Nurses are expected to have the caring bedside manner of Florence Nightingale coupled with a keen understanding of nursing theory, principles and ethics. When lives are on the line, nurses must use both warm compassion and calm, clinical reason in order to reach a wise decision in time. This is a balancing act that takes years of training to cultivate. And as their skills become more sharp and advanced, nurses often choose to concentrate on a specialization, conduct research, or help the next generation of nurses develop their craft — all of which can require even more knowledge and experience to accomplish.

From entry-level physician’s assistants all the way up to clinic-leading nursing managers, nurses need education to attain their career goals. This section describes the different available levels of that education. Our degree pages can help aspiring nurses to understand the different levels of nursing education and how each level can advance a career in the field. This understanding is a vital part of planning a future in this rewarding and challenging profession.

Associate Degrees

Nursing associate degree programs lay the foundation for a career by covering the basics that people need to learn for an entry-level position at a hospital, doctor’s office, home health care facility or nursing home. When associate-level students have completed their coursework, they should have the theoretical knowledge and practical skills needed to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and meet state licensing criteria to enter the profession.

During the two years it usually takes to complete degrees on this level, students are expected to become familiar with evidence-based nursing practices, as well as the critical thinking skills needed to make accurate clinical decisions. They may learn how to conduct patient assessments, choose appropriate medications, and use medical equipment efficiently. In addition, students are exposed to legal and ethical principles for the field, as well as the communication skills necessary to connect with patients and their families.

Bachelor's Degrees

Bachelor’s-level degree programs are designed to convey a more comprehensive education than an associate degree program offers. This makes these programs well-suited for students who know they want to reach a high-level nursing position, or for professionals who already have some nursing experience.

At this level, students are expected to learn how to provide holistic care to different populations in a community, plan effective preventative patient care, educate patients and their families about the treatments being provided, and give care across the lifespan spectrum. Students in these programs are also required to take coursework in the humanities, which rounds out their education with additional skillsets they can bring to their nursing practice.

While an associate program can teach students the fundamentals they need to earn a nursing license, many employers favor those who have earned bachelor’s degrees because of the more advanced nature of these programs. Some of the job opportunities available to graduates of nursing bachelor’s degree programs include school, public health, hospital and psychiatric nursing.

Master's Degrees

After nurses have become adept at providing general care, they may decide they want to take their skills and career to the next level, either by specializing in a particular type of nursing or by assuming more medical and clinical responsibilities. To reach this next level of their career, nurses often enroll in a master’s degree program.

On this advanced graduate degree level, students can focus on subjects such as family nursing practice, public health, nursing informatics, pain management, and pediatrics. Although specifics can vary wildly depending on the program, master’s-level programs are generally designed to build on students’ existing knowledge and skills. They may approach this goal by teaching research methods, advanced pharmacology, managerial strategies, pedagogical techniques and more.

After they have completed their master’s degree, graduates often look for employment in their specialty — usually as advanced practice nurse practitioners (NPs). However, some may move on to earn a doctoral-level degree.

Doctoral Degrees

The doctoral degree level is the highest level of organized higher education in the United States. By the time people pursue doctoral nursing degrees, chances are they have practiced in the field for several years and they’re ready to take a leadership role to help train the next generation of nurses, either as a nursing instructor or a nursing manager.

There are two kinds of nursing programs on this level that students can choose from: a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). A PhD program is geared towards nurses who aspire to add to the knowledge base through research or who desire to become a college professor. These programs cover advanced nursing theory and research methods in a variety of forms.

On the other hand, students who enroll in a DNP must also understand advanced nursing concepts. However, instead of focusing on research and study, their goal is to put these principles into practice in the workplace to deliver the highest level of care or supervise other nurses. These programs may require students to take courses in health policy, fiscal analysis, acute care, advanced assessment techniques, and/or clinical data management.

Undergraduate Certificates

Undergraduate certificates are another avenue that nurses can take in order to advance in their careers. They can be a convenient choice for many professionals, as they allow them to specialize in a certain area of nursing, but they are not as time-consuming as advanced degree programs; often they take no longer than a year to complete.

Students who enroll in these programs complete intensive coursework related to their concentration, honing the skills and expertise that can help them earn a nursing position in that specialization. Examples of undergraduate nursing certificate programs include programs in nursing informatics, forensic nursing, leadership, oncology, and gerontology.

Bridge Programs

Sometimes, whether it is due to a break from school, a few missing courses, a transfer fiasco, or something different, nurses have a gap in their knowledge that stops them going from Point A to Point B of their education. Nursing bridge programs are there to fill that gap, but in a particularly helpful way. These intermediary programs account for the information that a student should know based on their previous education and does not require it as part of their program completion. In other words, bridge programs help students earn degrees without requiring them to take duplicate coursework that they’ve already completed.

For example, registered nurses who enroll in a RN-to-BSN programs may be able to cut the time it takes them to earn a bachelor’s degree in half. The program accounts for the classes they have previously completed and the practical experience they have gained through their career, and instead focuses on fresh topics such as community health, management and leadership, and nursing informatics. Other types of bridge programs include RN-to-MSN, BSN-to-Doctorate, and DNP-to-PhD.

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