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What Are the Different Levels of Nursing Degrees?

Three nurses at different career levels walking in a hospital corridor.

While nursing has always been a respected career, many people don’t know that there are different levels of nursing degrees available. Nurses continuously develop skills, clinical knowledge and expertise throughout their careers.

Most people, though, think that “a nurse is a nurse is a nurse,” said Dr. Debra Murray, online MSN program director at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). There is a general lack of understanding about the vast variety of specialties and credentials available for nurses.

“There are so many entry points into the profession,” she said. “We have so many levels and paths toward practice, research and education. Nursing is a truly dynamic field.”

What is the Order of Degrees in Nursing?

Nurses can earn degrees at all different levels—from undergraduate programs to advanced options—to prepare them for many types of nursing specialties and focuses. Some nursing degrees by educational level include:

  • Associate Degree in Nursing
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing
  • Master of Science in Nursing
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice

With each nursing degree level, you may have an opportunity to point your career in a direction that interests you and boost your earning potential.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Dr. Sonya Blevins with the text Dr. Sonya Blevins

Earning an associate degree in nursing is a great way to begin your nursing education and become a registered nurse (RN), even if you plan to level up in the future. Typically, associate degrees take two years to complete, meaning you'll have an opportunity to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) sooner. “That’s the licensing exam that deems a person competent to practice as an RN,” said Dr. Sonya Blevins, director of compliance and licensure of nursing at SNHU.

Once you have achieved licensure, you can begin practicing. When you're ready to earn your bachelor's degree in nursing, you can always bring credits from your ADN to a transfer-friendly 4-year nursing school.

So, Can You Be an RN in Two Years?

The short answer is: yes. Most associate degrees take 18 months to three years to complete, and bachelor’s degrees typically take four years. How long it takes to become a nurse varies depending on the degree level you choose. It’s also possible to accelerate the different types of degrees depending on your schedule and any transfer credits you may have.

After completing your degree, you must sit for the NCLEX exam and meet any additional state-specific requirements to attain the RN credential.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A BSN is a nursing-focused bachelor's degree that's gaining importance throughout the field. In fact, 77.4% of surveyed nursing employers prefer candidates with a BSN, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Some BSN programs can prepare you to become a registered nurse, while others, such as the RN to BSN degree, allow you to level up the career you have already established.

The difference between an ADN and a BSN is the level of theory included in the curriculum. The associate degree can absolutely prepare you for a long and fulfilling career as a registered nurse. A BSN will also prepare you for a career as a nurse but adds the foundation that can ultimately allow you to pursue additional specialization and credentials, such as:

Infographic with the text RN to BSN programs typically take 12-18 months.RN to BSN programs are intended for registered nurses who wish to advance their education. Your unencumbered RN license could count toward 45 credits at some schools with the opportunity to transfer even more credits from your associate degree, so you don’t have to start a four-year degree from scratch. At SNHU, for example, you could finish your BSN in as little as one year if you're already a registered nurse with an ADN.

Seeking a BSN program at an online university can give you the flexibility you need to progress your career and your education simultaneously. It may even enrich your experience, allowing you to apply what you're learning in the classroom to your day-to-day responsibilities as a nurse—and vice versa.

Is a BSN Higher Than an RN?

Not exactly. The ADN and BSN are degrees while an RN is a license. A degree alone is not enough to earn the designation of RN. Regardless of whether you choose to pursue an ADN or BSN first, you must also pass the licensing exam to become a nurse.

The BSN designation simply indicates that you have completed the 4-year degree program. The additional schooling in evidence-based practice, theory, research and management is covered in the education beyond the associate degree.

So, a BSN does indicate a higher level of schooling, but the exam to become and work as a registered nurse is the same for both credentials.

What Are Advanced Nursing Degrees?

The Master of Science in Nursing, or MSN, is the popular master's in nursing degree available to those who wish to advance their education further. While MSN programs typically become available when a nurse earns their BSN, there are also accelerated programs you can find, such as an online RN to MSN pathway, to get you to the advanced degree faster.

If you're hoping to specialize in your career, this program can give you the credential you may need. There are several focuses you can choose from when pursuing an MSN, such as:

As technology is increasingly integrated into the practice of medicine, the nursing profession is evolving to include specialties to support that. “Nursing informatics is a new and interesting specialty,” said Blevins. “This sub-specialty came out of the need for all hospitals to have electronic medical documentation. With this degree, you’ll be able to collaborate with the technology side to implement changes and new technologies."

