Exploring Your Options: What’s the Right Degree for an Aspiring Nurse?

13/07/202321 minute read
Exploring Your Options: What’s the Right Degree for an Aspiring Nurse?

Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is an exciting journey that allows you to make a meaningful impact in the healthcare field. But what do you need to become a nurse? In this blog, we’ll guide you through the essentials you need to become a nurse, from the degree you need to the accreditation and licensing.

What is Nursing?

Nursing is a vital profession within the healthcare system that focuses on the care and well-being of individuals, families, and communities.

As a nurse, you play a crucial role in providing holistic care, promoting health, preventing illness, and supporting patients through their healing journeys.

Whether you work in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, or even in patients' homes, your role as a nurse is to advocate for your patients, administer medications, monitor vital signs, assist with treatments and procedures, and offer emotional support.

Education is a fundamental component of nursing, as it equips you with the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed to provide safe and effective care. Nursing programs provide a comprehensive understanding of medical sciences, nursing theory, pharmacology, and practical skills.

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What Degree Do You Need to Be a Nurse?

In the United States, there are various options for nursing education. Let's dive deeper into the different options for nursing degrees:

Nursing Degrees Overview
Associate Degree in Nursing2-3 Years- Saves time and money - Practical focus - Career mobility with further education
Bachelor of Science in Nursing4 Years- Better career opportunities - Comprehensive education - Preparation for advanced degrees
Accelerated Programs12-18 Months- A faster option than other degree - Utilization of existing bachelor's degree - Same career opportunities as full nursing degrees
Master of Science in Nursing2-3 Years- Advanced practice opportunities - Graduates eligible leadership and admin roles - Increased earning potential
Doctor of Nursing Practice 3-5 Years- Advanced clinical practice - Opportunities in leadership roles - Further career advancement
Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing4-6 Years- Research and scholarly opportunities - Academic and leadership roles - Possibility to contribute to healthcare policy development

Associate Degree in Nursing

The Associate Degree in Nursing is a two to three-year program offered by community colleges and vocational schools. 

It provides a comprehensive foundation in nursing knowledge and skills, preparing you to enter the nursing profession as an RN. The curriculum is designed to equip you with the necessary theoretical understanding and practical abilities to provide patient care and support in various healthcare settings.

You'll also gain hands-on experience through clinical rotations in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. These rotations allow you to apply what you've learned in the classroom to real-life patient care scenarios, honing your skills and building confidence in your abilities.


  • Time and Cost: ADN programs are often more affordable and shorter in duration compared to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, allowing you to enter the nursing workforce more quickly.
  • Practical Focus: ADN programs emphasize hands-on skills and clinical experiences, providing you with the necessary competencies to begin working as an RN.
  • Career Mobility: Upon completion of an ADN program and passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you can start your nursing career and gain valuable experience. Later, if you decide to pursue further education, you can bridge your ADN to a BSN through RN-to-BSN programs.


  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Some healthcare institutions prefer or require a BSN for positions beyond entry-level nursing roles. Advancing to leadership or specialized positions may require further education.
  • Competitive Job Market: The demand for BSN-prepared nurses is increasing, and some job opportunities may prioritize candidates with a higher degree.
  • Narrower Scope: ADN programs provide a strong foundation in nursing, but BSN programs offer a broader education that includes courses in leadership, research, and community health.
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Bachelor of Science in Nursing

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year undergraduate program that not only focuses on the technical aspects of nursing but also incorporates courses in leadership, research, community health, and evidence-based practice.

The curriculum also includes clinical rotations in various healthcare settings, giving you the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world patient care scenarios under the guidance of experienced nursing professionals.


  • Enhanced Career Opportunities: A Many healthcare institutions and specialty areas prefer or require a BSN for positions such as nurse manager, nurse educator, public health nurse, and advanced practice nursing roles.
  • Comprehensive Education: The BSN curriculum provides a holistic approach to nursing, covering not only the technical aspects but also leadership, research, and community health. This broader education equips you with critical thinking skills, cultural competence, and a deeper understanding of healthcare systems.
  • Preparation for Advanced Degrees: If you have aspirations of pursuing a master's or doctoral degree in nursing, a BSN is often a prerequisite. It lays a strong foundation for graduate-level education and specialization in areas such as nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or nursing informatics.


