Nursing Programs: An Introduction

Nursing is a highly diverse field with a variety of degree options, academic concentrations and career paths for you to follow. Small colleges and prestigious universities alike offer both top online programs and accredited on-campus programs at almost every degree level. There are both brick-and-mortar schools as well as online programs that will provide you with the professional knowledge and skills that you need for your career regardless of the specific educational track that you choose.

The Role of a Nurse

The American Nursing Association provides a useful code of ethics for nurses that outlines the personal characteristics that make a good nurse. As a nurse, you will serve as an important intermediary between your patients and other healthcare professionals. You will play a key role in developing and carrying out each patient’s plan of care and communicating their illnesses and needs to other specialists. First and foremost, you will be expected to show compassion and give quality care to all patients regardless of the nature of their health problems or socioeconomic background.

Additionally, both a traditional and an accredited online nursing program will teach you how to manage medical records without compromising a patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality. The best nurses must also keep up with the latest healthcare laws and reforms so that they can provide the most effective care.

You can pursue many specializations and degrees through programs online and on campus. Many students pursue undergraduate nursing degrees to become registered nurses (RNs). An RN is not only responsible for providing direct patient care but also for educating patients’ family members and becoming a leader for newer nurses and other healthcare professionals.

The field of nursing has grown more diverse in recent years and continues to expand. The Mayo Clinic outlines several nursing careers that go beyond the traditional role of direct healthcare provider. These include positions in newer nursing fields like clinical research nurses, pharmaceutical representatives and medical technology suppliers.

If you prefer fast-paced work, you can become a first-response RN. These nurses work with a team of healthcare professional who respond to emergency scenarios and provide critical patient diagnoses and treatment. Some nurses even receive specialty training in order to team up with courts and law enforcement agencies as forensic nurses.

The Basics of your Nursing Education

The main differences between degrees at different levels have to do with the curriculum and the length of the program. For example, 1 of the shorter paths to a career in nursing is the associates degree in nursing (ASN or ADN), which you can usually complete in 2 years or less. This degree prepares you to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), a nation-wide requirement for RN certification and the most important educational and professional standard in the field of nursing.

A bachelors of science in nursing (BSN) will take about 4 years to complete and will also prepare you to take the NCLEX. Additionally, a bachelors also provides you with the foundation of knowledge and skills that you need to become a nurse educator or clinical manager later in your career. And if you want to attend a top nursing program online or on a traditional campus at the graduate level, a BSN is a common requirement for admission to masters and doctoral degree programs.

Some masters-level programs are direct-entry, which means that you can enroll even if you do not have a BSN or even an associates degree. However, you should not assume that masters-level online programs or brick-and-mortar programs are easy or un-competitive. Students who enter without a BSN are usually required to complete bachelors-level coursework before taking masters courses, and they often have to do this at an accelerated pace.

Nursing Careers and Education

Each type of nursing education can lead to a different career path within the field. You should familiarize yourself with each of these main fields before you decide on an educational track.


Licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) are 2 names for the same profession, depending on the state in which you practice. As an LVN or LPN, you will work under the supervision of RNs and doctors to provide basic healthcare services and record patients’ progress. In order to become an LVN or an LPN, you must complete a 1-year accredited program. However, it is important to realize that LPN and LVN programs have become more and more uncommon in recent years as the healthcare industry becomes increasingly specialized.

profile of LVNs and LPNs provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that community colleges and technical schools are the most common institutions where students can earn this degree.

You can find LPN programs online and on traditional campuses that will prepare you to sit for the NCLEX-PN examination. Once you pass this examination, you will have the necessary qualifications to receive your LPN or LVN license.


As a registered nurse (RN), you will have a broader scope of medical and legal responsibilities than LVNs and LPNs. Though the specific duties of an RN can differ from state to state, tasks like starting IVs, taking physicians’ orders, administering blood and giving certain medications can usually be performed by RNs but not LPNs. And in addition to providing direct patient care and planning healthcare strategies, RNs also educate patient families and the general public about healthcare and disease prevention.

There is actually no such thing as an RN degree online or at any traditional school, since degrees are offered in the general field of nursing. This is because a registered nurse is a nurse who has successfully passed the NCLEX-RN examination. You can sit for the examination only after earning the proper education through either a diploma, associates degree or bachelors degree program in nursing.

During your RN training, you will gain experience in a variety of fields including pediatric, cardiac, surgical and psychiatric nursing. And although RNs with any educational background can go to work in all of these fields, a BLS report on registered nurses notes that a bachelors degree or higher is required for most administrative, teaching and research positions in the field.


If you choose to pursue a masters in nursing (MSN), you will become qualified for several different types of advanced practice nurse jobs (APN or APRN). The 4 main types of APRNs are registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), nurse-midwives (CNMs), clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) and nurse practitioners (NPs).

APRNs are highly specialized nurses and play an even larger decision-making role in the management of a patient’s care than RNs. Many APRNs perform physical assessments and are able to prescribe and administer medications. As an APRN you can work with group of specialized physicians or even open your own clinic.

In addition to earning an MSN and accumulating thousands of hours of clinical experience in a specialty field, APRNs must also pass a national certification exam that evaluates your competency as a practitioner and your knowledge of advanced nursing practices.

Nursing at the Doctorate Level

At the doctorate level of nursing, you can earn a PhD in Nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). A PhD in Nursing will prepare you for a career of academic research and teaching, usually at a college or government agency. A DNP, however, focuses on translating research into practice and training leaders and innovators in the field of clinical nursing.