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Roughly 4.2 million nurses provide preventative and clinical care to patients in today’s hospitals, homes, and clinical institutions, making it the most populous profession in healthcare1. You may think, how hard is nursing school? Before joining this workforce, there’s one aspect every emerging healthcare worker must decide: how far—and in what direction—do you want to take your nursing degree.

What are the levels of nursing? Learning about the levels of nursing degrees familiarizes you with the variety of career paths made possible by the nursing profession. Lower-level programs like certifications prepare up-and-coming nurses for supporting roles, while more advanced degrees like an MS in nursing may unlock specialty career paths.

Below, we’ll help you orient to five of the most popular nursing care degrees that may be pursued and the different types of healthcare careers they (and the education they represent) can help prepare you for.

Nursing Certification

A certificate is the most elemental level of education you can obtain in nursing. Most certified nursing assistant (CNA) positions and other entry-level nursing jobs—such as an orderly at a residential care facility—typically require a nursing certification. 

Achieving a certification generally comes with the following requirements:

  • A GED
  • A minimum of 75 hours of vocational (on-the-job) training
  • Pursuing a state-accredited training program
  • Completing the CNA exam in your state

What Can You Do With A Nursing Certificate?

Although a nursing assistant does not hold the title of nurses, their position often serves as a stepping stone for aspiring nurses. Certified nursing assistants’ primary role is to support registered nurses in attending to their patients. Some primary patient care duties at nursing homes include:

  • Helping patients eat, bathe, and go to the bathroom
  • Lifting patients and helping them move from place to place
  • Cleaning healthcare facilities to make them sanitary for patient use

In some states, you may also be eligible to administer at-home care to seniors or special needs individuals.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing

The next educational rung of nursing is earning an associate’s degree in nursing or an ADN. To achieve an ADN, you’ll need to enroll in a program typically two years long (though some are available at four-year institutions). 

ADN requirements differ by state, but most programs have the following criteria:2 

  • A GED
  • Successful completion of high school-level math and science classes
  • A GPA of 3.0 and up
  • Between 60 and 75 credits earned in a nursing school program in areas such as3 general education, pharmacology, pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, and maternity nursing

ADN programs are designed to help you pass your state exam to become a licensed nurse and prepare you for real-world experience. In most states, an ADN degree may be needed to become a registered nurse (RN).

What Can You Do with an Associate’s Degree in Nursing?

Completing an associate degree nursing program ADNs provides a viable pathway for people who want to become an RN. The typical responsibilities of a nurse with an ADN include the following:

  • Administering healthcare to patients
  • Coordinating plans for patient treatment
  • Coaching and educating patients on their health and how to tend to it
  • Relaying health-related information to a general audience

Suppose you want to refine your expertise or hone your skill set. In that case, exploring a BS or MS nursing education option is generally recommended.4

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Obtaining a bachelor of science (BS) in nursing enables healthcare professionals to move beyond the general treatment of patients that resonates with their interests.

BSN degree programs typically take most people four years to complete, with two years devoted to general education and nursing prerequisites and two years to nursing classes and clinical vocational training (making rounds).5 During your program, you’re likely to study subjects like:

  • How to conduct health assessments
  • Human genetics and genomics
  • Pathophysiology
  • Pharmacology
  • The ethics of nursing and healthcare

The more advanced your collegiate nursing education, the more years you can expect to work toward your educational goals. However, this upfront investment in time can have long-term benefits. After all, a BS in nursing can signal to employers that you’re a healthcare provider dedicated to learning and growing as an employee.

For those who hold a different science degree, transitioning into a nursing career can be accelerated. There are programs tailored for individuals with prior degrees that can shorten the time to become a licensed practical nurse, a nurse midwife or a family nurse practitioner. From this nursing degree level and up, program requirements adhere to nursing core competencies and standards the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) set. This curriculum is an ideal way of preparing nurses as they prepare for real-world experiences to apply their knowledge learned in the classroom.

Apply for a BSN Degree

What Can You Do with a BS in Nursing?

Because of the advanced training you’ll receive in a BS nursing program, holding this degree will make you eligible for various occupations requiring a highly-refined skill set. 

Some of the career tracks could include:6

  • Travel nurse – Travel nursing may be the ideal career path for those who love the healthcare profession and new settings. Travel nurses support hospitals experiencing nurse shortages for weeks or months, traveling to new areas with each contract.
  • Per diem nurse – If you’re interested in a flexible schedule, then per diem nursing can be the bridge to achieving work-life balance. Per diem nurses possess a unique skill set and must quickly adapt to new hospital settings and nurse teams. 

Depending on your professional goals and interests in health science, there are a host of other specialties you may pursue with this degree: pediatrics, geriatrics, and neonatal nursing, to name a few. A clinical nurse specialist for a particular field typically offers better compensation. You may also use your BS for inpatient case management, analysis, or consulting positions.7 If you want to apply, check out the nursing school requirements of the BSN program to obtain your BS nursing diploma.

