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01. An Introduction to Nursing

Registered nurses (RNs) work in the healthcare field and provide direct care to patients and support to doctors and other medical professionals. Registered nurses also work in administration, research, community outreach and patient education. This field requires compassion, hard work and critical thinking.

Registered nurses are in high demand as the healthcare industry grows. The field offers a good starting salary and many paths for advancement. The hours of work can be varied since patients need nursing care 24 hours a day. RNs can find work in many locations throughout the U.S., although salaries can differ considerably between different parts of the country.

Many students are drawn to registered nursing because you can begin work as an RN relatively quickly, after 3 years of post-secondary education. There are many training options, including earning a diploma, associates degree or bachelors degree. Students can also pursue online RN degrees or complete portions of their degrees from home. With advanced training, nurses can provide specialized care such as anesthesia or cardiac care. And with a graduate degree, a nurse will be able to take on more responsibility by coordinating patients’ medical care and prescribing medicines.


02. Nursing Defined

The majority of a registered nurse’s work involves providing care for medical patients. Some typical tasks performed in RN jobs include giving medication to patients, recording patients’ symptoms and creating plans for patient care. In addition to medical care, RNs also provide education and emotional support to patients and their families. Other registered nurse jobs may involve overseeing staff, running outreach programs or conducting research. Most RNs work in healthcare facilities, although some jobs are in schools, patients’ homes and community centers. Many nurses work in rotating shifts that include nights, weekends and holidays.


03. Things to Consider

When you are deciding whether to pursue a degree in nursing, you should consider the physical requirements, background checks, drug testing and licensing requirements.

Physical Requirements

RNs must work on their feet and with their hands all day. They must stand, walk, bend, reach and lift. For this reason, some registered nurse training programs require a physical exam as a condition of admission.

Background Checks and Drug Testing

Healthcare facilities require background checks and drug tests as a condition of clinical training and employment. This includes clinical sites that students work at during their RN training. A background check is a review of information about a person from public and private sources. Background checks for RNs and student RNs look at information such as:

  • Criminal history
  • Drug use
  • Child abuse, domestic abuse or sexual abuse
  • Medicare or Medicaid fraud
  • Verification of social security numbers
  • State and federal fingerprint databases

If you fail a background check or drug test as a nursing student, you may not be able to participate in the clinical portion of your registered nursing training. No matter the degree level, all RN training programs require students to gain clinical experience in order to fulfill their degree requirements. Once you become a professional nurse, you can lose your job and nursing license if you fail a background check or drug test.


In all states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, you must have a nursing license to practice nursing. In order to become licensed, you need to graduate from an RN training program approved by your state and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). States may have additional requirements, such as completing basic training in areas like reporting abuse or infection control. To find out the licensure requirements in your state, visit the website Nursing License Map or contact your state Board of Nursing. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing maintains contact information for each Board of Nursing. If your license expires once you have become a nurse, you will be required to complete registered nurse training online or at a traditional school. Nursing licenses can expire if you take a break from working for an extended period of time. In this case, you will take RN refresher courses through specialized RN training programs. Some of these courses can be completed from home by enrolling in RN training online, while other courses will require you to visit an on-site class location.

Registered Nurse Certifications

An RN who specializes in an area of patient care must earn a registered nurse certification. Some jobs require an RN certification in relevant medical technologies. For example, operating room nurses are frequently required to hold the Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) certification. To obtain this certification, a nurse must complete 1 of the approved RN certification programs and take an RN certification exam. For some professional RN certifications, you can earn your RN certification online. For example, the ACLS certification is available as an online RN certification, which includes the required registered nurse certification program and the ACLS exam. Exams for other certifications, like the Critical Care Registered Nurse certification exam, are only offered at brick-and-mortar testing centers. The CCRN certification is for nurses who work with critically ill or injured adults and children. For a list of certifications in nursing, see the guide to certification on, also published each year by the American Journal of Nursing.


