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What are the Different Types of Nursing Degrees?

By L. Hepfer
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Nursing is a large field, and the people working in it can come from several different educational backgrounds. The most entry-level nurses often hold diplomas or associate’s degrees, while more advanced work typically requires a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree. Different countries have different systems, too. People who are hoping to become nurses should research the options available to them and choose the path that most closely aligns with their goals, their finances, and their time horizon. In most cases, there is an option to suit almost every interested candidate.

Nursing Diplomas

The most basic nursing programs aren’t always degree programs at all since they often end with a certification or a diploma rather than a formal degree. A lot of this depends on jurisdiction, however; some countries count these credentials as degrees, while others see them as simply advanced field training. Many community colleges offer nursing diploma programs, and certification can sometimes also be obtained online. The curriculum usually blends basic book learning on topics like anatomy and simple mathematics with practical hands-on work.

The Certified Nursing Assistant, or CNA, diploma is one of the most popular in this category. CNAs are often referred to as nurse’s aids, and this is in many respects the most entry-level job a person can get in the field. Training often lasts a year, but in some cases can be completed in just a semester or less. A CNA may help a nurse with filing, cleaning, or basic equipment handling, and in hospitals may help make patient beds and schedule treatments. He or she is rarely able to interact directly with patients or handle any bodily fluids like blood or urine samples.

Licensed Practical Nurses and Licensed Vocational Nurses also tend to hold diplomas rather than strict degrees. These professionals can often do slightly more than CNAs, including giving injections and managing basic patient care, but they usually have to answer to or be supervised more advanced nurses or physicians. People often get a nursing diploma as a way to decide if they like the job well enough to go on to get more education.

Associate’s Degrees

The most basic degree program is typically the associate’s degree in nursing, which provides a broad overview education in about two years in most cases. Associate’s degrees prepare nursing students to enter the workforce as generalists, and many graduates find work in hospitals and clinics doing a range of basic tasks. These nurses sometimes choose to continue on and get a more specialized or advanced degree, but not always.

Bachelor’s Degrees

People who start university certain that they want to become nurses often enroll in bachelor’s degree programs, which take about four years to complete. Bachelor’s degrees typically give students in-depth experience in both the theory and practice of patient care, and graduates are often eligible to start work immediately in hospitals or private medical offices. A number of schools offer “accelerated” bachelor’s programs for people who already hold associate’s degrees or who otherwise have a lot of work experience.

The biggest difference between an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree is usually breadth. Courses go farther and deeper in the longer program, and graduates are usually perceived to be more knowledgeable and proficient. This isn’t always the case, as a lot depends on jurisdiction and local custom. Most of the time, though, the more schooling a person has, the more desirable he or she will be and the more responsibility he or she can take on. Nurses with bachelor’s degrees generally outrank those with associate’s degrees or diplomas when it comes to scheduling, job selection, and overall responsibility.

Graduate Work

Many of the most specialized nurses hold master’s of science in nursing degrees, and a few researchers even hold doctorates. Nurse practitioners, who act as primary caregivers in many places, usually hold master’s degrees, for instance. Graduate programs usually give students even more of an opportunity to get experience and build expertise that can help make them more proficient in the field.

It tends to be true that the best paying jobs are held by those with the most schooling. People who specialize in a particular area of nursing, such as nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives, often need graduate degrees to be marketable, but a lot of this can depend on region. In big cities where the competition for jobs is steep, people often need a lot of education to prove their worth, while in rural areas where health care is harder to come by the training requirement is often less rigorous.

Working Through the Ranks

Nursing degrees aren’t usually designed to be a step ladder, which is to say that there are many different ways to break into the profession. Some people start with a diploma, then get an associate’s degree, and later transfer their credits to a bachelor program, but this is by no means required. Lots of people get only a diploma or an associate’s degree and have long and fulfilling careers.

Licensing and Other Requirements

Getting a degree is almost always a requirement for people wanting to work as nurses, but it is rarely the only step. Most local and national governments also insist that nurses and other medical professionals hold licenses or other verified credentials proving that they have not only studied the discipline but also are competent when in comes to actually interacting with patients and administering care. Licensing is usually carried out through a series of exams, and professionals often have to renew their credentials on a fairly regular basis either through re-testing or participation in certain continuing education courses.

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Discussion Comments

By anon331861 — On Apr 25, 2013

I am a physically challenged person with a right leg deformity, although I can walk very well with the help of an aid. I wanted to know if I can pursue any of the nursing degrees. I am a medical graduate in alternative medicine from my home country but my degree is not valid here. I am looking for some course related to the medical field.

By anon323882 — On Mar 07, 2013

All the websites tell me different orders for the levels of nursing. What is the correct order?

By anon129023 — On Nov 21, 2010

I just love this job. I want to achieve my dream in it. Hopefully one day i will.

By GreenWeaver — On Jul 22, 2010

SauteePan- I just want to add that because of the shortage there is in nursing, many colleges and universities are offering an accelerated RN degree which only requires a previous bachelor’s degree in any discipline.

This degree is ideal for the college graduate that is seeking a career change to nursing. Most programs of this type can run from one to two years depending on the school.

A considerable amount of that time will be in a clinical setting receiving hands on experience. Most of these programs are challenging, so anyone considering this type of degree needs to be fully committed.

By SauteePan — On Jul 22, 2010

I just want to add that many experienced RN’s who want to further their careers and go into management often seek a graduate degree.

The MSN or the Masters of Science in Nursing is available at many colleges online. Among one of the better institutions that offer this degree is Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt University was considered by US News and World Report to be one of the best Universities in the United States.

Vanderbilt offers an MSN degree online, but just requires a few things from its candidates. First, the candidate must have at least one year of experience as an RN.

Second, they must have had a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average as an undergraduate student. Lastly, the candidate must also submit satisfactory GRE (Graduate Records Exam) exam scores.

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