Master of Science in Nursing

Obtaining a master of science in nursing demonstrates exceptional advancement in the nursing field. Programs typically require completing a bachelor’s degree first, enabling you to complete most programs within two to three years (if you enroll full-time).

This academic track may enable you to become a specialist in an area of your choosing. For some employers, a master’s degree may unlock various leadership opportunities in the nursing profession.8

What Can You Do with an MS in Nursing?

Launching your career with an MS in nursing makes you eligible to follow various career paths working with patients in your chosen field. Some of the possible positions include:9

  • Chief nursing officer
  • Long-term acute care nurse
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner
  • Certified registered nurse anesthesiologist

A master’s degree will also prepare you for leadership roles in the sphere of healthcare more broadly such as a nurse administrator. Many MS candidates go on to pursue research in nursing or serve as healthcare consultants for private companies.10

Apply for an MSN Degree

Doctorate in Nursing

Considered one of the highest-level degrees in nursing, a PhD in nursing is the final tier of education nurses can reach. PhDs are suitable for nurses who intend to use their education for research purposes (as opposed to on-the-ground work with patients). PhDs in nursing are separate from a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) geared towards clinical nursing practice. 

To apply for a PhD program, you’ll typically need a BS or MS in nursing and a satisfactory National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) score.11 PhD programs can be time-intensive, requiring up to six years of study, but it could be an ideal avenue for ambitious, science-minded nurses to make a more significant impact in their field.

What’s the Difference Between a DNP and a PhD?

Although the two programs are considered advanced degrees, the key differences lie in focus. A DNP applies evidence-based clinical knowledge to improve healthcare organizations and models. On the other hand, a PhD is grounded in nursing research, theory development, and scholarly analysis to improve the nursing field.

What Can You Do with a PhD in Nursing?

Nurses who hold a PhD may be able to enter a teaching or research role in a university setting such as a nurse educator or serve as consultants for healthcare institutions, with compensation and benefits varying widely from position to position.

That said, the DNP program degree has a wide, diverse variety of possible applications. Most positions will be geared towards: 

  • Mentoring, teaching, and designing curricula for nursing students
  • Creating, conducting, and publishing nursing research
  • Applying for research grants
  • Using research to improve patient health outcomes
  • Collaborating with colleagues to influence public policy

Apply for the Nursing Degree Level that Best Suits You

Now that you have an overview of the various nurse degree levels, you have a better understanding of what to expect from each option. However, it's important to note that these descriptions provide just a glimpse into the multitude of career opportunities awaiting you at each level.

Alliant Int'l University: Open New Doors in Nursing

Obtaining an exceptional education doesn’t happen in a vacuum, especially if your ambition is to work in healthcare—textbook and real-world knowledge are crucial. Start your nursing career through nursing programs at Alliant International University - BSN or MSN-Direct Entry - designed to help students gain mastery in both the theory and practice of modern nursing.

Whether you choose to serve a specific patient demographic or focus on a growing sector like mental healthcare, the program at Alliant will help equip you with a competitive skill set encompassing critical analysis, research skills, and real-world experience. To launch your education in your chosen field, apply to Alliant International University today.


Sources: 

  1. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “Nursing Fact Sheet.” https://www.aacnnursing.org/news-Information/fact-sheets/nursing-fact-s…. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  2. Deering, Maura. “RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?” January 10, 2023. https://nursejournal.org/degrees/bsn/rn-and-bsn-degree-differences/. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  3. Deering, Maura. “RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?” January 10, 2023. https://nursejournal.org/degrees/bsn/rn-and-bsn-degree-differences/. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  4. Staff, Nurse.org. “Everything You Need to Know About the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N) Degree.” April 17, 2020. https://nurse.org/education/bsn-degree/. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  5. Staff, Nurse.org. “Everything You Need to Know About the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N) Degree.” April 17, 2020. https://nurse.org/education/bsn-degree/. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  6. Deering, Maura. “RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?” January 10, 2023. https://nursejournal.org/degrees/bsn/rn-and-bsn-degree-differences/. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  7. Staff, NurseJournal. “Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Overview.” January 10, 2023. https://nursejournal.org/degrees/bsn/. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  8. Staff, NurseJournal. “25 Reasons to Get A Master’s in Nursing.” November 22, 2022. https://nursejournal.org/degrees/msn/reasons-to-get-a-msn-degree/
  9. Indeed Editorial Team. “12 Master in Nursing Jobs You Can Pursue with an MSN Degree.” December 22, 2022. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/master-in-nursing-jo…. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  10. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “Master's Education.” https://www.aacnnursing.org/Nursing-Education-Programs/Masters-Education. Accessed January 31, 2023.
  11. Registered Nursing.org. “Getting Your Ph.D. in Nursing.” https://www.registerednursing.org/phd/. Accessed January 31, 2023.

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