Nurse studying pathology

Overview: The Nurse Education Infrastructure

One of the best things about nursing is that entry into this profession (and career advancement once you’re in) is both encouraged and facilitated. This is evident with bridge programs specifically designed for working nurses to further education as well as accelerated or second-degree programs allowing a “fast-track” for college graduates without a nursing background.

Fortunately, many nursing schools have more than one entry option. For example, if you have an associates degree, you can still find master’s programs that will admit you even without a bachelor’s. Likewise, you don’t need a master’s to start a doctoral program. You can even apply to a grad program without a single nursing degree to your name. Of course, in each case, you’ll spend more time in the program than those who have previous nursing education.

Not only is nursing a field that truly cultivates professional growth – the high level of organization and internal communication within its academic infrastructure keeps redundancy at a minimum and makes advancing your career as seamless as possible.

Choose the degree level you are interested in to learn more:

Undergraduate Nursing Degrees

Illustrated profile of male nurseWith almost 3 million jobs, registered nurses occupy the largest health care profession in the United States. According to the American Nurses Association, about half of registered nurses (RNs) currently practicing hold either an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN or ASN) or a nursing diploma. However, the trend for new nursing students is toward four-year bachelor’s-degree programs.

This trend has much to do with the fact that nurses with associates degrees are restricted to less specialized roles and that a BSN or higher level of education is being anticipated for professional nurses in the future.


ADN and ASN programs take about two years (full-time) to complete are are usually offered at community colleges. They’re rigorous and focused on building core competencies in areas like health communications, health assessment, clinical decision making, medical intervention, health technologies, and care management. With their fast pace and their emphasis on clinical experience, these programs provide the quickest and least expensive path into a professional nursing career. In order to practice, you’ll need to pass the licensing exam for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Some two-year colleges also offer a practical nursing diploma, which is a shorter program (usually about a year long) that concentrates on nursing basics. At the end of such a program, you’ll take the licensing exam for practical nurses (NCLEX-PN), which qualifies you to work in nursing support positions as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a licensed vocational nurse (LVN).


Although you can become a registered nurse (RN) with only an associate’s degree, nurses who commit to more years of education and earn the bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.) have access to better employment and advancement opportunities. The push is for the BSN degree to become the “gold standard” for entry-level RN roles. Nurses with associate’s degrees often go back to school to earn their bachelor’s. Many nursing programs have special admissions policies and streamlined curricula for LPNs and RNs who want to return to school but need to work, too. Employers often help pay tuition while their nurses study for the BSN.

If high school is your highest level of education, then you would apply to a 4-year BSN program. If you’re a non-nursing student already enrolled in school, you can change your major to nursing if your school has a program, otherwise consider transferring to another school which offers the BSN. For those of you already holding a non-nursing baccalaureate degree, you can enroll in a “second degree” or “accelerated” BSN program. These programs generally involve 1.5 to 2 years of schooling, though some can be completed as early as 12 months.

The National League for Nursing and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing accredit BSN programs that meet their criteria. These educational guidelines stress the experience of a broad-based liberal education, the teaching of ethics and professional values, the development of core nursing skills and knowledge, and the opportunity for clinical experience.

In your final year of nursing school, you’ll begin to pull together everything you’ve learned, from the basic science course work of the first year to the practical experiences of your clinical work, in order to prepare for the standardized NCLEX-RN exam.

Graduate Nursing Degrees

Silhouette of a nursing studentGraduate school opens many doors for nurses. With a master’s or doctoral degree, you can specialize and care for patients more independently or move away from direct patient care into another field such as administration. In fact, to get certified as an advanced-practice nurse, you’ll need at least a master’s degree – and in the future, you might need to earn an even higher degree, the doctor of nursing practice (DNP).

If you want to contribute to the foundation of nursing science and know-how, it’s a research career you’re looking for and a PhD program you should consider.


MS and MSN programs both award a masters degree in nursing and usually take two years to complete. Depending on their emphases, they prepare students for advanced practice in nursing or for work that involves little or no direct patient care – for example, in administration, education, or forensic nursing. For students interested in blending patient care with administration, the new clinical nurse leader programs are an option.

If you want to become an advanced practice nurse, you’ll typically choose between nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, and nurse-midwife. If you choose one of the first two options, you’ll also need to decide on a specialization.