04. Types of Nursing Professions

Staff RN

Job Description
Staff RNs provide nursing care, emotional support and education to patients. They create and contribute to plans for patients’ care, administer medicines and treatments, record patients’ medical information, operate and monitor medical equipment and help to perform diagnostic tests. Most RN careers begin with a staff nurse job.
Average Salary
Education Required
Diploma (2 – 3 years), associates (2 – 3 years) or bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment
Hospitals, medical clinics, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices

Office RN

Job Description
Office RNs prepare patients for visits with doctors. They record vital signs, update patients’ medical records, perform screening tests and assist in physical examinations. Office RNs administer medication and execute doctors’ orders for treatments and procedures. This is a generalist registered nursing job.
Average Salary
Education Required
Diploma (2 – 3 years), associates (2 – 3 years) or bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment
Doctor’s offices, outpatient medical clinics

Operating Room Nurse (OR Nurse)

Job Description
Operating room nurses, who are also known as surgical nurses, perioperative nurses and circulating nurses, provide nursing care to patients before and after surgery. During surgery, OR nurses usually record what is happening in the operating room, keep track of supplies and equipment used, and advocate for the patient when needed. This RN job often requires professional certifications such as Basic Cardiac Life Support (BCLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS).
Average Salary
Education Required
Diploma (2 – 3 years), associates (2 – 3 years) or bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment
Hospitals, surgical centers

Critical Care Nurse

Job Description
Critical care nurses work in intensive care units in hospitals. They provide nursing care for patients with serious and acute medical conditions, providing close monitoring and treatment. Critical care nurses recognize complications occurring in patients such as secondary infections or adverse reactions to treatment. This is 1 of the more demanding registered nursing jobs, as critical care nurses provide CPR and other emergency nursing procedures as necessary.
Average Salary
Education Required
Diploma (2 – 3 years), associates (2 – 3 years) or bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment

Triage Nurse

Job Description
Triage nurses assess the severity of patients’ medical conditions to determine the order that patients are seen in. Triage is conducted as patients are being admitted to hospital emergency departments and urgent care clinics. Nurses also conduct telephone triage for medical clinics, medical advice hotlines, hospices, home healthcare services and emergency rooms. In a registered nurse career, this is an intermediate job, requiring some work experience but no advanced training.
Average Salary
Education Required
Diploma (2 – 3 years), associates (2 – 3 years) or bachelors (4 years) plus professional experience (1 – 3 years)
Work Environment
Hospitals, medical clinics, doctor’s offices, hospices, medical call centers, home healthcare services

Nurse Manager

Job Description
Nurse managers are administrators who oversee clinical nursing departments, such as delivery room, critical care or medical-surgical nursing. They make plans and budgets, hire nursing staff and establish policies. They are responsible for all aspects of patient care. Since this is an administrative registered nurse job, employers prefer candidates who hold a masters degree in nursing, health administration, business or management.
Average Salary
Education Required
Bachelors (4 years) or masters (2 years of graduate school) plus professional experience (3 – 5 years)
Work Environment
Hospitals, medical clinics, doctor’s offices, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities

Travel Nurse

Job Description
Travel nurses work on short-term assignments to fill temporary staff shortages in hospitals and other medical facilities. A travel nurse performs the same duties as a regular nurse, such as creating patient care plans, administering medications and recording patients’ medical information. In an RN career, travel nursing can be a good way to experience many work environments before settling down with a full-time job.
Average Salary
Education Required
Diploma (2 – 3 years), associates (2 – 3 years) or bachelors (4 years)
Work Environment
Hospitals, medical clinics, doctor’s offices

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

Job Description
Clinical nurse specialists are experts in a specialized area of nursing practice. They are registered nurses who have masters or doctorate-level training in nursing as clinical nurse specialists. They may specialize in a particular type of patient, type of disease or type of care. In registered nurse careers, this is considered a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).
Average Salary
Education Required
Masters (2 years of graduate school) or doctorate (1 – 3 years of graduate school)
Work Environment
Hospitals, medical clinics, doctor’s offices

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Job Description
Nurse practitioners are a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who can diagnose and treat patients much like doctors can. NPs can bill health insurers for their time and procedures, which means that they produce revenue for medical practices and hospitals. In some U.S. states, NPs can practice completely independently. In other states, they work under the supervision of doctors.
Average Salary
Education Required
Bachelors (4 years) plus masters (2 years of graduate school)
Work Environment
Hospitals, medical clinics, doctor’s offices, private practice

05. Career Outlook

The job outlook for RNs is excellent, with a good average salary for registered nurse jobs.

