levels of nursing degrees


Nursing holds a significant position in the healthcare system due to its critical role in clinical care. Equipped with specialized medical knowledge and skills through different types of nursing degrees, nurses offer compassionate support and expert care to patients in a variety of settings.

This profession requires adaptability and a personalized approach. It has a wide range of specialties and roles.

Each position on the nursing spectrum has its own level of responsibility, specialization, and educational requirements. Whether you're considering starting a career in nursing or seeking to acquire more knowledge to prepare for a leadership role, here are some insights into the various opportunities that the world of nursing offers.

“From home health to trauma nursing, there are over 100 different paths in nursing individuals can choose from. Whether you are interested in providing direct patient care at the bedside, doing clinical research, or reviewing charts for proper resource utilization, there are many avenues in which nurses can impact the health and wellness of individuals and communities.” – Dr. Stacey Malinowski, Assistant Dean


The Vast, Diverse Field of Nursing

Nursing is a vast, complex, and diverse field, offering numerous opportunities for specialization. From entry-level positions that don't require a degree to nursing leadership roles, each nurse plays a vital role in delivering high-quality care and improving patient health. The entire healthcare system relies on the diverse roles of nurses.

Whether it's providing basic care as a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) or making critical decisions for patients as a Nurse Practitioner, nursing offers a flexible and fulfilling career path for people who are passionate about healthcare. There is a right role for everybody – and we hope to help you discover yours.


What Are the Different Nursing Certificates and Degrees?

One of the great things about the nursing profession is that there are roles suited to different nursing education programs. Whether you've earned a high school diploma or already have your master's degree, there is likely to be a nursing role that suits your education and your strengths.

While becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) is the most common entry point into nursing, there are different educational paths that aspiring nurses can take. The most common types of nursing certificates and nursing degrees are:

  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certificate
  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.)


Benefits of a CNA Certificate

If a four-year academic journey at a university isn't an option or a two-year associate degree program seems like too much time to invest, you can still earn a nursing certificate. If you have your high school diploma, you will need to complete a state-approved nurse assistant training program and pass the exit exam to become eligible to practice as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA).

The CNA route is the quickest route to enter the industry. Nursing certificate programs range from four to 12 weeks, and graduates are awarded with the CNA certification.

The curriculum for the CNA certification covers basic nursing skills, anatomy, physiology, infection control, and patient care principles. Like all nursing programs, it focuses heavily on clinical experiences in various healthcare settings to help students develop practical nursing skills.

A nursing diploma program typically takes about one to three years to complete, and it prepares students to practice as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). The curriculum includes coursework in nursing fundamentals, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and patient care across the human lifespan.

Successfully completing a nursing diploma program enables you to take the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN®). Upon successfully completing the NCLEX, you can practice as a Licensed Practical Nurse.


A Closer Look at CNAs

Certified Nursing Assistants are often the first point of contact for patients in healthcare facilities. They provide essential daily care to patients, such as taking blood pressure and checking other vital signs with medical equipment, recording patient medical history, bathing and dressing patients, and assisting with mobility problems. CNAs work under the supervision of registered nurses and LPNs to ensure the comfort and well-being of patients.

As CNAs interact closely with patients, they develop strong relationships based on trust, compassion, and empathy. They not only assist patients with physical tasks but also provide emotional support to patients who may be going through challenging times. CNAs need to have a keen eye for observing changes in patients' conditions and promptly report any concerns to the nursing team.


LPNs have slightly different roles than CNAs with more responsibility

LPNs a greater scope of practice than CNAs. LPNs possess a wealth of knowledge and skills that allow them to provide more comprehensive care to patients.

Working under the supervision of RNs, LPNs can administer medications, monitor patients’ conditions, and provide basic nursing care. They are trained to handle emergencies and can quickly respond to critical situations, providing life-saving interventions until a physician or RN arrives.

To add to their clinical responsibilities, LPNs also play an essential role in educating patients about their conditions and treatment plans. They serve as health advocates, ensuring their patients’ rights are respected and patients’ voices are heard. Licensed Practical Nurses also give clear instructions on medication administration, dietary restrictions and lifestyle modifications, empowering patients to take an active role in their own healthcare.

Both CNAs and LPNs provide essential care and support to patients, but an LPN will have a broader scope of practice. CNAs and LPNs can become RNs if they choose to by advancing their education through an accredited nursing program.


