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How Long is Nursing School?

March 24, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Choosing nursing as your profession puts you in an employment field that is challenging and extremely rewarding at the same time. Whether you enter a nursing program to get your bachelor’s degree, do a BSN, an associate’s degree or move up to doing your master’s degree, all take time and dedication. Once you decide where you are going to start or if you are going to pursue continuing education, you will be able to accurately assess how long the process may take you. Many factors can play into when you will graduate and be able to practice as a registered nurse. 

Difference in the Length of Time for Nursing Certifications and Degrees

Whether you are taking a certificate program in nursing or looking at doctoral degrees, there are varying career journeys that will get you to your nursing profession goals. As there are many nursing degree options that you can choose from to suit your personal goals and preferences, it is important that you are aware of the structure of each program so you choose the one that works best for you. Choices will vary depending on if you are a new graduate coming out of high school, a professional with experience, or are changing careers. The correct decision will come from assessing your end career goal, financial abilities and lifestyle. Here is a list of the diverse degrees and certificates available and their details from there you will be able to assess how long each degree will take to attain. 

CAN Certificate or Diploma

This is a Certified Nursing Assistant and is a non-degree diploma that can be taken at a community college or vocational school. It can be done in class or online, but any clinical hours required must be done in-person at an approved locale. The goal of this certification is to teach basic health care support and assist patients in daily routines. This will include: 

  • Bed transfers both in and out as well as changing linens
  • Bathing and helping to feed patients as needed
  • Taking vital signs and recording patient daily information
  • Communication with family 

There will also be education in the area of emergency practices, personal care as well as infection control. There are also specialty options that include psychiatry, pediatrics and geriatrics as well. The prerequisites usually ask for a high school diploma or equivalent such as a GED. It is great for high school graduates who want to get experience or get a feel for a nursing career. It is also good for those who need more flexible school time. 

This certificate will demand 75 hours of class time education and at least 16 in clinical training that is supervised. It can be done in 4-12 weeks depending on the school and timing of study. Once you are certified you can take your state’s CAN competency exam and work with a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse. It could lead to employment in a hospital, retirement community, assisted living or in-home healthcare. The salary averages at $30,720 but will vary on the workplace. 

LPN/LVN Certificate or Diploma

A licensed practical nurse is a non-degree diploma available at community college, vocational schools and possibly a hospital. Some states will call this a Licensed Vocational Nurse. This degree will allow you to assist an RN and train you to do the following: 

  • Take vital signs and chart patient conditions
  • Change dressings as well as insert a catheter
  • Help with tests, collecting samples and procedures
  • Give injections and medications
  • Work to help with patient comfort

You will also be taught anatomy, physiology, nutrition and emerg care. There are specialties available in IV therapy, long-term care, pharmacology and support for breastfeeding. 

This certificate is more comprehensive than a CNA and good if you are a new high school graduate or a CNA who wants to take on more responsibility. It is also a good basis for those who want to eventually take a registered nursing course. The program will range in time from 7-24 months depending on state requirements for clinical hours etc. Work may be found in hospitals, private practice, home healthcare, assisted living, research, diagnostic offices as well as government agencies. Pay averages at $48,500. 

ADN

An Associate’s Degree in Nursing will be the minimum educational requirement that is needed to be an RN. It allows the graduate to offer patient care support in critical situations and assist doctors as needed. These degrees can be obtained from community colleges as well as various 4-year institutions. There is online or in-person clinical practice. You will learn: 

  • To be physician support during exams, surgery, and medical procedures
  • Apply dressings 
  • Complete and analyze diagnostic exams
  • Review treatment plans and chart patient data as applicable 
  • Oversee LPNs, LVNs and CNAs
  • Offer patient education on self-care

This is for those who want to be an RN without doing a 4-year degree. If you are in a state where a BSN is required, then it will allow you to transfer some credits towards that degree. It is good for new high school graduates, those who are changing careers, as well as CNAs and LPNs who want to fast-track to RN placement. An ADN will need at least 2 years to finish and once licensed, then credentials can be used in ambulatory care, private practice, residential care, government agencies, military, schools and health insurance companies. The average salary is $77,460 but that varies based on education, experience, workplace setting and specialty. 

BSN

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is a degree that takes 4 years. It is both academic coursework and in-person clinical training. It covers all basic care areas along with the option to specialize in areas such as geriatrics, psychiatry and pediatrics. The programs can be entered right out of high school or from designations that you have already obtained. 

This degree takes commitment and financial ability but is a good foundation for a master’s degree and work as an advanced practice registered nurse. It can be done as follows: 

  • Traditional BSN – for high school graduates with no experience
  • LPN-BSN – This is a bridge program for LPN/LVNs and offers transfer credits
  • RN to BSN or ADN to BSN – These are for RNs who have an associate degree and can transfer educational credits for a shorter process. 
  • Second Degree BSN – For those who have another bachelor’s degree in a field that isn’t nursing. Allows transfer of credits. 

These degree timings vary depending on if you take the traditional or alternative route. After graduation, licenced employment opportunities can be found in hospitals and other specialty areas such as case management, forensic nurse, legal consultant, home nurse, nurse administrator just to name a few. The average salary is $77,460 and will vary by placement and specialty. 

