Medical Education

What Different Nursing Degrees Do

3 Mins read

To patients, most nurses look the same. They wear scrubs, smile tenderly, and provide essential medical support everywhere from doctor’s offices to emergency rooms.

However, to medical facilities, there is a world of difference between some nurses and others. There are a number of different nurse specialties and each variety requires specific education and experience. Aspiring nurses only need to choose from a handful of training and degree programs to prepare them for their future careers. Here is the length and breadth of nursing career options to help nurses-to-be (or ambitious nurses-to-be-better) find their paths.


A licensed practical nursing degree (LPN) is the fastest to obtain, requiring only a year of study plus licensure from a state exam. Nurses who complete this program and pass their tests are trained for the basic responsibilities of working in a medical facility: monitoring vital signs, collecting fluid samples, dressing wounds, and generally helping patients and their families feel comfortable and cared for. An LPN is usually acquired through a technical school or community college, which will partner with a local hospital or care facility for hands-on experience.


An associate degree in nursing (ADN) requires more training than an LPN, and therefore it requires two years of study to acquire. ADN grads can immediately begin work as resident nurses (RNs) at hospitals or other medical centers, assisting doctors with tasks such as administering medicine, monitoring recovery, and educating patients and families on treatments and after-care. RNs earn on average $15,000 more in salary than LPNs, and they are able to climb the career ladder to even better positions with more prestige and pay.


Perhaps the most sought-after degree by hospitals, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year program obtained from an accredited university. There are also 15-month fast track nursing programs at for people who already have their bachelor’s degree in another subject. Those eager to become leaders amongst nursing staff should strongly consider enrolling in a BSN program, which trains students to administer medical care as well as manage nursing staff and provide health education. Nurses with BSNs have a wide variety of career opportunities, including working in hospitals, public health clinics, or colleges and universities as nurse educators. Plus, such highly educated nurses can expect to earn slightly more than ADN-holders in any position.


Nursing is an excellent career because even those who desire to start right away can return to school to improve their education background and career possibilities. LPN-to-ADN programs help students begin working as nurses right away while continuing their education to access better positions in the future. Typically, these programs require additional courses that delve into the theory of nursing, which adds complexity to the bare-bones LPN degree program and helps prepare nurses for work as RNs.


For nurses looking even farther ahead, the RN-to-BSN bridge programs allow lower educated nurses to gain more opportunity in their work by advancing their education. Online hybrid programs are common and advantageous to nurses who must fit school around already-busy schedules. Even better, some employers will reimburse some or all of the program’s tuition to ensure their workers have the best possible credentials, so some nurses may be able to advance their careers for little or no cost.


A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is typically the highest degree a nurse can obtain and expect to continue performing typical nursing duties. MSN programs allow nurses to specialize in specific fields within nursing, such as research, anesthesiology, or midwifery. These programs are relatively short ― between 18 and 24 months ― but they are incredibly rigorous, demanding a narrow focus of study and a capstone project or thesis. With an MSN, nurses can become more autonomous within the health care industry, working in a private practice as a nurse practitioner or gaining upper-level management positions at hospitals, which can earn them dramatically higher salaries.


Relatively unknown outside nursing, the Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc) degree transforms nurses into leaders of research capable of influencing the healthcare system for the better. These degree programs are long and arduous, requiring five years of full-time study as well as a doctoral dissertation to complete. Ultimately, nurses equipped with DNScs become educators, analysts, or administrators with the authority to change nursing standards and policies for the future.


There is more theory in the field of nursing than many practicing nurses may realize, and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs facilitate the advancement of theoretical nursing study. As with DNScs, Ph.D.srequire a considerable amount of time and effort to achieve, but unlike DNScs, Ph.D.s rarely return to the health care industry after completion. More suited for academic research and education, Ph.D.s typically find work at universities, far from the hustle and bustle of typical nursing stations.

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