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What is Nursing?
The field of nursing is a complex and varied, with many career paths and specialties available to choose from. Nursing is one aspect of the healthcare industry, with responsibilities mostly involving the care and treatment of individuals on a daily basis. Nurses will provided treatment and assistance to patients, as well as educate them in the healthcare practices that may assist in care and recovery. Nurses tend to form relationships with patients more easily than physicians due to proximity and the type of care offered, as a result, are often better equipped to provide advice and care to patients. Nursing utilizes a variety of sciences, and requires the study of patients, particularly their mental and physical health, in order to better assist in short and long term care.
College Requirements for Nurses
A degree in nursing can be obtained through three possible routes, a bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN), an associate's degree in nursing (AND), or a diploma in nursing. A nursing program will educate an individual in the various skills and knowledge necessary to administer patient care. Nurses often have tasks similar to physicians, and depending on the type of nurse and certification, may be able to draw blood, administer medication, or determine a course of care for a patient. Nurses are also capable of treating small injuries and dressing wounds.
The programs vary in length and all of them will allow an individual to become an RN, but the benefits of each must be weighed against the other. BSN programs will typically take 4 years, ADN 2-3 years, and a diploma program administered by a hospital will take 3 years. Those who pursue a BSN program will find more opportunities in the future due to the higher level of education and degree, ADNs may have a difficult time gaining advancement but can often find work sponsors to obtain BSN while working. Diploma programs typically are administered by hospitals and will have the student working while he or she pursues the diploma. All programs are a mixture of class work and supervised clinical experience. Some accelerated programs are available allowing students to obtain a BSN and a master's of science in nursing (MSN) within four years.
Some courses required are:
Top Nursing Degrees & Certificates
Nursing a broad degree program with a variety of tracks from certificate programs through doctorate degrees. As such, there are dozens upon dozens of career options for graduates after earning a nursing degree from an accredited college or university along with meeting your state’s requirements for that specific vocation. Below you will find the array of different types of nursing certificate programs, associate degrees, bachelor degrees, masters degrees, and doctorate degrees.
Online Nursing Certificate Programs and Classroom Programs
A nursing certificate offers 3 distinct paths for students to choose from that should be researched in-depth prior to making a final decision. These options include the following three paths for online nursing students and onsite learning opportunities:
- Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
- Certified Nurse Consultant (CNA)
- Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)
CNA certification courses can range in length from 6-18 months and blend classroom instruction with hands-on clinical training. The onsite & online CNA certificate programs are available at community colleges, vocational schools, 4-year colleges, and a variety of accredited training institutes. A Certified Nursing Assistant track will provide you with direct interaction with patients under the supervision of an RN, LVN, and/or LPN.
The LVN and LPN programs provide basic nursing care for patients under the direct supervision of Registered Nurses (RN) and/or doctors. Licensed practical nurses (LPN) and licensed vocational nurses (LVN) can work in nursing homes, private homes, extended care facilities, physician’s offices, and hospitals. In most cases around the country, the LVN and LPN acronyms can be used interchangeably with exception of qualification for professionals in California and Texas.
Online Nursing Associate Degrees & Classroom Degrees
There are 4 common types of associate degrees we will discuss in this career guide to help provide you with a set of tools to continue your research in nursing. The four programs for onsite and online associated degrees in nursing include:
- Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) - Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree program is a 2-3 year onsite or online degree program depending on the college and state of residence. An ASN degree can be earned from a 4-year college or university, community college, vocational school, or some qualifying hospitals. The ASN degree is geared to provide direct patient treatment along with an array of responsibilities within the health care field.
- Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) – The Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is an entry-point into nursing for a student looking to enter the field in the United States. To become an ADN you will need to successfully pass an accredited, board approved degree program followed by successfully pass the NCLEX-RN It is important to note that all nurses are individually credentialed through their state nursing boards upon completion of a board-approved college program and passing the NCLEX-RN examination. Although each state determines the length of the classroom or online AND degree programs, most Associate Degree in Nursing programs can be completed in two years.
- Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AAS) - The AAS or Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AAS) track was created for students as a defined pathway to become a registered nurse (RN). The AAS program is typically a 2-year program combining academic lectures with practical clinical exposure and lab practicum. Students enrolled in the AAS online or onsite degree program will typically have exposure to rigorous coursework including: healthcare administration, biology, pharmacology, anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, and physiology to name a few.
- Associate of Nursing (AN) - The Associate of Nursing (AN) program is designed to be a 2-year program of core curriculum with general education classes such as philosophy, English composition, and math extending the program by an additional year or two depending on the school and your educational experience. Professionals and healthcare practitioners view the AN program is another viable educational track to become an RN which serves a critical role between doctors and patients.
Online Nursing Bachelor Degree & Classroom Degree
Classroom and online nursing degrees for bachelor’s degrees are often associated with the acronym BSN. The BSN stands for Bachelor of Science in Nursing which may also be called a Bachelor of Nursing (BN), BScN degree, or a Bachelor of Science (BS) with a major in Nursing depending on the college and region of the country. For simplicity sake, we will use the most common acronym of BSN for ease of use.
The BSN degree is designed to be a 4-year degree program, online or on-campus, with a keen eye towards career development and graduate studies. A typical BSN degree program will include general education and core classes in leadership, philosophy, biology, creative writing, healthcare administration, research, community health, history, environmental health and statistics.
The goal of any accredited college or university offering a BSN degree program is to adequately prepare students to sit for the NCLEX examination. The NCLEX is administered by an independent, not-for-profit known as NCSBN or the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The NCLEX is a standardized test utilized to assess a student’s knowledge and competence within a particular field of study of nursing.
Accredited colleges and universities offering BSN programs have pre-licensure baccalaureate nursing programs for students with no prior nursing experience along with programs for students with no prior college experience. In fact, several accredited schools have created accelerated BSN degree programs for students who have already obtained a bachelor’s degree in another field of study. Accelerated degree programs in of this type are often known as Second Degree Nursing programs. The BSN second degree program can span 12-18 months in duration and approximately 3-years for a student to earn a master’s degree.
Another type of valuable degree program for students, working professionals, and employers is the bridge program. A bridge program is a type of nursing degree created by accredited schools for the benefit of working professionals who already have an undergraduate degree in nursing and seek additional education or nursing credentials. Continuous learning and upskilling are often driven by the satisfaction associated with career advancement, earning additional income, greater job stability, and opening doors for other professional opportunities. A few examples of classroom-based or online nursing bridge programs includes the following:
- BSN to DNP, Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice
- BSN to MSN, Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Master of Science in Nursing
- LPN to BSN or LVN to BSN, Licensed Practical Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing or Licensed Vocational Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing
- LPN to MSN, Licensed Practical Nurse to Master of Science in Nursing
- LPN to RN, Licensed Practical Nurse to Registered Nurse
- RN to BSN, Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing
- RN to DNP, Registered Nurse to Doctor of Nursing Practice
- RN to MSN, Registered Nurse to Master of Science in Nursing
Online Nursing Master Degree & Classroom Degree
The primary difference between a bachelor of science in nursing and master of science in nursing is the course duration and concentration. The BSN program is a 4-year program created to provide a base level of knowledge for entry-level positions in nursing. On the other hand, MSN programs are a 2-3 year program with the requirement of a BSN or equivalent degree and for students to select an area of concentration. Areas of specialty for an onsite or online BSN student include nursing administration, clinical nursing, clinical nurse educator, nurse practitioner, certified midwife, clinical specialist, or certified anesthetist. By selecting an area of concentration, MSN students may be inclined to launch a career in any number of nursing specialties such as:
- Adult Health
- Primary Care
- Women’s Health
- School Health
Online Nursing Doctoral Degree & Classroom Degree
The DNP or Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program is the highest degree that can be earned in nursing as is often called a terminal degree. By definition, a terminal degree is the highest degree awarded to students in a given field of study. The typical DNP curriculum extends the master-level curricula by expanding student learning in quality healthcare practices, systems leadership, and empirical data analysis. It is important to know many accredited universities have constructed the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program to run parallel with a variety of related healthcare doctorate programs such as dentistry, medicine, pharmacy, and psychology.
