Nursing Degrees and Levels: Which One is Right for You?
There are sooo many ways to become a nurse and even more pathways to advancing your nursing education. From the diploma nursing degrees of the past to today’s PhD and beyond, nursing degrees are as varied as the field itself. But how do you choose which degree path to take for yourself?
We've laid out everything you need to know about the different educational pathways available in nursing.
Nursing Degrees & Levels
- Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
- Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
- Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN)
- Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN)
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
- Ph.D. in Nursing
>> Related: Can you earn a nursing degree online?
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, helps patients with activities of daily living and other healthcare needs under the direct supervision of a Registered Nurse or Licensed Practical Nurse.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
An LPN is responsible for providing patients with essential care, like helping them eat, dress, bathe, etc. They also assist Registered Nurses (RNs) and Doctors.
Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN)
The two-year Associate’s Degree in Nursing is the shortest route to becoming a Registered Nurse.
Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN)
A BSN, Bachelor of Science in Nursing, is a four-year degree in nursing that is one of two degrees available to nurses.
Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN)
Earning your Master of Science in Nursing degree opens the door to an elevated level of opportunity within the nursing field and beyond. The graduate-level degree endows you with both the ability and the credentials to work in clinical and non-clinical settings either independently or as part of a team and to make critical healthcare decisions.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
A DNP is a terminal nursing degree rooted in clinical practice and intended for advanced practice nurse practitioners.
Ph.D. in Nursing
A Ph.D. in Nursing degree prepares you for a science- and a research-focused career spent furthering knowledge that is essential to nurses and nursing education at all levels.
Choosing the Right Nursing Degree for You
The two most basic ways to become a nurse are through either earning a Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) license or as a Registered Nurse (RN) license. Both licenses prepare you to perform nursing duties, but the two licenses are different.
It’s important you understand that while there are different degree programs you can choose, becoming a nurse is ultimately about what type of license you have–you can have a Bachelor’s degree, for instance, but you will still need to pass the NCLEX to earn an RN degree. We'll cover the differences between the following primary types of nursing degrees:
>> Related: What Degree Do You Need to Be a Nurse?
LPN vs RN in Nursing
An LPN license provides a nurse a functioning license in order to provide nursing, but in many states, an LPN is more limited in the care he or she can provide than an RN. An LPN, for instance, my not be able to deliver certain types of medications, so their work opportunities may be more restricted.
An RN degree provides a nurse to perform the full scope of nursing care to patients. In some states, such as California, LPNs are also called LVNs, or Licensed Vocational Nurses, so you may see the terms LPN or LVN used interchangeably.
There are two ways to become an LPN:
- Diploma-based program: Awards you an LPN degree based on clinical hours rather than just classroom hours.
- Associate’s degree program: Also awards you an LPN degree upon completion.
LPN Degree Time commitment
Becoming an LPN can be a desirable choice for many looking to fast-track into the nursing field, because you can achieve your LPN degree sometimes much faster than an RN degree. In some cases, you can get your LPN degree in as little as 12 to 15 months if you choose a diploma based-program. WIth an associates-degree program, you will complete your associate’s degree in about 18 to 24 months. And if you want to continue your education, often times, a diploma program will not count towards future degree pathways, so it’s worth considering right away if you know you will want to advance your education down the road.
LPN Degree Cost
The cost of an LPN degree will vary, especially based on if you choose a diploma or an associate degree program. The most affordable way to become an LPN may be through a local community college and in fact, choosing an online program may cost you considerably more, so be sure to do your research before choosing a school. For instance, a community college program in Michigan advertises one LPN option at only $108/billable hour.
LPN Job Responsibilities
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), LPNs work under the direction of Registered Nurses and doctors, so technically speaking, an LPN may be under the supervision of an RN, depending on where he/she works. For instance, many LPNs are employed at long-term care facilities, where they provide direct nursing care on a team that is headed by an RN. LPNs still have supervisory and direct patient care responsibilities, but are more limited than an RN.
LPN Job outlook
The BLS notes that the job outlook for LPNs as of 2019 is 12%, which is faster than the average career.
Where LPNs Can Work
The BLS explains that most LPNs work full-time in a variety of settings, usually nursing homes, extended care facilities, hospitals, or physicians’ offices or even in private care settings.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average pay for an LPN in the United states is $46,240 per year or $22.23 per hour, which is less than an RN can make, and considerably less than advanced practice nurses can make.
Is an LPN Right For You?
Choosing whether to become an LPN or RN ultimately depends on your career goals. Becoming an LPN may offer you a faster way to enter the nursing field and earn income right away, but it may place you in a more limited role and you will have to go back to school through an LPN to RN bridge program to open up more opportunities. Additionally, some workplaces may prefer to hire RNs, so it may limit your career prospects as well.