Another popular career role for nurses obtaining an advanced degree is a nurse practitioner. A nurse practitioner is a healthcare provider that comes from a nursing background. There are many levels of specialty within being a nurse practitioner, including:

  • Acute care
  • Cardiac
  • Gerontology
  • Mental health
  • Pediatrics
  • Primary-based

A nursing education degrees allow nurses to teach in academic or hospital settings. This field focuses on maintaining regulatory requirements, patient safety and quality, and making hospital healthcare, in general, safer for the patient.

Executive leadership is also an area of specialty that allows you to learn to manage different units within a hospital, including administration and academics. Specialty tracks including population healthcare and family nurse practitioner round out the possibilities for graduate education in nursing.

There are also several types of terminal degrees available to nurses. Terminal degrees indicate that you have reached the highest level of education in your field.

Three types include:

Infographic from left to right with the text Doctor of Education (EdD), which is education-based; Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which is comparable to a Doctor of Physical Therapy or Doctor of Pharmacy degree; Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD), which is research-based

What is the Highest Nursing Degree?

While a terminal degree is certainly not necessary to have a long and rewarding nursing career, the additional credential will provide even more options in a field that is already very customizable.

Blevins decided to earn her DNP after a successful career spent working in obstetrics, cardiac critical care and medical-surgical nursing. She went back to school for the credential because of the additional opportunities and flexibility it provided to her career.

“For me, personally,” she said, “the DNP has allowed me growth and opportunity with my career as well as the flexibility to take a remote position with SNHU and continue my career with a focus on nursing education.”

What is the Hardest Nursing Specialty?

All areas of nursing can be challenging, and all can be rewarding. The beauty of nursing is the wide variety of specialties and the opportunities to work in different areas throughout your career. Thanks to that variety and flexibility, nurses often find the specialty that suits them best very quickly.

“Every nursing specialty has its pros and cons,” said Blevins. “For example, with labor and delivery, if you have an unstable mom or a baby in distress, that is very challenging," she said. Of course, any specialty will have its challenges when it comes to the need to comfort families as well as care for patients.

The other side of that, though, is that the pros are meaningful. “You are able to really help people, right at their bedside,” said Blevins. “Everything from helping a patient improve to helping students become nurses and helping them grow professionally while being a source of support. These are the wonderful parts of nursing.”

What Kind of Nurses Get Paid the Most?

While Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) make the highest salary, according to Murray, there are very few training spots available for this very competitive specialty.

Aside from CRNAs, “nurses who work bedside, nights, and/or weekends get paid more,” said Blevins. “As you move up in leadership and administration, you get paid more as well. It all depends on the setting and level of training and experience that you have,” she said.

Infographic with the text BLS reports RNs earned a meadian salary of $77,600 in 2021The typical median salary for registered nurses as of 2021 was $77,600 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is significantly higher than the median national average for all careers—$45,760. Overall, the job outlook for nursing is strong, with a predicted 6% increase through 2031.

BLS reports that nurses in hospitals tend to earn higher median salaries of $78,070 per year because their work involves round-the-clock and critical care. Nurses in ambulatory healthcare services see patients for routine medical care outside of a hospital setting. They earn a median salary of $76,700 per year, BLS reported. And nurses who provide care in nursing and residential care facilities earn a median salary of $72,420 per year.

While working in an educational setting commands a lower salary than bedside or ambulatory nurses, with a national median of $61,780 per year, nurses working in education still do much better than the national median.

If you earn a specialized advanced degree, your potential earnings could increase. For example, BLS reports that nurse practitioners earned $120,680 in 2021.

Demand at Every Level

According to Murray, one thing that's certain is that with the imminent retirement of baby boomers, a nursing shortage is coming. There is great demand for nurses in all specialty areas, and in particular:

If you’re not sure which specialty is right for you, don’t worry. Nursing is flexible. You don’t have to declare a specialty at first. “You will learn very quickly through clinical experiences what you like and don’t like,” said Blevins. “A good nursing program will help you figure out your path by the time you graduate,” she said.

Dr. Debra Murray with the text Dr. Debra Murray

“One unique thing about nursing is that you truly can work your way through the system, gaining experience, having a career, working your way right up to where you want to be," said Murray. "You can start as a medical assistant, then LPN, then RN, and on to graduate school if you wish, all while working and earning a living plus gaining valuable experience."

Ultimately, the nursing profession offers many employment prospects, ways to customize your career, and the potential to gain valuable professional experience and an income—all while you work your way through school. And perhaps the best part of the nursing profession is the many opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of others.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online nursing program that can best help you meet your career goals.

Marie Morganelli, PhD, is a freelance content writer and editor.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

Two students walking in front of Monadnock Hall

SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.