Employment is expected to grow 26% between 2010 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections for registered nurses. This is a predicted increase of 711,900 jobs to the 2,737,400 jobs that existed for RNs in 2010.

Job opportunities for registered nurses should be excellent, especially for nurses with a bachelors degree in nursing (BSN). In hospitals there is a relatively high turnover of nurses, and the aging population of the U.S. is resulting in more demand for nurses in home healthcare and residential care facilities. Job growth is also expected in outpatient care centers and doctor’s offices. However, there will be more competition for those jobs due to the regular hours and more comfortable working conditions. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) will be in high demand in inner cities and rural areas, where there are not enough doctors to treat everyone.

Registered Nurses Employed Nationally


The average RN salary, as of May 2011, is $69,110, with the bottom 10% of RNs earning less than $44,970 and the top 10% of RNs earning more than $96,630. An RN salary depends on the type of work, the employer and the location. For example, a registered nurse salary in California, Massachusetts or Hawaii is higher than in the rest of the U.S. and the salary of a registered nurse in Mississippi or South Dakota is lower than in the rest of the U.S. Although metropolitan areas such as Vallejo, CA offer the highest registered nurse salaries, rural areas have the highest demand for nurses and also offer a lower cost of living.

For nurses who are just beginning in the field, the average RN starting salary is $46,267 as of May 2012. Compared to RN salaries, nurse practitioners (NPs) made the highest yearly wages of any category of nurse, which is in part because NPs also must earn additional education beyond the requirements for RNs. Other specialties that can earn a registered nursing salary near 6 figures include certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) and clinical nurse specialist (CNS).

RN pay is higher in specialty hospitals, outpatient care centers and doctor’s offices than in general hospitals, nursing care facilities and home healthcare services. The highest salary for RN professionals is found in specialized industries that employ very few nurses.

Previous salary growth information for RNs are shown below:

Average Salary growth


Salary by Percentile

10th Percentile
25th Percentile
50th Percentile
75th Percentile
90th Percentile

06. The Educational Timeline

It takes 2 to 4 years to become an RN. In that time, you will complete a bachelors degree, associates degree or diploma program. After you complete your education, you will take the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX-RN) and complete any other requirements for licensing in your state, such as fingerprint registration or a criminal background check.


07. Studying Nursing

As you study to become a registered nurse, you will learn a variety of theoretical and practical subjects to help you succeed in your career.



Microbiology is the study of tiny organisms at the cellular level. This field is relevant to nursing because the bacteria and viruses studied in microbiology often cause illnesses. Topics in microbiology include how disease is transmitted, how the immune system reacts to disease-causing organisms and methods of preventing and controlling the spread of disease.

Physiology and Anatomy

Physiology and anatomy are both studies of the function and design of the human body. Physiology examines the body according to different systems, including the nervous system, gastrointestinal system, musculoskeletal system and immune system. Anatomy looks at the body in parts or areas, like the back, head and abdomen. Anatomy also groups the internal organs by their location in the body rather than the physiological system that they contribute to.


Mathematics is the study of numbers. Mathematics in nursing is generally at the level of arithmetic, which is the manipulation of numbers with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Nursing programs may also include algebra and statistics. A strong understanding of basic mathematics helps nurses to convert between measurement systems and calculate doses of medication or flow rates for intravenous (IV) fluids.

