Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 6, 2021

Interested in a career in nursing? Find out what degree or credential will get you there.

A nurse practitioner stands with her colleague in a hospital room with a computer screen in the background.

Nursing ranks among the largest healthcare professions in the US. The number of nurse positions is projected to grow at a much faster than average rate compared with other careers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. But there’s more than one path to becoming a nurse.

Getting started in this in-demand field might involve earning a certification or pursuing a master’s degree, depending on your career goals. We’ll take a closer look at the types of nursing degrees and certifications you can choose from, and why each might be the best for you.

Levels of nursing degrees and certifications

If you’re interested in starting or advancing your career as a nurse, you have a few different degree options to choose from. It’s also possible to become a nurse with no degree at all. Let’s go over your options.

CNA certification

Earning your certified nursing assistant (CNA) credential allows you to quickly begin a career without having to earn a degree. CNAs assist individuals with mental or physical disabilities with day-to-day needs. Many CNAs work in assisted living facilities, rehabilitation centers, or nursing homes, or offer in-home care. 

Daily tasks of a CNA might include:

  • Helping patients to bathe and dress

  • Recording vital signs

  • Administering medication

  • Providing companionship 

Certification requirements: Becoming a CNA requires completing a state-approved training program. This typically involves four to 12 weeks of study and a set number of supervised clinical hours. Most programs require a high school diploma or equivalent.

CNA salary: The median annual salary for CNAs and orderlies (as of 2020) was $30,830 per year or $14.82 per hour according to BLS [2].

Who’s it for? Choose a CNA certification if you’d like to get started in patient care straight out of high school. It’s also a great way to see whether a nursing career is right for you without a big time or monetary commitment. 

Advancement: If you decide a career in nursing is a good fit, you can use your CNA certification as a stepping stone toward earning a nursing degree.

LPN/LVN certification

Licensed practical nurses (known as licensed vocational nurses in Texas and California) work on the front lines of patient care, assisting doctors and registered nurses.

LPNs and LVNs often work at hospitals, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities. Daily tasks are similar to but more extensive than those of CNAs and might include supervising CNAs.

Certification requirements: Becoming an LPN requires completing a state-approved training program. These programs offer classroom learning in nursing, biology, and pharmacology, as well as supervised clinical experience. Once you’ve finished the program, you can take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) to earn your license. 

LVN and LPN salary: LVNs and LPNs earn median pay of $48,820 per year or $23.47 per hour (as of 2020) according to BLS [3].

Who’s it for? Earning your LPN/LVN credential is an excellent option if you know you’re interested in a career in nursing and want to get started in as little as a year. 

Advancement: Once you’re an LPN, you can elevate your job prospects with specialized certifications (such as IV therapy or CPR). Complete an LPN-to-RN degree program to become a registered nurse.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

One of the quickest paths to becoming a registered nurse (RN) is through an associate degree program. An associate’s degree in nursing typically takes two years of full-time study at a community college or university. The degree qualifies you to take the NCLEX-RN examination for licensure in your state. 

These programs combine coursework in nursing with more general coursework in both science and liberal arts. 

RNs work in a variety of healthcare facilities and organizations, including hospitals, physician’s offices, schools, and clinics. In this role, you’ll typically work alongside physicians and other healthcare professionals to:

  • Evaluate patients

  • Devise treatment plans

  • Administer treatment

  • Operate medical equipment

ADN requirements: While admission requirements vary by school, most include a high school diploma or equivalent, standardized test scores (SAT or ACT), and a passing score on the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) Admissions Assessment exam. 

RN salary: The median pay for registered nurses in 2020 was $75,330 per year or $36.22 per hour according to the BLS [4]. This includes RNs at the bachelor degree level. Generally speaking, the more advanced your degree, the more you can expect to earn as an RN.

Who’s it for? Consider an ADN if you’re looking to start your professional nursing career or advance from an LPN/LVN position. This degree allows you to get started earning money and experience without the expense and time commitment of a four-year degree. ADN programs tend to offer greater flexibility with classes on evenings and weekends. 

Advancement: Once you’re a licensed RN, you can go on to earn your bachelor’s degree in nursing through an accelerated RN-to-BSN program. Credits from your ADN may transfer so you can complete a BSN in as little as one additional year of study.

With this higher degree, you can qualify for higher-paying and more supervisory roles. Some hospitals offer tuition reimbursement for bridge programs for employees.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Most entry-level RNs have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Earning a BSN typically takes four years of full-time study. This is typically divided between general education courses and nursing and clinical rotation coursework. Like the ADN, it qualifies you to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. 

In addition to enhancing your opportunity for better-paying jobs, BSN coursework helps you advance your clinical skills so you can offer better, more effective care to your patients. RNs with a BSN degree can often move into management and administrative positions or get jobs at Magnet hospitals (designated as the best in the country). 

BSN requirements: Requirements will vary by school but generally include a high school diploma or equivalent, ACT and SAT scores, and interviews. Some programs require you to complete two years of general coursework with a minimum GPA before you’re accepted into the nursing program. 

Who’s it for? Choosing a BSN degree opens up a greater number of opportunities in the nursing field. If you’re considering pursuing a master’s degree in the future, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree as a requirement.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Earning a master’s degree in nursing opens up numerous career options in the nursing field as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Serve as a primary or specialty care provider as a nurse practitioner (NP), or pursue a career in anesthesiology, midwifery, or clinical nursing. 

