Understanding the Types of Nursing Degrees

What's the difference between a nursing diploma, ADN, and BSN? Learn about the types of nursing degrees and your career options with different certifications.
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In 2020, over 5 million nurses worked in the U.S., according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). That number includes registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and nurse practitioners (NPs). But each of these nursing career paths requires a different education.

Today, a bachelor's in nursing (BSN) represents the most popular type of nursing degree for incoming nurses.

What are the different nursing degrees? The earning potential and career path for a prospective nurse depend on their nursing degree. Our guide explores the types of nursing degrees and outlines information about salary and specializations.

Nursing Diploma or Certificate

Nurses can enter the profession with a diploma or certificate. Programs offer several options that train nurses for different career paths.

A nursing assistant diploma program, which typically takes 4-12 weeks, trains learners for entry-level nursing jobs like certified nursing assistant. Prospective nurses can also train as practical or vocational nurses with 12-month diplomas or certificates. Finally, many hospital training programs offer nursing diploma programs that train registered nurses. These two-year programs prepare nurses for the NCLEX-RN exam and licensure.

After earning a nursing diploma or certificate, nurses can apply for jobs or pursue higher nursing degrees.

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    Nursing Assistant
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    Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $30,290

Nursing assistants help patients with daily activities, including eating, moving, and bathing. They take vital signs like blood pressure, help patients reposition, and record health issues to discuss with registered nurses. Certified nursing assistants hold state-issued credentials.

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    Licensed Practical Nurse
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    Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $48,070

Licensed practical nurses, called licensed vocational nurses in some states, provide basic nursing care by changing bandages, checking vital signs, giving medications, and performing other tasks. LPNs work closely with other nurses and doctors to monitor patients and record their conditions.

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    Registered Nurse
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    Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $77,600

Registered nurses work in many specialty areas where they care for patients, administer treatments, and operate medical equipment. RNs may perform diagnostic tests, educate patients on managing medical conditions, and work with physicians. They need two years of education in a diploma program.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An associate degree program can prepare nurses for the NCLEX-RN exam and licensure. Around 38% of newly licensed nurses complete an ADN program, according to a 2020 survey by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

Incoming ADN nursing students sometimes need prior healthcare experience to apply. Some programs offer an LPN-to-RN bridge program for licensed practical nurses. Completing an ADN program typically takes two years, which includes training in anatomy, clinical rotations, and specialized coursework.

After earning an ADN, registered nurses gain clinical experience to move into specialties. They can also enroll in an RN-to-BSN program to continue their nursing education.

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    Home Care Nurse
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $70,660

Home care nurses typically care for aging or chronically ill patients in their homes. They provide nursing care, including giving medication, conducting health assessments, and evaluating vital signs. Home care nurses also educate patients and their families about their care and treatment.

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    Pediatric Nurse
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $60,820

Pediatric nurses work with children from infancy through adulthood. They conduct health assessments, communicate with patients and their families, and work with pediatricians. Pediatric nurses work in doctor's offices and hospitals. The role requires exceptional communication skills and patience.

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    Oncology Nurse
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $76,630

Oncology nurses treat cancer patients. They may administer chemotherapy, place IV lines, and educate patients on their symptoms. Oncology nurses also work with oncologists in inpatient and outpatient settings. The specialty requires compassion and strong patient care skills.

More ADN Specialties

  • Family medicine: Family practice nurses care for patients of all ages in primary care settings.
  • Public health: Public health nurses focus on disease prevention and wellness.
  • Geriatric care: Geriatric nurses care for elderly patients and specialize in age-related conditions.
  • Hospice care: Hospice nurses provide end-of-life care.

Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Compared to other types of nursing degrees, more newly licensed nurses hold a BSN. In 2020, the NCSBN reported that 42% of new RNs hold a BSN. In addition, about 80% of healthcare employers prefer to hire RNs with a BSN degree, according to 2021 data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Earning a BSN degree takes four years for students with no prior nursing experience. Current RNs can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program to advance their education. These programs take as little as one year to complete. After earning a BSN, nurses can consider graduate programs.