Psychiatric Nursing

Psychiatric nursing, which is also called mental health nursing, is the study of nursing care for patients with mental health conditions. Psychiatric nursing is often studied according to categories of diseases, such as mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorders. This area of nursing also takes culture into account and teaches ways to promote mental health according to specific communities.

Pediatric Nursing

Pediatric nursing is the study of nursing care for children, infants and teenagers. Pediatric nursing seeks to understand typical patterns of growth and development, including behavior and nutritional needs. This field also studies the response of pediatric patients and their families to serious illnesses. Courses in pediatric nursing cover common health concerns at each stage of development from infancy through adolescence as well as uncommon but potentially serious health problems that nurses must be aware of. Pediatric nursing also addresses special nursing needs of pediatric patients, such as care of children with burns.


Patient Assessment

As you study to become an RN, you will learn how to assess the medical condition of patients. You will learn to use a scale, tape measure, thermometer, blood pressure cuff, stethoscope and pen light to collect data about the patient’s physical condition. You will also learn how to interview a patient to obtain the patient’s medical history, current symptoms and other information.

Medication Administration

Your coursework in nursing will teach you how to administer medication. This includes calculating doses and reconstituting medicines that are stored in concentrated form. You will learn how to give medication by mouth, eye, applying to the skin and inserting into the body. You will also learn how to perform injections under the skin and into muscles and how to add medications to intravenous (IV) therapy.

Wound Care

In some of your nursing courses, you will learn how to clean wounds, apply and change bandages and assess how well a wound is healing. You will also learn how to care for patients with burns, pressure sores, ulcers and surgical wounds with drains. Part of wound care is documenting the healing progress and educating patients and families about taking care of the wounds at home.

Critical Thinking

As you progress through your studies to become an RN, you will gain critical thinking skills. You will learn how to evaluate information about patients from medical records, direct observation and communication with other healthcare providers. In the clinical portion of your studies, you will also make decisions about patient care as you gain expertise in nursing.

Life Support Equipment Use and Maintenance

In your studies of registered nursing, you will learn how to use and maintain the medical equipment and machines needed for patient life support. For example, some patients have feeding tubes installed, and these must be used properly and kept clean. You will learn to insert and remove the various types of catheters, and how to monitor respirators.


08. Types of Nursing Degrees

You can become an RN by earning a registered nursing diploma, associates degree or bachelors degree. RN degrees online and offline are available. Associates degrees and diploma programs take less time to complete than bachelors degrees, but a bachelors degree is often necessary for more advanced positions in administration, research, consulting or teaching.

Earning an RN degree online is an option that many students are interested in. You can earn an online RN degree through a program that offers online courses, but if this is your first educational program in nursing, you will still have to take clinical courses at a brick-and-mortar healthcare facility. Pursuing a registered nurse degree online can be very challenging. Students in online RN programs sometimes feel that they have difficulty getting enough support from instructors and teaching assistants. However, for students who are already working as nurses, the advantage of earning a registered nurse online degree without interrupting their careers may be a worthwhile tradeoff.

Pursuing online RN degrees can also be a good option for students who have already earned a diploma or associates degree and want to complete a bachelors degree program. Holding a bachelors degree will allow RNs to earn a higher salary and take on additional responsibilities in most workplaces. There are also programs for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) who wish to become RNs. Most of these LPN-to-RN programs are offered in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, but as of 2008 there were 18 schools that offer this type of registered nursing degree online.

Another type of online registered nurse degree is called RN-to-MSN, which allows a nurse with a diploma or associates degree to complete a masters degree in nursing without having to earn a bachelors degree first. There are also masters and doctoral programs offered online in nursing for students who hold a bachelors or masters degree. These programs allow nurses to advance their training and become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) or teach and conduct research in nursing schools.

  • Diploma
  • Associates Degrees
  • Bachelors Degrees
  • Masters Degrees
  • Doctorate Degrees


An RN diploma is a non-degree option offered through a hospital. Students studying for nursing diplomas sometimes take classes at community colleges and vocational schools and attend hospital schools of nursing for only the clinical training courses. This form of nursing education was more common in the past, and the number of registered nurse diploma programs has been decreasing since 1965.

