UNITED STATES—Many people think that there is only one kind of nursing and one type of nursing degree. As all nurses know, this is a total misconception as there are actually dozens of different degree paths and specializations for nurses to pursue. If you are considering a career in nursing, or pursuing an additional degree in nursing to give your career a boost, then you may have already considered which area of nursing you feel most drawn to.

Nursing is a huge field and it is growing in popularity every year as the demand for nurses of all experience levels and specializations continues to grow. In fact, nursing is viewed as one of the most stable and in-demand careers in America right now. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that the nursing career is projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030, which is quite the leap!

While nurses of every stripe are in demand everywhere in America, you may have a particular interest or preference when it comes to practice – or you may want to improve your career prospects with additional qualifications. This article will explain why it is important to take the time to figure out which nursing qualification is right for you.

The many different nursing qualifications

Every nursing career requires slightly different skills and will appeal to different types of people. As a result, it is worth taking the time to consider which program will genuinely interest you and make you excited to start every workday going forward. Below are a few of the primary nursing qualifications and the careers they can lead to.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The BSN degree is the entry-level qualification needed to start nursing that most students will receive as an undergraduate degree. These programs tend to last for four years and teach students all of the necessary core science modules.

Nursing students who are pursuing their BSN can also enjoy gaining a significant amount of hands-on experience as most programs have a lot of practical, on-the-floor experience as part of the program itself. This means that student nurses spend hundreds of hours on hospital floors and in clinics assisting healthcare teams and learning essential experiences such as engaging with patients, designing care plans, liaising with other members of the healthcare team, and medical procedures.

These experiences help nurses to develop key skills such as collaboration, communication, organization and professionalism, and also generally help student nurses to become familiar with systems and processes in the healthcare industry.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

In order to pursue an MSN, a student must first receive a BSN, just like all other master’s degree-level programs in other disciplines. An MSN is a great degree for someone who wants to learn more about a specific area of study and really hone their skills in that regard. There are many different areas that someone pursuing an MSN may want to focus on, including geriatrics, midwifery and clinical nurse specialties.

Some nurses decide to pursue an MSN degree because obtaining a master’s level of education enables them to qualify to sit the NCLEX-RN exams. A master’s degree is also required to further pursue an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specialization, which is a career path that many nurses are increasingly interested in.

Depending on the MSN program, there are also specializations for education, administration, informatics, and more. If you have a particular interest, such as training student nurses, then you may be interested in pursuing an MSN to further your career goals.

MSN degrees are certainly not easy – they are academically rigorous, intense courses. However, if you are eager for a challenge and genuinely interested in the subject material, then this added layer of difficulty and intensity will likely appeal to you.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties recommends the DNP program as the entry-level degree for nurse practitioners. DNP degrees require an intense period of study and are very academically rigorous, so they are not for everyone.

The DNP programs typically focus on important, core topics such as improving the care for patients, improving healthcare systems, and using technology and data to better healthcare systems. These are incredibly important areas and are in need of more focus and development.

Many nurses choose to pursue DNP programs because they love the nursing career, but they want to be more involved with introducing change and transformation to the healthcare industry. One additional aspect to note is that as of January 2022, nurses who want to specialize in anesthetist work will need to pursue a DNP in part because anesthesiology is such a complex, sensitive and intense segment of the healthcare system.

PhD in Nursing

Finally, you can also pursue a PhD in nursing. PhDs are the most intense academic degrees and can take anywhere from three to five years and more to complete. You need to be an academically stellar student and also ready for the challenge that awaits you in such a program.

Individuals who choose to pursue a PhD are often interested in either becoming a researcher or an academic, and they are likely going to need to be active in their field (i.e., going to conferences, making connections and publishing papers) in order to succeed.

Many students are initially put off by the effort of a PhD. However, if you have completed a master’s degree and you are passionate about your subject and ready to learn more, then a PhD might be the right course for you.

Choosing the right qualification

It can be daunting in the beginning to consider all of the different degrees you could pursue when you are unsure of how to choose a nursing program. That being said, there are a number of steps you can take to make the decision process a little easier.