These are the most widely offered tracks in master’s degree programs preparing nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists:

  • Acute care
  • Adult
  • Family
  • Geriatric
  • Neonatal
  • Oncology
  • Pediatric
  • Psychiatric/mental health
  • Women’s health

Whichever track you choose, you’ll take both core courses and courses that deal with your specialization. As you dig into your specialization, you’ll take courses focused on the population you’ll be serving and the role you’ll be filling. But you’ll also spend hundreds of hours in practicums, getting hands-on clinical experience with real patients in health-care settings. In addition to serving practicums and taking courses, you might have the opportunity to conduct independent research and submit a thesis paper or capstone project that shows off your new skills and knowledge.

What are direct-entry or MSN bridge programs?

If you have a baccalaureate in a non-nursing major, you can still earn an MSN degree through a “direct-entry” program. Designed for 4-year college graduates without a BSN or RN license (usually completely new to nursing), direct-entry MSN programs enable you to earn your RN in as little as 12 months, followed by another 1-2 years of schooling and clinical education according to the area you’re specializing in.

Also referred to an entry-level master’s (ELM) or MSN bridge, some direct-entry programs result in a master’s in general nursing. In this case, further training and certification is typically required to practice in a specific APRN role. However, a growing number of MSN bridge programs can put you in an advanced practice role right after graduation, however the lesser amount of nursing experience these students possess by virtue of moving directly from a non-nursing baccalaureate to a direct-entry nursing master’s can make securing jobs in advanced positions challenging without gaining more experience first. Because of this, for some the better option may be to complete an accelerated BSN program first and then go into a specific APRN master’s program.

What are dual degree MSN programs?

MSN/MBA or MHA joint-degree programs allow you to earn your MSN (or MS) in nursing and your master of business or health administration at the same time – in anywhere from two and a half to four years of full-time study. When you graduate, you’ll have the advanced nursing skills and business know-how to make business decisions, manage patient-care and health programs, and hold management positions in the health-care field. Usually these programs are offered jointly by a school of nursing and a school of business or public health.

The advantage to completing the joint program rather than two separate degrees is that you’ll be better able to integrate the two fields. Your business or administration courses will give you a strong foundation in general business or health management. And your nursing courses will help you apply your business knowledge to the field of nursing and give you a comprehensive understanding of nursing administration.


Formerly known as Nursing Doctorate (ND), DNP programs award a degree called the doctor of nursing practice, which is one of the two highest degrees you can earn in the field. The other, the Ph.D., is described below. While the Ph.D. program trains students to conduct original research as nurse scientists, the DNP is all about the practice of nursing. You’ll still learn a lot about research, but you’ll focus on applying it to patient care.

Although the DNP is very new on the scene, programs that award it are growing quickly. In the near future, the DNP has been targeted or proposed to become the academic requirement for new grads entering into advanced practice nursing. The two APRN professions which have proposed dates are nurse practitioning (by 2015) and nursing anesthesia (by 2025). For the former it’s not going to happen by that date, however, there is still an active push by various organizations for it to happen in the future. On the other hand, regarding CRNA education standards, there still is a chance of the transition being successful a decade from now.

Some schools admit students with only a bachelor’s degree in nursing to DNP programs. Others require the master’s for admission, but many of these schools are planning to make changes in the near future so that they can accommodate students who don’t hold a master’s.

If you enter with only a bachelor’s degree, you can expect to spend three to four years in the program. You’ll probably begin by earning an MS or MSN, choosing a specialization and following a program like the one described above. Once you finish that phase of your studies, you’ll fulfill the same requirements as your peers who entered with a master’s degree.

Students who enter with a master’s degree will probably take two years to graduate. They’ll build on their experience in advanced-practice nursing and their master’s-level course work with classes that cover the following topics:

  • Using research evidence to shape the ways in which patients are cared for in the future
  • Measuring the quality and safety of patient care
  • Leading, designing, and evaluating systems for delivering health care
  • Using information systems to improve health care
  • Health-care policy
  • Public health

But you won’t spend all your time in the classroom – far from it. In the post-master’s phase of your studies you’ll spend about five hundred clinical hours in practicums and residencies, getting more hands-on experience. Students who enter with a bachelor’s degree will rack up a total of at least one thousand clinical hours in the program.

DNP candidates also turn in a final project that synthesizes all they’ve learned in books and from patients. The final project takes many forms – such as a pilot study, program evaluation, quality improvement project, or literature review – but is always focused on applications to nursing practice.


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing programs prepare students primarily to lead original research projects and add to the body of knowledge about nursing, often at the most fundamental levels. Graduates find work at colleges and universities – where they also teach – and other organizations that foster research and shape health-care policy. PhD nurses carry out independent studies, take part in research of multiple disciplines and build and share data/information with the purpose of bettering the provision of health care and patient outcomes.

