As nurses complete various degrees throughout their academic careers, their job opportunities may expand and evolve to match their growing knowledge and competencies. To strive for advancement, current and aspiring healthcare professionals benefit from understanding the different types of nursing degrees and how they can prepare individuals to make a difference in the field.
The Need for Nursing by the Numbers
The country is in the midst of a historic nursing shortage. Those entering the nursing field have the unique opportunity to minimize the impact of this ongoing crisis. They will play a key role in shaping healthcare’s future in the process.
The Nursing Shortage
A lack of nurses is a problem with large long-term ramifications. For instance, the world could be short 13 million nurses by 2030. Domestically, job opportunities are projected to grow significantly between now and 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS projects 60,700 openings for licensed practical nurses/licensed vocational nurses (LPN/LVNs) per year during the time period, plus 194,500 annual openings for registered nurses (RNs) and 29,400 annual openings for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).
Several factors are driving the nursing shortage. One factor is the aging population, which increases the demand for care. It’s a significant element, as 21.4% of Americans were 65 and over in 2020. Healthcare reforms that expand access to care are also a contributing factor, as are the shortage of primary care providers and the high number of nurse retirements. Nurse burnout is also a point of concern: 34% of nurses are planning to leave their current roles by the end of 2022. The pandemic accelerated this issue, particularly in rural areas.
New registered nurses can help mitigate issues caused by the nursing gap in both rural and non-rural areas. Nurse practitioners can also use their knowledge and competencies to help close the primary care gap in the United States.
A Look at the Different Types of Nursing Degrees
Nursing degrees offer a natural progression to advance your nursing career. Each progressive degree provides nurses with the knowledge and competencies needed to climb toward more advanced roles in the healthcare field and make a greater impact on healthcare quality and patient outcomes.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certificate
A CNA certificate prepares individuals to become a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. Some states require the certificate to pursue the profession. Earning this credential requires a high school diploma or GED, as well as 75 hours of training or more, depending on the state.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Certificate or Diploma
An LPN certificate or diploma prepares individuals to become a licensed practical nurse. The role requires the individual to be licensed in their same state of practice. It also entails one year of training. High schools, community colleges, trade schools, and hospital programs can offer this certificate.
Earning an associate degree prepares individuals to perform health assessments, administer vaccines and IVs, dress wounds, and develop patient plans. It entails two years of study and leads to RN licensure in their state of practice. An associate degree can be completed as an initial step toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree (BSN)
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is considered the preferred entry level to registered nurse practice by healthcare institutions and professional organizations. Earning a BSN degree typically entails four years of study and can lead to working in more complex environments, such as community and public health, acute and critical care, long-term care, and outpatient settings.
There are two types of BSN programs a person can complete. Unlicensed, traditional undergraduate students can pursue a BSN, while RNs with an associate degree can enter an RN to BSN program.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree prepares a nurse for advanced nursing practice and leadership.
The entry-level MSN program is designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing who desire to become licensed as registered nurses. Registered nurses who have a BSN degree can pursue a variety of MSN degree programs with different areas of role specialization, including nurse educator, nursing informaticist, executive nurse leader, and advanced practice registered nurse.
Doctor of Nursing Practice
A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the preferred entry level to practice for all APRN clinical roles (clinical nurse specialist, nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, and nurse midwife). A DNP prepares individuals to be systems change agents who identify and address clinical practice problems to improve healthcare quality and patient outcomes. The DNP is the highest degree for nursing practice. In addition to APRN concentrations, DNP programs may prepare graduates for careers in organizational and executive leadership, health policy, or nursing informatics. RNs with only a BSN can earn this degree via a BSN-DNP program, while nurses who already have an MSN can earn the degree in a post-master’s DNP program.
To earn a post-graduate certificate, an individual must possess an MSN or DNP and hold certification in one or more APRN roles. A post-graduate certificate expands the scope of practice for APRNs into new patient populations and/or practice settings through additional courses and clinical experiences. These can include certificates such as family nurse practitioner (FNP), pediatric nurse practitioner-primary care (PNP-PC), pediatric nurse practitioner-acute care (PNP-AC), psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP), and adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP), as well as many other APRN roles.
PhD in Nursing
A PhD in Nursing is a doctoral degree in nursing that prepares nurses for research to advance the discipline of nursing science. PhD programs are rigorous and include coursework in research methods, statistics, and leadership. The degree can be earned by a nurse with a BSN, MSN, or DNP. PhD-prepared nurses commonly work as nurse researchers at healthcare institutions, for insurance companies, and in higher education as nursing faculty.
Different Degrees, Different Career Paths
With each different type of nursing degree earned, the opportunity to pursue more advanced roles in the nursing field increases. While the scope of practice changes as nurses move up the ladder, the core goal remains: quality patient care and outcomes.
Certified Nursing Assistant
CNAs aid in basic care under supervision of nurses and healthcare staff. They also monitor a patient’s health status. Additionally, they assist in key activities of daily living, such as eating, bathing, dressing, grooming, toileting, and movement. The BLS lists the 2021 median annual salary for the role at $30,290.
Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse
An LPN/LVN handles supervised duties similar to CNAs. They also record vital signs, administer medications, and follow healthcare plans as designed by a healthcare provider or RN. The profession’s 2021 median annual salary was $48,070, per the BLS.
RNs assess patients’ conditions and record their symptoms. They also administer medications, aid in diagnostic testing and analysis, and develop and facilitate plans for patient care. According to the BLS, the 2021 median salary for registered nurses was $77,600.
Nurse educators provide nursing education in a variety of settings to both student nurses and those practicing in healthcare settings. Nurse educators may be involved in teaching nursing curriculums, instructing prospective nurses in various healthcare subjects, and supervising students’ clinical lab work. They may also provide unit-based or institution-level education for a variety of healthcare providers. Payscale states the estimated 2022 median annual salary for the profession was $79,000.
Nursing informaticists create and oversee electronic documentation and record keeping systems. They also oversee system architecture to ensure efficiency, oversee system security, and ensure compliance with confidentiality policies and mandates. The estimated 2022 median annual salary for the role, per Payscale, was $85,000.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)
APRNs perform physical exams, conduct and order diagnostic tests, diagnose various health problems, build healthcare strategies to promote patient wellness, and analyze patient conditions to ensure treatment effectiveness. The BLS lists the role’s 2021 median annual salary at $123,780.
The APRN umbrella covers several advanced practice roles including nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, and nurse midwife. Within those roles, APRNs are often certified to practice in a specific patient population and/or practice setting. For example, AGPCNPs specialize in providing primary care for adult and gerontological patients. Another example is primary care PNPs, who specialize in primary care for children from infancy to early adulthood. PMHNPs, meanwhile, specialize in the treatment of patients across the lifespan dealing with mental or behavioral health challenges and practice in a variety of settings.
Nurse executives can include chief nursing officers (CNOs), healthcare organizational or corporate leaders, or academic deans. One example of a nurse executive, a CNO oversees the operational and administrative procedures of a facility’s nursing department. They develop strategies to streamline nursing processes and manage a facility’s nursing resources. They also ensure compliance with federal, state, and local regulations and policies. Payscale estimates the role’s median annual salary in 2022 to be $135,000.
Explore What Types of Nursing Degrees Are Available
The need for nurses at all levels can encourage individuals to take that first step toward a career in nursing. This step can transform into a journey that combines education and professional growth, culminating in a meaningful career with ample opportunity for advancement.