The three major educational paths to registered nursing - a bachelor's
of science degree in nursing (BSN), an associate degree in nursing (ADN),
and a diploma. Nurses most commonly enter the occupation by completing
an associate degree or
bachelor's degree program.
Individuals then must complete a national licensing examination in order
to obtain a nursing license. Advanced practice nurses -- clinical nurse
specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives, and nurse practitioners
-- need a master’s degree.
There are three typical
educational paths to registered nursing: a bachelor's of science degree
in nursing (BSN), an associate degree in nursing (ADN), and a diploma.
BSN programs, offered by colleges and universities, take about 4 years
to complete. ADN programs, offered by community and junior colleges,
take about 2 to 3 years to complete. Diploma programs, administered in
hospitals, last about 3 years. Generally, licensed graduates of any of
the three types of educational programs qualify for entry-level
positions as a staff nurse. There are hundreds of registered nursing
programs that result in an ADN or BSN; however, there are relatively few
considering a career in nursing should carefully weigh the advantages
and disadvantages of enrolling in each type of education program.
Advancement opportunities may be more limited for ADN and diploma
holders compared to RNs who obtain a BSN or higher. Individuals who
complete a bachelor's degree receive more training in areas such as
communication, leadership, and critical thinking, all of which are
becoming more important as nursing practice becomes more complex.
Additionally, bachelor's degree programs offer more clinical experience
in nonhospital settings. A bachelor's or higher degree is often
necessary for administrative positions, research, consulting, and
In the United States,
there are two nursing organizations that accredit schools of nursing:
League for Nursing Accreditation Commission
(ASN, BSN, MSN) and the Commission
on Collegiate Nursing Education
(BSN, MSN). Schools may choose which organization will accredit them and
can have accreditations from both organizations. The following table
provides links to detailed lists of accredited nursing programs.
Many RNs with an ADN
or diploma later enter bachelor's degree programs to prepare for a
broader scope of nursing practice. Often, they can find an entry-level
position and then take advantage of tuition reimbursement benefits to
work toward a BSN by completing an RN-to-BSN program. Accelerated
master's degree in nursing (MSN) programs also are available. They
typically take 3-4 years to complete full time and result in the award
of both the BSN and MSN.
There are education
programs available for people interested in switching to a career in
nursing as well. Individuals who already hold a bachelor’s degree in
another field may enroll in an accelerated BSN program. Accelerated BSN
programs last 12 to 18 months and provide the fastest route to a BSN for
individuals who already hold a degree. MSN programs also are available
for individuals who hold a bachelor's or higher degree in another field;
master’s degree programs usually last 2 years.
nursing education programs include classroom instruction and supervised
clinical experience in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
Students take courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry,
nutrition, psychology and other behavioral sciences, and nursing.
Coursework also includes the liberal arts for ADN and BSN students.
experience is provided in hospital departments such as pediatrics,
psychiatry, maternity, and surgery. A number of programs include
clinical experience in nursing care facilities, public health
departments, home health agencies, and ambulatory clinics.
IIn all States, the
District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, students must graduate from
an approved nursing program and pass a national licensing examination,
known as the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN, in
order to obtain a nursing license. Other eligibility requirements for
licensure vary by State. Contact your State’s board of nursing for
Most RNs begin as
staff nurses in hospitals and, with experience and good performance,
often move to other settings or are promoted to positions with more
responsibility. In management, nurses can advance from assistant unit
manager or head nurse to more senior-level administrative roles of
assistant director, director, vice president, or chief of nursing.
Increasingly, management-level nursing positions require a graduate or
an advanced degree in nursing or health services administration.
Administrative positions require leadership, communication and
negotiation skills, and good judgment.
RNs choose to become advanced practice nurses, who work independently or
in collaboration with physicians, and may focus on providing primary
care services. There are four types of advanced practice nurses:
clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives, and
nurse practitioners. Clinical nurse specialists provide direct patient
care and expert consultations in one of many nursing specialties, such
as psychiatric-mental health. Nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia and
related care before and after surgical, therapeutic, diagnostic, and
obstetrical procedures. They also provide pain management and emergency
services, such as airway management. Nurse-midwives provide primary care
to women, including gynecological exams, family planning advice,
prenatal care, assistance in labor and delivery, and neonatal care.
Nurse practitioners serve as primary and specialty care providers,
providing a blend of nursing and healthcare services to patients and
All four types of advanced
practice nurses require at least a master's degree. In addition, all
States specifically define requirements for registered nurses in
advanced practice roles. Advanced practice nurses may prescribe
medicine, but the authority to prescribe varies by State. Contact your
State’s board of nursing for specific regulations regarding advanced
Some nurses move into the
business side of healthcare. Their nursing expertise and experience on a
healthcare team equip them to manage ambulatory, acute, home-based, and
chronic care businesses. Employers—including hospitals, insurance
companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and managed care organizations,
among others—need RNs for health planning and development, marketing,
consulting, policy development, and quality assurance. Other nurses work
as college and university faculty or conduct research.
Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the US Department
of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.