A nursing career always looks so simple in the movies—stick a patient with a needle, take their vitals, save their life and move on to the next patient.
This should come as no surprise, but Hollywood tends to glamorize and oversimplify, especially when it comes to the details of a career as complex as nursing.
As you’ve likely discovered in your research, a nurse is never just a “nurse” — a nurse can be a licensed practical nurse (LPN), registered nurse (RN), nurse practitioner (NP) as well as any number of specializations that come with their own set of potentially perplexing abbreviations and acronyms. Similarly, there's no such thing as an "rn degree". The truth is that RNs can hold various levels of nursing degrees: an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN), a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), or even a PhD in Nursing.
So how do you know which degree in nursing you should pursue?
We’ve already covered the LPN versus RN debate, now let’s explore RN versus BSN. It should be noted that this isn’t really an apples to apples comparison; registered nurse is a job title while BSN is a degree option commonly required to be a RN. Even so, this remains a confusing topic for those unfamiliar with the field, so let's take a closer look at the difference between RN and BSN.
RN vs. BSN: Education requirements
The first thing you should know is that becoming a registered nurse means passing the NCLEX exam. There is no way around it.
To be eligible to sit for the NCLEX you must first earn either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The former requires completion of a 21-month program at a career-focused college. The latter is generally a 4-year commitment up front but results in a higher academic credential—something hospitals across the country are seeking in greater numbers.
In the end, the outcome is essentially the same—you can still become an RN without earning a BSN.
The major difference is the path and time commitment required to become an RN. You can go straight to the job market as an ADN-RN or you can further your education with a BSN degree. If you initially decide on going the ADN route but eventually want to earn the higher academic credential, you can work towards the higher credential in an RN to BSN program, which is available online and in as little as 12 months.1
RN vs. BSN: Job types
Well this ought to be simple—if you have a nursing degree, you’re going to be a nurse, right? Yes, but there’s more to it.
RNs perform the typical nursing duties that are most commonly portrayed in movies and on TV – they chart patient symptoms, operate medical equipment, educate patients on illness and work as part of a medical team, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
But having a BSN under your belt provides a greater variety of job options. A nurse with a BSN may do the same things as an RN, or they may choose to work in public health or be a nurse educator. Public health nurses generally educate communities on health issues, while nurse educators prepare the next generation of LPNs and RNs.
RN vs. BSN: Job outlook & salary
You may already know that nursing is in high demand. In fact, the BLS projects jobs for registered nurses will increase at the faster-than-average rate of 15 percent through 2026. But you’re probably wondering what amount of education you’ll need to be eligible for one of these in-demand positions. To answer that, we used real-time job analysis software to examine more than one million nursing job postings from 2016. The data helped us identify the preferred education level of employers who are seeking nurses.2
Here’s what we found:
- Post-secondary or Associate degree (65 percent)
- Bachelor’s degree (43 percent)
- Graduate or professional degree (10 percent)
- High school or vocational training (3 percent)
The observant part of you may be thinking, ‘Hey! That adds up to more than 100 percent!’ This is likely explained by job postings that list both Associate's degree and Bachelor’s degree in their educational requirements, resulting in a double count. No matter how you slice it, this analysis shows that a RN with an Associate’s degree is qualified for around 65 percent of available registered nurse jobs, while a nurse with a BSN qualifies for those plus the Bachelor’s degree-level jobs.
So, how much does an RN make? When it comes to salary, an RN is an RN—the 2016 median pay for RNs was $68,450, according to the BLS.3 An RN with a BSN can expect to earn slightly more than RNs with an Associate's degree, but perhaps the bigger opportunity for higher earning potential comes in the form of the specializations or managerial roles that become available further down on the career path of a BSN holder.
RN vs. BSN: The bottom line
By now you should realize it’s not really a matter of RN versus BSN. Becoming an RN is the destination; earning a BSN is one of the routes to reach that destination.
So, which of the degrees in nursing should you acquire? It all depends on your personal needs and career aspirations. Both an ADN and a BSN will have you eligible for RN licensure, but more and more hospitals are pushing for nurses with BSNs.
If you feel earning an ADN is your best option, check out our article, "What Can You Do With an Associate's Degree in Nursing?"
If you'd prefer working straight towards your BSN, learn more in our article, "What is an Accelerated BSN? Your Fast Track to an Advanced Nursing Career."
1Time to complete is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each quarter.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 1,636,839 nurse job postings, January 01 – December 31, 2016).
3Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in Aug. 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.