Levels of Nursing Degrees

In today’s job market, nurses are in high demand. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. Therefore, if you are thinking about becoming a nurse, it's essential to familiarize yourself with the levels of nursing.

Now, more than ever, flexible and affordable programs are available for starting your nursing career. There are five different levels of nursing or types of degrees as well as other certificate programs and specialties.

  • Certificate (CNA)
  • Diploma
  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
  • Bachelor Degree in Nursing (BSN)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Doctorate (DNE, DNS, PhD)

The Levels of Nursing Pyramid above shows how types of nursing degrees progress from Diploma and Associate Degrees to advanced degrees like Bachelor of Nursing, Master of Nursing, and Decorate of Nursing.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Nursing assistants are often called Nursing Aides or Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs). Of all the different levels of nursing, this is considered the base entry-level nursing program.

These professional roles are usually the primary point of contact between patients and medical staff. They provide basic care to patients in facilities like nursing homes and community centers.

The job duties at this level of nursing typically include measuring patient vital signs, helping patients eat, bathe, dress, and perform various other daily activities. CNAs may also help transfer patients between rooms or departments via wheelchairs and beds.

How to Become a CNA

You can become a CNA by first completing a state-approved education program. This can take three to eight weeks to complete.

Upon completion, you must pass an exam to earn your CNA certification and title. Upon successful completion of the exam, you will be a state-certified CNA.

How Much Does a CNA make?

  • Median annual salary (2019)1: $29,640
  • Projected employment growth (2018–2028)1: 9%

LPN or LVN

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), sometimes known as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) in states like Texas and California, are responsible for a variety of patient duties. They communicate with patients, monitor patient health, and administer basic care.

Typical tasks performed at this level of nursing might include starting IVs (varies by state), changing bandages, administering medication (depending on state supervision requirements), taking blood pressure, and inserting catheters.

How to become a Licensed Practical Nurse

The first step toward becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse is to obtain a Practical Nursing Diploma. This nursing program can be completed in as little as 12 months and can be found at community and career colleges near you.

In most instances, LVN/LPN programs suit students that are working or have other obligations. Some courses can be taken online thereby further helping students with demanding schedules.

The curriculum is fast-paced and prepares students for their initial nursing job by teaching basic skills. After graduation, you’ll be required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) to receive your state license and be qualified for employment.

Prospective students already working as a Certified Nursing Assistant can progress into the profession through one of many CNA to LPN programs. In California, CNAs can use the CNA to LVN Bridge Program.

How much does an LPN make?

Median annual salary (2019)1: $47,480 – According to the BLS

Projected employment growth (2018–2028)1: 11%

Registered Nurse (RN)

Registered Nurses (RNs) assume a broad assortment of roles across patient care. RNs are responsible for administering medication, collaborating with Doctors (MDs), monitoring symptoms, and recording patient history. Some registered nurses are even responsible for overseeing other healthcare staff including CNAs and LPNs.

At this level of nursing, you'll have many different career options. RNs have the opportunity to focus their careers on specific areas of practice such as emergency nursing, pediatric, or psychiatric nursing. They also have a lot of choices beyond direct patient care including becoming subject matter experts for continuing education, staffing health clinics, advising organizations on health risks, and promoting public health.

How to become an RN

There are two levels of nursing degrees that create a path to becoming a registered nurse. One is to earn an ADN, and the other is to earn a BSN.

An ADN can typically take 18 months to complete while a BSN can be finished in about 33 months – OR as few as 18 months with a prior degree. If you are an LVN, you may also consider the LVN-to-RN bridge program.

How much does an RN make?

Median annual salary (2019)1: $73,300 – According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Projected employment growth (2018–2028)1: 12%

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs)

Nurses who earn their MSN can become an APRN. This level of nursing has many different options when it comes to career choices in healthcare.

APRNs can work independently as well as in collaboration with physicians. They can perform all of the duties of an RN as well as more extensive tasks such as referring patients to specialists, diagnosing, and prescribing treatments.

There are a few other notable career paths nurses with a master's degree can pursue outside of these advanced practice registered nurse roles. One option is to become a nurse educator while another possibility is to advance into leadership positions such as a director of nursing.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Nurse Practitioners are one of the most popular APRN roles. They not only focus on creating and delivering treatment plans, but also on diagnostic and preventive measures.

