Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Nursing stands as a cornerstone in the expansive realm of healthcare professions in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) foresees a significantly faster-than-average growth in the number of nursing positions compared to other careers. Aspiring nurses, however, face a multitude of paths to enter this dynamic field.

Navigating the Landscape: Types of Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Embarking on a career in nursing involves making informed decisions based on your aspirations. Whether you're eyeing a certification or considering a master's degree, understanding the available options is paramount.

1. CNA Certification: Gateway to Immediate Patient Care

If diving into patient care straight out of high school aligns with your goals, pursuing a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certification might be your ideal starting point. CNAs play a crucial role in aiding individuals with physical or mental disabilities in various settings, such as assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

Certification Requirements:

  • Completion of a state-approved training program (4 to 12 weeks).
  • A set number of supervised clinical hours.
  • Typically requires a high school diploma or equivalent.

CNA Salary (2021):

  • Median: $30,290 per year or $14.56 per hour (BLS).

Who Should Opt for It?

  • Perfect for those seeking immediate patient care experience without a substantial time or financial commitment.


  • Use CNA certification as a stepping stone toward earning a nursing degree.

2. LPN/LVN Certification: Front-Line Patient Care with Added Responsibilities

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) or Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) operate at the forefront of patient care, offering assistance to doctors and registered nurses. Typically employed in hospitals, nursing homes, or long-term care facilities, LPNs and LVNs perform tasks beyond those of CNAs, often including supervisory roles.

Certification Requirements:

  • Completion of a state-approved training program.
  • Classroom learning in nursing, biology, and pharmacology.
  • Completion of the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN).

LVN and LPN Salary (2021):

  • Median: $48,070 per year or $23.11 per hour (BLS).

Who Should Opt for It?

  • Ideal for those committed to a nursing career, aiming to start in as little as a year.


  • Specialize with certifications (e.g., IV therapy or CPR).
  • Progress to an LPN-to-RN degree program.

3. Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): Fast-Track to Registered Nursing

For a swift route to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN), an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) proves advantageous. Completed in two years, ADN programs blend nursing coursework with general science and liberal arts studies, qualifying graduates for the NCLEX-RN examination.

ADN Requirements:

  • High school diploma or equivalent.
  • Standardized test scores (SAT or ACT).
  • Passing score on the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) Admissions Assessment exam.

RN Salary (2021):

  • Median: $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour (BLS).

Who Should Opt for It?

  • Suitable for those starting a nursing career or transitioning from an LPN/LVN position.


  • Pursue a Bachelor's degree through an accelerated RN-to-BSN program.
  • Qualify for higher-paying roles and supervisory positions.

4. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): Elevating Opportunities in Nursing

Most entry-level RNs hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Taking around four years to complete, BSN programs enhance clinical skills, opening doors to better-paying jobs and administrative positions in top-tier hospitals.

BSN Requirements:

  • High school diploma or equivalent.
  • ACT and SAT scores, along with interviews.
  • Some programs may require two years of general coursework with a minimum GPA.

Who Should Opt for It?

  • A preferred choice for those seeking diverse opportunities in nursing.
  • Essential for those considering a future master's degree.

5. Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): Mastering Specializations in Nursing

Achieving a Master's degree in Nursing (MSN) unlocks various career paths, including roles as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Specializations range from nurse practitioners to anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists, or certified nurse midwives.

MSN Requirements:

  • Preferably with a BSN, though some schools offer bridge programs for ADN-holders.
  • Typically requires at least a year of clinical experience as an RN.
  • Graduate-level standardized test scores (GRE, MAT, GMAT, or MCAT).

APRN Salary (2021):

  • Median: $123,780 per year or $59.51 per hour (BLS).

Who Should Opt for It?

  • Ideal for practicing RNs ready to advance their careers.


  • Some APRNs pursue a doctorate or PhD in nursing.

6. Joint Master’s Degrees in Nursing: Merging Expertise for Leadership

For those eyeing leadership roles, joint master’s degrees in nursing, coupled with disciplines like Public Health (MPH), Business Administration (MBA), or Healthcare Administration (MHA), offer a strategic advantage.


  • Two to three years of full-time study.
  • Applications to each program separately.

7. Doctoral Degrees in Nursing: Pinnacle of Expertise

At the doctoral level, aspiring nurses can opt for a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Ph.D. in nursing, each demanding three to five years of commitment.

DNP and PhD Requirements:

  • Master’s degree from an accredited nursing program (typically).
  • APRN license for DNP programs.

Who Should Opt for It?

  • Ideal for those aiming to become esteemed leaders in the nursing field.

Weighing Options: Online vs. On-Campus Nursing Degrees

Regardless of the nursing degree pursued, the choice between online and on-campus learning looms large. Both avenues have their merits, and the decision hinges on personal preferences and circumstances.

Online Learning:

  • Increasingly popular for flexibility and value.
  • Study at your own pace.
  • Access to programs nationwide.

On-Campus Learning:

  • Structured schedule and in-person interaction.
  • Utilize university amenities and facilities.

Clinical Experience:

  • Necessary for both, often completed at approved local locations for online programs.

Is a Nursing Degree Worth It?

The pursuit of a nursing degree demands time and financial investment, prompting a critical evaluation of personal career goals and lifestyle. While entry into nursing without a degree is possible, the acquisition of one broadens skills, unlocks new opportunities, and raises earning potential.

Nurse Level

Median Annual Salary (2021)







Nurse Midwife (APRN)


Nurse Practitioner (APRN)


Nurse Anesthetist (APRN)


Remember, many nursing degrees offer bridge programs, allowing progression from a basic certification or degree to a higher level.

Exploring Beyond Nursing: Alternative Healthcare Careers

While nursing stands out as a popular healthcare field, numerous alternative career paths cater to those interested in promoting healthier lives. Consider roles such as medical technicians, public health specialists, healthcare administrators, paramedics, pharmacists, physician assistants, or specialized therapists.

Taking the Next Steps

Dipping your toes into the world of nursing doesn't necessarily mean enrolling in a full program. Experience online nursing courses to gauge your interest, covering topics like vital signs, clinical terminology, infection prevention, or medical emergencies. Ready to delve deeper? Explore healthcare degree programs available through platforms like Coursera.

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