Types of Nursing Degrees and Levels Explained | A Beginners Guide to Your Nursing Career

Nurses typically get to help patients feel well. They often provide patients with clear communication as they prepare for medical procedures. Skilled nurses may help calm nervous patients and their families. Yet the role of a “nurse” may mean many things. Nurses and nursing professionals have many different degree levels and career paths to consider. Here are some of the certificates, diplomas, and degrees that may all lead to a nursing career.

Certificate or Diploma

A CNA, or Certified Nursing Assistant is one nursing degree level and may be the first step in a nursing career path. CNAs typically have basic patient care skills. This certificate or diploma aims to trains someone on how to provide basic care for patients. CNAs may often provide help with activities of daily living. They may transport patients and clean areas where medical care is given.

Who is it for?

CNA diplomas and certificates may work well for people who need to jumpstart a career in nursing care. It typically requires no degree. Nursing assistants may start with just a high school diploma and certification program completion.

Length of Time

CNA programs are typically available in community colleges and technical schools, and some high schools offer these education programs. It may take  between four and 12 weeks to complete. Many programs require at least 75 hours of classroom instruction and clinical education.

What could you pursue with this certificate?

CNAs may work in a number of fields. Some typical roles and responsibilities include:

  • Working in senior care centers
  • Cleaning and bathing patients
  • Helping with toileting, dressing, and other activities of daily living
  • Positioning and transferring patients who are confined to wheelchairs or beds
  • Measuring vitals
  • Helping with feeding and meals for patients
  • Recording health concerns
  • Reporting health needs to nurses or doctors
  • Dispensing medication

What could you earn?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the median annual pay for nursing assistants in 2019 was $29,640. Those who were in the bottom 10 percent earned less than $21,960. Those in the top 90 percent earned over $40,620

LPN/LVN Certificate or Diploma

LPN or Licensed Practical Nurse is another nursing degree level and is a certificate level available to nursing professionals. It may also be called a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN), but refers to the same basic certificate. LPNs and LVNs typically work in healthcare settings, including residential care facilities, hospitals, and doctor’s offices.

Who is it for?

LPN/LVN programs are typically for those who want to kickstart a career as a nurse, but want to move beyond the nursing assistant role. A practical nursing certificate could opens the door to more patient care roles.

Length of Time

To become an LPN or LVN, you must complete a state approved nursing program. While each state varies, many of these programs require one year to complete.

What could you do with this certificate?

LPNs and LVNs work in many settings. They may be asked to: 

  • Monitor patients and take vital signs
  • Give basic patient care
  • Change bandages
  • Discuss care with patients
  • Listen to patient needs and concerns
  • Keep patient records
  • Keep patients comfortable
  • Help with activities of daily living
  • Report to registered nurses and doctors

What could you earn?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the median annual wage for LPNs and LVNs in 2019 was $47,480. The top 90 percent earned over $63,360, while the lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,560.

Associates Degree in Nursing

The first level of degree typically available for nursing is an Associate Degree in Nursing. An ADN typically opens the door to become a Registered Nurse.

Who is it for?

Students who wish to work as a Registered Nurse (RN) and who want to launch their careers could consider an Associates Degree in Nursing.

Length of Time

An ADN program generally takes approximately two years to complete.

What could you do with this certificate?

Students who earn an ADN may be able to take the Registered Nurse examination to pursue a career as an RN. The ADN coursework typically opens the door to entry level nursing positions. These nurses may:

  • Assess the condition of patients and observe their medical condition
  • Record medical histories and symptoms
  • Administer treatments and medications
  • Create care plans for patients
  • Operate medical equipment
  • Collaborate with doctors for patient care
  • Help patients understand home care
  • Perform and analyze diagnostic tests
  • Help with direct patient care under the oversight of a doctor

RNs typically work in hospitals, long term care facilities, medical offices, and other locations where skilled nurses are needed.

What could you earn?

The median annual wage for registered nurses according to the BLS is $73,300. RNs with an associate’s degree tend to be on the lower end of the pay scale. The BLS indicates the lowest 10 percent of wage earners in this field earned less than $52,080 per year. Those in the highest 90th percentile earned over $111,220, but those tend to be RNs with additional training beyond the ADN.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing, or BSN, is the next level of degree for RNs. There are several routes to take to earn a BSN. Some nursing students may start their education with this goal, earning a traditional BSN degree as their first degree. Others may start as an LPN, then pursue an LPN-to-BSN program. Others may become an RN first, then pursue an RN-to-BSN program. Finally, some may get BSN as a second degree after attaining a degree in another field first.

After finishing the coursework for a BSN degree, students may need to take and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. This is typically the final step in attaining RN licensure and starting a nursing practice.

Who is it typically for?

Nurses who are looking to enhance their careers could earn a BSN for higher earning potential and leadership roles. Nurses with a BSN and RN licensure are often the ones considered for administrative or teaching roles.

Length of Time

A BSN typically takes four years to complete. Nurses who already have an ADN may add an additional two years of education to complete their bachelor’s degree.

What could you do with this certificate?

With a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, you may be able to perform all of the tasks of an RN. In addition, you may be considered for:

  • Nursing administration roles
  • Roles in hospitals where a BSN is required
  • Teaching positions
  • Nursing consulting positions
  • Nursing research positions

What could you earn?

