What Degree Do You Need to Be a Nurse? Laying Out Your Options

illustration of different credentials next to nurses

Many consider nurses the backbone of healthcare. The public trusts nurses more than other professions—rating them as having high ethical standards for the last 17 years, according to the Gallup Ethics Poll.1 They’re in demand, they can work in a variety of settings, and best of all—they make a tangible difference every day.

With all this in mind it’s easy to see why you might be seriously considering a nursing career. But as you’ve started researching nursing related roles and credentials and the alphabet soup (LPN, RN, DNP, CNS, BSN, CNA) that comes with them, things can get confusing fast. You just want a simple answer for what education it takes to become a nurse—and we can help spell it out.

A few things you need to know first

What makes answering this question tricky is the fact that there are several types of nurses with varying levels of education needed for these roles. The most common types of nurses, and likely what most people imagine when they think of a nurse, are registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs).

Additionally, there are also advanced practice nurses like nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists and clinical nurse specialists. Throw in the not-quite-nursing role of a nursing assistant and you’ve got full slate of roles with varying levels of education needed to fulfil them.

Breaking down the different types of nursing credentials

What degree do you need to be a nurse? Read on to get a more in-depth breakdown of where the different types of nursing credentials fit into the nursing career landscape.

Certified nursing assistant training

While not technically a nurse, a nursing assistant position is one way to dip your toes into the healthcare field with a relatively smaller upfront investment. CNAs help patients with personal care duties like bathing, feeding and taking vital signs. Though it might not be the most glamorous work, CNAs are needed in all sorts of healthcare facilities including hospitals, outpatient clinics, and especially nursing homes or long-term care facilities. Patients in nursing homes or long-term care facilities often have limited mobility, dementia, and need frequent check-ins and help with basic tasks.

Though these positions don’t technically require a credential, becoming a certified nursing assistant does require candidates to complete of a short educational program and pass a state competency exam which allows those that pass to use specific titles like CNA (certified nursing assistant or certified nursing aide) and apply for corresponding positions.

If you’re curious about gaining real world nursing experience as a CNA, learn more about what the job entails in our article, “What Is a CNA? The Perfect First Step for Aspiring Nurses.”

Practical nursing diploma

A practical nursing diploma is another great education option for would-be nurses who don’t have years to invest in full-time education. A Practical Nursing diploma can be earned in as a few as 12 months, though the exact timing for studying, applying and earning licensure can vary depending on the individual’s schedule and the program.2

This option prepares students to take the NCLEX-PN exam and work as a licensed practical nurse or as a licensed vocational nurse in Texas or California. Though they work in tandem with an RN, they have an expanded scope of practice compared to CNAs. They’re prepared to change dressings, insert catheters, keep patient records, monitor vitals, and educate patients on medications and treatments.

If you’re looking for a short time-to-competition, but don’t necessarily want to become a registered nurse, becoming an LPN may be perfect for you. Learn more about the demand for LPNs and how you can help fill it in our article, “Why LPNs Are Still In Demand (And What It Means for You).”

Associate’s Degree in Nursing (Professional Nursing)

Here’s the stage where things can start to get confusing—the degree options that lead to becoming a registered nurse. You can be an RN with an Associate’s degree, Bachelor’s degree and even a Master’s degree.

Both the common paths of earning an Associate’s Degree in Nursing or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing will prepare you for a registered nursing career, but there are several notable differences. Since an associate’s degree requires fewer credits, ADN nurses generally complete their education sooner than BSN nurses.

Registered nurses conduct patient assessments, create care plans, administer medications and treatments, and educate patients and families about treatments and follow-up steps. ADN nurses learn all these skills and the science behind them while attending classes and performing labs. They also refine their skills in real-life by completing clinicals, usually in a hospital setting.

Once they graduate, they can apply to work in a variety of settings and specialties, though BSN nurses may have a leg up on ADN nurses when it comes to applying to specialty clinics or departments. 

But if an ADN nurse does want to take on a leadership role or move into a BSN-nurses-only specialty, their experience and associate’s degree make earning a BSN a smooth transition with an RN-to-BSN program.

Think this could be the right fit for you? Find more reasons to consider an ADN in our article, “Becoming a Nurse: Why an Associate’s Degree in Nursing is Right for You.”

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Like an Associate’s Degree in Nursing, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree prepares students to become registered nurses. So why opt for this route? For one, BSN graduates are generally qualified for larger variety of job titles. Additionally, BSN students take more courses that dive into the “why?” behind the duties of a nurse and also touch on subjects that help prepare them for clinical leadership roles. These courses encompass subjects like emerging healthcare technologies, global health, public health and the influence of law and policy on healthcare.

Another factor to consider when weighing your options at the registered nursing level is the recent push some state policymakers and employers are making for hiring more nurses with a BSN. In a 2010 report on the future of nursing by the Institute of Medicine recommended that bachelor-degree nurses make up at least 80 percent of the nursing population by 2020.3 Many employers and states are following suit—even if it’s not a requirement for all RN positions right now. For example, legislators in New York recently passed a bill requiring all nurses within the state to earn a BSN within 10 years of licensure unless they’re grandfathered in.

Between a broader base of knowledge and the opportunities to further specialize, it’s clear earning a Bachelor of Science in nursing has many benefits. Learn more in our article, “BSN Nursing: 5 Benefits to Earning a Bachelor’s Degree.”

Master of Science in Nursing

A Master of Science in Nursing can take registered nurses to the next level of nursing education and practice. An MSN can bring a nurse greater earning power, higher qualifications to apply to more jobs and a greater sense of satisfaction at work.

When it comes to deciding on an MSN program, your choice depends heavily on what job title you’re aiming for. For example if you want to become a Director of Nursing or CNO, you may want to consider pursuing an MSN with an emphasis on leadership and administration. If you’ve always wanted to work in the OR as a nurse anesthetist, you’ll need a specialized MSN program. Or if you have a passion for educating the next generation of nurses, you should enroll in a MSN program focused on nursing education. With specialized MSN programs, you could also become a certified nurse midwife, clinical nurse specialist or work in public health.

Many MSN-level nurses are interested becoming nurse practitioners (NP). Future NPs often enroll in MSN programs that focus on preparing graduates to work as NPs within a particular medical specialty that can include anything from mental health to orthopedics to primary care.

The nursing profession is in need of highly educated nurses to continue to move the profession forward and educate the next generation of nurses. Find more reasons for pursuing a nursing graduate degree in our article, “5 Signs You Should Consider Earning an MSN degree.”

Which nursing path is right for you?

Whether you see yourself working as a nurse on the hospital floor, in the OR, as a nurse educator in the classroom, a nurse executive in the boardroom or as a researcher in a lab, the key is to identify your strengths, interests and goals and pursue the degree that helps you get there.

With a wide range of nursing titles and the expected nursing shortage, it’s likely you will find an in-demand nursing position you’ll love. Start brainstorming with our article, “Top 25 Types of Nurses Employers Are Looking to Hire.”

1Gallup, Nurses Again Outpace Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics, [accessed January, 2020] https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx
2Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
3Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health [accessed January, 2020] http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing-Leading-Change-Advancing-Health.aspx

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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