Most MSN programs take around two years of full-time study to complete. This might be longer for part-time programs or shorter for accelerated programs. The degree will qualify you to sit an exam for advanced licensure as a:

  • Nurse practitioner (NP)

  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)

  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)

  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM)

MSN requirements: Most MSN programs prefer candidates with a BSN, though some schools offer bridge programs for RNs with an associate’s degree. You’ll usually need at least a year of clinical experience as an RN, as well as graduate-level standardized test scores (GRE, MAT, GMAT, or MCAT).

APRN salary: APRNs earn a median salary of $117,670 per year ($56.57 per hour) according to the BLS (2020) [5]. Nurse anesthetists typically earn the highest salaries, followed by NPs and nurse midwives. 

Who’s it for? If you’re a practicing RN who’s ready to advance your career, an MSN degree could be right for you. 

Advancement: While many APRNs stop at the master’s degree level, others go on to earn a doctorate or PhD in the nursing field.

Joint master’s degrees in nursing (MPH, MHA, MBA)

If your career goals involve higher-level positions in the healthcare field, you might consider a dual degree. In this model, you’ll complete two graduate programs at the same time. Popular options include an MSN paired with a:

  • Master of Public Health (MPH): Learn how clinical practice and community wellness go hand in hand as you work toward leadership positions in government and public health organizations. 

  • Master of Business Administration: Prepare yourself for executive-level roles in hospitals and large healthcare organizations with advanced coursework in both nursing and business strategies. This is best for experienced nurses with a BSN who want to pursue leadership positions.

  • Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA): This dual degree offers nurses a path to advancement to management roles in healthcare and educational settings. You’ll enjoy greater job flexibility as you choose between clinical or administrative roles.

Expect to study full-time for two to three years to complete a joint master’s degree (longer for part-time students). You’ll typically have to apply to each program separately. 

Doctoral degrees in nursing

At the doctoral level nursing students have two main options, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a PhD in nursing. Both typically take three to five years to complete.

The DNP is the highest degree you can earn in clinical nursing. This terminal degree qualifies you for the most in-demand positions in nursing management and leadership. Nurses with a DNP degree can also operate their own private practices in 23 states. As educational requirements for nursing shift toward higher-level learning, advanced practice registered nurses will likely need a DNP in the future. 

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs in nursing prepare you for science-related careers in nursing education, healthcare policy, and scientific research.

DNP and PhD requirements: Depending on the school, doctoral programs in nursing often require a master’s degree from an accredited nursing program and nursing experience. DNP programs typically require an APRN license while PhD programs might only require a valid RN license.

Who’s it for? Earning a terminal nursing degree sets you up as a respected leader in the field of nursing with advanced skills that could keep you in demand for years to come.  

Online vs. on-campus nursing degrees

No matter what level of nursing degree you’re pursuing, chances are you have the option to earn your degree online or in person. Both options have their own benefits and drawbacks. 

Accredited online programs are becoming increasingly popular for their value and flexibility. Many programs let you study at your own pace so you can continue gaining valuable nursing experience, earning a paycheck, and managing other obligations. You can choose from programs around the country instead of being limited to those in your area. Online classes are sometimes less expensive than their onsite counterparts, even though you’re usually covering the same materials.  

On-campus programs offer a structured schedule and in-person interaction that can help keep nursing students on track. Earning your degree in an on-campus setting also gives you access to university amenities and facilities that might not be available online.

Since nursing is a hands-on profession, most certificate and degree programs require some amount of supervised clinical experience. If you’re enrolled in an online nursing program, you can often complete your clinical hours at an approved location in your area.

Experience online degree learning

Experience for yourself what it’s like to earn a degree online by trying an open course from a top university.

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Is a nursing degree worth it?

Working toward a degree in nursing requires time and money. You should consider your personal career goals and lifestyle as you decide what degree or certification is right for you. While you can begin a career in nursing without a degree, earning one unlocks more advanced skills, new career opportunities, and higher earning potential.

Nurse levelMedian annual salary
CNA$30,830
LPN/LVN$48,820
RN$75,330
Nurse Midwife (APRN)$111,130
Nurse practioner (APRN)$111,680
Nurse Anesthetist (APRN)$183,580

Median annual salaries by level of nurse in 2020 (BLS)

Remember that many nursing degrees offer bridge programs. Start with a more basic degree or certification, and work your way to a higher degree once you’re ready.

Other careers in healthcare

Nursing may be the most popular field in healthcare, but it’s not the only one. If you’re interested in helping others live healthier lives, here are some alternative career paths to consider.

  • Medical technicians collect samples and perform tests on bodily fluids and tissues to help evaluate health issues.

  • Public health specialists work toward making communities as healthy as possible.

  • Healthcare administrators help coordinate the business practices of healthcare providers and facilities.

  • Paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) perform emergency medical services and transport patients to hospitals.

  • Pharmacists dispense medication and offer advice on the safe use of prescriptions. 

  • Physician assistants (PAs) serve as healthcare providers alongside physicians and nurses.

  • Specialized therapists offer targeted care to patients with specific needs, like breathing trouble (respiratory therapist), disabilities or injuries (recreational, occupational, or physical therapists), or cancer (radiation therapist).

Next steps

You don’t have to enroll in a nursing program to get a feel for whether nursing fits your career goals. Experience what earning an online nursing degree is like by taking a course in vital signs, clinical terminology, infection prevention, or medical emergencies. If you’re ready to take the next step toward a career in healthcare, explore the healthcare degree programs available through Coursera.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 6, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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