Similar to a doctor, nurse practitioners can administer physical exams, diagnose illnesses, and prescribe medication.

How much do Nurse Practitioners Make?

Median annual salary (2019)1: $111,000 – according to the BLS

Projected employment growth (2018–2029)1: 52%

How to become an APRN

MSN programs typically require candidates to first have an RN license, with most preferring a BSN degree as opposed to an ADN or Diploma.

The next step is to gain acceptance into an accredited MSN program and earn your degree. Depending on the specialty you wish to pursue there might be additional requirements, including clinical experience hours or other certifications. For example, nurse practitioners have their own specific requirements.

After graduation, you’ll likely need to pass a national certification exam in your area of expertise. Requirements vary slightly by state. In some states, as a nurse practitioner, you’ll also need to apply for a separate prescriptive authority license that permits you to prescribe medication.

APRN Salary

Median annual salary (2019)1: $115,800

Projected employment (2018–2028)1: 26 percent

Diploma in Registered Nursing

Registered nurse diploma programs aren't as popular or readily available as they once were. Compared to an academic degree, a diploma functions similarly to an apprenticeship, focusing more on clinical hours than general education and nursing concepts.

A curriculum leading to a diploma in nursing is typically offered by a hospital and takes approximately 18-32 months to complete. The curriculum includes classroom and clinical training for patients in any given department within acute care, long-term care, and community settings.

Graduates of the hospital-based programs receive a diploma and are eligible to apply to take NCLEX-RN. A Registered Nurse license is awarded upon successfully passing the NCLEX-RN and satisfaction of other licensure requirements.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

One of the first types of nursing degrees is the associate's degree. An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)  largely zeroes in on technical skills and less on theory. It also lets you start your nursing career quickly.

Around 30% of graduates use their associate degree as a stepping-stone to pursuing a bachelor's in nursing. This option is quite good for individuals that have not worked as LVN/LPN but would like to start their careers as registered nurses.

Most associate degree programs are offered through vocational schools or community colleges. Because the program is flexible and is typically conducted through night and weekend courses, it takes around 2 years to complete.

This path is a good option for students with professional, familial, and other obligations. This path also allows you to begin getting paid sooner as a registered nurse relative to a 4-year bachelor's degree.

LPN-to-Associate’s Program

LPNs interested in becoming an entry-level RN should pursue the LPN-to-Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) bridge program. As the name implies, this is a degree designed to “bridge the knowledge gap” between what an LPN knows and what an RN is expected to know.

Those with no prior experience must complete a standard ADN. However, LPNs can often earn their degrees more quickly by receiving credit for previous coursework and, in some cases, work experience.

With an ADN, you are one step closer to pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree. Tuition reimbursement by some employers is offered for licensed practical nurses that choose to pursue becoming an RN.

LPN-to-BSN Program

This bridge program takes into account the work experience you may have already put in as an LPN. This means that you will not be required to complete the traditional 4-year bachelor's degree and instead can pursue a liberal arts education. Once you have completed the program, you will be qualified to work at the RN level.

Students can attend part-time liberal arts classes at their own pace. However, a full-time student can complete the curriculum in four academic semesters or about two years.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Most nursing leaders have obtained a BSN degree. In today’s competitive job market, this degree provides one with the best opportunities for career stability and advancement.

A four-year BSN degree requires commitment and dedication. Some students find they can work and take care of their families while pursuing their degrees. However, lab time and coursework require extra effort on the part of the student at this level.

If you can forgo your income and do not have substantial obligations and responsibilities, earning a bachelor's in nursing out of the gate is a great option.

RN-to-BSN

If you are an RN with an associate’s degree (ADN), the RN to BSN has been designed for you. By enrolling, RNs can save a lot of money and time in obtaining their bachelor's.

The RN-to-BSN recognizes the credits for nursing skills that you have already learned through work experience or school. You can complete the program in about two years.

Instead of beginning in September, the schools offering these programs have multiple start dates year-round and students can pursue online RN-to-BSN programs in many locations.

Second Degree BSN

The Second Degree BSN is specifically designed for non-nurses who have bachelor’s degrees in fields not affiliated with nursing. A second-degree bachelor of science in nursing will assume credits from your current bachelor's degree, and apply them toward the liberal arts requirements of your BSN.

