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7 Types of Nursing Degrees

Understanding the types of nursing degrees and their career options is important when you’re hiring nurses for your healthcare facility. Each degree has its own requirements and makes recipients eligible for different nursing positions and duties. Evaluating your facility needs and learning more about different type of nursing degrees helps you decide how to hire.

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Why employers should care about nursing degrees

If you’re hiring for a healthcare organization, having a solid understanding of the nursing ranks and various nursing degrees can help you with the hiring process. Being aware of the types of nursing degrees helps you understand what type of training various candidates have.

All nursing programs include classroom learning and supervised clinical practice, but the depth of knowledge, skills and hands-on clinical experience varies. When you understand the differences, you’re better able to understand the skills and background different nursing staff members have. It gives you a realistic understanding of what tasks you can assign to different nursing roles based on their education.

Knowing about nursing degrees also helps you develop better job descriptions and requirements. For example, LPNs and RNs often have similar or overlapping job duties. Additionally, RNs can have either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Knowing the subtle differences between these degree options helps you choose which type of graduate is best for your needs.

If you need an entry-level employee to provide basic patient care, someone with an LPN diploma might work well. However, if you need someone with advanced skills in a leadership role, an RN with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree is a better fit.

1. Certified nursing assistant (CNA) certificate

While not technically nursing degrees, programs in nursing assistant careers offer an entry-level patient care option for medical facilities. The certificate program generally takes four to 12 weeks to complete, making it a quick pathway to working in the medical field.

The federal guidelines require 75 hours or more of education, including at least 16 hours of clinical training. State requirements may include more hours of coursework or clinical training. Prerequisites to earn a CNA certificate are relatively minimal, usually only requiring a high school diploma.

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) handles basic patient care to support other medical staff. You might hire a CNA if you don’t need another registered nurse, but your current nursing staff could use help with patient care. Some tasks you can assign to a CNA include:

  • Taking patient vitals
  • Recording patient data
  • Providing patient personal care, such as bathing, feeding and getting in and out of bed
  • Dispensing medication in some states, depending on state regulations
  • Preparing rooms
  • Reporting health concerns from patients to nurses

2. Licensed practical nurse (LPN) certificate

Another certificate program is the licensed practical nurse (LPN) diploma, which usually takes 12 to 18 months to complete and is often offered at community colleges. These programs include classroom work and supervised clinical experience.

After completing the coursework, the candidate must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN). LPNs can also earn additional certifications through professional associations in a specific area, such as IV therapy.

An LPN, sometimes called a licensed vocational nurse (LVN), has a little more responsibility than a CNA. State regulations dictate what an LPN can do with and without supervision.

For example, some states require supervision for administering medication. Review your state’s restrictions to determine whether an LPN can handle the workload of the position you have available.

If you hire someone with an LPN certificate, they can typically handle the following tasks:

  • Taking vitals and monitoring patient health
  • Inserting catheters and IVs, administering medicine and handling other patient care tasks
  • Assisting patients with bathing, dressing and other care tasks
  • Educating patients and families on treatments and at-home care
  • Recording patient information in their medical records
  • Sharing information about patients with nurses and doctors

3. Associate’s degree

To become a registered nurse (RN), applicants need a minimum of an associate’s degree. This two-year degree program prepares graduates to pass the NCLEX-RN exam to qualify for a nursing license.

The prerequisite for this degree program is a high school diploma. People who choose this program often want the higher responsibilities of an RN without a longer degree program. It’s a quick pathway to a relatively high-paying medical position.

When you need staff nurses, graduates with associate’s degrees are a solid choice. They have all the necessary skills to provide routine patient care. An RN with an associate’s degree can handle the following tasks:

  • Reviewing and carrying out patient treatments
  • Documenting all medications, treatments and other patient interactions
  • Educating patients on follow-up care
  • Assisting with exams and other procedures
  • Reporting symptoms and changes to physicians
  • Supervising lower-ranking RNs, as well as LPNs and CNAs

4. Bachelor of science degree

Some RNs opt for a four-year degree. While many healthcare facilities hire staff nurses with an associate’s degree, some prefer a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree for all nursing positions.

