What is a Nursing Degree?

Are you empathetic, patient, organized, and detail-oriented? Does helping others bring you joy?

If so, a degree in nursing might be for you. Nurses are the lynchpin that holds the medical system together. They liaise with health professionals of all kinds to keep the world’s medical clinics, hospitals, and care facilities running smoothly. They provide care, education, emotional support, and more to help their patients regain and maintain their health. The world would look very different without the work of these caring professionals.

Students interested in this degree are in luck. As our population ages, the need for nursing professionals is only growing higher. The US will soon face a shortage of about 800,000 nurses, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. With such a high demand, there has never been a better time to study nursing.

Still not sure whether nursing is for you? Let’s take a deeper look at what this degree can offer.

Program Options

Finding the right nursing degree can be hard to do—there are so many options to choose from!

Each nursing degree comes with its own unique strengths and weaknesses. And each will open doors to a different range of exciting careers. To help you decide what’s best for you, let’s take a look at some of the most common nursing degree options.

Nursing Assistant Programs - Three to Eight Week Duration
These programs provide students with everything they need to know to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA). CNAs work at the frontline of nursing. They assist patients with daily activities, monitor vital signs, and more. Most CNA programs are intensive and hands-on. They usually take between three and eight weeks to complete and take place at nursing homes and technical colleges. Students must pass a certification exam after graduating to become a practicing nursing assistant.

Practical Nursing Diploma Programs - One Year Duration
Practical nurses monitor patient’s health, offer them basic care, educate them about treatment plans, and more. Practical nursing diplomas provide the technical skills and certification needed to become one. This degree is usually offered at technical schools and community colleges. Practical nursing diplomas can take as little as 12 months to complete. To become licensed to work, graduates must then pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN), and become licensed practical nurses.

Specialty Certification for Licensed Practical Nurses
Some LPNs pursue additional certification during their diploma. They specialize in a specific subject, like childbirth, IV therapy, or developmental disabilities. Specializations require an additional examination, but can increase your chances of getting hired.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) - Eighteen to Twenty-Four Month Duration
An associate degree is one of two ways to become a registered nurse (RN). These skilled professionals are what most people think of when they hear the term "nurse." RNs record patient medical history, administer medicine, create care plans, run tests, and more. Associate degree programs can be completed in as little as 18 to 24 months. Like practical nursing diplomas, they are followed by the NCLEX exam.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) - Three to Five Year Duration
Obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing is the other way to become an RN. These programs take three to five years to complete—less, if you already have another degree. It’s not unusual for RNs with an ADN to go back to school for their bachelor’s. RN-to-BSN programs make this possible. These bridge programs can be done online and usually take 12 to 18 months to complete.

Again, a BSN alone is not enough to become a practicing nurse. Graduates must complete the NCLEX first.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) - Two Year Duration
Finally, some students choose to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing after their bachelor’s degree. These programs take about two years to complete and can increase career options. Nurses with an MSN can become nurse practitioners, can work in education, and more.

Degrees Similar to Nursing

Nursing, medical school, or counseling? These three degrees share some striking similarities. All three concern themselves with patient care. All three are hands-on, social, and focused on wellness. But these degrees are unique in several ways.

Medical School
The obvious difference between medical school and nursing is the time commitment. Medical school takes an additional four years to complete after a bachelor’s degree. It’s usually followed by another three to seven years of residency training. Nursing programs tend to be much shorter. They’re also less competitive and less expensive. Finally, while medical graduates can become practicing physicians, nursing students need to pursue additional training to do so.

Counseling Psychology and Social Work
Like nursing, both counselors and social workers aspire to help people lead better lives. However, their work usually focuses on everyday challenges, including mental, emotional, behavioural, and social issues. While a counseling or social work degree might address certain medical conditions, physical health isn’t the primary focus of these programs. Nursing degrees, on the other hand, emphasize the medical aspects of patient care, only touching on social and emotional factors in the context of health.

Skills You’ll Learn

Most students pursue a nursing degree in hopes of one day becoming a nurse. But studying nursing also helps students develop skills they can use in a wide range of professions—within nursing and beyond.

Management Of Self And Others
This is one of the most valuable transferrable skills learned during a nursing degree, according to researchers. Nursing students learn to multitask and organize their own time. They develop excellent conflict management skills and liaise with diverse teams of doctors, specialists, and other medical staff.

Critical Thinking
No two patients are ever the same. Nursing degrees help you think deeply about a patient’s symptoms and medical data to make the best choice possible.

Technical Skills
Nurses interact with technology every day. They use computers to schedule staff, order medical supplies, conduct research, and more. They also learn to use medical monitoring tools, IV devices, and other technology.

Listening and Communication
Strong social skills are core to a successful nursing career. Nursing students learn to listen closely, read their patients’ body language, and share medical information in a way that’s informative and accessible.

What Can You Do with a Nursing Degree?

With this strong set of transferrable skills, nursing students pursue a wide range of career paths. Here are just a few of the most common ones:

Of course, many nursing students end up doing exactly what they studied: nursing! Nurses work in an array of settings, including hospitals, hospices, assisted living communities, and more. They provide care to a diversity of patients, in a range of professional roles. Although many nursing careers involve bedside care, others are more focused on education or support.

If you’re interested in studying illnesses or testing new medicines, a research career might be for you. Many nursing graduates go on to work in medical research laboratories. There, they work closely with doctors, scientists, and other research staff to improve medical practices.

Proper education is key to a healthy population. Nursing graduates are ideally suited to providing it. Many end up at private or public education institutions, where they help prepare aspiring nurses for the workforce. Others go on to work at public or governmental organizations, educating entire communities about how to improve and maintain their health.

Law & Insurance
Interested in the legal side of the medical system? Consider a job at an insurance or law firm. Jobs in this area focus on issues such as medical fraud, malpractice, and worker’s compensation. Nursing graduates who pursue this line of work can expect to work with a wide range of professionals, including lawyers, witnesses, and insurance professionals.

With additional training, nursing graduates can go on to enter the exciting world of obstetrics and become midwives. In this meaningful line of work, they’ll support women through all aspects of their pregnancy. They may also provide education about a range of issues related to women’s health, reproductive care, and childhood development.

Management & Administration
Finally, any physician’s office, medical clinic, hospital, or care facility needs skilled management and administrative support. These roles can be ideal for nursing graduates who are organized, business-minded, and socially aware. Plus, office jobs have the benefit of more predictable hours than most "standard" nursing roles. The break from shift work can be a dream for many nursing grads.

Read our in depth Q&A interview with a Certified Nurse Practitioner!

Career Paths

Learn about your career prospects after graduation.

Read about Career Paths