The first is to take time to reflect on your future career goals and what it is about nursing that interests you and makes you feel fulfilled and excited to start work every day. If you find that you enjoy teaching other nurses much more than patient care, then you might be better suited for a DNP program than a nurse who loves clinical work on the floor.

Once you have found the career path you want to pursue and narrowed down your list of programs, you should seek out more information about the schools, programs and teaching methods. Most schools will happily provide you with the information you need to make your choice, and some will even connect you with alumni or recruitment staff to ask questions.

One example of an institution that provides interested future students with the resources needed to make such a choice is Marymount University. Marymount assists prospective students who are considering how to choose a nurse practitioner program by offering a number of different resources. The university helpfully breaks down the degrees offered, explains potential career paths, and outlines the core subjects that will be taught. Interested students can also get in touch with the Marymount recruitment staff to ask more questions and learn about the distance education experience.

What to look for when choosing a nursing program

You may think that once you have decided on a specialization your work is done, but actually your work has only just begun. After determining which specialization you feel the most drawn towards, it is time to start looking out for the nursing programs that appeal to you the most and will support your academic and professional goals to the greatest degree.

Choosing the right nursing program can be daunting because nursing programs are a serious undertaking in terms of tuition, energy, time and effort. It is worth taking the extra time to do your research, fully evaluate the available programs, and get in touch with the university recruitment staff to ensure that it really is the right program for you. Below are a few things you should look for when deciding on a nursing program.

Certification pass rate

One of the first things you should look for when searching for the right nursing program is the certification pass rate for the program you are interested in. Most nursing programs are pursued with a very definite goal in mind, whether that is qualifying as an NP, or gaining graduate education or even a PhD.

If you are interested in opting for a clinic-focused degree such as an NP, it is important to check out the certification pass rates for the program as some will certainly be higher than others. You should look for programs that have a pass rate of 90% and above, as this means that a great majority of the students pass the certification exams and get certified.

Clinical placement assistance

Most nursing programs will have practical elements that you will want to evaluate as part of your consideration. For example, NP programs are defined by the practical skills that students learn and develop. During the course of your study, you will not only be hitting the books, but also spending hundreds of hours completing training work in clinical settings.

The clinical training of NPs is monitored and directed by an MD, NP or PA who is referred to as a ‘preceptor’ through the program. Depending on the program you choose, you may either be assigned a preceptor, or you may need to find one yourself.

Finding a willing preceptor can be difficult, but if you already have connections in nearby clinics, you may prefer to connect with your preceptor. This is another aspect to consider when deciding on an NP program, as some students find connecting with preceptors incredibly difficult.

Rate of job placements

Similar to the certification pass rate, not all programs have the same rate of job placements. This is not necessarily because their nursing programs are inferior to others – it could be something as simple as geographical location as there will be a greater need for NPs in urban centers than in largely rural areas.

That being said, some programs go the extra mile and set up their students for professional success with job fairs, connections to large healthcare providers, CV workshops and career coaching. Not every school tracks the professional career of its alumni, but if hireability is something that is particularly important to you, then you should look for information about either the rate of job placements that the program has or the general professional support that the university offers.

Flexibility

If you are a mature student, a returning student, or you need to continue working while studying, then you should definitely take into consideration a program’s flexibility when deciding where to go. You will also need to think about what kind of learner you are – do you need a strict schedule for every class and deadline to stay on track, or are you more of a self-guided learner?

Once you have figured out how you learn best, you can look for programs that offer in-person, hybrid or remote classes depending on your preferences. If you are planning on working or you have many family commitments, you may find that online learning is a more flexible learning style.

Costs and fees

If you are really excited to kick-start your nursing career, you might be tempted to throw caution to the wind and not consider the tuition costs and other fees associated with a particular nursing program. It may also seem like a good investment to go for the best possible program, regardless of the cost.

However, if you take out loans for your nursing program, you will have to pay them back, and ultimately, a certified nursing program is a certified nursing program, regardless of whether it costs $15,000 or $100,000. If you take out loans for the more expensive programs, you may find that your debt burden is restrictive or they may take years to pay off.