From certificate programs to doctoral degrees, there are many different pathways to a career in nursing.
With so many types of nursing degrees available, it’s important to understand how each program works so you can find the one that’s right for you. Whether you’re a recent high school graduate, experienced professional, or career changer, making the right decision means considering each option against your goals, financial resources, and lifestyle.
The degree you pursue determines which level of nursing you’ll eventually enter, at least to begin with. By selecting the program that meets your personal and professional goals, you’ll position yourself for success in the rewarding field of nursing.
We’ve compiled a descriptive list of the different types of nursing degrees available and what they involve in regard to program content, length of time, and job potential.
Nurse degree pathways
How long each level of nursing takes and what you can do with your degree
CNA certificate or diploma
A certified nursing assistant (CNA) certificate is a non-degree diploma offered at community colleges and vocational schools. Both classroom and online options are available, though all clinical hours must be performed in person at an approved location.
As a CNA student, you’ll learn how to provide basic healthcare services and help patients with their daily activities. Other duties typically include:
The curriculum includes training in emergency procedures, personal care skills, and infection control. To increase your employment options, you can also earn voluntary certification in specialized areas such as psychiatry or geriatrics.
LPN/LVN certificate or diploma
A licensed practical nurse (LPN) certificate is a non-degree diploma offered at vocational schools, community colleges, and sometimes at hospitals themselves. In Texas and California, this role is known as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN).
Both LPN and LVN programs prepare you to work under the supervision of RNs and perform the following key duties:
In addition to clinical applications, you’ll also learn about general medical topics that include anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and emergency care. Specialty certifications in areas such as IV therapy, long-term care, pharmacology, and breastfeeding support are also available.
Associate Degree in Nursing
An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is the minimum degree requirement for becoming a registered nurse (RN), the most common nursing profession. As an RN, you’ll have the credentials necessary to qualify for most nursing jobs that involve providing critical patient care and assisting physicians.
You’ll find ADN programs at community colleges and some four-year institutions. Some schools also offer online nursing degrees in hybrid programs that combine virtual instruction with on-site clinical training.
ADN programs will give you the knowledge and experience RNs need to perform the following duties:
The curriculum for an ADN also includes studying science-related courses such as anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physiology.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year degree designed for RNs who want to pursue supervisory roles and qualify for higher-paying nursing jobs. With a combination of academic classwork and on-site clinical training, you’ll learn about scientific areas such as anatomy, biology, and chemistry, as well as specific duties related to patient care, laboratory testing, designing treatment plans, and assisting with surgery.Some schools even offer programs that allow you to earn a BSN in a particular specialty of nursing such as acute care, geriatric nursing, infectious disease, pediatrics, and psychiatry, just to name a few. Specializing can often increase your job opportunities and potential earnings.
Master of Science in Nursing
A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate program of study designed for nurses who want to practice in a specialized role known as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).The curriculum is an MSN program that’s far more tailored than a general nursing degree. You’ll dive deep into a concentrated area of study while taking advanced courses in topics such as leadership, management, healthcare policy, and research.
Joint master’s degrees in nursing
Earning a joint master’s degree in nursing could be right for you if you want to earn an MSN and a complementary degree in less time than completing two separate programs. You’ll get a solid education in nursing practice and theory while gaining advanced skills in another area that can help you tailor your career.
Doctoral degrees in nursing
Doctoral degrees in nursing are terminal degrees intended to help students gain the knowledge necessary to teach at the university level, conduct research in the field, or pursue high-level roles similar to those for students with joint master’s degrees.