studying nursing online

Although most nurses provide care for those who are ill or injured, there is a broad range of settings with various areas of specialization where they can work. Training for the nursing field is also varied: you can become an entry-level nursing assistant with only a few months of training, whereas other kinds of nurses study for years to earn their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

How do you know which type of nursing education is right for you? In this article, we’ll break down the variety of degrees you can earn to enter the nursing field and talk about what each level of training qualifies you to do.

Associate Degree in Nursing

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) prepares nursing students for the NCLEX-RN exam and subsequent licensure. Once licensed, you can work as a registered nurse (RN) or continue your education. It takes about two years to earn this degree, although some institutions have fast-track programs, and this degree can be completed either online or in a more traditional classroom setting.

You need a high school diploma or GED credential to enter an ADN program. Your program may ask for previous nursing experience, but this is not always required. An ADN can be the logical next step if you already have a nursing certificate or have worked as a nursing assistant.

In an ADN program, you will study topics that include chemistry, microbiology, communications, and nursing foundations. Most ADN programs require you to spend time doing clinical work. In some states, clinical work is necessary to apply for your nursing license. Your clinical time will allow you to practice the concepts you have studied in the classroom in real-world locations such as hospitals, nursing homes, or other medical centers.

Your career options following your graduation are many. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs earn an average of $77,600 annually. The job outlook for RNs is positive: the BLS says the field is growing by 6% each year, with an estimated need of 195,400 new RNs by 2031.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree is the most common degree that RNs earn. Although you can earn your licensure following a two-year associate degree program, the more robust education you receive at the BSN level gives you additional training, making you more employable and better able to gain leadership positions or continue to further studies.

A BSN program is four years of higher education or two years if you already have your associate degree. However, fast-track programs also allow you to earn your degree in less time. BSN programs are frequently offered online, and many schools feature online RN-to-BSN programs, which can take as little as one year to complete.

The salary range is broad for bachelor-trained nurses. According to the BLS, RNs earn an average of $77,600 annually. Nurses in some specialty areas, however, may make considerably more. According to, for example, a cardiac nurse may earn as much as $166,782.

BSN programs include all the material you would learn in an associate-level program, plus additional study in the physical and social sciences, research, public health, and management. Generally, there is a clinical component that students must complete for graduation. A four-year BSN program will include roughly 120 credit hours of work in the classroom and the field. However, some schools give credit for professional hours worked.

Master of Science in Nursing

Nurses with a BSN degree may continue to a master’s level of education if they wish. This degree allows them to specialize in a particular area of nursing, such as midwifery, nursing education, or pediatric care nursing. They may see an increase in their salary at this level of education and are likely to be able to apply for — and successfully gain — positions that carry a great degree of responsibility.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs take one to three years to complete. Some programs admit registered nurses who do not have a BSN, whereas others require a bachelor’s degree for admittance. Programs can be taken online or on campus and may have a clinical component. In MSN programs, you will likely take nursing management practices, health policy, and nursing leadership courses. You will also likely be required to declare a particular area of focus for your studies.

Masters-level nurses work as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners, among other specialties. The BLS reports that the median pay of an RN with MSN training is $123,780 annually. An even more important statistic is this: the need for masters-trained nurses is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade, which is much faster than average. This job growth means that there are likely to be more jobs available than nurses to fill them so that you will have a broader range of career choices available.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

The DNP is the terminal degree in the nursing field. Nurses can also opt to earn a doctorate in nursing, but this option is more research-focused and well-suited for those who wish to teach or work in academia. Although only about 2% of all nurses continue their education to this level,  some excellent reasons to consider earning one of these two degrees.

One benefit is that you will be well-equipped for the highest level of management jobs in nursing. These positions often pay into six figures and require supervision skills. This educational route can also prepare you for a nurse practitioner career. In 23 states, DNP nurses can open their own clinics and practice without a doctor’s supervision.

Nurses with DNPs or doctorates are also qualified to teach at the university level, conduct research, publish, and play a role in setting policy standards at the state and federal levels.

A DNP program may take three to five years of full-time study, with some time spent doing clinical work. However, students may earn the degree in less time if they already possess an MSN. Accelerated programs may take 18 months or longer for those who can attend classes full-time.

A DNP program requires you to be able to conduct research at a high level and understand health care at a system-wide level. A DNP program assumes that you already have an excellent grasp on the basics of nursing and will instead focus on helping you build skills to become a nursing leader in your area of expertise. You will likely need to have a particular area of specialty in your program, whether it is nursing education, family practice, pediatric care, or some other topic of interest to you.

Interested in another degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.