MSN

A Master of Science in Nursing is a program that is at the graduate level of study and can lead to being an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). It is more detailed than a general nursing degree and will concentrate on particular areas of study such as management. These degrees are for RNs who are licensed and have a bachelor’s degree. They take about 2 years to obtain but longer if you need to do a bridge program. Once you are graduated and licenced you can work as an APRA and specialize in areas such as: 

  • Nurse Practitioner  – Average salary $111,840
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist – Average salary $108, 810
  • Certified Nurse Midwife – Average Salary $181,040
  • Certified Nurse Anesthetist – Average Salary $77,460

Joint Master’s Degrees in Nursing

This allows you to earn an MSN with a complementary degree without double the time. This helps when you want to aim for leadership positions. They are demanding but very rewarding. These degrees take between 18 months and three years to do and will offer an average salary of $115,160. The degrees can be attained by:

  • Joint MSN/MPH – A Master of Public health is for community leadership or public health. 
  • Joint MSN/MBA – A Master of Business Administration teaches business skills needed for executive positions in hospitals and large health care facilities. 
  • Joint MSN/MHA – Master’s in Health Administration is broader, and management focused.

Doctoral Degree in Nursing

This degree is for those who want to teach, do research or attain high-level roles. You need a degree in nursing along with clinical experience. They take 2 years to attain an average salary of $83,240. You can be:

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of Nursing Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc or DNS)

How to Determine the Type of Degree you Want

With more than one nursing degree program to choose from, how do determine the type of degree you want? It can be helpful to look through the various choices and see what appeals to you and works with your lifestyle. The list of nursing fields is extensive and finding a degree or professional certification along with specialty certification takes some research. Here are some of the specialties you can pursue: 

  • Neonatal nurse (NICU)
  • Nurse midwife
  • Dialysis nurse
  • Pediatric nurse
  • Assisted living nurse
  • Nurse educator
  • Nurse administrator
  • Psychiatric nurse
  • Home health nurse
  • Travel nurse
  • Flight nurse
  • Oncology nurse
  • Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Assess your personality traits and skills to see where you fit best. You want to choose a degree that suits your skills, aptitudes and personality. It’s also important to look at your life situation, education and professional intentions when choosing a degree. 

Choosing the LPN

Licensed Practical Nurse certification is a good way to start your practical nursing career and get experience in the field. If you want to work in the profession but don’t want to do an extensive educational journey or can not due to your life circumstances, this is a good way to begin while gaining your medical certification. You will need some academic skills but both people and communication skills are a must. Even at entry-level positions, nursing skills mean patient-focused care and being able to explain, listen and assess health care needs. 

Another option is the Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) which allows you to take the registered nurses exam so you can be a licensed RN. This broadens the scope of responsibilities and allowances. Choosing this route also means you can specialize if there is an area of health care you want to work in. Skills for this degree should be more academic and science-focused. Experience is also helpful as you head into clinical practice. Patient care, people skills and communication become particularly important not only for the patient but when dealing with health care support, tracking information and educational support for patients and families. 

Further to an ASN, getting your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a further educational step on your health care employment journey. It is increasingly in demand as health care providers want it as a minimum requirement for their nurses. This degree takes more time to do, and can be anywhere from 3-4 years depending on previous education and credits. Choosing to take this degree will mean you have academic skills that are science-based, and you are ready to move up in the world of nursing. Dedication to patient care with a focus on health care support is critical. If you are specializing, then an affinity for a particular area should be present as well. If you work well with children, seniors or those struggling with mental health issues then finding your niche is important. 

The next step in education is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Choosing this degree means you have your BSN and want to move farther up in the nursing field. You will choose this degree if you want to specialize in coordinating patient care, becoming a nurse practitioner or want to continue into a specialty area. This degree can take 2 years to do but often longer if you are already working as well or if you choose to do an online master’s degree. Choosing to take this degree usually means you want to focus on job opportunities that allow you to have more autonomy. This means you need to have skills that allow you to not only be a team player but work well on your own, too.

The final degree choice would be a graduate degree or a Doctorate. This is the choice you are going to make if you want to teach or work as a researcher or specialist. You have to have the right academic skills along with the ability to not only be a good nurse but have the time and finances to pursue this degree. 

All these different degrees require different things. They all need a student to be academically inclined as well as have good people skills. Communication ability is a must since there are so many important aspects that need to be conveyed to physicians, other health care workers, patients and their families. 

If you are less academic but have skills in patient care and people, then perhaps a diploma or certification would be the way to go. If you are hindered by time and cost an advanced degree may not be feasible until later on in your career. The crucial thing is to figure out the nursing degree that works for you at this moment and then makes sure it can be a proper foundation if you want to do further education down the road. Creating a proper educational path that will support both your present goals and future ones is something important. You don’t want to block yourself from future educational and employment opportunities. 

Strategies for Working Your Way Through Levels of Nursing School 

Strategies for working your way through the levels of nursing school will depend on your skills, strengths and weaknesses as a nursing student. It will also depend on how far you are going with your education. The levels follow the diploma and degrees we have already outlined going in the following order:

  • Diploma in practical nursing.
  • Associate degree.
  • Bachelor’s degree.
  • Master’s degree.
  • Post-master’s certificate.
  • Doctorate. 

