Types of Nursing Programs and Degrees

Types of Nursing Programs and Degrees

Nurse checking the medical equipment.

 Anna Bizon / Gallo Images / Getty Images

Nursing is a growth field with excellent job prospects, and there are hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States that offer some form of nursing degree.

If you're considering a career in nursing, the number of options available to you can be overwhelming. Below you'll find information to help you better understand different types of nursing programs and degrees, as well as the type of work and salary you can expect for each.

Key Takeaways: Nursing Degrees

  • The time for completing a degree ranges from a few weeks for a CNA certificate to five years or more for a doctorate.
  • More education usually equates with more pay. Average salaries range from under $30,000 for nursing assistants to over $100,000 for advanced practice registered nurses.
  • Accelerated programs are available if you already have a college degree in another field.
  • Evening, weekend, and online options make a nursing degree a possibility for those with family or work commitments.
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CNA Certificate Program

Certified Nursing Assistants, or CNAs, typically have a high school diploma, and they then complete a certificate program through an area community college, technical college, nursing home, or hospital. The American Red Cross is another provider of CNA certificate classes, and you'll find many online options. The entire CNA program typically takes just one or two months. Upon completion of the classes, you'll need to take an exam to earn state certification.

CNAs play an important role in patient care, but be aware that the role can be physically demanding. Nursing assistants help lift and move patients. They help patients eat, dress, bathe, and use the bathroom. A CNA can find work in a hospital, nursing home, or home care environment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for nursing assistants is $28,530 per year. Over 1.5 million people are employed in the profession, and the demand for CNAs is expected to grow faster than average in the coming decade.

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LPN and LVN Certificate Program

A licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) receives significantly more specialized training than a nursing assistant. A LPN or LVN program is often about a year long, and they can be found at many community colleges, technical colleges, and even some four-year colleges. A typical program includes roughly 40 hours of coursework. After completion of the program, you'll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) to qualify for employment in a health care facility.

LPNs sometimes do tasks similar to a nursing assistant such as helping patients bathe or dress. Other tasks might include monitoring blood pressure, changing bandages, keeping records on a patient's health, and communicating with patients and their families. Some duties such as administering medications will vary based on state laws.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median salary for licensed practical nurses is $46,240. Nearly 725,000 people are employed in the field, and the employment opportunities are projected to grow 12% in the coming decade.

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Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN or ASN)

To become a registered nurse (RN), you're going to need, at a minimum, an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN). An associate's degree typically takes two years to complete at a community college or technical college. A few four-year schools may also offer two-year associate's degrees. All RNs need to complete supervised clinical assignments to gain hands-on, real-world experience. Keep in mind that an associate's degree is the minimum for becoming a registered nurse, and many hospitals prefer to hire nurses with a bachelor's degree. All RNs need to pass the NCLEX-RN before employment.

Registered nurses often oversee nursing assistants and practical nurses, so the job will typically require some leadership skills. Other duties include assessing patients' health, recording medical histories, administering medicines, running medical equipment, performing diagnostic tests, and educating patients and families about their medical issues.

Registered nurses earn a median salary of $71,730 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Keep in mind, however, that RNs with bachelor's degrees are likely to be on the higher end of the pay scale. Nearly three million people are employed as registered nurses, and the job outlook is considerably higher than average (15% growth in the next decade).

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Bachelor's Degree in Nursing (BSN)

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is the four-year degree preferred by most hospitals for their registered nurses. Whether you attend one of the nation's top nursing schools or your regional state university, a BSN degree will require coursework across disciplines to develop communication skills, social understanding, and scientific expertise. You'll also acquire significant experiential learning through work with simulators and clinical assignments. You'll need to pass the NCLEX-RN before starting work as an RN.

By earning a BSN rather than an associate's degree, you're likely to have more leadership and job advancement opportunities, and you're more likely to get a hospital position with a specialty in areas such as public health, neonatal care, addiction, or genetic screening.

If you have your associate's degree and want to continue your education to earn your BSN, most nursing schools have LPN to BSN degree paths. You may also find that your employer will pay for the additional schooling. If you earned a bachelor's degree in another field, many nursing schools have accelerated programs so that you can earn your BSN in under two years.

The median salary for registered nurses is $71,730 per year, but RNs with a BSN are likely to be on the higher end of the salary scale. The median salary for hospitals (which often require a BSN) is $73,650, and government positions such as working for the VA is $78,390 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Master's Degree in Nursing (MSN)

If you are a registered nurse with a BSN and are looking to advance your career further, a Master's Degree in Nursing (MSN) is the way to go. The degree typically takes about two years to compete, and it allows you to become a specialist in an area such as gerontology, midwifery, family nursing, pediatric care, or women's health. Upon completion of your program, you will most likely need to pass a national certification exam. If successful, you will be an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

APRNs can often work independently of doctors and prescribe medicines, order tests, and diagnose health problems. The precise details of their jobs will depend on state laws. In general, their specialized knowledge gives them more independence than an RN with a BSN.

The job prospects for APRNs are excellent in part because they often fill the gap created by doctor shortages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay is $113,930 per year, and the job outlook predicts 31% growth in the next decade.

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Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

If you're interested in working in health care administration, conducting research, or running a specialized clinical practice, you'll want a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. A doctorate is a commitment that can take five or more years to complete, but many DNP programs have significant online components and can be balanced with work as a registered nurse.

A DNP degree will usually command a healthy six-figure salary and job prospects are excellent.

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Ph.D. in Nursing

A Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), in contrast to a DNP, will typically have a significant research requirement, including the writing of a dissertation. A Ph.D. is ideal for a nurse who is interested in theories of nursing practice. A Ph.D. program can be more challenging to balance with a job than a DNP program, although doing so is not impossible.

Like a DNP, a Ph.D. will often take five years to complete. This advanced degree provides a range of employment opportunities in hospital administration, higher education, and public policy.