The ADN Offers a Quicker Route to Becoming an RN

For students who want to pursue a quicker path to becoming a registered nurse, they can seek a nursing program such as an associate degree in nursing (ADN). Typically, this type of associate degree takes two to three years to complete and focuses on the essential nursing skills and knowledge needed to provide direct care to patients.

ADN graduates can take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN®) and become licensed RNs, just like BSN graduates.

If you are a licensed RN with an ADN and find yourself interested in moving to a specialized role, you can enroll in an RN to BSN program. This type of academic program can help you lay the educational groundwork for the MSN specialization.


The BSN Nursing Degree Lays the Foundation for Broader Roles and Nursing Specialties

A bachelor of science in nursing helps to prepare nurses for a broader range of other nursing roles. This BSN degree program typically takes four years to complete.

Bachelor's degree in nursing graduates receive a well-rounded education that includes courses in nursing theory, research, leadership, and community health. They also gain hands-on clinical experience in various healthcare settings, allowing them to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills. Earning your BSN will allow you with greater flexibility to choose from dozens of career options.


The Registered Nurse's Role in Healthcare

There is another increase in responsibilities and scope of practice when you compare an RN to an LPN. Registered nurses are highly skilled healthcare professionals who assess patients' needs, develop care plans, and coordinate with other healthcare providers. They administer medications, perform treatments and procedures, and educate patients on managing their health conditions.

RNs work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities. Sometimes, they can work remotely from home or in multiple states as travel nurses. They collaborate with physicians, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals to ensure comprehensive patient care.

Beyond direct patient care, RNs also contribute to healthcare research and policy development. They participate in clinical trials, collect data, and analyze outcomes to improve evidence-based practice.

RNs are also advocates for their patients, ensuring that patients’ rights are protected. They even engage in professional organizations and committees to shape healthcare policies and regulations.

RNs are committed to lifelong learning and professional development. As an RN, you can pursue advanced degrees and certifications to expand your knowledge and skills. RNs specialize in various areas – such as pediatrics, critical care, oncology, and mental health – to provide specialized care to specific patient populations.

A registered nurse's expertise, compassion, and dedication make a significant impact on the lives of patients and their families. In different settings, RNs play an integral role in ensuring the well-being and recovery of individuals. They work tirelessly to provide the best possible care to those in need.


An MSN Prepares You to Specialize

Once nurses have obtained their bachelor's degree in nursing, they can pursue a master of science in nursing. This type of master's degree typically takes two to three years to complete, depending on the specialization.

After completing this step in their graduate education, students then have the option of seeking specialized roles in healthcare, such as nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner, or nurse educator. Nurses with an MSN can also use that knowledge to pursue leadership roles, become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), or seek careers in academia and research.


What Are APRNs?

As nurses gain experience and pursue advanced education, they may choose to specialize in certain areas of healthcare. This decision to specialize allows nurses to develop expertise in a particular field and offer more advanced care to patients. One of the pathways for nurses to specialize is by becoming an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

APRNs are registered nurses who have obtained a master's or doctoral degree in a certain area of nursing practice. This education equips them with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide comprehensive care to patients.

APRNs also can contribute to the advancement of nursing practice through research and evidence-based practice initiatives. They engage in ongoing professional development, staying up to date with the latest advancements in their field. This commitment to lifelong learning ensures that APRNs provide the most current and effective care to their patients.

APRNs can pursue different types of healthcare positions. For instance, they can become:

  • Nurse Practitioners (NPs)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)
  • Certified Nurse-Midwives (CNMs)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs)


Nurse Practitioners

A Nurse Practitioner provides primary and specialty care to patients of all ages. They have the authority to diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medications, and order diagnostic tests. NPs often work in collaboration with physicians, but they can also practice independently in some states.

There are many different types of nurse practitioners, such as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) or Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP). Be sure to explore all the different kinds of nurse practitioner career options – you may be surprised by the variety of opportunities that exist.


Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists

CRNAs specialize in administering anesthesia to patients undergoing surgical procedures. They play a crucial role in ensuring patient comfort and safety. CRNAs work closely with surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare professionals to provide optimal care.


Certified Nurse-Midwives

Certified Nurse-Midwives specialize in providing comprehensive healthcare to women throughout their lifespan, with a particular focus on pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care. A nurse-midwife provides prenatal care, assists in labor and delivery, and offers support and education to new mothers.