A Second Degree BSN can take two academic years or less to complete. Students that need more scheduling flexibility can enroll in online classes but it is important to note that the courses at this level are challenging.

Once you have graduated, you may take the national licensure exam. Having a BSN qualifies you to work as an RN with a greater opportunity to be promoted to supervisory positions.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

This master’s program allows professionals to specialize in a specified area such as research or advanced clinical training. Some students have undertaken joint degrees in related fields such as hospital administration, business administration, and public health.

Traditional master's degree programs take between 18 and 24 months to complete. However, the MSN programs are rigorous as they deal with advanced clinical subjects.

Working nurses have the option of taking hybrid online programs and having their employers reimburse their tuition. A joint degree, MSN/MBA, is often a good fit for working professionals at this level.

The completion of a master's degree can move you higher on the nursing career ladder. You will learn progressive skills, from nurse practitioner (NP) to nurse-midwifery, that will allow you to provide care to patients more similar to a doctor. With greater responsibility and skill also comes higher monetary benefits and salaries.

Other MSNs

RNs having an associate’s degree can enroll in an RN-to-MSN program that will allow them to earn a BSN and MSN. Direct entry MSN programs are commonly referred to as “graduate entry” or “master’s entry” programs. These programs are suitable for non-nurses holding a bachelor’s degree in other fields.

Entry-level RNs can pursue the bridge curriculum and specialize in one area of advanced nursing. Credit earned for the BSN is granted so long as courses are geared towards the specific needs of students. Online RN-to-MSN courses are also available.

The degree programs take into account RN licensure and advanced training in a specialty area for the master’s programs. Three years are required for the direct-entry MSN program to be completed. The first year is spent on entry-level coursework while the last two years are devoted to master's level study.

Doctorate Nursing Degree Programs

In the next ten years, nurses having a doctoral degree will be in high demand. These programs focus on advanced clinical practice, clinical research, and health administration. These subjects are preferred for nursing executives.

As one of the highest levels of nursing, the doctor of nursing practice program takes between 4 to 6 years to complete.

3-Year Doctorate Programs

A Doctorate of Nursing Education program seeks to develop the practicing and specialist skills of the nurses. This is a newer degree that emphasizes more on clinical practice and leadership development.

Most DN programs take between 3 to 5 years of full-time study to complete, inclusive of summers. Completion of the DNP program requires three years of full-time study and is suitable for working nurses.

ND programs prepare you to draw evidence-based decisions in educational, clinical, and organizational settings. DNP programs will provide you with the necessary skills to undertake research, understand patient outcomes, management of systems, and clinical care. Even though time is of the essence, your decision should be focused on matching your career goals with the appropriate degree.

Doctor of Nursing Science Programs

DNSc program graduates are nurse scientists. They have adequate investigative skills as well as clinical and leadership capabilities that can have an impact on the health care system. Many go on to attain the role of a chief nursing officer in various public and private health systems.

If you attend full-time classes, you will complete the program in five years. Part-time classes are available though you will take longer to complete the program. The program entails challenging coursework, clinical defense, thorough research, and a final dissertation.

As a graduate of the DNS program, you will be able to work as an administrator, analyst, or educator among other leadership positions.

Doctor of Philosophy Programs

Nurse scholars are researchers who can advance the theoretical foundation of health care delivery and nursing practice through Ph.D. programs.

Most Ph.D. programs will take you between four and five years to complete if you attend classes as a full-time student. Part-time classes are available. Ph.D. students have to engage in extensive research and prepare a final dissertation, but they are not necessitated to complete the clinical hours. Most Ph.D. students earn scholarships and grants, which they use to pay for their fees.

Upon graduation, you will be qualified to pursue different dimensions of scholarly and professional life. A Ph.D. graduate can conduct an academic inquiry, form public policy, and provide leadership in health care delivery systems.

Highly qualified nurses having a BSN and are interested in pursuing an intensive and accelerated program can pursue the MSN/Ph.D. dual degree. The program offers master’s preparation while at the doctoral level; it provides one with advanced training in research. It takes five years to complete. Some schools are offering the program to students having a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook [career information accessed Jan 2021]. Data represents national average earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Ranges do not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.