Becoming an LPN is not always necessarily cheaper or faster than becoming an RN, so it’s worth looking thoroughly into both degree programs before deciding. If an LPN program will take just as long and cost just as much as an RN program, it may be worthwhile to choose the RN route to secure employment and have a baseline to expand your career later down the road if you would like. And, finally, you should consider pay, as RNs do make considerably more upon graduating than LPNs do, with the opportunity for even more career and salary growth.
If you decide on an RN license, the second decision you will have to make for your nursing degree is if you would like to choose a diploma RN program, an Associate’s Degree in Nursing program (ADN), or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) program.
>> Related: BSN Degree Guide
Each program will ultimately lead you to receive your RN license, which you can only earn once you have completed an approved state program and passed your NCLEX test. So, no matter which degree path you choose, you will be a Registered Nurse, but the education behind your license will be different.
ADN vs BSN vs Diploma RN
The appeal of an associate’s degree for many people looking to become a nurse is that it can be a more affordable and faster route to nursing, especially if you aren’t looking to do anything besides direct patient care.
However, the official position of the American Association of College of Nurses is to recognize a Bachelor of Science in Nursing as the minimum education requirement for nursing professionals, so it is encouraged that anyone seeking a nursing career consider a BSN degree.
And although diploma RNs do still exist, it is not recommended that any new professionals looking to get into the nursing field directly pursue a diploma program, as the educational requirements for nursing professionals have changed and may change even more in the future.
ADN and BSN Degree Length
In general, you can expect to earn an associate’s degree in around two years and a Bachelor’s in around four or five. However, this can vary quite a bit, depending on if you go to school full or part-time and what kind of program you choose.
For example, if you choose a wait-list associate’s degree program, you can wait several years before even entering the program, so in actuality, an ADN could take even longer than a Bachelor’s. Some student prefer waitlist programs because they are not as competitive or require as high requirements, such as a certain GPA, in order to enter in the program, but if your goal is to enter into the program as fast as possible, it may be worth trying to improve your grades to boost your chances of getting into a competitive program instead. Additionally, if you are on an ADN waitlist and wait too long, you run the risk of your prerequisite courses expiring, which would mean you would have to start those classes all over again.
ADN vs BSN Cost
Getting a BSN will most likely cost you more, since you will take more classes, but the basic cost per credit hour will be very similar.
ADN vs BSN Job Responsibilities
Because ADN and BSN nurses are both RNs, the basic job responsibilities will not differ, although BSN nurses may have the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities, or move into more advanced positions.
ADN vs BSN Job Outlook
The BLS notes that the job outlook for RNs as of 2019 is 15%, which is faster than the average career. BSN-prepared nurses are expected to be more in-demand than associate’s degree-prepared nurses, however.
Where Do ADN and BSN Nurses Work?
Both Bachelors and associate-degree prepared nurses will work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, home healthcare services, nursing care facilities, outpatient clinics and schools, or serve in the military.
Salary Differences Between ADN and BSN Nurses
While the average pay for an RN in the United States is $71,730 per year or $34.48 per hour, holding a Bachelor’s degree does provide you with more potential to earn more money than an associate’s degree prepared nurse. Some hospitals may offer you a higher starting wage, for instance, which could give you higher earning income potential over the course of your career. Additionally, having a BSN could give you the opportunity to move more easily into higher-paying positions, or go back to school to advance your career.
Is an ADN or BSN Right For You?
Choosing an associate’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree ultimately is a personal choice that you will have to make for your professional career, but leading nursing organizations do recommend that anyone who is looking to enter the nursing field consider having a BSN as a basic minimum requirement.
Many employers prefer to hire BSN nurses, you have more opportunity to earn more money or advance your career, and in some cases, it may be the same time commitment to earn a BSN or ADN.
However, earning your ADN will prepare you to sit for the NCLEX exam to become an RN and that degree route does make sense if you have the chance to complete the program more quickly and start to earn income as you pursue an eventual BSN degree too.
Nurses also have the option of pursuing a Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. There are several ways to get your MSN, from directly entering into an MSN program after completing an undergraduate program, to pursuing your MSN part-time while working as an RN, to choosing an RN-MSN program.
>> Related: MSN Degree Guide
There are two types of MSN degrees:
- A non-clinical MSN degree on its own is more suitable for nurses who are looking for a management degree or to become a nurse educator or looking to advance their educations,
- An MSN advanced practice nursing degree (APRN) is the type of degree you would choose if you’re looking to become an advanced practitioner, such as a Certified Nurse Midwife or Nurse Practitioner.