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    ICU Nurse
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $72,900

ICU nurses, also known as critical care nurses, work in intensive care units. They provide an advanced level of care for critically ill patients, including by operating specialized medical equipment. ICU nurses often bring clinical experience to their roles, along with training in critical care.

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    ER Nurse
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $73,540

ER nurses work in emergency rooms, where they provide care to patients with emergency injuries or medical conditions. As the first healthcare providers to interact with most ER patients, these nurses assess each patient's needs and provide timely treatment.

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    Cardiovascular Nurse
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    Average Annual Salary (July 2022): $187,520

Cardiovascular nurses, also known as cardiac nurses, specialize in patients with heart conditions. They work with cardiologists, administer medications, and monitor progress. Cardiovascular nurses work in acute and surgical settings.

More BSN Specialties

  • Medical-surgical: Medical-surgical nurses primarily care for patients undergoing surgery.
  • Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation nurses care for patients with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
  • Labor and delivery: Labor and delivery nurses work with OGBYNs and help patients during labor and delivery.
  • Ambulatory care: Ambulatory care nurses work in outpatient settings where they care for and educate patients.

Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN)

In 2020, 15% of registered nurses held a master's degree, according to the NCSBN. A master's degree helps nurses increase their salaries and move into specialized roles. For example, advanced practice RN roles like nurse practitioner require a master's degree or higher, as do many administrative and educational roles.

To enter an MSN program, nurses typically need a bachelor's degree. RN-to-MSN programs admit nurses without a BSN. During an MSN program, nursing students gain advanced training and complete clinical rotations in their specialty areas. Most MSN programs take 1-3 years to complete. Attending an affordable MSN program can help nurses increase their return on investment.

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    Clinical Nurse Leader
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $84,340

Clinical nurse leaders care for patients and act as leaders in their organizations. They introduce new policies and procedures to improve patient outcomes. Clinical nurse leaders also research gaps in patient care and train nurses on the best practices.

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    Nurse Practitioner
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $100,830

Nurse practitioners provide primary and specialty care in hospitals, doctor's offices, and other settings. They can diagnose medical conditions, order diagnostic tests, and prescribe treatments. Nurse practitioners specialize in areas like family care, pediatrics, and acute care.

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    Clinical Nurse Specialist
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $94,300

Clinical nurse specialists are advanced practice RNs who manage nursing care and improve patient outcomes. They educate nurses on patient care, analyze outcomes, and develop evidence-based policies. They also work directly with patients.

More MSN Specialties

  • Nurse educator: Nurse educators train nurses in clinical procedures, often in a hospital or nursing school.
  • Nurse administrator: Nurse administrators oversee teams of nurses and manage departments.
  • Mental health nurse practitioner: Mental health nurse practitioners diagnose and treat mental health issues.
  • Acute care nurse practitioner: Acute care nurse practitioners treat acute conditions in urgent care and emergency settings.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Only around 2% of registered nurses hold doctorates, according to the NCSBN. As the terminal degree in nursing, a doctorate leads to advanced practice and leadership roles. Nurses can choose between a Ph.D. in nursing or a doctor of nursing practice. The Ph.D. emphasizes research and academic training, while the DNP prepares graduates for advanced clinical and leadership roles.

Many nurse practitioner programs offer DNP pathways. Most BSN-DNP programs take 3-4 years to complete, while MSN-DNP programs typically take 1-2 years.

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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $98,510

Nurse-midwives provide prenatal and delivery care for patients. They recommend family planning methods, deliver babies, and assist patients during postpartum recovery. Nurse-midwives may also work alongside surgeons during emergency C-sections. They can either hold an MSN or DNP.

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    Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
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    Average Annual Salary (June 2022): $94,200

Pediatric nurse practitioners act as primary care providers for children. They conduct wellness visits, treat chronically ill children, and prescribe medications. Pediatric nurse practitioners draw on their communication, patience, and assessment skills. They can hold either an MSN or DNP degree.

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    Nurse Anesthetist
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    Average Annual Salary (March 2022): $163,380

Nurse anesthetists provide pain management for patients undergoing surgical procedures. They meet with patients before a procedure to discuss anesthesia and monitor patients during procedures. They are the highest-paid nursing specialty. Nurse anesthetists will need a doctorate after 2025.