The other doctoral degree track within nursing is the PhD or Doctor of Philosophy program. The goal of the PhD track is to adequately prepare nurse scientists with skills and knowledge in non-clinical careers. Examples of non-clinical careers for nursing professionals holding a PhD include research, teaching, nursing education, and healthcare administration. In other words, the PhD degree track is rooted in research-intensive environments while the DNP program is an immersion experience in practice.
Different Types of Nursing Schools
The most common types of onsite or online nursing schools are 4-year colleges and universities, trade or vocational schools, and community colleges. Schools of all types provide important value to students and may be worthy of further consideration given your priorities and career goals. Below you will find a brief overview of each to help you determine which program may be a good fit for you and your future nursing career.
4-Year Universities & Colleges
A four-year college or university will typically offer the most in-depth, comprehensive educational option for prospective nursing students. Classroom-based programs or online nursing degree programs will provide students with a set of rigorous core curricula along with the opportunity to study adjacent subjects in an effort to help you think about the world differently and become curious, well-rounded lifelong learners. A 4-year college will offer an array of programs from a BSN, bridge programs, accelerated programs, second degree programs, and terminal doctoral degrees in clinical and non-clinical areas.
Vocational Schools & Trade Schools
A trade school and vocational school is geared to provide students with specific job-readiness training for career-minded individuals. Trade schools invest substantive resources to create curriculum to ensure students receive a set of skills applicable in the workforce and desirable to future employers. Typically, a vocational school will provide students with individual courses in practical nursing plus a wide assortment of adjacent learning opportunities for nursing students that include degree and certificate programs options
Community colleges have constructed a number of two-year nursing programs with a variety of pathways to a continue to a bachelor degree upon course completion. The community college model allows students to rapidly move towards a degree while gaining a valuable education within an accredited institution thus resulting in faster access to the workforce. The most common nursing programs within the community college system is the Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) and a vocational program for those seeking a certificate as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). Invest time researching community colleges near you to find the perfect match for your future nursing career.
Career Outlook and Nurse Licensure
Pursuing a career in nursing requires individuals to dedicate time to their patients, review physicians notes, a certain amount of office work, as well as help during emergency situations. Specialized nurses are more highly sought after because the higher level of skill and specialization further decreases the immediate attention of a physician, allowing for more overall patient care. Individuals looking for a long term career in nursing should consider obtaining a BSN in order to work in supervisory positions, as well as earn and maintain any certifications received. By taking continuing education courses, a nurse will be able to refresh and update any skills and knowledge he or she may have. Every state requires nurses to obtain a license, and though requirements may vary, all states require a passing score on the National Council Licensure Examination – Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN).
The four advanced practice specialties are:
- Clinical Nurse Specialists
- Nurse Practitioners (LPN)
- Nurse Anesthetists
Best Nursing Careers for College Graduates
- Job Description: At its most basic level, an RN is a general care nurse that works to prevent illness and to promote good health. An RN must be astute at asking questions to properly assess problems and knowledgeable as they work to develop care plans for patients.
- Career Options: Charge Nurse, Staff RN, Operating Room RN, Travel RN, Manager, Intensive Care Unit RN
Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Job Description: A CNS works in a hospital, medical office, health care facility, & clinic providing consultation and direct patient care. A CNS is often involved in facility administration, research, and education.
- Career Options: Pediatric Clinical Specialist, Critical Care Clinical Specialist, Cardiothoracic Clinical Specialist, Clinical Wound Specialist, Clinical Liaison, Post-Acute Clinical Navigator, Clinical Administrator.