Types of RN Diplomas

There is 1 type of RN diploma offered. An RN diploma focuses on the applied practice of nursing and originates from the tradition of apprenticeship-based training. In some diploma programs, clinical experience begins as early as the fifth week. Diploma programs are a good choice for students who want to begin work as RNs quickly and don’t want to pay the additional tuition and fees for bachelors degree programs. However, 1 drawback to diploma programs is that students do not earn academic credits, so it is not possible to transfer credits to a more advanced RN training program. There are also no online nursing diploma programs. This is because a nursing diploma online would not provide students with the hands-on training that they must receive in order to begin working in the field.

Length of Nursing Diploma Programs

Diploma programs typically take 3 years to complete. Credits are often earned by taking some classes at community colleges and vocational schools in addition to clinical courses at a medical facility.

Common Courses in Nursing Diploma Programs

RN diploma programs require general courses in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, nutrition and human growth and development. Core RN courses are on topics such as fundamentals of nursing, pharmacology and nursing specialties such as mental health nursing and maternal and child nursing. RN classes also address skills including professional communication and the transition from student nurse to professional nurse. Although there are no online diploma programs for RNs, your school may offer individual online RN courses in non-clinical subjects.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Diploma in Nursing

With a nursing diploma, you are qualified for positions as a staff RN or office RN. With some professional experience and possibly professional certifications, you can work as a travel nurse, triage nurse or as a nurse in a medical specialty, such as OR nurse or critical care nurse. You can also continue your education with a bachelors degree in nursing.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Diploma in Nursing

In choosing a registered nurse college or school to attend for a diploma in registered nursing, look for a program accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC). Diploma programs that are accredited by NLNAC meet commonly accepted standards for the registered nursing profession. In addition, completing an NLNAC-accredited diploma program may help you earn your RN license. Each state has different licensing requirements for RNs, but training programs that are accredited by a national organization such as NLNAC are usually recognized by state nursing boards.

Studying Online for a Diploma in Nursing

Earning an online nursing diploma appeals to many students, but there are no diploma programs offered online. However, if you have already completed some training in nursing, you may be able to attend an online RN program. This is a possibility for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) who can enroll in an LPN-to-RN program and attend an RN school online.

Associates Degree

Community colleges and vocational schools offer RN associate degree programs. An associates degree in registered nursing focuses on nursing skills and basic science, and prepares students to administer nursing care in healthcare facilities and patients’ homes. There are no fully online RN associates degree programs, but students may be able to take some courses online while they fulfill their practicum coursework in person.


Types of Nursing Associates Degrees

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

The ADN degree prepares students to work in the nursing field and pass the NCLEX-RN exam as well as apply for an RN license. An ADN also provides students with a foundation of courses that can be usually transferred into a BSN program.

Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN)

The ASN degree is not significantly different from the ADN. It is a good option for students who want to begin working as an RN immediately, or who may want to transfer into a BSN program in the future.

Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AAS)

Technically the AAS in nursing degree focuses more on the applied use of knowledge, but in practice it is about the same as the ADN, ASN and AN degrees.

Associate of Nursing (AN)

The AN degree is very similar to all other types of associates degrees in nursing. An AN degree can be used to transfer into a bachelors program for nursing, and will also prepare students to take their NCLEX_RN exam and enter the workforce as an RN.

Length of Nursing Associates Degree Programs

Nursing associate degree programs usually take 3 years to complete. Students earn between 60 and 81 credit hours while they study for their degree.

Common Courses in Nursing Associates Degree Programs

Registered nurse associates degree programs require courses in basic sciences such as microbiology, psychology and nutrition. Some programs require courses in anatomy and physiology while others emphasize biology and chemistry. Students will also take classes in core subjects such as pharmacology, family health nursing, medical-surgical nursing and psychiatric nursing. RN associates degree programs also require courses that will help students be successful professionals, such as English composition and writing and public speaking. In hybrid online associates degree programs, RN online classes usually consist of basic science courses and some professional skills courses.

