The 2019 Guide To Nursing Degrees

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In light of the nursing shortage across the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster-than-average growth rates for registered nurses and advanced practice nurses: 15% and 31%, respectively. Graduates of accredited nursing programs enjoy a robust job market with plenty of opportunities for professional growth.

A nursing degree provides healthcare professionals with diverse job opportunities and high potential salaries. This guide covers potential nursing degrees, program requirements, and types of nursing jobs available.

What Do All These Nursing Acronyms Mean?

Acronyms abound in the nursing field. Knowing what they mean and the scope of duties that fall under each one constitutes the first step in deciding which nursing degree to pursue. The table below provides the meaning of the most common acronyms used in the nursing profession and presents a brief description of each one.

Nursing Degrees

Nursing Roles

CNA: Certified Nursing Assistant

CNAs typically help patients with basic care, including bathing, grooming, eating, and exercise. Most CNA programs take 4-12 months to complete, including 75 hours of education and 16 hours of supervised on-the-job training.

LPN: Licensed Practical Nurse

An LPN program prepares graduates to take the NCLEX-RN so they can work as registered nurses. Most LPN programs take one year to complete and include clinical training hours mandated by each state. LPN responsibilities include administering medication, taking vital signs, and assisting with tests.

LVN: Licensed Vocational Nurse

In California, Texas, and Vermont, LPNs are known as LVNs. They undergo the same academic and practical training and fulfill the same roles as LPNs.

RN: Registered Nurse

Registered nurses work with doctors and other healthcare practitioners to provide coordinated patient care. They also assist with diagnostic tests, teach patients and families how to manage chronic illnesses, and help set up patient care plans.

APRN: Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

Nurses with a master's degree in nursing are called APRNs. Their responsibilities often depend on the state where they practice and their specialization. An APRN can take on any of the four nursing roles that follow.

CRNA: Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

Licensed nurses must pass the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist Exam to earn the CRNA credential. In addition to administering anesthesia, the duties of a CRNA often include inserting central lines and epidurals, monitoring a sedated patient, and ensuring proper patient recovery after a procedure.

CNM: Certified Nurse Midwife

To become a CNM, an RN must pass the certification exam administered by the American Midwifery Certification Board. CNMs assist surgeons in C-section deliveries and provide wellness and prenatal care to women.

NP: Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners carry out many of the same duties that physicians perform, including prescribing medication, diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, and creating treatment plans. Some states grant NPs full practice authority, meaning they can practice without the supervision of a physician.

CNS: Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical nurse specialists' responsibilities vary by the facility they work in and the healthcare services offered. They often coordinate and optimize patient care, decide how to allocate staff and resources, and evaluate current practices and alternatives.

How To Get a Nursing Degree

Nurses enjoy several options when it comes to the type of nursing degrees and careers they can pursue. When researching options, prospective students should consider the amount of time they can invest in an academic program, their financial circumstances, and their professional goals. The following section covers degree requirements for common nursing programs and the types of jobs that graduates can pursue.

Different Types of Nursing Degrees: An Overview

The table below presents various certificate, diploma, and degree options for nursing professionals. Generally, the degrees that require the most time and money yield the most responsibility and highest salary potential.

Typical Program Length
Average Salary
CNA Certificate or Diploma 4-12 weeks CNA $30,000
LPN/LVN Certificate or Diploma 1 year LPN/LVN $49,000
ADN 2 years RN $67,000
BSN 4 years
(2 with ADN)
RN $80,000
MSN 2 years CRNA; CNM; NP; CNS $92,000
DNP 2-6 years CRNA; CNM; NP; CNS $101,000
PhD in Nursing 3-6 years Researcher; Professor; Educator $94,000

Which Nursing Degree is Right For Me?

This section outlines different types of nursing programs, the type of students they best serve, and career options for graduates. Requirements for some programs may vary since each school maintains its own curriculum and program objectives.

CNA Certificate or Diploma

Candidates for aCNA certificate need a high school diploma or GED. The program prepares students to perform direct patient care and provides training in areas like first aid, infection control, and general safety.

Career Options:

LPN/LVN Certificate or Diploma

A one-year program, an LPN/LVN certificate serves students who wish to enter the nursing profession without committing to a bachelor's program. Graduates learn how to provide patient care tasks, such as measuring vital signs, administering medications, and tracking medical histories.

Career Options:


A two-year associate degree in nursing prepares graduates to take the NCLEX-RN to become a registered nurse. ADN programs serve students who plan to earn a bachelor's or master's degree later in their career but wish to start working in the nursing field right away. ADN programs usually require students to complete college-level introductory coursework in microbiology, chemistry, psychology, and medical terminology.

Career Options:


Just like an ADN program, abachelor of science degree in nursing prepares students to take the NCLEX-RN. However, employers often give greater responsibilities and higher salaries to BSN-trained registered nurses than ADN-trained RNs.

Career Options:


MSN programs prepare students to become APRNs, such as nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and clinical nurse specialists. An increasing number of accredited schools offer RN-to-MSN bridge programs (for RNs without a BSN degree) and direct-entry MSN programs (for graduates with a non-nursing bachelor's degree).


The following table outlines various nursing specializations and links that provide further detail on each specialization.