To earn this degree, a student can opt to go straight through four years of schooling before entering the nursing field, or they can go back to complete the bachelor of science degree after working in the field as an RN with an associate’s degree. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree also results in qualifications for passing the certification exam.

There are a few program options for earning a BSN, depending on the candidate’s position, including:

  • Traditional path: This option involves going straight through the four-year degree program and doesn’t require any previous medical experience. The recipient completes all four years consecutively before taking the required exams and earning RN licensure.
  • LPN-to-BSN: Someone with an LPN certificate can go back to school to complete the BSN degree, regardless of whether they have experience in the field as an LPN. They already have a slight head start on the degree because of the LPN certificate, as some of the classes might transfer.
  • RN-to-BSN: This is a similar option for someone who already has an associate’s degree in nursing. RNs who work in the field for some time might decide to finish off their bachelor’s degree to earn a raise or qualify for higher positions. Many of the classes taken to earn the associate’s degree transfer to qualify toward the bachelor’s degree.
  • Second degree: Some people who want to make a career change might already have a bachelor’s degree, so they’ve already finished the liberal arts components of the degree. Those credits can transfer, shortening the time required to earn a nursing degree.

This degree option also prepares RNs for advanced positions, including those with supervisory responsibilities. In addition to required technical skills, these programs incorporate skills that help develop leadership.

Some nurses focus on a specialty area when earning their BSN, which can be beneficial if you’re hiring for a specific department. You might hire a nurse with a BSN for the following positions:

  • Staff nurse
  • Nurse manager
  • Case manager
  • Forensic nurse consultant
  • Legal nurse consultant
  • Public health nurse
  • Clinical research nurse
  • Nurse educator

5. Master of science degree

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree takes another two years beyond a bachelor’s degree to earn. The coursework goes beyond basic nursing to cover the specialty area chosen. MSN students also study leadership, research, policies and other advanced topics that prepare them for more responsibility.

These programs often require an RN license and a minimum amount of work experience as a nurse. In other words, students can’t go directly into a master of science program after earning a BSN. Instead, they have to earn their RN license and work for a year or longer in the nursing field before being accepted into the master’s program.

The advanced study prepares the student for advanced practiced registered nurse (ARPN) duties, which include many of the same things physicians can do. Some states require an ARPN to work with a physician, while others allow them to work independently.

APRNs choose from four main specialties, including:

  • Nurse practitioner (NP): This specialty prepares nurses for duties that are similar to those of a doctor. They can diagnose and treat patients. Most states allow them to order tests, perform physical exams, prescribe medication and counsel patients on their conditions.
  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS): A CNS specializes in a certain area, which might include a certain patient population, treatment type, disease or treatment setting. Just like an NP, they can diagnose and treat patients, much like a doctor.
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM): Considered a primary provider in all 50 states, a CNM provides care for women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. They can also provide wellness care and gynecological exams for all women, and they offer family planning services.
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA): This type of APRN helps administer anesthesia while working closely with physicians. They’re also responsible for watching the patient during recovery and helping with pain management after the procedure. Starting in 2025, all new CRNAs will need a doctoral degree. However, graduates who have already earned a master’s degree to become a CRNA can continue working in the field, so you could still hire one with a master’s degree instead of a doctorate. Some healthcare facilities already prefer CRNAs with a doctoral degree due to the advanced education.

Hiring an APRN can expand the services you offer without hiring an additional physician. For example, if you run a clinic and your current physicians are overwhelmed with patients, hiring an APRN can take some of the pressure off the physicians because they can handle the easier cases.

If you run a busy OB/GYN office, you might hire a certified nurse midwife to offer an alternative to patients who prefer a midwife over an OB/GYN. The CNM can also lighten the patient load for your physicians.

