To the uninitiated, nursing seems to be a pretty general category of employment with similar educational requirements for all who participate. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are literally dozens of types of nursing programs one could enter depending on the career he or she is after. Before a nursing student even enters school it's a good idea for the individual to speak with counselors in order to set some educational and career objectives. That makes choosing the right program a little bit easier.
We have included below most of the major nursing programs currently available. Please keep in mind that both the list and the accompanying descriptions are general in nature. There is no way to provide a fully comprehensive list because there are so many different schools offering different types of programs. This list is intended to be a guide to help you get a better handle on the direction you want to go in.
Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse
The first and most basic level of nursing is that of the licensed practical nurse (LPN); in some states this level is also known as the licensed vocational nurse (LVN). To start in this entry-level position typically only requires a one-year program and the passing of a licensing exam. The licensing exam is a combination of the nationally recognized NCLEX-PN examination and any other testing requirements that may be required by your state. It's important to note that licenses are generally only recognized in the state where they are earned.
Associate Program for LPN's
LPN's interested in taking the NCLEX exam later on will need to enroll in an associate degree program for further education. Such a program enhances the practical skills the LPN has already gained through a one-year certification program and/or on-the-job experience. While the program and its subsequent exam won't necessarily increase earning power or advancement potential, it does provide official credits for basic nursing skills that could be used later on in continuing education.
Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN)
The ASN degree is perhaps the most popular program for students who wish to become an entry-level registered nurse. It is a two-year course which focuses heavily on the practical, day-to-day tasks of nursing in a hospital or clinical environment. The advantage of seeking this degree is that it allows individuals to begin working as a registered nurse after only two years, as opposed to a four year bachelor degree program. When you consider the salary difference between the registered nurse and the LPN, this can be quite attractive.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Like the ASN degree, the BSN program is extremely popular because so many hospitals and clinics require this degree as a prerequisite for even entry-level positions. In addition, the BSN is more and more being considered the bare minimum for registered nursing. As the thinking goes, as long as nurses are going to be paid as well as they are, employers are going to require them to have significant education and experience. Most BSN programs are a minimum four years, split between liberal arts and nursing-specific courses.
Bachelor Program for LPNs
The bachelor program for LPNs is designed to allow nurses to complete their four year program while working as LPNs. The difference between this program and a standard bachelor degree program is that it can be completed within four semesters as opposed to four calendar years. The program takes advantage of the fact that the LPN already has a certain amount of education as well as significant practical experience through working. These types of programs are quickly gaining popularity due to changes in the nursing vocation as a whole.
Bachelor Programs for RNs
As previously mentioned, it's not uncommon for registered nurses to begin working as soon as they complete an associate degree and pass the licensing exam. However, many of them choose this path as a means of getting into the workforce while they pursue the requirements of a bachelor degree. This program can typically be completed in two years or less because it gives credit for the practical experience already gained as a working registered nurse. As an interesting side note, nearly 1/3 of all registered nurses with a bachelor degree earn it through such a program.
For nursing students who have already completed two years of liberal arts education in a non-nursing program, the availability of the secondary/accelerated BSN is a godsend. Because they've already completed their general education requirements prior to enrollment, programs like these will not require them to repeat those first two years. They will be given credit for their general education and put into an accelerated program that will allow them to earn their full BSN degree in no more than two years.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
Typically known simply as a master degree, the MSN degree requires an additional two years of education beyond the BSN. Therefore, completing the entire course from scratch would require a minimum of six years of education. There are some accelerated masters programs for individuals with BSN degrees and a certain number of years of experience. Those who earn master degrees are eligible to work as nurse practitioners or nurses in other high profile specialties. Some holders of master degrees forgo practical nursing altogether and enter hospital or business administration as an alternative.
MSN for Registered Nurses
As we've seen with some of the other degree programs, registered nurses who wish to earn a masters can do so immediately after earning a bachelor degree under one of these programs. The MSN for registered nurses takes into account experience gained on the job plus the education previously received in the associate and bachelor programs.
This is similar to the secondary/accelerated program for a BSN. It is designed for nursing candidates who have earned their lesser degrees in another field. Also known as "direct entry", these programs give academic credit, where applicable, for the previously gained education. By being able to forgo repeating the liberal arts portion of the educational requirements, and being put into an accelerated nursing program, students who pursue a master's degree through this type of program avoid most educational overlap.
After earning either a BSN or MSN degree nurses can go on to earn specialty certificates in a specific area of interest. These certificates are evidence of special skills and knowledge required for a particular line of work. Typically they are earned through a brief educational course followed by an exam provided by the American Nurses Association. Certificates are a valuable tool for upward mobility and increased salary. Some certificates, like those necessary to work as a nurse practitioner or nurse midwife, are unavailable to those with just a bachelor degree. Such certificates require an MSN degree before they can be earned.
Doctorate Nursing Programs
A doctorate degree will most likely be necessary for nurses who wish to get into the fields of research or administration. They will require an additional 4 to 6 years beyond the master degree program, and will include areas of intense study specifically devoted to administration. Additionally, a doctorate degree in education allows the nurse to work in areas, such as education, that shape and define the nursing profession into the future. This particular program adds another 3 to 5 years beyond the master degree.
There are several other doctorate programs which are brand-new to the field. Each of these programs requires a different time commitment from candidates and prepares them for different careers. Areas covered by these programs include research, scientific study, healthcare delivery methods, public policy, educational development, and healthcare-related economics.
Concluding Thoughts on Nursing Programs
It must be noted that with most of the programs listed there is always the option of combining multiple programs simultaneously. The idea in doing so is to take advantage of time spent in education to gain as much training as possible in areas that might overlap. By combining degree programs students avoid repeating some of the same material as they move from one level to the next.
Remember, as was stated at the beginning of this article, the list presented here does have quite a bit of variation depending on the chosen area of specialty and the schools a candidate is looking at. It is helpful to seek the advice of school counselors and nurses already in the profession to help you get an idea of your career goals. If you've already started your education and you're unsure of your current track, don't be afraid to ask questions. By gleaning from the experience of other nurses you'll be better prepared to make sure you are making the best decisions possible.