Most programs admit students with or without a master’s degree in nursing. If you enter with only a bachelor’s degree, you can expect to spend at least four years taking core courses and electives and researching your dissertation. If you enter with a master’s degree, you’ll finish more quickly, possibly in three years. However, it often takes longer to meet all the degree requirements.

Required core courses emphasize sophisticated research skills and concepts and typically cover the following subjects:

  • Advanced, multivariate statistics
  • Experiment design
  • Health-care policy
  • Nursing science
  • Philosophy of science or knowledge
  • Qualitative research methods
  • Quantitative research methods
  • Scientific measurement
  • Theory construction and development

As preparation for striking out on your own to research your dissertation, you’ll likely get hands-on, guided experience in a research practicum. Once you complete this requirement as well as your course work, you’ll probably take a qualifying exam. Finally, you’ll begin your dissertation research. Some programs also offer training in educational theories and practices so that students are well prepared for post-secondary teaching.

Nursing Bridge Programs

Floating purple heartBridge programs for professional, working nurses serve an essential purpose for career advancement in nursing. They allow you to keep your current schedule in most cases and can even be considered in your academic planning before you start practicing as a nurse.

If you’re looking to earn a BSN (or MSN) degree but currently not in a position to manage the time or finances to enroll into a 4-year university, you have the option of first earning licensure as an LPN or Registered Nurse through a nursing diploma or associate degree program then eventually going into a bridge program following acquisition of a nursing license. You can rest easy knowing the infrastructure of nursing education is built around bridging academic gaps and making degree advancement as seamless as possible.

The key advantage of opting for this path is that a growing number of these programs are completely online, which allows you to work while advancing your education. These programs, sometimes referred to as mobility programs are accredited and provide a similar education or didactic training as established campus-based schools. The difference is these mobility programs are a lot more practical for many students, notably for those holding full-time schedules with work and/or family.

Nurse carrying a clipboardAt the same time, you’ll have to be highly self-motivated and efficient with proper time management and organizational skills to successfully complete an online nursing degree program. If you’re planning on taking a mobility program, make sure to inquire about how the school manages the clinical practicum requirements. Certain bridge programs have residency criteria, while others let you to do clinical practicums close to the location where you reside.

Choose the bridge program you are interested in to learn more:


Licensed Practical Nurse to RN

This type of bridge program enables licensed practical nurses to earn their BSN degree in 2-3 years. LPN to BSN programs offer nurses a more comprehensive foundation in patient health evaluation, advocacy, diseases, clinical knowledge, public health, emergency care, and administration. Since LPNs already have basic nursing education and experience, a number of programs let LPNs receive credits that go towards their BSN by scoring well on advanced placement exams. Once the BSN program is completed, the LPN is eligible to take the NCLEX-RN exam to become a registered nurse.


Registered Nurse to Bachelor’s in Nursing

Having a BSN sets up additional channels of work options for registered nurses, particularly in specialty fields and leadership roles. RN to BSN programs make it possible for RNs with an associate degree to take on positions that call for critical reasoning, decisive actions, and management abilities. It’s not uncommon for advanced placement to be given to RNs when they matriculate into BSN programs, however the degree of this status is generally differentiated according to the RN’s preceding academic and experience history.


Registered Nurse to Master’s in Nursing

An RN to MSN bridge program is designed for registered nurses holding a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing related subject, or RNs with a diploma, ADN or ASN degree. These programs tend to be more challenging to get accepted into. Also available to BSN students interested in pursuing graduate studies right after graduation, this necessitates the RN to effectively finish most of the BSN curriculum prior to being eligible for admittance. However, the benefit is that you earn your master’s in nursing in a shorter time frame. Some programs result in both a BSN and MSN, while others the MSN only.


Registered Nurse to Doctor of Nursing Practice

An RN to DNP program is devised for currently licensed registered nurses who’ve already earned a BSN degree. This program is for nurses that are sure about a long-term career in nursing and have the motivation and desire to take on top positions in the progressively intricate practice, teaching and management involved with the provision of quality health care.

This advanced bridge program prepares RNs to sit for the corresponding certification exam to become an APRN in the area of nurse practitioning you choose to specialize in.

Some RN to DNP programs accept RNs that hold a non-nursing baccalaureate, ASN/ADN or nursing diploma, though more courses will be included in their curriculum.