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
- Job Description: NP’s carefully diagnose, assess, and treat patients for a variety of ailments. They can prescribe medication in most states, perform health screenings, and treat various illnesses and injuries.
- Career Options: Pediatric NP, Midwifery, Neonatal NP, Family NP, Oncology NP, Geriatric NP, Psychiatric NP, Clinical NP, Chronic Pain NP
Oncology Nurse (ON)
- Job Description: ON’s work with patients suffering from cancer. They care and educate patients in remission as well as those undergoing treatment for cancer. ON’s carefully monitor patients, prescribe medication, manage symptoms, and assist in radiation therapy & chemotherapy treatment.
- Career Options: Oncology Certified Nurse, Certified Pediatric ON, Advanced Oncology Certified NP, Instructor, Palliative Care Consultant, Patient Care Team Manager, RN Oncology, RN Medicine
- Job Description: Pediatric Nurses work with patients from birth to adolescence. They guide patients and families on best practices to avert disease, illness, and infection as well as promoting proper nutrition.
- Career Options: Maternity, RN in Pediatric Medicine, Pediatric Diabetes Nurse, Manager, Critical Care Pediatrics
- Job Description: Gerontologists blend health care with social science, psychology, and behavioral science. Professionals focus their energy to care for older patients with needs ranging from physiological changes to chronic diseases.
- Career Options: Adult-Gerontology Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse
Primary Care Nurses
- Job Description: Primary Care Nurses work with a specific patient for an extended period. A PC may work in a hospital, clinic, or in-home care environment for private patients.
- Career Options: Primary Care, Practitioner, Primary Care Clinic, Primary Health Care, Restorative Health Coordinator
Dialysis Nurse (DN)
- Job Description: A DN help treat patients suffering from kidney failure to help the kidneys function again. The DN specialization is part of a broad area of study known as nephrology which involves the care and study of kidneys.
- Career Options: Travel DN, Dialysis Charge Nurse, Hemodialysis, Inpatient DN, Office RN
Public Health Nurse (PHN)
- Job Description: A PHN is a highly specialized field of study that helps communities learn about disease prevention and treatment. Armed with a broad array of knowledge about aging, development, and parenting a PHN coaches and counsel’s patients in a variety of settings.
- Career Options: PHN, Patient Care Manager, Occupational Health, Public Health Instructor, Community Health
- Job Description: Specialists that work with patients over 50 years of age. Geriatric nurses care for patients by easing pain, hygiene assistance, routine assessments, and general treatment plans.
- Career Options: Clinical Specialist, Adult Outreach, Geriatric Community Mental Health, Geriatric Emergency Care Management
- Job Description: A Travel Nurse works in various settings for short intervals performing a wide variety of tasks. Duties can vary depending on the needs of the facility and patients thereby ensuring a diversity of duties from day to day. Daily tasks are highly important to keep a facility running efficiently yet rarely critical, life-saving activities.
- Career Options: Endless options in various sub-disciplines including ER, ICU, Oncology, Dialysis, Neonatal, Perioperative.
- Job Description: Informatics is a field of study related to the efficient and effective use of health care information and the communication of that information. Nursing informatics blends health care with computer science and information science to better manage information for the benefit of patients and the health care facility.
- Career Options: Nursing Informatics Specialist, Informatics Consultant, Clinical Analyst, Clinical Informatics Coordinator, Informatics Manager, Director of Clinical Information, Informatics Researcher, Informatics Faculty
Cardiac Nurse (CN)
- Job Description: CN’s are a specialized group that works with patients who suffer from heart problems. A CN works under the direct supervision of a cardiologist and assist with a range of heart conditions from coronary artery disease to congestive heart failure.
- Career Options: RN Cardiac Critical Care Unit, Geriatric Emergency Management, Associate Director of Care, Intensive Care Unit RN, Surgical Ambulatory Care
- Job Description: Working in the ER is a fast-paced, high stress environment for any professional. For an ER Nurse, they are required to quickly assess and treat patients ranging from the benign to life threatening variety.
