Types of Nursing Degrees

Some careers are very straightforward in that there are a few educational paths that qualify you for a given job. Nursing is not one of them. Requirements and degree levels are varied; so make sure you understand the differences. Use this resource as a guidepost for determining which degree path or progression you want to pursue.

Understand What a Nursing Degree Program Gets You

There are several nursing degree levels, including a campus-based or online nursing associate’s degree, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs. Additionally, there are many certifications, such as Registered Nurse (RN), Nurse Practitioner (NP), or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), which can be combined with degree paths for the sake of expediency.

The good news is that any accredited on-campus or online nursing school program will put you on the path toward a nursing career. The path you should choose depends on your career goals, your previous education, and how many years you want to spend in school before starting your career.

The bottom line is: if you want to become a nurse because you are driven to help people and want to provide quality healthcare, assist other medical professionals, and encourage public health awareness, then in most cases all you need is the title of LPN or RN, which you can earn with an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in nursing. If you want to work in nursing administration, you should get a master’s degree, and if you want to conduct scholarly research about nursing, you should get a doctorate. Read on to find out about all your degree options in detail.

Make Sure You Know the Differences Between Nursing Programs

The following list of nursing programs highlights the differences between programs and discusses what you can gain from holding each degree or credential.

Nursing Diploma

Intended for: High school graduates; non-nursing associate’s degree-holders

Average Length: 1–2 years

Results in: Diploma of Nursing

Available online: No

Nursing diplomas are best for students who are sure that nursing is the path they want to pursue, and who want to begin their nursing careers as soon as possible without taking any irrelevant classes.

A typical nursing diploma program takes about 18 months to complete and is similar to an associate’s degree, although it is offered by hospital-run nursing schools rather than traditional colleges or universities, with coursework related specifically to nursing rather than general education. Graduates of this program are eligible for campus-based or online RN programs that will prepare them to take the NCLEX-RN exam in order to become a Registered Nurse. This program used to be the standard training for nurses until the 1970s, but today more and more students are choosing nursing programs that lead to associate’s degrees or higher.

Associate’s Degree (ADN or ASN)

Intended for: High school graduates

Average Length: 2 years

Results in: Associate’s Degree in Nursing or Associate of Science in Nursing

Available online: Partially

Associate’s degrees in nursing are intended for students seeking a more broad education than a diploma can offer, but who doesn’ want to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree before entering the workforce. Upon graduation, most students are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN exam.

An ADN or ASN is similar to a Diploma of Nursing, but is offered by community colleges or vocational schools and usually requires completing some general education requirements in addition to courses in medicine and nursing. You must complete hands-on classes that involve learning medical procedures on campus or in a clinical setting. This will give you the opportunity to work directly with patients under the guidance of Registered Nurses and other medical staff. Although an exclusively online associate degree in nursing is not common, some schools allow you to complete general education courses online, like math or English composition.

ADN to BSN Degree

Intended for: ADN/ASN-holders

Average Length: 1–1.5 years

Results in: Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Available online: Partially

An advantage to the ADN to BSN degree is this option allows you to earn a bachelor’s degree more quickly than normal. If you have already earned an associate’s in nursing from an accredited campus-based or online nursing school and are an RN, you may enroll in an ADN to BSN degree program and graduate in as little as one year. Online coursework is available, though you will also have to complete clinical training on campus or at a clinic.

LPN/LVN to BSN Degree

Intended for: Licensed Practical Nurses

Average Length: 2 years

Results in: Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree

Available online: Partially

This accelerated degree program allows Licensed Practical Nurses to earn their degrees more quickly. While only an associate’s degree is required to become a Registered Nurse or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and work in most clinics or hospitals, many nurses find that earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing opens many more doors and advances their nursing careers faster. Fortunately, graduates of traditional or online LPN nursing programs can earn a BSN at an accelerated pace, typically in three semesters (including summers).

Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN) typically have the same level of experience as LPNs, but are called LVNs in Texas and California. Like LPNs, they can earn a bachelor’s degree at an accelerated pace and should be able to transfer at least some of their basic education requirements.

