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Choosing a Nursing Degree: ADN, BSN, MSN, or DNP

Choosing a Nursing Degree: ADN, BSN, MSN, or DNP

Nursing is a vast practice that covers a lot of different certifications, specialities, and degrees. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting all levels of nurses to see employment increases between 14 to 36% from 2016 to 2026, now is a great time to start your career as a nurse. A major part of this increase can be attributed to the Affordable Care Act and the resulting increase in insured Americans that need adequate medical care. Shortly after the passing the ACA, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine put forth a call for 80% of nurses to hold at least a BSN by 2020. Since then nursing degrees, especially RN to BSN degrees and accelerated BSN degree programs have boomed. The same is true for MSN degrees and DNP degree programs that similarly address calls for a more educated nursing workforce. But with so many nursing degree options and certification paths, how do you know where to start? That’s where this post comes in. In this post, we will review the general curriculum, certifications, and job prospects for nurses at the associates, bachelors, masters, and doctoral levels.

What Can I do with an Associates in Nursing?

If you are looking to enter the field quickly, or need to juggle a busy schedule with school, an associates in nursing (ADN) degree could be your first step towards starting a nursing career . Many associates nursing degrees are jointly operated as Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) certificate programs. Registered Nurses (RNs) are also required to have at least an associate’s degree in nursing, but more places of employment are starting to require their RNs to have bachelor’s degrees. Since associates nursing degrees take 2 years or less, ADNs are a popular option for those starting out their careers. Typically, ADN curriculum includes a general introduction to nursing, human anatomy, basic nutrition, and health courses. Some ADN programs also work to prepare students to take RN certification exams.

With an associates nursing degree, you can become a Certified Nursing Assistant. CNAs often work in nursing homes and generally assist patients with bathing, dressing, moving around, eating, and grooming. CNAs make a median annual wage of $24K. Most CNAs go on to become LPNs and RNs, both of which can be fulfilled with associates nursing degrees, but across the nation many more of these types of nurses are earning bachelor’s degrees, often required through their place of employment. For LPNs, the most common other nursing certification gained at the associate’s degree level, the median annual salary for LPNs is $40K. LPNs work in a variety of settings and are responsible for checking vital signs, providing medication, administering injections, and filling out medical charts. Most LPNs report changes to RNs, and often go on to earn bachelor’s degrees in order to move into better paying nursing positions.

What Can I do with a Bachelor’s in Nursing?

If you are looking for more job security and ready to enter a 4 year program, you might consider a bachelor’s in nursing degree. At the bachelor’s level, there are several options for those interested in nursing. One option is to complete a 4 year BSN program. In these programs, students take general education courses, as well as general science and nursing classes. Another popular option is for graduates who have already earned a bachelor’s degree who enter an accelerated BSN program (typically around a year in length) that focuses only on nursing courses. Typical curriculum covered in these programs, as well as the RN to BSN program we’ve separated out below include: clinicals, ethics, nursing practice, pharmacology, public health, maternity and reproductive health, mental health nursing, and ambulatory care.

With a BSN, most graduates become Registered Nurses (RNs). RNs usually work in hospitals or at medical clinics. All RNs must have a license from their state’s board of nursing and typically must renew that license regularly. RNs assess patient health problems and needs, develop nursing care plans, maintain medical records, advise patients on health maintenance, and administer care to ill, injured, and convalescent patients. The median annual salary for RNs is $61K. However, that varies depending on other certifications the nurse may have like critical care or pediatric certifications. RNs often move up into advanced positions through obtaining additional certifications and experience to become Emergency Room RNs or Operating Room RNs. RNs can also go on to gain additional degrees to become nurse anesthetists or nurse practitioners.

A Note on RN to BSN Programs

Due to the popularity of RN to BSN degree programs, we’ve broken them out into their own section. As mentioned earlier, an associates nursing degree is all the education required to take the RN certification exam. However, national nursing organizations and many employers, especially hospitals, are requiring their RNs to hold BSNs. Because this is a recent push, many RNs are finding themselves needing to attain a BSN in the middle of their career. For that reason, RN to BSN programs have developed all across the nation. Most are online RN to BSN degree programs designed to meet the hectic schedule of most RNs. Typically, RN to BSN degree programs are accelerated and take less than two years to complete. In some cases, credit from your ADN or work experience may be applied. Often these programs are academically rigorous with few breaks along the way. However, these programs set up RNs to earn more money, maintain their current employment status, and advance into managerial positions.

What Can I do with a Master’s in Nursing?

Master’s of Nursing degrees are often sought out by RNs looking to move up in their careers. For that reason, many are online MSN degree programs that allow for full time or part time enrollment to meet the need of their busy nursing students. At the master’s level, nursing degrees usually offer a variety of specialty areas that prepare students for certifications like the Advanced Practice Registered Nursing (APRN) and other more specific areas of study. MSN students often must choose a focus area like gerontology, emergency nurse practitioner, family nurse practitioner, midwifery, neonatal, pediatric, or women’s health. Each concentration area will have its own certification at the conclusion of the MSN degree.

Most MSN degree holders obtain certification as APRNs. APRNs usually fall into four categories depending on the specialization taken in their nursing degree program: nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse practitioners. Each specialty includes expanded responsibilities for patient care with only minimal supervision by doctors. APRNs typically must identity patient needs, perform exams, order tests, and in some cases, write prescriptions. While there will be variety in income based on specialty and location, the median annual salary for APRNs is $90K. Most APRNs will gain additional responsibilities or pay through experience, but are often considered to be in the most advanced positions in their field. In order to have more earning potential, APRNs might gain additional certifications or specialities, or enter doctoral programs to become Nurse Practitioners.

What Can I do with a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

While there are several options at the doctoral level, most nurses enter Doctor of Nursing Practice programs, or DNPs. Like MSN degree programs, many DNP degree programs are designed to accommodate working students and often use a hybrid or blended format of online coursework and hands-on clinicals. As with many doctoral programs, DNPs usually allow students to take certain specialties like health systems, population health, or anesthesia. Regardless of specialty, most DNP degree programs include courses on health policy, ethics, and law, major research components, health leadership and communication, complex health systems analysis, and advanced courses in nursing and medical practice.

Perhaps the most common career path for DNPs is to become a nurse practitioner or NP. General NPs make a median annual salary of $88K, but that varies depending on speciality and location. NPs work cooperatively with physicians and often provide the same traditional medical care as doctors. They often serve patients of all ages and are a patients’ first point of contact in the healthcare system. Based on current trends in the field of nursing and initiatives made by national nursing associations, it is projected that nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, and advanced practice nursing specialists will soon be required to hold DNP degrees so now might be the time to enter a DNP degree program.