The BLS does not break down income differences between nurses with associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. The annual median wage for all RNs is $73,300. Nurses who have a bachelor’s degree are more likely to be in the highest 90th percentile, which has an average wage of $111,220.

Master of Science in Nursing

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a degree that typically lands between a BSN and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Many MSN students focus on a clinical concentration area, such as pediatrics or women’s health. Graduates of these nursing programs may work as an advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs.

Who is it for?

The MSN program may be a stepping off point on the path to a doctor of nursing degree.

Length of Time

It typically takes two to three years to complete a master’s degree in nursing. This is in addition to the bachelor’s level education and clinical experience.

What could you do with this certificate?

An MSN is necessary for careers as:

  • Nurse practitioners
  • Certified Registered Nurse anesthetists
  • Nurse educator
  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Certified nurse midwife

What could you earn?

The pay of a nurse with an MSN depends largely on where they are employed. According to the BLS, the annual median wage for nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists in 2019 was $115,800. Those in the top 90th percentile earned over $184,180, and those in the lowest 10th percentile earned $82,460.

Joint Master’s Degree in Nursing

Some schools may offer a joint master’s degree in nursing programs that pair an MSN with a master’s degree in another field, such as business or health administration. Nurses who are interested in administrative roles rather than clinical roles may find this path helpful.

Who is it for?

Nurses who want to work in policy making, community health groups, administration, or management may wish to consider a joint master’s degree in nursing program. It may save time, as some courses may overlap, while helping the nurse earn more than one credential.

Length of Time

Joint master’s degree programs may take two to three years to complete.

What could you do with this certificate?

The doors opened to a nurse with a dual master’s degree depend on the second degree earned. Some options include:

  • MSN/MHA: Director of Nursing
  • MSN/MBA: Chief Nursing Officer
  • MSN/MBA: VP of Nursing
  • MSN/MPH: Manager in Community Health Organization

What could you earn?

The income possible with a dual master’s degree in nursing depends on the role the nurse fills. According to the BLS, those who get jobs as medical and health services managers earn a median annual wage of $100,980 a year in 2019. Those in the top 90th percentile earned an average of $189,000. Those in the lowest 10 percent earned less than $58,820.

Doctoral Degree in Nursing

The highest level of degree possible in nursing is a doctoral degree in nursing. A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is considered a terminal degree  in the field of nursing. Doctoral degrees are the  most advanced degrees available in the nursing field.

Who is it for?

A doctoral degree in nursing is for those who may want to earn a terminal degree in the field. Advanced practice nurses often choose this degree to open the many doors for their careers. It may work well for nurses who wish to practice fairly independently or who may want to concentrate in a field like midwifery or anesthetics.

Length of Time

A DNP program typically takes between three and six years of nursing school study, depending on the level of education the nurse currently has. A BSN-to-DNP program may take longer than an MSN-to-DNP program.

What could you do with this certificate?

DNP degree holders may serve as nurse practitioners. They may perform many of the roles a doctor would perform, but  typically serve under a doctor. They may also serve as clinical nurse specialists.

What could you earn?

The BLS indicates nurse practitioners earn a median annual wage of $115,800.Practitioners that hold a doctoral level degree are more likely to be in the top 90th percentile, which earned over $184,180 in 2019. Those employed as nurse anesthetists earned the highest average of $174,790. Hospital settings had the highest annual median wages, with $122,420 in 2019.

Nursing Education Degree Levels and Career Paths

Nursing is typically a varied career that has many different levels. Often, nurses may start their careers with just certification, then advance through the different levels of education as they are also working. Here is a typical career path for a nurse who starts at the beginning and works through to the terminal degree:

Career Paths for Certificate Programs

Certified Nursing Assistant

  • $29,640 median annual wage in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Many start with a high school diploma and state approved certification program.
  • Certs may be completed in dual enrollment in high school.

Career Paths for Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)

  • $47,480 annual median wage in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Many have a high school degree and a certification program.
  • Certs typically take one year to complete and require a nursing exam.

Career Paths for Associate’s Degree Programs

ADN Registered Nurse

  • $52,080 for the lowest ten percent in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires an associate’s degree
  • Many may earn the degree in two years

Career Paths for Bachelor’s Degree Programs

BSN Registered Nurse

  • $73,300 median annual pay in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires a Bachelor of Science
  • Many typically take four years to complete

Health Services Managers

  • $100,980 median annual wage in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires a BSN or similar degree
  • Many typically take four years to complete and require work experience in healthcare

Career Paths for Master’s Degree Programs

Nurse Midwife

  • $105,030 median annual wage in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires an MSN minimal degree
  • Many may complete with two to three years of graduate level education

Nurse Practitioner

  • $109,820 median annual wage in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires an MSN degree
  • Many may complete with 2 to 3 years of graduate education

Nurse Anesthetists

  • $174,790 median annual wage in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires MSN degree
  • Many may complete with 2 to 3 years additional education

Career Paths for Doctoral Level Programs

Nurse Practitioner

  • $184,180 for the highest ten percent in 2019 as per BLS.
  • Requires a DNP for this level of pay
  • Many may complete with 3 to 6 years of doctoral study
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