RN to BSN Degree

Intended for: Registered Nurses

Average Length: 2 years

Results in: Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree

Available online: Yes

Many Registered Nurses begin their careers with diplomas or associate’s degrees, only to decide they need further education to expand their career options or take on more responsibility within the nursing field. For instance, most nurses who take on leadership roles have at least a bachelor’s degree. If you are already working as a Registered Nurse, the RN to BSN program allows you to earn a bachelor’s degree much faster than if you were starting with no experience. There are even fully online options available, because you will already have the practical experience needed to be a nurse if you pursue this degree.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Intended for: High school graduates

Average Length: 4 years

Results in: Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree

Available online: Partially

Although this degree takes twice as long as an ADN or ASN, many employers prefer RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Therefore, earning a BSN will make you much more competitive in the workplace.

You don’t need any previous experience in nursing to begin a BSN program, and you may be able to take many core curriculum classes online. Online RN programs with clinical requirements prepare you for the rigorous NCLEX-RN exam just as well as traditional programs. Your clinical experience that allows you to interact with patients setting under the supervision of an experienced RN will augment your online instruction and prepare you for the job.

On the whole, nurses with bachelor’s degrees have a higher starting salary than those with associate’s degrees, but keep in mind salary is also dependent on experience and location. You should consider whether the salary difference and additional training are worth the time and tuition costs of a higher degree, but know that a BSN will probably pay off in the long run because it sets you up for career advancement.

BSN to MSN Degree

Intended for: Non-nursing BA/BS-holders; high school graduates

Average Length: 5 years

Results in: Master of Science in Nursing

Available online: Partially

The BSN to MSN program is an accelerated degree program intended for students who want a career in nursing and have already chosen their specialization. The program allows you to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s program in five years instead of six or seven, and it prepares you to specialize in a field of nursing to earn an additional certification, like a Nurse Practitioner or a Nurse Anesthetist. If you already hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, you may also be eligible to transfer your core credits and reduce the time it would take you to earn an MSN. You may find online nursing school courses at this advanced level, especially theory-based courses that don’t require hands-on learning.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Intended for: BSN-holders; RNs; non-nursing BA/BS-holders

Average Length: 2 years

Results in: Master of Science in Nursing

Available online: Partially

Earning an MSN degree will allow you to specialize in a field of nursing, such as mental health, maternity nursing, pediatric nursing, or public health, and is often required to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP). Most MSN students have earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and work as Registered Nurses but would like to specialize further or become nursing educators or administrators. There are online nursing master’s degree programs available, though all programs also require clinical experience.

A master’s degree is usually necessary to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP) and to specialize in a particular area of nursing, such as nurse anesthesia or midwifery. While the average annual salary of an MSN is about $10,000 higher than that of a BSN, it is only $6,000 higher than the average pay of all RNs independent of degree level. It is important to consider that a master’s degree involves many more years of study. However, if you are interested in an advanced nursing specialization and you are currently employed as an RN, consider asking your employer how much of the cost of a master’s degree would be covered under the organization’s current tuition reimbursement policy.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Intended for: MSN graduates

Average Length: 2–3 years

Results in: Doctor of Nursing Practice

Available online: Yes

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is an advanced degree intended for those who are interested in incorporating evidence-based practices in the field of nursing. A DNP generally does not conduct research, but rather incorporates new research and best practices from researchers.

If you want to work directly with patients, you should not get a DNP, as it prepares you to work as a nurse educator at traditional or online nursing school programs, or to work as healthcare administrator and to evaluate healthcare programs and leadership effectiveness in clinical settings.

A DNP, however, may appeal to those who enjoy administrative roles and will facilitate career advancement within a clinic, hospital, or health system.

Recently, conflict has arisen in regards to nurses with doctoral degrees. DNPs have created some confusion, as they have earned the right to the title of “doctor” along with physicians, but are not medical doctors (MDs) and do not have the same privileges or pay grades. Some states have even passed legislation preventing nurses from using the title when addressing patients.

PhD in Nursing

Intended for: MSN graduates

Average Length: 3–4 years

Results in: Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing

Available online: Yes

As with the DNP, you should not earn a PhD in Nursing if you want to work directly with patients. This degree is not intended for practicing nurses, but for those interested in academic research pertaining to nursing.

Earning a PhD in Nursing will allow you to conduct original research in the field of nursing, with the unique advantage of having a background in nursing and understanding the problems and practices of the discipline. The PhD coursework emphasizes theoretical and methodological approaches to nursing practice, with a focus on producing practical research that can be implemented in the healthcare system. A nursing PhD prepares graduates to work at universities and other research institutions.