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Different Levels of Nursing Degrees


Nurses with all levels of nursing degrees and experience are in high demand across the country. From those just entering the profession to those with advanced nursing degrees, specializations, and years of experience, passionate nurses can find job opportunities at healthcare organizations nationwide.


With a generation of nurses now retiring, future nurses and nursing leaders can shape their careers by pursuing higher education. By learning valuable skills through clinical practice and an advanced degree program, nurses are able to compete for senior-level roles and influence the future of nursing.

What Are Nursing Degrees?

To become a licensed registered nurse (RN), students need to earn a nursing degree or diploma and pass a licensure examination that proves their competency. While there is no single nurse career path, different standards of education and experience need to be reached for different levels of nurses to practice.


From an associate degree to a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate, each level of nursing degree program provides students with increasingly advanced skills, knowledge, and opportunities for career advancement.

What Are Foundational Nursing Degree Levels?

When beginning a career in nursing, the first level of nursing degree programs provide students with a foundation in nursing practice. They allow students to gain an understanding of the fundamentals of nursing and explore the specializations they may want to pursue. Typically, nursing students choose to begin with either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Associate Degree in Nursing

Nursing degrees all come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Some students choose to pursue an associate degree because it can usually be earned within two years, as opposed to the four years a bachelor’s degree typically takes.


Focused on the practical skills needed for nursing, associate degree programs have fewer broad or theoretical classes than bachelor’s degree programs and can be a way for a student to fast-track their nursing education and quickly begin work as an RN. However, the shorter time frame limits a nurse’s scope of practice and their opportunities to pursue an advanced education further down the line.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A BSN program offers students a level of nursing proficiency and knowledge that allows them to begin their nursing practice or go on to pursue an advanced nursing degree. Typically a four-year program for full-time students, a bachelor’s degree program in nursing provides students with a solid foundation in nursing sciences, introducing them to practical skills as well as the research component of nursing. For RNs that already hold an associate degree, an RN to BSN program can allow them to rise to the BSN level in as little as one year.


While earning a bachelor’s degree may require an additional financial and time investment as compared to earning an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree has multiple long-term advantages.


For many employers, the additional two years of schooling can make a candidate more desirable, indicating that graduates are entering the field with more extensive knowledge. In fact, a growing number of employers require RN job applicants to hold a BSN, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Additionally, earning a bachelor’s degree opens the door to pursuing an advanced degree or specialization, as these programs often have specific prerequisites for prospective students.

Nursing Licenses and Certifications

Whether a student chooses an associate degree or a bachelor’s, aspiring nurses need to complete additional steps to become a registered nurse. For instance, all prospective nurses need to pass a board-approved examination (the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, or NCLEX-RN) to apply for state RN licensure.


While different states have different specific practice requirements, the NCLEX-RN is the standard exam for RNs across the country. Prior to entering nursing practice, nursing graduates should research the licensing requirements in their state. Some states require applicants to pass a criminal background check.


A licensed RN may choose to earn certification in their specialty field from a professional association. Such certifications are optional, but they may be preferred by some employers.

What Are Advanced Nursing Degree Levels?

Reaching the highest levels of nursing requires both an advanced education and a wealth of experience. Earning advanced degrees can allow nurses to take control of their careers by pursuing specialties, competing for senior-level roles, or transitioning into administrative or research roles from hands-on practice. Earning an advanced nursing degree can open the door to more workplace autonomy including the ability to earn full practice authority as a nurse practitioner.


Depending on a nurse’s long-term goals, the two main degree options for higher education are the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Many nurses choose to pursue advanced education to become nurse practitioners (NPs). NPs are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who are qualified to work more independently and provide more complex or challenging care services than RNs.


NP practice requirements vary by state. NP candidates typically need to hold an active RN license, earn an MSN or DNP degree from an accredited institution, and gain national certification from a specialized agency (such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board) before applying for a state APRN license. Some states grant NPs full practice authority, which includes the authority to write prescriptions, order tests and diagnose illnesses, and monitor or manage patients’ illnesses, often without the supervision of a physician.


With a shortage of up to 124,000 doctors projected within 12 years, according to the American Medical Association, skilled nurses able to practice under full practice authority are in high demand to help bridge the gap, creating great opportunities for prospective nursing students and future nursing leaders.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

The next step above a bachelor’s in nursing, an MSN is an advanced nursing degree. Earning an MSN can prepare nurses to become an integral part of their organization. Prospective MSN students have a multitude of specializations to choose from, depending on their goals and the type of master’s degree in nursing they are interested in.


A highly sought after degree, an MSN provides nurses with the ability to build a career based on their specialty of choice, shaping the impact they make in the lives of patients. For instance, individuals who choose an MSN program with a nurse practitioner concentration can pursue NP careers such as the following:


  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP)
  • Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP)
  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP)
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)


Additionally, MSN programs typically have a large research component alongside clinical training and can be a fantastic choice for nurses who are passionate about the research side of nursing. MSN graduates may also advance into supervisory roles.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The DNP is the highest level of nursing education. Like an MSN, a DNP is an advanced nursing degree and graduates have the opportunity to choose a nurse practitioner specialization by enrolling in a DNP-NP concentration program.


A DNP is sometimes preferred by nurses interested in leadership and educator roles. A DNP covers the most advanced theoretical knowledge and practical nursing training and can prepare nurses for supervisory roles in clinical care as well as the legislative or administrative side of nursing. Additionally, many nurses choose to earn a DNP to become nursing professors, professionals currently in high demand across the country.


For many underserved communities, having DNP-level nurses on staff can take a great burden off their healthcare system, providing patients with access to healthcare providers when doctors are unavailable. Additionally, earning a DNP can be instrumental for nurses interested in competing for senior-level or coveted jobs in administration or nursing leadership.

Prepare for a Fulfilling Career in Nursing

Nursing is a field that allows professionals not only to help patients but to explore areas of science and healthcare that they find inspiring. From those who are driven to provide equal access to mental healthcare, to those who want to work with children or specialize in providing dignified care to older adults, nurses have the opportunity to be a positive influence in the lives of their patients and their communities.


As nurses advance through the different levels of nursing degrees and identify the type of care they’d like to provide, investing in further education can be key to finding success. By choosing a reputable program such as any of the online nursing degree programs offered by Maryville University, nurses have the opportunity to gain both an education and practical experience. Find out how Maryville can help you take the next brave step toward a rewarding career in nursing.


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