December 7, 2018  |  Purdue Global  |  Updated October 17, 2022

Nursing is a challenging and rewarding career that provides significant opportunities to help others and make a difference in the world. There's also ample room to achieve higher levels of education and advance into many different roles. Many nurses wish to continue their education and grow in the profession, becoming advanced practice registered nurses, community or public health nurses, nursing and health care administrators, nurse educators, and health care policymakers.

Below is the hierarchy of different nursing degree levels:

  • Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Purdue Global offers a range of nursing degrees to help you in your career, from an Associate of Science in Nursing all the way up to a Doctor of Nursing Practice. There are also postgraduate certificates available for nurses who are interested in focusing on a particular nursing specialty.

If you’re thinking of becoming a nurse or looking to expand your nursing career, this article is for you. It provides an overview of what a typical nursing career progression might look like. Learn about the various nursing degrees you can earn, average time to completion, and the possible career outcomes that go along with each degree.

1. Become a Registered Nurse

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of registered nurses is expected to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031.

How do you become an RN? You could start with an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN). This program is mostly offered through on-campus community colleges and career schools, although some hybrid online and on-campus programs exist. For example, Purdue Global offers an ASN program for students in Iowa and Maine. This degree usually takes about 2 years of full-time study to complete.

Successful completion of the program qualifies you to sit for the NCLEX®-RN; this is the exam that, if you pass, gives you the RN credential.

2. You May Wish to Earn an RN-to-BSN Degree

Many nurses who hold an ASN and work as registered nurses go back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Not only do BSN programs aim to provide a broader educational perspective, but many employers prefer a BSN, and having one may present you with greater career opportunities. According to the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey, more than 65% of RNs hold a BSN or higher.

>> Read More: Top Reasons to Earn Your RN-to-BSN Degree

Bachelor of Science in Nursing–RN-to-BSN: These programs are available at on-campus colleges and universities and in online programs. The time to complete varies. Purdue Global offers an online RN-to-BSN program as well as an accelerated competency-based online RN-to-BSN program known as ExcelTrack®.

3. Earn a Master of Science in Nursing

Once you earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing, you may wish to move on to a master’s degree. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is available in online programs and at on-campus colleges and universities, and it usually takes about 2 years of full-time study to complete. Accelerated programs may allow you to earn your degree faster.

What can you do with a master's degree in nursing? Depending on the concentration, you can prepare to pursue a career as a(n):

  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology nurse practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner
  • Executive leader
  • Nurse educator

According to the BLS, employment of nurse practitioners is expected to grow 40% between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. Purdue Global offers an online master’s degree in nursing and a competency-based online accelerated master’s degree in nursing.

Nurses who hold a master’s degree or higher are referred to as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). To learn more about the benefits of earning an MSN, career outcomes, and program requirements, read our free guide, “How to Become an APRN With the Help of Purdue Global.”

4. Consider a Postgraduate Certificate

Numerous postgraduate certificate programs are available to help you build upon your master's degree in nursing. These are available at on-campus colleges and universities and in online programs, and they usually take about 2 years to complete.

At Purdue Global, we offer the following postgraduate nursing certificates:

5. Earn a Terminal Nursing Degree: Doctor of Nursing Practice

One of the highest nursing degrees you can earn is the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). This degree program is available at on-campus colleges and universities and in online programs, and the time it takes to complete varies. Purdue Global’s DNP program takes an average of 1.5 years of full-time study.

A doctorate in nursing degree could provide new opportunities for clinical and higher level leadership positions, including working in clinic administration or as a health care executive, working in health care policy development, or holding a position as faculty in a School of Nursing. To learn more, read "MSN to DNP: What Can You Do With a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree?"

Learn More About an Exciting and Fulfilling Career in Nursing

If you feel called to a nursing career—or if you’re interested in earning a higher nursing degree—reach out to an institution of higher education today. The baccalaureate degree in nursing, master's degree in nursing, Doctor of Nursing Practice program, and postgraduate APRN certificate programs at Purdue Global are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The programs are all online, so you can study on your own schedule. Request more information about Purdue Global’s online nursing programs today.

About the Author

Purdue Global

Earn a degree you're proud of and employers respect at Purdue Global, Purdue's online university for working adults. Accredited and online, Purdue Global gives you the flexibility and support you need to come back and move your career forward. Choose from 175+ programs, all backed by the power of Purdue.

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Employment and Career Advancement: Purdue Global does not guarantee employment placement or career advancement. Actual outcomes vary by geographic area, previous work experience, and opportunities for employment. Additional certification or licensing may be required to work in certain fields. Prior experience may be necessary for leadership positions.

Job Growth Projections: National long-term projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

Certification and Licensure: Graduates must meet state licensing and certification requirements and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become a registered nurse or the NCLEX-PN to become a licensed practical nurse. The University cannot guarantee students will be eligible to sit for or pass exams. Refer to Purdue Global’s State Licensure and Certifications page for state-specific licensure information. NCLEX is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.

Nursing Programs: This isn't representative of every nursing degree available at the postsecondary level; these are the degree programs offered by Purdue Global.

ExcelTrack® Programs: ExcelTrack® is available for select programs. Degree pace and time and cost savings will vary by individual.