  • Adult Geriatric Nurse Practitioner

    An AGNP provides healthcare services to patients ranging in age from adolescence to old age. An AGNP may work as an acute care or a primary care nurse practitioner in settings like hospitals, treatment centers, and physicians' offices.

  • Clinical Nurse Leader

    CNLs work to improve the overall quality and delivery of patient care. Their duties include developing alternative care plans, assessing and minimizing risks, and coordinating healthcare services.

  • Clinical Nurse Specialist

    A CNS maintains strong clinical skills while focusing on education and research. They often craft and implement policies that improve the quality of healthcare practices and services.

  • Health Informatics

    A health informatics specialist uses technology to improve the quality of healthcare services and enhance patient experiences. They help coordinate communication between patients and healthcare providers through electronic applications.

  • Nurse Anesthetist

    Certified registered nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia to patients before medical procedures, monitor patients throughout surgery, and provide care for patients during recovery from a surgical procedure.

  • Nurse Educator

    Certified nurse educators train other nurses while performing research on a variety of healthcare issues. They also design nursing curricula and assess healthcare practices.

  • Nurse Midwife

    Certified nurse midwives help mothers deliver babies safely by monitoring them during the birthing process. They also provide wellness care to women, including family planning, gynecological services, and prenatal care.

  • Nurse Practitioner

    Nurse practitioner programs include advanced coursework in acute care, pathophysiology, health assessment, and pharmacology. Most states allow NPs to provide primary care services without physician supervision.

  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

    A psychiatric nurse practitioner program includes coursework in psychopharmacology, psychiatric mental health disorders, and psychiatric theories across the lifespan. It trains APRNs to function as primary care mental health providers.

Career Options:

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP

Both MSN and DNP programs prepare registered nurses for APRN roles. However, a DNP program provides additional training in several nursing competency areas, such as healthcare policy, evidence-based practice, systems leadership, and health information systems. Considered a practice doctorate, the DNP prepares nurses to work as nurse educators, administrators, and patient care providers.

Career Options:

PhD in Nursing

A Ph.D. in nursing prepares students to conduct research in nursing practice and related disciplines to add to the existing body of knowledge in the field. A Ph.D. curriculum usually includes coursework in quantitative and qualitative research design and methods, scientific perspectives in nursing, and measurements in healthcare research. This degree benefits nursing professionals who wish to focus on academic research as nurse educators.

Career Options:

  • Nursing Researcher
  • Nursing Faculty
  • Health Policy Advocate

Types of Nursing Programs

Nursing programs come in various formats. Prospective students should review the following options to find one that aligns with their needs and goals.

Online vs. Campus Programs

Many accredited colleges and universities offer online nursing programs. Nontraditional students particularly benefit from these programs since learners can often earn their degree while working full time. Many online nursing programs offer asynchronous courses, which give students the flexibility to take classes at their own pace.

Additionally, some schools offer accelerated online nursing degrees that expedite graduation. Online students also enjoy financial benefits. Even if schools charge the same tuition to online and on-campus students, online students often save on commuting and housing expenses.

Accelerated Nursing Programs

Colleges and universities offer accelerated nursing programs that allow students to graduate and pursue nursing careers faster than traditional programs. The amount of time it takes for students to complete an accelerated BSN or MSN degree varies by their academic background and transfer credits.

Nursing Bridge Programs

Nurses often enroll in nursing bridge programs to increase their career options as quickly as possible. For example, many bridge programs can elevate an LVN or LPN to registered nurse status in just 1-2 years. Nurses can often complete the program's internship and practicum requirements in facilities located near them.

Direct-Entry Programs

Direct-entry MSN programs serve college graduates with a non-nursing bachelor's degree. Depending on their undergraduate studies, candidates may need to take prerequisite courses in biology, human anatomy, and chemistry. Prerequisite courses do not count toward the total credits for the degree. Most students can complete a direct-entry nursing program in two years.

Dual Degree Programs for Nurses

Pairing an MSN program with a master's degree in another field often leads to increased professional opportunities and salary potential. Although accelerated dual-degree nursing programs exist, they typically take longer to complete than standalone MSN programs since students must take classes in two different fields.

Joint MSN/MBA Degree

A master of business administration paired with an MSN prepares graduates for top fiscal positions in the healthcare industry, such as chief finance officer and director of hospital operations. Students develop strong administrative skills and financial knowledge through courses on topics such as advanced financial management, leadership in healthcare facilities, and legal financial management.

Joint MSN/MHA Degree

A master of healthcare administration coupled with an MSN prepares graduates for leadership roles in a variety of healthcare institutions. Graduates qualify for positions like clinical nurse manager, advanced hospitalist, and director of hospital administration. Most MSN/MHA programs include courses on topics such as operations management, ethics in healthcare service, and leadership development.

Joint MSN/MPH Degree

Master of public health and MSN dual-degree holders often work as public health nurses, disaster specialists, and public health scientists. They develop healthcare service plans for populations at high risk for diseases and health problems. A typical MSN/MPH curriculum includes courses in population-based public nursing, healthcare program development and evaluation, and evidence-based research.

Joint MSN/MPA Degree

Nurses who want to lead public or nonprofit healthcare organizations benefit from pursuing a master of public administration with their MSN. Coursework typically covers subjects like economic analysis and public policy, health promotion and disease prevention, and health politics and policymaking.