Which Nursing Degree Is Right for Me? 

If you are interested in becoming a nurse, it is important to pick a nursing degree that will help you achieve your career goals. There are many types of nursing degrees available, from undergraduate degrees that qualify you to sit for licensure exams to post-graduate degrees that enable you to work as an advanced practice nurse.

Sponsored

Jumpstart Your Career in Nursing, Explore Online FNP Programs:

Become an NP, Explore Georgetown University’s Online Master’s in Nursing

  • Complete in 23-27 months
  • Offered on a part-time basis

Discover Nursing@Georgetown

Prepare to Become a Nurse Practitioner with USC's Online MSN Program

  • Can be completed in as few as 21 months
  • Part-time and full-time study options

Discover Nursing@USC

Prepare for Certification as an MSN, Explore Simmons University

  • Complete your MSN in as few as 20 months
  • Part-time and full-time plans of study 
Discover Nursing@Simmons

Nursing degrees discussed in this guide include:

Before committing to a nursing degree program, consider the different specialties and job options certain degrees can afford you. You may also want to consider how many months it will take to complete a nursing degree program, and the average salary for different types of registered nurses. All of these considerations are key factors in the decision-making process and can help inform your next steps. 

How to Become a Licensed Practitioner

After earning your nursing degree, you must pass the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN licensure exam to become a licensed practitioner. NCLEX stands for National Council Licensure Examination; NCLEX-PN is for licensed practical/vocational nurses and NCLEX-RN is for registered nurses.

The minimum educational requirement to sit for the NCLEX-RN is an ADN or higher from an accredited program. To qualify to sit for the NCLEX-PN, you will need to complete an approved training program for licensed practical nurses (LPNs). While enrolling in an LPN program can be a good fit for those who want to break into the nursing field more quickly than a BSN candidate, for example, and at a lower cost, the completion of an LPN program does not result in a nursing degree.

Graduate nursing degrees—such as a master’s in nursing (MSN) or a doctorate in nursing (PhD or DNP)—provide nurses with many options to practice at an advanced level, depending on the specialty area in which they choose to practice.

Specialties Available Within Each Nursing Degree 

There are many types of specialties available within each type of nursing degree. While nurses can practice across a wide range of specialties with undergraduate degrees, a nurse’s educational level can influence advancement opportunities and their scope of practice. For instance, nurses with an ADN or BSN can work with various specialty populations in different environments, but they are more limited in the types of tasks they can do and care they are permitted to provide than advanced practice nurses who have master’s and doctoral degrees. 

Undergraduate Degree Specialties

Nurses with either an ADN or a BSN have the opportunity to obtain additional nursing certification to demonstrate their expertise. The following are examples of common nursing specialty areas, and the care practitioners in those areas provide: 

  • Addiction nurses care for patients who are struggling with substance use disorders.
  • Cardiovascular nurses care for patients who have heart disease and/or have had heart surgery. 
  • Critical care nurses work in various types of critical care units within hospitals. 
  • Genetics nurses provide screening, counseling, and treatment for patients who have genetic disorders.
  • Neonatology nurses care for newborns, which may include those who are receiving care within the neonatal intensive care unit. 
  • Nephrology nurses work with patients who have health issues related to kidney disease. 
  • Public health nurses promote public health through education, screenings and provision of preventive care. 
  • Rehabilitation nurses care for patients who have temporary or permanent disabilities.

Many registered nurses also work in non-clinical roles such as education or administration.

Back to top

MSN Degree Specialties 

Individuals who are committed to excelling and advancing in a particular field should learn more about the different master’s in nursing specialties available. Deciding which area of care you’d like to specialize in can help you determine which MSN degree program is the best fit for you. The specific area of focus determines a large percentage of the credit hours earned toward the MSN degree, as well as the state requirements that must be met for practice. 

Some MSN programs require applicants to choose their concentration upon enrollment, while others allow some flexibility. It helps to have an idea of the concentration you are pursuing when selecting and evaluating a prospective school to make sure the program offers what you need.

There are many nursing specialties in demand. With so many options to choose from, it is important to consider those you are most interested in. Some common specialties available to MSN holders include:

  • Acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP)
  • Adult care (ANP)
  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGNP)
  • Critical care 
  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
  • Neonatal care (NNP)
  • Certified nurse-midwife
  • Pain management 
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP)
  • Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner (PMNHP)
  • Research 

Back to top

DNP Degree Specialties

Some nurses choose to work toward a doctoral degree. There are two options: the traditional, research-based PhD and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree that focuses on evidence-based practice and quality improvement. DNP degree programs provide training that prepares nurses to carry out crucial, logistical functions and assessments to optimize nearly every facet of the health care process, from policy to practice to management.

DNP graduates may take on leadership roles in a wide range of health care settings. DNP degrees are commonly paired with one or more advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and/or nurse practitioner (NP) specialties such as:

  • Acute care (ACNP)
  • Adult care (ANP)
  • Cardiology
  • Dermatology
  • Gerontology (AGNP)
  • Family care (FNP)
  • Nephrology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatric care (PNP)
  • Psychiatric and mental health care (PMHNP)
  • Pulmonology

These specialties each require their own additional coursework and/or clinical hours to be eligible for certification. Upon completing a DNP program, nurses must still complete testing and application requirements through the appropriate credentialing organization.

Back to top

Career Options and Salary Range With a Nursing Degree

Each type of nursing degree can afford you a variety of career options and varying salary levels. Prospective nursing students may want to find out what the highest-paying nursing degree is or learn more about MSN careers and MSN salary before committing to a specific educational track. How much a nurse makes will be largely influenced by the amount of education they have obtained and their specialty area. Nurses with advanced-level degrees could potentially make more money than their colleagues who have entry-level degrees, which is one of the benefits of a master’s degree in nursing.

