNs.

LPN-to-ADN

This path will generally take one to two years. You will earn an ADN that will allow you to seek licensure and work as an entry-level RN. You may also have some opportunities to manage LPNs.

LPN-to-BSN

This path will take most students two to four years to complete. Upon completion, you will earn a BSN, which will position you to earn your license and work as an RN. RNs with a BSN are more likely to manage other nurses, receive higher pay, and work more autonomously than RNs with an ADN.

“A BSN can help further the career of an RN because many RN roles, and advancement within those roles, require a BSN,” says Rhoads. “RN roles such as case management, assistant unit management, educator, or lead RN require BSN degrees.”

Working as an RN with an ADN? Consider Leveling Up

An ADN is a great way to get your start in nursing. You’ll get the education you need to get your foot in the door and start working as an RN. But if you’re ready to broaden your nursing career, earning your BSN can be a smart choice. You’ll expand your nursing knowledge, and you’ll be able to take on higher-level nursing roles.

You can use the nursing education and experience you already have as an entry-level RN to build the foundation of your BSN degree. RN-to-BSN bridge programs are designed with working RNs in mind. Courses expand on your nursing background and teach you advanced clinical and leadership skills. You’ll also take classes in broader liberal arts subjects since you’ll be earning a full bachelor’s degree.

RN-to-BSN bridge programs expand on your nursing background and teach you advanced clinical and leadership skills.

There are online RN-to-BSN programs available that allow you to set your own pace, although you’ll need to complete clinical hours in person at a hospital or other clinical setting. Most of your classmates in a bridge program will be working RNs, and part-time schedules are an option in many programs.

Looking to Take on Advanced Nursing Roles? An MSN Could Open New Career Doors

Are you currently working as an RN but looking to become a nursing leader? Have you thought about providing primary care from a nursing perspective? Are you interested in assisting with childbirth and new parent education? Have you considered mastering anesthesia so that you can assist with surgeries?

You’ll need to be an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) to take on any of these challenges. To become an APRN, you’ll need a graduate degree. This means at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), although a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is becoming increasingly standard. APRN roles include:

Certified Nurse Midwives: Nurse midwives care for mothers and newborns during childbirth. They make sure deliveries are safe and handle emergencies that arise. They also provide prenatal care and new parent education on topics such as breastfeeding.

Clinical Nurse Specialists: Clinical nurse specialists take charge of how nursing care is delivered in a hospital setting. They teach new nurses the best ways to provide safe and effective care. They also make changes and improvements to improve patient safety and care.

Nurse Practitioners: Nurse practitioners act as primary care providers. They specialize in an area such as pediatrics, gerontology, family health, or women’s health. They’re able to assess, diagnose, and treat injury and illness.

Nurse Anesthetists: Nurse anesthetists determine the correct amount of anesthesia needed to keep a patient safe during a surgery or procedure. They monitor the patient during the procedure and then make sure they wake up without any complications.

If you are an RN with an ADN seeking an APRN role, consider an RN-to-MSN bridge program. This will allow you to earn your master’s degree without having to spend four years earning a separate BSN.

If you’re an RN who already has a BSN, you might consider a BSN-to-MSN program. This program is essentially the same as a traditional educational path since you aren’t “bridging” over a lesser degree.

Both programs will earn you a master’s degree and are a smart way to use your current RN standing as the foundation of your advanced degree. You’ll gain an advanced understanding of clinical nursing and explore new topics relevant to your specific nursing goals.

What Else Can I Do with an MSN?

APRN roles aren’t the only nursing roles that require at least an MSN. There are also master’s-level roles available for RNs who’d like to transition away from direct patient care. For instance, you could become a nurse educator and teach new nurses skills they’ll need to succeed. If you want to combine your nursing experience with technology and data, you could become a nurse informaticist. Leadership and administrative paths are also options with roles such as clinical nurse leader or nurse administrator.

What About a DNP?

Earning a DNP is a good idea if you know you want to take on advanced nursing roles. In fact, DNPs will soon be required for all nurse anesthetists, and requirements for clinical nurse leaders and nurse practitioners will likely follow over the next decade. Earning a DNP can help you meet your goals and put you ahead of the curve as APRN roles shift toward requiring DNP degrees.

Dedicating Your Nursing Career to a Specialty? Consider Earning Certification to Prove Your Expertise

Professional certification is a great way to demonstrate your experience and expertise in a particular nursing specialty. Nursing certification isn’t generally required, but it’s still a solid career move. It can help you stand out to employers and gain advanced roles.

There are multiple certifications available for RNs and APRNs. Generally, you’ll need an RN license in good standing and a set number of clinical experience hours to qualify, although some certifications do require a BSN or MSN. Examples of certifications include:

  • Trauma Nursing
  • OR Nursing
  • ER Nursing
  • Geriatric Nursing
  • Labor and Delivery Nursing
  • Psychiatric Nursing
  • Case Management
  • Forensic Nursing

Coming from a Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Program? Think About Earning Your BSN with an Accelerated Program

Switching careers can be daunting and overwhelming. It can feel like even more of a hurdle when you want to transition into a highly specialized field like nursing. Luckily, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in any field, you don’t have to start from scratch. Accelerated programs are designed to help you earn a BSN quickly so you can jump into a nursing career.

“Accelerated programs result in a BSN and the opportunity to sit for the NCLEX-RN, just like the four-year BSN programs do,” explains Rhoads. “They’re generally a good fit for those who have a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline and wish to switch to a nursing career, and those who can take time off from work to attend school.”

Accelerated programs are generally a good fit for those who have a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline and wish to switch to a nursing career.

Accelerated programs generally take about 12 to 18 months to complete. These programs are full time and very intense. They’ll teach you all the clinical skills and nursing knowledge you need to earn RN licensure and work as a nurse. You’ll study topics such as:

  • Biology
  • Pharmacology
  • Anatomy
  • Psychology
  • Health Assessment
  • Nursing Practice

Online programs are an option, but you will need to complete clinical hours in person.

No Time for School? Other Ways to Advance

You can still advance your career even if you don’t have time to commit to a new degree program right now. Some quick career boosts include:

  • Joining an association or organization in your specialty: Nursing associations are a great way to network, earn continuing education credits, keep up with the latest news in the field, and advance your career.
  • Connecting on social media: Building your nursing presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is a great way to connect with other nurses and potential employers. Just make sure to keep your content professional and related to nursing.
  • Finding a mentor: It can be helpful to talk to a nurse who has been in the field for years, who is currently working your dream job, or who has achieved goals you’d also like to reach. Setting aside time to find a mentor and talk with them can be educational and inspiring.
  • Attending a conference: Nursing conferences are a fantastic way to gain new knowledge and meet people.

Taking Your Salary to the Next Level

Furthering your education can potentially increase your paycheck. Even if your title stays the same (for example, advancing from an ADN to a BSN as an RN,) your advanced education will likely allow you to apply for higher-paying positions. Your exact salary will always depend on your employer, your location, and your experience, but your education can give you a good idea of the range your salary might fall into.

Check out salaries for various nursing careers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and the degrees you’ll need to pursue them. Some positions, such as nurse practitioner, are projected to grow at an astonishing rate over the decade:

RoleDegreeMedian 2020 Salary
LPNLPN certificate$48,820
RNADN or BSN$77,600
Certified Nurse MidwifeMSN$111,130
Nurse PractitionerMSN or DNP$111,680
Nurse AnesthetistDNP$183,580
jenna rhoads

With professional insight from:

Jenna Liphart Rhoads PhD, RN, CNE

Assistant Nursing Professor, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay


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