Clinical Nurse Specialists

CNSs work in a specific population or healthcare setting. They provide expert clinical knowledge and leadership to improve patient outcomes and promote evidence-based practice. CNSs often work in collaboration with interdisciplinary teams to develop and implement healthcare policies and protocols.


What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

The Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is a more advanced degree for nurses who want to go beyond the basics and really dive into hands-on care, looking after everyone from individual patients to whole communities. Typically, a DNP program can last between four to six years.

DNPs get into more than the basics of running healthcare programs. They also shape the policies that guide them and make a difference in healthcare for larger groups, entire organizations, and the whole healthcare system.

DNP programs focus on advanced coursework in clinical practice, leadership, health policy, and research. A DNP program aims is to prepare nurse leaders to improve patient outcomes and drive innovation in healthcare delivery.

The DNP role focuses on translating research into practice, equipping nurses with the skills to implement evidence-based care and lead quality improvement initiatives. DNPs excel in clinical practice and healthcare administration, contributing to improved patient outcomes and healthcare delivery. They are trained to acquire the necessary skills to lead interdisciplinary healthcare teams, manage complex healthcare systems, and advocate for policy changes that improve patient care.

DNPs can hold a variety of different roles, such as:

  • Healthcare Executive
  • Advanced practice registered nurse
  • Healthcare lobbyist
  • Nurse educator/faculty member


A Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing Focuses on Research and Academics

A Ph.D. in nursing is focused on research and education, and it is the highest academic degree in the nursing field. This type of degree is geared towards those who are interested in conducting original research and contributing new knowledge to the field during a nursing career. It is less about direct patient care and more about diving deep into research, theory, and the science behind nursing practices.

A Ph.D. program also lasts between four to six years. It helps to prepare students for research, education, and policymaking.


The Responsibilities of a Ph.D. Nurse

For nurses seeking the highest level of expertise and leadership in the profession, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Ph.D. in nursing degrees are the summit of nursing education. Both types of degrees are intended to prepare nurses to take on more advanced practice, research, and leadership roles during a nursing career.

The Ph.D. in nursing is a research-focused degree in nursing education, preparing nurses to generate new knowledge and shape the future of nursing through rigorous scientific inquiry. By contrast, a Ph.D. in nursing enables students to explore specific research interests and contribute to the growing body of nursing knowledge.

Ph.D. nurses investigate pressing healthcare issues, develop innovative interventions to medical problems, and contribute to evidence-based practice. These nurses are equipped with advanced research methodologies, statistical analysis skills, and critical thinking abilities, enabling them to conduct high-quality research that addresses the complex challenges faced by the nursing profession.

The Nursing Ph.D. also provides an educational platform for nurses to prepare to become leaders in academia. Graduates of a Ph.D. program often pursue careers as nurse educators, teaching the next generation of nursing professionals. These nurses have the power to influence healthcare on a broader scale, making a lasting impact on the health and well-being of individuals and communities.


Transitioning Between Different Types of Nursing

One of the remarkable aspects of a nursing career is the flexibility it offers. You can transition between different levels of nursing as you gain experience and pursue further education. These transitions help nurses to expand their skills and potentially seek leadership roles in healthcare organizations.

Nurses who pursue advanced degrees and specialize in specific areas of nursing often have more opportunities. They can become leaders in their field, influencing healthcare policies and advocating for the nursing profession.


Choosing Your Nursing Degree and Nursing Path

Choosing a nursing path is a deeply personal decision that should align with your interests, goals, and values. Whether you aspire to work in nursing homes, teach in hospitals, or become a Family Nurse Practitioner or Clinical Nurse Specialist, it is essential to research different types of nursing degrees, consider your strengths and passions, and explore potential career opportunities.

Talking to experienced nurses, shadowing professionals such as licensed practical nurses, nursing assistants, or nursing aides, and seeking guidance from nursing faculty can provide valuable insights into the various nursing paths available to you. You should also consider your long-term professional goals and the level of education and commitment required for each nursing position.

Whatever path you choose, nursing offers a fulfilling career. It combines scientific knowledge, compassionate care, and lifelong learning with a consistent demand, unique flexibility, and a wide spectrum of potential career options.

NCLEX-PN is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.
NCLEX-RN is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.

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