Levels of Nursing: Choosing the One That Suits Your Career Goals the Most

levels of nursing

Considering a career in nursing? There are many paths to becoming a registered nurse, each with varying lengths of education and specialization. This article will explore the different nursing degree levels, from entry-level programs to advanced practice degrees, to help you find the right fit for your goals and interests.

Here’s a quick breakdown of seven nursing degree levels:

  1. Certified Nursing Assistant
  2. Licensed Practical Nurse
  3. Registered Nurse
  4. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse
  5. Master of Science in Nursing
  6. Doctor of Nursing Practice
  7. Nurse Managers and Executives

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how to become a nurse

Types of Nurses

There are many different types of nurses, each with their own area of expertise and focus. They all play a vital role in the healthcare system, providing care to patients in various settings.

Nursing Specialty Education Level Primary Duties
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) 1-year certificate program. Provide basic care, monitor vital signs, and assist with daily living activities.
Registered Nurse (RN) 2-year Associate's degree (ADN) or 4-year Bachelor's degree (BSN). Administer medications, educate patients, perform wound care, and collaborate with doctors.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) Master's degree in nursing practice. Diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medications, and order diagnostic tests (specializations include Nurse Practitioners and Clinical Nurse Specialists).
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Short training program (a few weeks to a few months). Assist patients with daily living activities, provide basic care, and ensure patient comfort.

What Are the Levels of Nursing?

Let’s explore the different levels of nursing, degrees, and certifications required for each level, from entry-level roles to advanced practice positions with master's and doctoral qualifications.

1. Certified Nursing Assistant

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is a vital member of the healthcare team, providing direct care to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings. CNAs assist with daily living activities like bathing, dressing, and eating while monitoring vital signs and reporting any changes to nurses.

To become a CNA, you don't need a college degree, but you must complete a state-approved training program that typically lasts a few months. These programs cover essential skills like patient care, infection control, communication, and working with different patient populations. After completing the program, you must pass a competency exam to become certified.

Work Setting Average Annual Salary
Government $39,250
Hospitals $36,480
Nursing Homes $35,480
Assisted Living Facilities $34,600
Home Healthcare $31,280

2. Licensed Practical Nurse

A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) bridges the gap between CNAs and Registered Nurses (RNs) by providing a wider range of care. They work under the supervision of RNs or doctors, administering medications, dressing wounds, monitoring patients' conditions, and assisting with treatments. LPNs are crucial in various healthcare settings, ensuring patient comfort and well-being.

To become an LPN, you must complete a one-year accredited practical nursing program at a community college or vocational school. These programs equip you with the knowledge and skills for patient assessment, medication administration, and care procedures. After graduation, you must pass the NCLEX-PN licensing exam to practice as an LPN.

Work Setting Average Annual Salary
Hospitals $54,270
Nursing Homes $52,100
Ambulatory Care Services $51,930
Home Healthcare Services $50,820

3. Registered Nurse

Registered Nurses (RNs) are the backbone of modern healthcare, serving as patient advocates and primary caregivers. They assess patients' conditions, develop and implement care plans, administer medications and treatments, educate patients and families, and collaborate with doctors and other healthcare professionals. RNs work across diverse settings, from hospitals and clinics to home healthcare and public health.

The path to becoming an RN requires a minimum of an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN) from a community college, although a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is increasingly preferred by employers. Both nursing degrees involve classroom learning and supervised clinical practice. After graduation, all RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to obtain their license.

Work Setting Average Annual Salary
Hospitals $77,600
Ambulatory Care Services $78,010
Nursing Homes $75,330
Home Healthcare Services $73,580

Associate of Science in Nursing

An Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) is a two-year degree program that prepares graduates for a career as a Registered Nurse (RN). Offered by community colleges and some four-year institutions, the ASN program equips students with the foundational knowledge and clinical skills needed to deliver patient care, including assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation. ASN graduates are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN licensure exam and can work in various healthcare settings like hospitals, clinics, and home care upon passing.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year undergraduate degree program offering a more comprehensive education than an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ASN). BSN programs delve deeper into nursing theory, research, leadership, and management, preparing graduates for advanced clinical practice, supervisory roles, and potential career paths in education or research. While both ASN and BSN graduates are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN exam to become Registered Nurses, a BSN is increasingly preferred by employers, especially in competitive healthcare settings.

4. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) are highly skilled nurse practitioners who have built upon their RN foundation with additional education and training. They function more autonomously than a registered nurse, often working as primary care providers, diagnosing and treating a wide range of health conditions. APRNs can specialize in family practice, pediatrics, mental health, or anesthesia. These clinical nurse specialists order diagnostic tests, prescribe medications, manage chronic conditions, and collaborate with physicians to deliver comprehensive patient care.

To become an APRN, you'll need a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), depending on your chosen specialty. Both programs involve advanced coursework, clinical training, and a culminating project. Specific requirements may vary by program, but all APRNs must pass a national certification exam in their area of practice.

APRN Specialty Average Annual Salary
Nurse Practitioner (Family Practice) $113,600
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) $181,000
Clinical Nurse Specialist (Adult Health) $98,220
Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM) $106,040

5. Master of Science in Nursing

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an advanced degree program designed to elevate registered nurses (RNs) to the role of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) or prepare them for leadership and education positions within the healthcare system.

MSN programs offer specialized tracks like nurse practitioner, nurse educator, or clinical nurse leader, equipping graduates with in-depth knowledge, advanced clinical skills, and research expertise in their chosen focus area. This degree allows APRNs to be more autonomous in patient care, performing tasks like diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medications, and managing complex health conditions.

To qualify for an MSN program, registered nurse practitioners must have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ASN) with significant RN experience. The specific curriculum and program length can vary depending on the chosen specialization. Still, most MSN programs require 1-3 years of full-time or part-time study, including coursework, clinical rotations, and a final research project. After graduation, APRNs must pass a national certification exam specific to their chosen specialty in order to practice.

MSN Specialization Average Annual Salary
Nurse Practitioner (Family Practice) $113,600
Clinical Nurse Specialist (Adult Health) $98,220
Nurse Educator $84,010
Nurse Administrator $91,470

6. Doctor of Nursing Practice

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the terminal level of nursing seeking the highest clinical expertise and leadership level. DNP programs focus on translating research into practice, improving healthcare systems, and preparing nurses for advanced clinical roles.

Compared to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a focus on clinical nursing practice, a DNP delves deeper into areas like evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and healthcare policy, equipping graduates to take on leadership positions, manage complex healthcare environments and influence healthcare outcomes on a broader scale.

Earning a DNP requires a significant investment in time and education. Applicants typically need a Master's degree in Nursing, most commonly an MSN, and a valid RN license. DNP programs are rigorous, lasting 3-4 years and involve advanced coursework, research projects, and culminating residencies. While some DNPs focus on direct patient care as highly specialized practitioners, many leverage their leadership, education, or policy development expertise within healthcare organizations.

DNP Career Path Average Annual Salary
Nurse Practitioner (Family Practice) $118,000
Nurse Administrator $102,220
Clinical Nurse Leader $99,410
Director of Nursing $115,870

7. Nurse Managers and Executives

Nurse managers and executives oversee the operations and staff within nursing units or entire healthcare facilities. Nurse managers, sometimes called nursing directors, handle day-to-day tasks like scheduling, budgeting, and staff performance evaluations. They ensure smooth operations within their units, advocate for their staff, and bridge the gap between nurses and upper management.

On the other hand, nurse executives hold leadership positions at the director or vice president level. They develop strategic plans, manage large budgets, and influence healthcare policy within organizations. Both roles require strong leadership, communication, and business acumen.

Educational requirements for these positions vary. Nurse managers typically hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) with some experience in a leadership role. An MSN can be beneficial but may not always be required. Nurse executives, however, often possess a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to complement their extensive clinical and leadership experience.

Role Average Annual Salary
Nurse Manager $107,248
Nurse Executive (Director Level) $139,040
Nurse Executive (VP Level) $155,300+
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Summing Up

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is becoming increasingly preferred for direct patient care with the broadest career options. For those seeking advanced practice with more autonomy, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) prepares you to be an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

If you crave the highest level of clinical expertise, leadership, and potential for influencing healthcare on a broader scale, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the terminal degree.

Nurse managers and executives focused on leadership and administration can thrive with a BSN or MSN, while a DNP can further enhance their qualifications.

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