Jobs That You Can Secure With an Associates Degree in Nursing

With an associates in RN studies, you can obtain a job as a staff RN or office RN. Once you have gained some professional experience, you can work as a travel nurse or triage nurse. You may need to earn professional certifications to work in certain medical specialties, such as geriatric nursing or psychiatric nursing. You can also choose to continue your education by pursuing a bachelors degree in nursing.

Choosing a School to Attend for an Associates Degree in Nursing

When you are looking for RN colleges and technical schools, consider whether each program is accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC). Registered nurse associate degree programs that are NLNAC-accredited meet commonly accepted standards for the profession. Degree programs accredited by national accreditation organizations like NLNAC are also more likely to be accepted by multiple states when you apply for your nursing license.

If you think that you may want to continue your education by pursuing a bachelors degree in nursing later on, also consider whether you will be able to transfer credits from your associates program to the colleges for registered nursing that you are interested in.

Studying Online for an Associates Degree in Nursing

If you are considering pursuing your RN associate degree online, you should be aware that there are no completely online RN schools that offer an associates degree in nursing. However, some community colleges and vocational schools offer hybrid online registered nursing programs. In a hybrid program, students take nursing theory courses online, while laboratory and clinical classes meet at a traditional campus.

Bachelors Degree

A registered nurse bachelors degree provides a solid foundation in both the theoretical and applied aspects of registered nursing. RN bachelors degree programs prepare students to work as nurses, as well as to hold positions in healthcare administration or nursing education.

Types of Nursing Bachelors Degrees

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is the only type of bachelors degree in nursing that you can earn. In addition to training students in basic sciences, nursing specialties and professional skills, the BSN also educates students in the sciences, leadership and critical thinking.

Many nursing schools offer BSN degree programs for students who hold diplomas or associates degrees in registered nursing. These programs are called RN-to-BSN, and many of them offer an RN online bachelors degree completion option. There are also online programs called LPN-to-RN or LPN-to-BSN, for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) who wish to advance to registered nurse positions. Some nursing schools also offer BSN degree programs for students who already hold a bachelors degree in another field.

Length of Nursing Bachelors Degree Programs

To earn a bachelors degree in nursing, students must earn 120 to 130 credit hours. This can be completed in 4 years.

Common Courses in Nursing Bachelors Degree Programs

Bachelors degree programs in nursing require general education or prerequisite courses in subjects such as biology, chemistry, history, mathematics and social science. After completing the prerequisite courses in the first 2 years of study, students begin the nursing curriculum or upper-division coursework. Registered nurse courses include pharmacology, health assessment and nursing informatics. They also include nursing specialties such as mental health nursing, public health nursing, maternal and child nursing and geriatric nursing. Some bachelors degree programs offer registered nurse classes online for theoretical subjects. Clinical courses in BSN programs include both hospital and non-hospital settings.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Bachelors Degree in Nursing

With a registered nurse bachelor degree, you are qualified for an entry-level position such as staff RN or office RN. With some professional experience, you can work as a travel nurse or triage nurse. You can also work in administration, research, consulting, public health and teaching. You can continue your education with a masters degree in nursing, which can open up additional career options.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Bachelors Degree in Nursing

When choosing between registered nurse colleges, make sure that each program you consider is accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, (NLNAC) or by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Both organizations are national accreditation organizations. Completion of an NLNAC-accredited or CCNE-accredited degree program will help you obtain your nursing license and will allow you to continue your education with a masters degree or doctoral degree in nursing. Bachelors degree programs accredited by NLNAC and CCNE are accepted by most states as meeting the educational requirement for RN licensing and are also accepted by graduate schools as meeting the educational requirement for admission.

Studying Online for a Bachelors Degree in Nursing

Pursuing an RN bachelors degree online is a common option for students who are already working as nurses. RN schools online offer BSN programs for RNs with associates degrees and diplomas, as well as for licensed practical nurses (LPNs). Some RN online programs require students to travel to a testing center for proctored exams or to a local community college for laboratory courses. Online bachelors degree programs for RNs may not give you the chance to build strong relationships with your colleagues. However, for many working nurses, it is worth the tradeoff to be able to earn an RN bachelor degree while continuing to hold a full-time job.