  • Longer Time and Higher Cost: Compared to an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) program, the BSN program requires four years of study, which may prolong your journey to becoming an RN. Additionally, tuition fees for BSN programs tend to be higher, although financial aid and scholarships are available to help offset the cost.
  • Competitive Admissions: Due to the popularity of BSN programs, admission can be competitive. Meeting specific GPA requirements and completing prerequisite courses are often necessary to secure a spot in a BSN program.
  • Limited Flexibility: Pursuing a full-time BSN program can be demanding and may require dedicating a significant amount of time to coursework and clinical rotations, which could limit your ability to work full-time or balance other commitments.
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Accelerated BSN Programs

Similar to accelerated BS/MD programs, accelerated BSN programs provide a fast-track option for individuals who have already completed a bachelor's degree in another field.

These programs are typically intense and rigorous, condensing the necessary nursing coursework and clinical experiences into a shorter time frame, often ranging from 12 to 18 months.

The curriculum of Accelerated BSN programs builds upon your existing educational background while focusing on nursing-specific coursework and clinical rotations.

Clinical rotations will be a crucial component of your program, allowing you to gain hands-on experience in various healthcare settings, applying your knowledge in real patient care scenarios.


  • Fast-Track Option: Accelerated BSN programs allow you to complete your nursing education in a shorter period compared to traditional BSN programs, enabling you to enter the nursing workforce quickly.
  • Utilization of Existing Bachelor's Degree: If you already have a bachelor's degree in another field, an Accelerated BSN program allows you to leverage your previous education and transferable skills, saving you time and resources.
  • Broad Career Opportunities: Upon completing an Accelerated BSN program and passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you'll have the same eligibility as traditional BSN graduates for various nursing roles and opportunities. You can pursue a wide range of positions and explore diverse areas of nursing practice.


  • Intense Workload: The condensed nature of the program means you'll cover a substantial amount of coursework and clinical experiences in a shorter period, which can be challenging to manage.
  • Limited Flexibility: The rigorous nature of Accelerated BSN programs often leaves little room for part-time work or other commitments. You may need to dedicate your full attention to the program, which can be financially and personally challenging.
  • Competitive Admissions: Due to the popularity of Accelerated BSN programs, admission can be highly competitive. Meeting specific GPA requirements, completing prerequisite courses, and demonstrating a strong commitment to the nursing profession are often necessary for acceptance.
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Master of Science in Nursing

The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate-level program that provides advanced education and specialization in nursing practice.

The MSN curriculum is designed to build upon your existing nursing knowledge and experience, equipping you with advanced clinical skills, leadership abilities, and a deeper understanding of healthcare systems.

The curriculum of an MSN program varies depending on your chosen specialization. Some common specializations include nurse practitioner, nurse anesthesia, nurse educator, nurse administrator, nurse informatics, and nurse midwifery.

The coursework typically covers advanced nursing theory, research methods, healthcare policy, pharmacology, pathophysiology, and courses specific to your chosen specialization.

Additionally, clinical practicum experiences are an integral part of the MSN program, allowing you to gain hands-on experience in your specialized area under the guidance of experienced healthcare professionals.


  • Advanced Practice Opportunities: An MSN degree opens the door to a wide range of advanced practice nursing roles. Depending on your specialization, you can become a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or clinical nurse specialist.
  • Leadership and Administrative Roles: With an MSN degree, you can pursue leadership and administrative positions within healthcare organizations. These roles involve strategic planning, policy development, staff management, and quality improvement initiatives.
  • Increased Earning Potential: Advanced practice nurses with an MSN degree often enjoy higher earning potential compared to those with a bachelor's degree. The additional expertise and specialization can lead to better job opportunities and increased salaries.


  • Time and Financial Commitment: Pursuing an MSN degree requires a significant investment of time and money. Most MSN programs take around two to three years to complete, depending on the specialization, and tuition fees can be higher than undergraduate programs.
  • Clinical Practice Hours: Many MSN programs require a certain number of clinical practice hours to meet the program requirements. Balancing these clinical hours with work and personal commitments can be challenging, especially if you're working full-time while pursuing your degree.
  • Ongoing Education and Certification: Nursing is a dynamic field with evolving practices and regulations. As an advanced practice nurse, you'll need to stay current with continuing education and maintain certifications to ensure you're up to date with the latest evidence-based practices and regulatory requirements.
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Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a practice-focused doctoral degree that prepares nurses for advanced practice and leadership roles.

The DNP program emphasizes evidence-based practice, clinical skills, and healthcare leadership. The curriculum typically includes coursework in advanced practice nursing, research methods, healthcare policy, quality improvement, leadership, and healthcare systems.

DNP programs also require students to complete a DNP project or capstone, which involves applying evidence-based practice principles to solve real-world healthcare challenges.

The DNP degree focuses on preparing advanced practice nurses to provide high-quality, patient-centered care and take on leadership positions in healthcare settings.


