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

Nurses play a crucial role in helping patients feel well and provide clear communication during medical procedures. Skilled nurses also excel at comforting nervous patients and their families. However, the term “nurse” encompasses various roles, with nursing professionals having different degree levels and career paths to explore. Here are some certificates, diplomas, and nursing degree levels that can lead to a rewarding nursing career. 

Nursing Degree Levels

Certificate or Diploma

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) represents one nursing degree level and serves as an initial step in a nursing career path. CNAs possess essential patient care skills, obtained through a certificate or diploma program that trains them in providing basic care for patients. They often assist with daily living activities, transport patients, and maintain cleanliness in medical care areas. 

Who is it for?

CNA diplomas and certificates are suitable options for individuals looking to kickstart a career in nursing care, as they generally do not require a degree. Nursing assistants can begin with a high school diploma and completion of a certification program. 

Length of Time

CNA programs are commonly offered in community colleges, technical schools, and occasionally in high schools. The duration to complete these programs usually ranges from four to 12 weeks. Most programs mandate a minimum of 75 hours of combined 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?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for nursing assistants in 2023 was $38,130. For orderlies, it was slightly lower at $30,020. The field of nursing assistants and orderlies is expected to see a 4 percent growth from 2022 to 2032, which is about the average rate for all occupations. 

LPN/LVN Certificate or Diploma

LPN, or Licensed Practical Nurse, is another level of nursing degree available to nursing professionals. It is a certificate-level program that may also be referred to as a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN). LPNs and LVNs often work in various healthcare settings, such as residential care facilities, hospitals, and doctor’s offices. 

Who is it for?

LPN/LVN programs are ideal for individuals who aspire to start a nursing career and progress beyond the nursing assistant role. Obtaining a practical nursing certificate can open doors to more advanced 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 2023 was $59,730. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,670, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,870. 

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?

Aspiring students aiming to become Registered Nurses (RNs) and embark on their career journey may opt for 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?

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for registered nurses in May 2022 was $86,070. RNs with an associate’s degree typically fall on the lower end of the pay scale. The BLS reports that the lowest 10 percent of wage earners in this field earned less than $63,720 per year. On the other hand, those in the highest 90th percentile earned over $132,680, but they usually are RNs with additional training beyond the ADN. 

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is the next level of degree for RNs. There are several routes to earn a BSN. Some nursing students may start their education with this goal, earning a traditional BSN degree as their first qualification. Others may begin as an LPN and then pursue an LPN-to-BSN program. Some might become an RN first and then opt for an RN-to-BSN program. Additionally, some individuals may pursue a BSN as a second degree after already attaining a degree in another field.  

Upon completing the coursework for a BSN degree, students may need to take and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. This exam typically represents the final step in obtaining RN licensure and commencing 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 provide a specific breakdown of income differences between nurses with associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. However, the annual median wage for all RNs is $81,220. Nurses holding a bachelor’s degree are more likely to fall into the highest 90th percentile, where the average wage is around $129,400. 

Master of Science in Nursing

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an intermediate degree that falls between a BSN and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). MSN students often specialize in clinical concentration areas, such as pediatrics or women’s health. After completing these nursing programs, graduates may work as advanced practice registered nurses (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 salary of a nurse with an MSN greatly depends on their place of employment. According to the BLS, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists had an annual median wage of $125,900 in May 2022. Those in the top 90th percentile earned over $208,080, while those in the lowest 10th percentile earned $91,250. 

Joint Master’s Degree in Nursing

Certain schools may provide joint master’s degree programs in nursing, which combine an MSN with a master’s degree in another field, like business or health administration. This option could be beneficial for nurses who aspire to take on administrative positions rather than clinical roles. 

Who is it for?

For nurses interested in pursuing careers in policy making, community health groups, administration, or management, a joint master’s degree in nursing program could be a valuable option. This type of program can save time, as certain courses may overlap, while also enabling the nurse to earn multiple credentials simultaneously. 

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 earning potential of nurses with a dual master’s degree in nursing varies based on the role they take on. According to the BLS, individuals working as medical and health services managers earned a median annual wage of $104,830 in 2022. Those in the top 90th percentile earned an average of $209,990, while those in the lowest 10 percent earned less than $64,100. 

Doctoral Degree in Nursing

The most advanced level of education attainable in nursing is a doctoral degree in nursing. Known as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), it is considered the terminal degree in the field of nursing. Doctoral degrees represent the highest level of achievement available in the nursing profession. 

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 $129,480. Practitioners that hold a doctoral level degree are more likely to be in the top 90th percentile, which earned over $126,260 in 2023. Those employed as nurse anesthetists earned the highest average of $212,650. Hospital settings had the highest annual median wages, with $136,050 in 2023. 

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

  • $38,130 median annual wage in 2023 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)

  • $59,730 annual median wage in 2023 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

  • $86,070 for the lowest ten percent in 2023 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

  • $86,070 median annual pay in 2023 as per BLS.
  • Requires a Bachelor of Science
  • Many typically take four years to complete

Health Services Managers

  • $110,680 median annual wage in 2023 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

  • $129,650 median annual wage in 2023 as per BLS.
  • Requires an MSN minimal degree
  • Many may complete with two to three years of graduate level education

Nurse Practitioner

  • $126,260 median annual wage in 2023 as per BLS.
  • Requires an MSN degree
  • Many may complete with 2 to 3 years of graduate education

Nurse Anesthetists

  • $180,840 median annual wage in 2023 as per BLS.
  • Requires MSN degree
  • Many may complete with 2 to 3 years additional education

Career Paths for Doctoral Level Programs

Nurse Practitioner

  • $126,260 for the highest ten percent in 2023 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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