Nurses who wish to become Nurse Anesthetists will be required to receive a Doctorate as part of the updated guidelines for Nurse Anesthesiology programs. The most important thing you need to know, however, is that you can get an MSN without having an advanced practice nursing (APN) degree, but in order to have an advanced practice nursing degree, you will need at least, a Master’s, if not higher.
MSN Degree Requirements
A typical graduate MSN degree will take you around two to four years, depending on the type of program and if you choose to enroll full or part-time. Costs can vary widely, but you can expect to spend a minimum of $30,000 for a Masters's degree.
MSN Job Responsibilities
Your responsibilities with a graduate nursing degree will depend on if you choose an MSN degree or an APRN degree. Without an APRN, a Masters-level prepared nurse will not be eligible to sit for an additional licensure, but may have expanded responsibilities at work that could include supervisory actions, research, or other high-level nursing actions. With an APRN degree, however, you will be eligible to sit for additional licensure in your speciality field and in some states, can act as an independent practitioner and even open your own clinic or practice.
MSN Job Outlook
The BLS lists the job outlook for APRNs as much higher than average, at 64%, which is even higher than regular RNs.
Where You Will Work With an MSN Degree
Most APRNs will work full-time in hospitals, physicians’ offices, and clinics, according to the BLS.
Salary Differences Between RN and MSN Degree Nurses
MSN degrees don’t always lead to “huge salary increases, although, in general, you can expect to make more with an MSN degree. If you’re a floor RN with an MSN degree that is not an advanced nursing practice degree, you may not see an immediate change in your pay.
You can expect pay increases if you move into higher-level nursing positions as a result of your Master’s degree, such as in management, supervisor, or research and academic-oriented roles. Where you will really see an increase in your pay, however, is through an advanced nursing practice role.
The BLS notes that APRN nurses earn an average of $113,930 per year, or $54.78 per hour.
Is An MSN Degree Right For You?
For nurses who want to take on a specialized track or pursue a management position, earning a master’s degree can really help set them apart. In fact, for some advanced nursing practices - like Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist or Family Nurse Practitioner, a master’s degree is a requirement. Becoming an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) can lead to salary increases, but Master’s programs are intense and challenging, and usually take about two years to complete.
Adding specializations to your nursing career through advanced education can truly open up a lot more career doors and give you additional job security. By weighing the pros and cons of each degree type and thinking about your personal goals, you can choose a program of study that’s right for you.
Nurses looking to advance their education even further can do so by earning their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.
>> Related: DNP Degree Guide
DNP Degree Requirements
DNP programs are extremely competitive as a result of the growing number of positions requiring an advanced degree. Those considering pursuing a DNP should do everything they can to ensure that they meet the basic general requirements for admission of the schools to which they are applying.
Direct-entry DNP Program Requirements:
- Current U.S Registered Nurse (RN) license in good standing in the state that you will be doing your clinical practice in
- Minimum of one year of nursing experience, with many programs requiring a minimum of two years
- Completed application with all appropriate fees and required document, which may include a resume, a personal statement, and official transcripts
- Completion of prerequisite courses
- Minimum GPA
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal interviews
DNP Degree Cost
The average total cost of an in-state, online, accredited DNP program is $27,745, with the most affordable costing under $12,000 and the costliest adding up to over $60,000 in 2017.
DNP Job Responsibilities
In 23 states, DNPs are able to to run private practices independently. If you are interested in operating a medical practice with complete autonomy, a DNP degree may be the right choice for you.
DNP Job Outlook
DNP-degreed nurses can work in any environment in which hands-on healthcare is needed, as well as in healthcare leadership and policy roles. More and more healthcare systems are actively seeking DNP-degreed nurses to fill positions as nurse managers and nurse leaders in order to qualify for Magnet Hospital status.
Where You Will Work With a DNP Degree
DNPs have a wide range of environments in which they can work, including all of the traditional and non-traditional settings where you will find registered nurses.
Salary Potential for DNP Degree Nurses
According to a 2018 Salary Survey conducted by Lippincott Solutions, nurses who earned their DNP earned an average of $7,000 more than nurses who earned their MSN. DNP-degreed nurses earned a national average of $97,000.
Is a DNP Right for You?
If your long-term goals including earning significantly more income, earning the respect of your colleagues and community, and playing a key role in the quality of the healthcare that people receive, then pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree could be the right choice for you!
Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, NY-based freelance writer who specializes in personal finance, parenting, and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, WomansDay.com, Parents, CreditCards.com, and more.