Becoming a nurse is one of the most rewarding career choices you could ever make. Nurses are at the forefront of providing safe, effective, and holistic healthcare, and they are also the people who spend the most time dealing with patients and their families, offering comfort and guiding them through their care-plans. Nurses work in a variety of healthcare settings, such as hospitals, primary care practices, and specialised acute care institutions (such as psychiatric wards and nursing homes) If you are compassionate and hard-working, and are not squeamish about blood or needles and so on, nursing could be the career for you.

Training as a nurse, however, can sometimes seem less than straightforward. There are many different training pathways, which can accommodate students with all manner of prior education. 

Here is a handy guide on the different types of nursing degrees out there and how they work.

 Associate Degree in Nursing

An associate degree, is a program combining academic and vocational study – it’s usually a two-year course, although some programs can be completed in as little as eighteen months, especially if you possess prior experience in the healthcare sector. Associate degrees are the type of qualifications normally awarded by community colleges.

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) is the lowest qualification needed, to become a Registered Nurse. Once you complete your degree, you will be qualified to take the NCLEX-RN exam, which is required by all states, to become a certified Registered Nurse. Upon passing this exam, you will be able to gain a license in your state and start working as a nurse.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A bachelor’s degree is the next level up from an associate degree, and is awarded by a 4-year college or university. Students in bachelor programs are often required to take general education classes outside of their chosen field, as well as higher-level academic classes in topics such as nursing ethics, as opposed to associate degree students. A Bachelor of Science in nursing, will also require students to complete supervised clinical work in a hospital or another healthcare setting.

As you will discover in this article, there are plenty of opportunities for Registered Nurses to advance their career and become Nurse Practitioners, nursing managers, lecturers in nursing or researchers. If you have such aspirations, it’s advisable to attain a bachelor’s degree rather than just an associate degree. You should also be aware that hospitals which have been awarded Magnet status, tend to favor applicants with a bachelor’s degree.

However, if you already have an associate degree in nursing and would like to progress in your career, or you lack the GPA to go straight into a bachelor’s degree – don’t panic! Many universities offer accelerated programs to convert your ADN into a BSN, and some of these conversion courses can even be completed online, giving you more flexibility to continue working while studying.

Becoming a nurse practitioner

Progressing to the position of nurse practitioner, is often the next step up the career-ladder for Registered Nurses. A nurse practitioner is a highly trained medical professional who is qualified to undertake some of the tasks we usually associate with doctors, such as diagnosing and treating conditions and interpreting diagnostic tests. Unlike most doctors, however, nurse practitioners are trained to use a holistic approach in their practice, and to place great emphasis on preventative healthcare and health education.

To become a nurse practitioner, you’ll need a graduate degree in nursing – either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. A master’s degree usually takes two to three years to complete, and will require you to choose an area of specialization, such as neonatal, gerontology, and family practice, to name a few. A doctoral degree will also require you to specialize, but will last longer than a master’s – about three to four years, and will better prepare you to take on leadership roles within healthcare settings, or become a researcher within the academic field of nursing. Both types of degree also involve spending plenty of time performing supervised clinical practice.

The master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing, require substantial prior experience of working in clinical practice, prior to your application. Fortunately, there are several online acute care nurse practitioner programs out there, which will allow you to carry on working while you complete your graduate degree. You could even remain at your current place of work after graduation, and use your newly acquired qualification to advance your career. It would be a good idea, in fact, to discuss your education and career goals with your manager – you never know, your employer might even offer to cover part of your tuition fees!

Leadership roles in nursing

Once you have worked as a nurse for several years and gained a graduate degree in nursing, you have the opportunity to apply for leadership positions in healthcare settings, such as nurse manager or nurse director. In this kind of position, you will lead a team of nurses and be able to influence clinical practice in your place of work. Your organization might require you to complete a professional qualification, or to take part in continuing professional development courses through the American Organization for Nursing Leadership or a similar institution.

Becoming a nurse researcher

Lastly, an advanced career move open to those who hold a doctoral degree in nursing, is the role of a nurse researcher. Just like medical doctor researchers, nurse researchers work in universities, university hospitals and other research institutions, such as government-established medical research centres or research institutions run by charities. As a nurse researcher you will take part in clinical trials, lab work and other areas of scientific studies, producing articles with your team in order to share your findings with the scientific community. You will also be expected to collaborate with other researchers and participate in relevant conferences, so this might be a good career choice for you if you like to travel!