6. Dual master’s degree

Nurses who want to work in leadership or administrative roles might choose a dual master’s degree program. In this option, the student earns two master’s degrees together, typically faster than they would if they earned two master’s degrees one after the other.

One is the Master of Science in Nursing degree, which is just like the stand-alone MSN degree. The other usually focuses more on the business or health leadership aspect of nursing.

Examples of the second degree include a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA). These common combinations prepare the candidate for running a healthcare facility or department.

In addition to working as an APRN, nurses with a dual degree might work in leadership positions, such as a:

  • Nurse manager
  • Clinical manager
  • Hospital administrator
  • Nursing home administrator
  • Director of nursing

7. Doctoral nursing degrees

The highest possible nursing degree is a doctoral degree, making all types of doctoral specialties terminal nursing degrees. They are usually either research-focused or practice-focused, depending on what type of career the participant wants to pursue. Program participants sometimes need to earn an MSN degree before going on to the doctoral program.

Many participants are already licensed as APRNs, but some nurses choose to earn a doctoral degree instead of a master’s degree to become an APRN. It typically takes two to five years to complete the doctoral program, depending on the specific type of degree.

The three main options for a doctoral nursing degree are:

  • Doctor of nursing science (DNS): This degree focuses on research and is often used as a pathway to a career as a researcher, administrator, analyst or nurse educator. It’s a less common option than a PhD.
  • Doctor of nursing practice (DNP): This practice-based option often leads to executive positions in healthcare or nursing. Study focuses on clinical leadership.
  • Doctor of nursing philosophy (PhD): The PhD is another research-based doctoral degree that leads to positions as researchers or nursing professors at universities.

Deciding which nursing degree to require

It can be challenging to know which nursing degree you should require for upcoming vacancies. Use these steps to help you decide:

  1. Evaluate your current staffing to determine what type of nurses and nursing degrees are represented in your staff. Determine how well they’re meeting your patients’ needs.
  2. Identify gaps in your current workforce. Where do you need more support? Perhaps you just need help with basic patient care and exam room prep, which can be handled by a CNA or an LPN. If you need more advanced patient care, someone with a BSN or an APRN might better fit your needs.
  3. Look at projections, and anticipate upcoming changes. If you expect your patient load to change for any reason, anticipate what the influx of new patients might need and which type of nurse can best meet those needs. If you have an aging staff and are expecting lots of employee turnover soon, prepare for hiring to replace those staff members.
  4. Set your hiring budget. Progressively higher nursing degrees also tend to mean progressively higher salaries. Choosing someone with a higher degree gives your facility a higher skill level, but ensure your budget can handle the higher wages.
  5. Get feedback from your current staff to see what type of help they see as the most urgent need.

FAQs about types of nursing degrees

What is the best nursing degree?

The best types of nursing degrees depend on your needs as an employer. All nursing program options have a purpose in the healthcare field. It depends on what duties you need your new nursing professional to handle. An associate or bachelor of science degree is a common option for general bedside nurses. If you need advanced nursing skills or are hiring for a supervisory role, candidate’s with a bachelor’s or master’s degree are often a better match. Consider not only your current needs but also future needs to hire someone who can advance within your company.

Do nurses need a degree to get licensed?

A nursing degree is required to practice as a nurse. Licensing requirements include having a degree from an accredited institution and passing appropriate exams. The type of nursing degree your new hire has dictates what they can do. If they have an LPN degree, they might be limited as to the tasks they can perform unsupervised based on state guidelines, while an APRN with a master’s degree can do almost anything a doctor can do.

Does an RN with a bachelor’s degree earn more than one with an associate’s degree?

RNs with a bachelor’s degree typically earn a little more than nurses who only have an associate’s degree. The BSN also opens up additional job opportunities, which come with a higher salary. If you plan to hire a BSN for a staff nurse position, prepare to offer slightly more to stay competitive. Researching the starting pay in similar healthcare facilities in your area helps you set competitive salary ranges.

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