  • Advanced Clinical Practice: The DNP degree prepares advanced practice nurses to provide comprehensive, evidence-based care to patients, making a direct impact on patient outcomes.
  • Leadership Opportunities: DNP graduates are equipped with the skills and knowledge to lead interdisciplinary healthcare teams, influence healthcare policy, and improve healthcare delivery systems.
  • Career Advancement: The DNP degree can open doors to higher-level positions in healthcare, such as nurse executive, nurse administrator, or advanced practice nursing roles, with increased earning potential.


  • Time and Financial Commitment: Pursuing a DNP degree requires a significant investment of time and financial resources. DNP programs can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to complete, depending on the program and part-time or full-time enrollment.
  • Limited Research Emphasis: Compared to a PhD, the DNP degree may offer fewer research opportunities and may not be the best fit for those interested in a career focused primarily on research or academia.
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Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing

The Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD) is a research-focused doctoral degree that prepares nurses for careers in academia, research, and leadership. The PhD program emphasizes research methodology, data analysis, theory development, and scholarly writing.

The curriculum typically includes coursework in research design, statistical analysis, nursing theory, healthcare policy, and ethics. PhD programs also require students to conduct original research and write a dissertation that contributes to the body of nursing knowledge.

The PhD degree focuses on developing nurse scientists and scholars who can conduct research, generate new knowledge, and shape the future of nursing practice and policy.


  • Research and Scholarly Opportunities: The PhD degree prepares nurses for careers in research, academia, and healthcare policy. Graduates have the opportunity to generate new knowledge, conduct groundbreaking research, and shape the future of nursing practice.
  • Academic and Leadership Roles: A PhD in Nursing opens doors to faculty positions in nursing schools and universities, allowing you to educate the next generation of nurses and influence nursing education.
  • Influence Policy and Practice: PhD-prepared nurses have the expertise and credibility to contribute to healthcare policy development, shaping healthcare delivery and improving patient outcomes on a broader scale.


  • Lengthy Time Commitment: PhD programs in nursing typically require 4 to 6 years of study, including coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation research, and defense.
  • Limited Clinical Focus: The PhD degree is primarily research-focused, which means there may be fewer opportunities for hands-on clinical practice compared to the DNP.
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How to Become a Registered Nurse

To become a registered nurse, it’s important you choose a nursing program accredited by a recognized accrediting body, such as the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). 

To practice as a registered nurse in the US, you must obtain a nursing license from the state in which you plan to work. While the specific requirements may vary by state, there are general steps to follow to get licensed: 

  • Education: Complete a nursing education program that leads to an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution.
  • NCLEX-RN Exam: After completing your nursing education, you'll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This standardized exam assesses your nursing knowledge and competence.
  • State Licensure Application: Once you pass the NCLEX-RN exam, you can apply for a nursing license in the state where you plan to practice. The application process typically involves submitting an application, paying a fee, and providing necessary documentation, such as your education transcripts and NCLEX-RN results.
  • Continuing Education: After obtaining your initial nursing license, it's important to stay updated on advancements in healthcare and fulfill any continuing education requirements mandated by your state's nursing board. Continuing education ensures that you maintain the knowledge and skills necessary to provide safe and effective patient care.
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Getting Into a Nursing School

The admissions process for nursing schools can vary slightly depending on the institution and the program you're applying to, but there are some general steps to keep in mind.

  1. Research and identify the nursing schools that align with your career goals and preferences.
  2. Complete an application, which may include submitting transcripts from your previous education, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement highlighting your interest in nursing.
  3. Some programs may also require you to take prerequisite courses, such as anatomy and physiology, before applying.
  4. Many nursing schools require applicants to take standardized tests, such as the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) or the Health Education Systems, Inc. Admission Assessment (HESI A2).

Overall, it's important to stay organized, meet application deadlines, and thoroughly review the specific requirements of each nursing school you're applying to.

Here’s how to ace your application: Working with one of our strategists increases your chances of admission by up to 7 times! Crimson strategists guide you through the admissions process from A to Z, right until your application is submitted!

What Makes Crimson Different


How much do nurses make?

The salary of nurses can vary depending on several factors, including their level of education, years of experience, geographic location, and the healthcare setting in which they work. In the United States, the median annual wage for registered nurses (RNs) was around $75,330 as of May 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

How long is nursing school?

The length of nursing school can vary depending on the educational path you choose. Here are the general timelines for common nursing programs in the United States:

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): Two to three years to complete.
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): BSN programs generally take four years to complete.
  • Accelerated BSN Programs: These programs typically take 12 to 18 months to complete, building upon the existing educational background of the student.
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): On average, MSN programs can take around two to three years to complete.
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD): DNP programs often take around three to four years and PhD programs take four to six years to complete.