Masters Degree

An RN masters degree offers advanced training to registered nurses, preparing them to manage complex healthcare. With a masters degree in nursing, an RN can become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and work somewhat independently of doctors to provide primary care. Or an RN can become a nurse educator or a nursing administrator.

If you are interested in becoming an APRN, keep in mind that the required level of education for becoming an APRN may change. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has called for the doctorate in nursing practice to become the entry requirement into advanced nursing practice by 2015.

Types of Nursing Masters Degrees

There is 1 type of masters degree offered in nursing, which is the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). This degree is offered with concentrations in administration, education or in advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) tracks. APRNs choose to specialize as nurse practitioners (NPs), clinical nurse specialists (CNSs), nurse midwives (CNMs) or nurse anesthetists (CRNAs). The MSN is a good option for students who are experienced professional nurses and who wish to prepare for career advancement.

Length of Nursing Masters Degree Programs

Completing a masters in RN advanced practice, nursing education or nursing administration takes 18 months to 2 years of study beyond the bachelors degree, and requires between 33 and 46 credit hours. Programs in nurse anesthesia, midwifery and cardiovascular nursing take longer to complete.

Common Courses in Nursing Masters Degree Programs

Courses in RN masters degree programs are specialized according to the student’s concentration. For example, programs for family nurse practitioners require classes in the primary care of children, adolescents, women and families. The curricula for nurse-midwifery programs focus on nursing for pregnant women and women who have recently given birth, as well as primary care of infants. Common to most MSN programs are courses in advanced health assessment, pathophysiology and pharmacology.

Many schools offer an RN masters degree online. Even among schools that do not have an online RN master degree, courses are often taught in a hybrid format using online media. Another way that masters degree programs accommodate working RNs is by offering intensive courses and accelerated programs that can be completed in much less time than a typical masters degree. This allows nurses to complete their education with only a few trips to campus.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Masters Degree in Nursing

Depending on the focus of your registered nurse masters degree, you can work in a variety of positions, including as an administrator, a nurse educator, a nurse practitioner (NP), a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) or a clinical nurse specialist (CNS). You can also work in teaching, research or consulting. The requirements for licensing as an NP, CRNA or CNS will vary depending on the state that you work in, so contact your state board of nursing to determine what qualifications you will need.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Masters Degree in Nursing

When choosing among colleges for RN masters degrees, consider the accreditation of the degree programs. Colleges for registered nurse graduate programs should be accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC). Accreditation by either of these organizations tells you that a degree program meets commonly accepted standards for the profession, and will help you to qualify for a nursing license in most states. In addition, if you choose to pursue further education in nursing, many doctorate programs require that applicants hold a masters degree from a program that is accredited by NLNAC or CCNE.

Admissions Requirements for Masters Degree Programs in Nursing

Most masters degree programs in nursing require that applicants are licensed as registered nurses and hold a bachelors degree in nursing from a nationally accredited program. Some MSN degree programs will accept applicants who hold a diploma or associates degree in nursing, but will require additional coursework for graduation. RN programs online have the same admissions requirements as traditional masters degree programs.

Studying Online for a Masters Degree in Nursing

Obtaining a masters degree in nursing online is a reasonable option for many RNs. The drawback to registered nurse online programs is the lack of in-person interaction and opportunity to learn hands-on skills. Since most students in MSN degree programs are licensed registered nurses, they already possess the clinical and interpersonal skills required for the profession. When selecting an online RN school, consider whether the school’s nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC). Some online programs are accepted by their state’s board of nursing but are not nationally accredited. Obtaining your masters degree from an RN online school that is not nationally accredited limits your options for licensing, employment and further study.