- Career Options: Emergency Care, Geriatric Emergency Management, Emergency Room RN, Pediatric Emergency, Clinical Supervisor in Emergency, Emergency Mental Health Crisis Unit
Adult Health Nurse
- Job Description: Adult Health Nurses work with patients of all ages with acute and chronic illness or diseases. Some AHN professionals create long-term care plans for patients while others support treatment plans through a variety of methods.
- Career Options: Adult Primary Care Practitioner, Translational Care, Clinical Leader, Director for Clinical Services, Clinical Research RN
- Job Description: Endoscopy Nurses work with an endoscope team within a hospital to understand and assess problems within the genitourinary or digestive system.
- Career Options: RN in Endoscopy Unit, Perioperative Specialist, Ambulatory Specialist, Endoscopy Lab Technician, Endoscopy and Radiographic RN, Ambulatory Surgical Unit
Practical Nurse (PN)
- Job Description: A PN or LPN is trained to in similar practices to an RN and can manage health assessments, injections, and medication administration. A PN works under the direct supervision of an RN and is not certified to manage the same suite of activities as an RN.
- Career Options: PN, LPN, Home Care, Rehabilitation Unit, Continuing Care Assistant
- Job Description: Forensic Nursing is a newer field of study fusing health care with law. The range of responsibilities can range from inmates in prison to victims of violent crimes to legal testimony evidence.
- Career Options: Youth Forensic Services, Forensic Community Liaison, RN Forensic Psychiatry, Forensic Nurse Supervisor, Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner, Forensic Nurse Examiner, Sexual Assault Clinician, Medicolegal Death Investigator, Emergency Room, Law Enforcement Specialist
- Job Description: An OB GYN Nurse is a specialist working to treat and understand the female reproductive system. The acronym OB GYN stands for Obstetrics and Gynecology as it blends the two disciplines.
- Career Options: RN, Maternal Home Visit Specialist, Perinatal Unit, Manager, Lactation Consultant RN, Project Director, Midwife, Doula, Ultrasound Technician
Job Growth and Nurse Salary
Jobs for registered nurses (RN) are expected to grow rapidly. The reason for the expected growth is due to the aging and growing population of the United States, requiring more healthcare professionals to assist ailing individuals. Demographic and geographic factors may apply in regards to where the growth will appear fastest and demand will be highest. RNs that enter one of the four specialties and BSNs will be in higher demand than others. The average salary for a nurse is $62,500 per year with the lowest 10% earning less than $43,400.
States with Highest Employment of Registered Nurses
- California 274,650
- Texas 207,810
- New York 180,730
- Florida 174,710
- Pennsylvania 139,480
Highest Paying States for Registered Nurses
- California $101,750
- Massachusetts $89,060
- Hawaii $88,910
- Oregon $87,000
- Alaska $86,450
Highest Paying Cities for Registered Nurses
- San Francisco, CA $136,610
- Santa Cruz, CA $124,920
- Vallejo, CA $124,380
- San Jose, CA $120,680
- Salinas, CA $120,120
- Oakland, CA $117,880
- San Rafael, CA $117,550
- Sacramento, CA $113,440
- Napa, CA $109,460
- Modesto, CA $108,780
Top Employers of Registered Nurses
- Medical and Surgical Hospitals 1,649,480
- Physicians’ Offices 196,540
- Home Health Care Providers 179,280
- Nursing Care Facilities 157,530
- Outpatient Care Centers 128,180
Additional Resources for Nursing Students
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing
- American Nurses Association
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses
- National Student Nurses Association
- Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation
- National Health Services Corps
- Nurses Educational Funds, Inc.
- National Black Nurses Association
- Academy Health
- Oncology Nursing Society
- Diversity Nursing
- National Association of Neonatal Nurses
- Council of Graduate Schools
For additional information about the nursing profession, read our Complete Guide to Nursing on the MatchCollege blog.