Compare specific job and pay information for different nursing degree holders

RN with ADN/BSN

Career options: An RN provides direct care to patients in a variety of settings including hospitals, physicians’ offices, home health care services, nursing care facilities, and outpatient clinics. You may find an RN with a BSN working in an entry-level role such as a licensed practical nurse.

Salary: According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for a registered nurse is $71,730.

Expected growth: The BLS projects employment of registered nurses will grow 12% from 2018 to 2028.

RN with MSN

Career options: A nurse with a master's degree can become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and work in clinical and non-clinical settings. Non-clinical options may include education, administration and research. Some nursing careers in a clinical setting include nurse practitioners, family nurse practitioners, and certified nurse midwives.

Salary: BLS data shows that the median annual salary for an APRN (specifically, nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives and nurse practitioners) was $113,930 in 2018.

Expected growth: The BLS estimates about 26% growth from 2018 to 2028.

RN with DNP

Career options: Like RNs with an MSN, nurses with a DNP can practice in clinical and non-clinical settings. Non-clinical options may include executive-level positions at hospitals, public health organizations and government agencies. Clinical nursing options may include hospice and palliative care, midwifery, and community health.

Salary:Specific salary data is not available for DNPs but may top the 2018 median annual wage for nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives and nurse practitioners.

Expected growth: Specific job growth data is not available, but it may align with that of a nurse with an MSN in a nurse practitioner role, which is 26% from 2018 to 2028.

Cost and Program Length of Degrees in Nursing

In addition to career options and salary ranges, nursing degrees will also vary in terms of costs and program length. Cost of nursing degree estimates are often determined by the program you choose, the specific type of degree you pursue, and whether tuition is based on in-state or out-of-state residency.

RN with ADN

Program length: Two years full time.

Estimated program costs: Costs will vary depending upon individual programs. In-state tuition will be lower than out-of-state tuition.

Estimated licensure/certification costs: The fee to take the NCLEX-RN exam is $200. An additional fee is required to obtain an RN license. Since state boards of nursing regulate licensing requirements, fees vary from state to state.

RN with BSN

Program length: Four years depending on chosen path.

The various paths to obtain a BSN include: 

  • Graduating from high school and enrolling in a BSN program (four years)
  • Completing an ADN program (two years) followed by additional coursework to obtain a BSN
  • Finishing a licensed practical nurse (LPN) program (one year) and then completing additional coursework to obtain a BSN
  • Enrolling in an RN-to-BSN “bridge program” (time for completion dependent on the student’s pace of study)
  • Enrolling in an LPN-to-BSN program (time for completion dependent on the student’s pace of study).

Estimated program costs: Costs will vary depending upon individual programs, as well as the path chosen to become a BSN. For example, those with an ADN who are completing BSN requirements will incur much lower costs than those who enter a BSN program straight out of high school. In-state tuition will be lower than out of state. Specific information can be obtained by contacting individual programs of interest.

Estimated licensure/certification costs: The fee to take the NCLEX-RN exam is $200. An additional fee is required to obtain an RN license. Since state boards of nursing regulate licensing requirements, fees vary from state to state. To obtain specialty nursing certifications, an additional fee is required and will vary depending on the certification type and certifying body.

RN with MSN

Program length: Two to four years depending on chosen path.

The various paths to obtain an MSN include the BSN to MSN path (two years full time or three to four-plus years part time) and the RN/ADN to MSN path (three to five years full time or five-plus years part time).

Estimated program costs: Costs will vary depending upon individual programs, as well as the path chosen to obtain an MSN. In-state tuition will be lower than out of state. Specific information can be obtained by contacting individual programs of interest.

Estimated licensure/certification costs: The fee to take the NCLEX-RN exam is $200. An additional fee is required to obtain an RN license. Since state boards of nursing regulate licensing requirements, fees vary from state-to-state. To obtain specialty nursing certifications for nurses with an MSN, an additional fee is required and will vary depending on the certification type and certifying body.

RN with DNP

Program length: 7+ depending on chosen path.

Two options for obtaining a DNP degree are the MSN to DNP path (one to two years full time or two to three-plus years part time) and the BSN to DNP path (three to four years full time or four to seven-plus years part-time). Certain DNP specializations may require additional coursework to complete.

Estimated program costs: Costs will vary depending upon individual programs, as well as the path chosen to obtain a DNP degree. In-state tuition will be lower than out of state. Specific information can be obtained by contacting individual programs of interest.

Estimated licensure/certification costs: The fee to take the NCLEX-RN exam is $200. An additional fee is required to obtain an RN license. Since state boards of nursing regulate licensing requirements, fees vary from state to state. To obtain specialty certification for nurses with a DNP, an additional fee is required and will vary depending upon the certification type and certifying body.

Personality and Skills Needed in Different Nursing Degrees 

A registered nurse must possess foundational clinical skills and attributes that are applicable across health care settings. Below is a small selection of attributes that can help RNs to successfully carry out their responsibilities:

  • Detailed and organized
  • Compassionate
  • Patient and resilient
  • Able to deal with stress
  • Observant
  • Critical thinker with sound judgement
  • Responsible
  • Effective communicator

Different types of nursing degrees may require more specific personality attributes and skills depending on the area of focus. For instance, nurses who work in clinical settings with patients must enjoy working with people. 

When searching for a nursing degree program that aligns with your career goals, it is important to consider your existing strengths and the skills you would like to sharpen through your education.