Doctoral RN programs prepare nurses for 2 types of careers. Practice-focused doctoral programs teach students to evaluate and implement current research in nursing. Research-focused doctorates emphasize conducting research and communicating the results to the nursing profession. There are online doctoral programs in nursing as well as traditional programs.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree may become the required level of education for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). The American Association of Colleges of Nursing advocates for this change to occur by 2015. APRNs provide primary and specialized care for patients. They work somewhat independently of doctors, or completely independently, depending on the state they practice in.

Types of Nursing Doctorates

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The DNP is a practice-oriented degree that prepares students for leadership positions in nursing. This degree option is a good choice for nurses who want to work as administrators, consultants, professors and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The PhD is a research degree that focuses on conducting and disseminating research in nursing. This degree option is a good choice for RNs who wish to work in nursing research, policy and teaching.

Length of Nursing Doctorate Programs

Completing a DNP degree takes 3 years and requires between 67 and 75 credit hours beyond the bachelors degree. For students who hold a masters degree in nursing, earning a DNP degree takes 1 to 2 years and 35 credit hours.

Obtaining a PhD in nursing takes 3 to 5 years and between 50 and 64 credit hours beyond the masters degree. In programs for students with a bachelors degree in nursing, completing the PhD takes 5 to 7 years and between 60 and 94 credit hours. Nursing doctoral programs online usually take the same amount of time as traditional doctoral programs, though some coursework may be accelerated.

Common Courses in Nursing Doctorate Programs

Common registered nurse classes in DNP programs include subjects such as evidence-based practice, interpretation of statistics, healthcare economics and finance, epidemiology and management of healthcare organizations. Some DNP programs conclude with a scholarly project similar to a dissertation. Nursing doctoral programs online often require a combination of online RN courses and campus visits.

In nursing PhD programs, common courses emphasize research methods such as statistical methods, clinical trials, research design and a research practicum. Students must also conduct independent research and write a doctoral dissertation. RN courses online in PhD programs often include intensive sessions held on campus.

Jobs That You Can Secure With a Doctorate in Nursing

With a DNP, you can become a professor at a nursing school, an administrator or an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). As an APRN, you may work in a medical specialty such as cardiology or act as a general nurse practitioner. APRNs work in hospitals, clinics, community health centers and private practice.

With a PhD in nursing, you can become a research scientist or research director. Most graduates from nursing PhD programs become professors at nursing schools, but some PhD nurses are employed by healthcare facilities and government agencies.

Choosing a School to Attend for a Doctorate in Nursing

When you are choosing from the many registered nursing colleges for the right place to pursue your doctorate in nursing, look for a program that is strong in your particular area of interest. For example, if you want to work as a clinical nurse specialist and specialize in neonatal care, look for an RN college that has a strong track in this area of APRN training. Or if you are interested in nurse anesthesiology, make sure that your on-campus or online doctorate in nursing program will give you a strong grounding in this specialization. And if you want to conduct research in an area such as chronic disease management, you should look for a college with faculty members who conduct well-regarded research in that area. The same guidelines are true for online RN colleges and DNP and PhD nursing online programs.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) accredit DNP programs, including registered nurse schools online.

Admissions Requirements for Doctorate Programs in Nursing

Most doctorate programs in nursing require applicants to hold a bachelors degree or masters degree in nursing. Some nursing schools offer entry programs for students who hold a bachelors degree in a field other than nursing. For admission to a doctorate-level RN online program, a nursing degree and professional experience as an RN are typically required. Online PhD nursing programs or DNP programs expect their students to be working professionals who are looking for career advancement rather than nurses in the beginning of their careers who still need to gain experience on the job.

Studying Online for a Doctorate in Nursing

Completing a DNP nursing doctorate online or an online PhD in nursing is an acceptable choice for many students. Doctoral programs in nursing focus on developing students’ knowledge and skills in management and research. In these areas, in-person interaction is helpful for learning but not essential. Doctoral students in RN online schools are usually experienced RNs who have acquired clinical experience and interpersonal skills, so their education will not suffer from the lack of hands-on coursework.