More DNP Specialties

  • Family nurse practitioner: Family nurse practitioners provide primary care for patients of all ages.
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner: Neonatal nurse practitioners care for premature or ill newborns.
  • Nursing professor: Nursing professors instruct nursing students at the postsecondary level. They typically need a Ph.D. or DNP.
  • Nurse executive: Nurse executives lead nursing teams as hospital administrators.

How to Choose Your Nursing Degree

Length of Program

The length of a nursing program can range from 2-4 years, depending on the level of the degree. Some diploma programs take as little as a few months. When choosing a nursing degree, weigh the time commitment required against the career options and earning potential. Working nurses seeking additional training may prefer online nursing degrees.

Required Prerequisites

Nursing diplomas and ADN programs typically have no prerequisites. But an RN-to-BSN program or nursing graduate programs generally require applicants to possess RN licenses or clinical experience. Compare your nursing experience with the requirements to find the best fit. A four-year BSN program can help prospective nurses with no experience launch their career.

Salary and Demand

Nursing salaries increase with additional education. While licensed practical nurses reported a median salary of $48,070 in May 2021, registered nurses earned $77,600. And advanced practice RNs reported median wages of over $100,000 per year. Compare the earning potential to the demand for different roles to find the right fit.

Eligibility for Specialization

If you have a particular specialty in mind, what degree will you need? For example, nurse practitioners must hold an MSN or DNP degree. Registered nurses can specialize in many areas with an ADN or a BSN. Research the degree requirements for different specializations to decide on your nursing degree.

Frequently Asked Questions About Types of Nursing Degrees

What nursing degree is the best?

Prospective nurses need to balance the time commitment of a nursing program with the potential job prospects and earning potential. For most incoming nurses, a BSN represents the best investment. While a BSN takes longer than an ADN to earn, it also offers a strong return on investment.

According to NCSBN data, the BSN now represents the most common nursing degree for newly licensed nurses. On top of that, most employers prefer to hire RNs with a BSN degree. Nurses can also complete an ADN, gain experience, and enroll in an RN-to-BSN program to advance their education.

Can I become a nurse without a degree?

Yes, you can become a nurse without earning a degree. Nursing diplomas and certificates offer several pathways to a nursing career. For example, licensed practical nurses spend around one year completing a certificate and earning their license.

Even RNs can practice without a degree, though that route has become less common. A nursing diploma meets the requirements for the NCLEX-RN exam and licensure as a registered nurse. Currently, only around 11% of RNs hold a nursing diploma as their highest level of education.

How much do nurses make?

Registered nurses report a median pay of $77,600, according to May 2021 data from the BLS. Nursing salaries vary greatly depending on a person's degree type, work setting, and location. For example, the lowest-paid RNs earned under $60,000 per year, while the highest-paid RNs earned over $120,000.

While RNs make up the vast majority of all nurses, there are other roles within the profession. For example, licensed practical nurses reported a median salary of around $48,000 in May 2021, while nurse practitioners earned a median wage of over $120,000 per year.

Where are nurses paid the most?

Registered nurses earn the highest average salaries in California, according to BLS data. California RNs earn $124,000, making them the highest-paid nurses by state. Other high-paying states include Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Alaska. Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Washington, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Nevada also report higher nursing salaries.

For licensed practical nurses, the best-paying states include California, Alaska, Washington, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Nurse practitioners report the highest salaries in California, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts. Check BLS healthcare occupation data for more nursing salaries.

What is the fastest way to become a nurse?

Prospective nurses can enter the profession in as little as one year by enrolling in a practical nursing program. These programs train learners for the NCLEX-PN exam and licensure in their state.

Prospective nurses also have other options. For example, a nursing assistant program trains students for entry-level nursing roles, and many programs take 12 weeks or less. Those seeking registered nursing roles can earn their associate degree in nursing in around two years.

Nursing programs often offer bridge programs to help current nurses advance their education. These include LPN-to-RN programs, RN-to-BSN programs, and RN-to-MSN programs.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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