You should try to set a strategy that works in the years ahead even if you are not currently planning on going further than your first degree. The plan differs depending on your employment goals. Those who are not going to begin with their bachelor’s degree may want to make sure early designations and certificates will allow them to pursue it later on if they wish. Taking specialized courses and making sure the school is accredited makes sure that the prior education has more chance of being transferable if further schooling is needed or desired. Accreditation is a must, so all academic work is acknowledged.

If a nursing student is beginning with a BSN, then that tract of nursing education will be different and somewhat denser in health care content than certifications. One is not better than the other but different in focus and academics. Often nursing students have a strategy to attain experience with earlier certification and then do their BSN. Others jump right in. Doing a BSN will open the door to specialties as well which should be thought about early on when planning your educational strategy. Specialties tend to follow a student not only into employment but also into future educational situations. 

Once a student has their beginning strategy in place and foundational education, the ability to carry on when time and finances allow is set as well. 

Here are some tips and tricks to working your way through the levels of nursing school: 

  • Set your strategy early. Research where you want to go for school and think about whether you want to pursue further education past your first diploma or degree. None of this is set in stone but planning ahead means you do not cut off any avenues you may want to take later on. Some even move from a general BA to a BSN or an MA to an RN. There are always routes that can get you to where you want to go with a good strategy. 
  • Plan financially. Make sure you have the money in place either through savings, loans or grants to get you through your first level of nursing. Once you have that secured, you can begin and then plan for post-graduate employment and further education should you want to. 
  • Find a program that will work for you be it online or in person. Lots can be done online including online MSN programs that may work better than others for you. However, plan to do in-person clinical work once your schooling is underway. 
  • Cater to your skills. Make sure you pick nursing school levels that work with your skills both academically and personally. You may have good management skills or excellent patient-support skills. Move through the levels focusing on where your talents lie. 

Average Time of Nursing School for Most Nurses 

Becoming a nurse can take the potential candidate various lengths of time depending on the focus of their education. When looking at how long a degree takes to get, the answers will vary. Associate degrees and diplomas take about 2 years on average with bachelor’s degrees averaging about 4. A bachelor can be less if the nursing student has previous education such as a diploma or other general bachelor’s degree. A Master of Science in Nursing or a doctorate can take an additional two years for those degrees on top of a bachelor’s. Specialties will also take additional time depending on the certification process and depth of study. 

These average times will vary based on how the diploma or certificate is being completed. There are various factors aside from the educational part that comes into play as there are many schooling options that will affect it. Many levels of schooling for nurses can be done full or part-time. This helps nursing students who may have to work while doing their schooling or who have family obligations that don’t allow full-time attendance consistently. However, in taking this academic route the length of time spent in class is the same but the length of time it takes to complete the program will be increased depending on the rate of course completion. Sometimes there is mandated timing for particular things such as clinical work. A course and work may have to go hand in hand and be less flexible to your schedule. 

In contrast, there are fast-track programs that speed up a nursing student’s ability to finish their diploma or degree in a quicker manner than usual. This can come for intensive nursing programs or perhaps they are able to use credits from previous educational accomplishments. These programs tend to be called accelerated as they take less time to do, or they are bridge programs that are going to transition a nursing student from one level of study and achievement to another. The bonus of fast-track programs is that they credit the student with prior accomplishments. They take previous courses and experience into consideration, so the student is not having to redo modules they have already successfully accomplished. This can happen at any level past the CAN and LPV certificates and diplomas. Once those have been completed at an accredited school, then taking further diplomas and degrees may be fast-tracked with a reduced course load. 

This works with cross-over degrees as well. If a student has a general bachelor or master’s degree, then the ability to fast track can happen when aiming for a BSN or MSN. Liberal arts degrees often contain many of the electives that a nursing degree may require. This means many schools will credit them to the student, so they don’t have to repeat them or take other electives. This can be helpful not only for fast-tracking, but it can offer substantial savings of both time and money. It also allows a graduate to complete their education, do their state certification and get out in the working world. Whether the student is becoming a registered nurse, nurse practitioner or nurse educator, every step that is reduced along the way means quicker access to employment opportunities. 

Final Thoughts

Choosing to become part of the nursing profession takes work no matter what level a student enters at. However, whichever educational strategy is chosen, it will open the door to many employment opportunities that will bring both personal satisfaction as well as economic benefits. Nursing is a profession where there is always room to grow if someone desires it and wants to change their career trajectory. Early diplomas, certifications and degrees can all pave the way for future educational possibilities. Whether a student begins with getting an LVN or their Bachelor of Science in Nursing, there are still more possibilities ahead should they choose that path. 

Nursing education can begin with a year-long program and move into a 4 year one depending on the educational stream. In addition to these achievements, there can be post-graduate degrees that will add on 2 or more years of learning as well. When choosing your nursing career path, pick the one best suited to your talent, lifestyle and financial ability. There is always the ability to do more should you desire, time and finances permitting.

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