Nursing Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Does it Mean to Study Nursing?

A nursing degree provides the opportunity for personal growth and professional development in this vitally important and exciting field. Great nurses are highly in-demand and needed at every level in the healthcare industry. Thus, becoming a nursing major prepares you for a wide variety of professional opportunities in health-related fields.

Regardless of where they work, nurses must be compassionate, responsible, and detail-oriented. They must be willing to take control of stressful situations and to ask for assistance when necessary. Nurses should also possess an emotional stability that enables them to handle emergency situations and to be engaged with emotional and physical suffering, illness, and injury. Nursing degrees help provide these future healthcare professionals with the faculties of sound judgment, enabling them to assess and evaluate the conditions of patients. Those who are natural leaders and are able to manage teams of other nurses can advance their careers into leadership roles. Nurses may be eligible for higher-paying jobs as they earn more advanced degrees and receive specialized training.

Types of Nursing Degrees

Nursing school programs vary in length and intensity depending on the desired degree or certification. Students who wish to join the workforce as soon as possible often choose to attend one-year LPN training programs. These training programs prepare graduates for basic medical work as a practical nurse. At the other end of the spectrum, aspiring nurse practitioners may choose to spend several years in school. After graduation, nurse practitioners are qualified to perform a variety of medical duties not available to other nurses. This often translates into higher salaries.

Nursing schools can be found throughout the U.S. and online. In the past several years, online nursing degrees have become extraordinarily popular. Online BSN, MSN, and continuing education programs teach students advanced theory and management skills without forcing them to quit their jobs or scale back their shifts. Fundamental clinical training, of course, must be completed in person; but, some online programs in nursing combine distance instruction with hands-on practice arranged locally.

Certificate and Diploma Programs in Nursing

Certificate programs in nursing are an excellent way to prepare for entry-level jobs in the nursing field. These programs generally provide career training and lead to vocational jobs such as Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or Licensed Practical or Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN). CNA programs usually take just a few months to complete, while LPN/LVN programs regularly require one year of training. Both will include some type of hands-on training component. Core courses might include:

  • Medical Terminology
  • Basics of Healthcare Systems
  • Fundamentals of Nursing Arts
  • Introduction to Geriatric Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing

Associate Degrees in Nursing

An associate degree in nursing is the fastest route to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN), typically taking two years to complete. These programs are offered through traditional campus-based colleges as well as online. Although opportunities for advancement can be limited for nurses holding only an associate degree, RN-to-BSN programs are a popular way for registered nurses to earn a bachelor's degree and advance their careers. Online educational programs offer flexible schedules that are convenient for working nurses. Practical clinical requirements must be completed in person. Courses at the associate level may include:

  • Introduction to Pharmacology
  • Complex Patient Management
  • Mental Health Nursing
  • Surgical Nursing
  • Advanced Maternal/Infant Nursing

Bachelor's Degrees in Nursing

The Bachelor's Degree in Nursing (BSN) is the recommended professional degree for registered nurses. A nursing major at the baccalaureate level must complete general education studies in basic science and liberal arts courses. Internships and other hands-on clinical experiences will also be required prior to graduation.

With this type of nursing degree, much of the classroom component can be completed online. Working nurses who are already licensed RNs may advance their careers by pursing a bachelor's degree via an online RN-to-BSN program. BSN students who don't already have their RN license must gain considerable clinical experience before treating patients on their own. Under supervision, they will treat patients, administer medicine, perform certain medical procedures and tests, and analyze patient reports. Most BSN degrees require students to successfully complete courses like:

  • Foundations of Nursing
  • Concepts of Professional Nursing
  • Adult Health Nursing
  • Nursing Ethics and Healthcare Law
  • Critical Thinking for Healthcare Professionals

Master's Degrees in Nursing

Earning a master's degree can help prepare nurses for specialized careers within the field. These programs generally require students to focus on specific areas of interest, and the curriculum varies according to each specialization. Career outcomes usually include working as a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, nurse anesthetist, or clinical nurse specialist. Master's-level programs may include courses like:

  • Advanced Nursing Concepts and Theory
  • Epidemiology
  • Finance in Healthcare
  • Public Healthcare Policy
  • Advanced Concepts in Public Health

Ph.D. and Doctorate Programs in Nursing

Doctoral programs for nursing general fall under two categories: Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Ph.D. in Nursing. DNP programs award degrees which focus on practical nursing applications. Often, graduates find work in high-level administrative positions at various healthcare facilities. Ph.D. programs are designed to provide training for scientific nursing research. Both types of degrees can lead to faculty positions at institutes of higher learning. Some core courses may include:

  • Applied Finance and Budget Planning
  • Quantitative Methods for Healthcare Evaluation
  • Transforming Healthcare Systems
  • Evidenced Based Nursing Practice
  • Leadership in Healthcare

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Nursing?

After earning a nursing degree, most graduates seek to obtain employment at hospitals, long-term care facilities, private practices, or other healthcare settings. Though state laws determine the specific tasks that registered nurses and licensed practical nurses may perform in the workplace, the nature of the jobs vary by sector and employer. Regardless, all nurses must take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for their certification level to become either a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse.

Registered Nurses

Registered Nurses (RNs) work in hospitals, nursing homes, private physician's offices, and home healthcare companies. Their duties vary by state and position but usually include administering medical treatments and medication, observing patients, educating patients and families about illness, assisting with diagnosing injuries and illness, recording patient histories, and providing emotional support.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: Most RNs need at least an associate degree, although a bachelor's degree may be preferred.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: RNs must be licensed by the state in which they practice. In addition to any state exam requirements, RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to receive their RN certification.

Licensed Practical Nurses and Licensed Vocational Nurses

Like registered nurses, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) work in a variety of healthcare facilities. They must also complete some postsecondary training. Their roles differ from RNs in the duties they may undertake and the amount of training they have received. Typical tasks include monitoring patients, assisting patients with bathing and dressing, changing bandages, recording patient information, and providing emotional support for patients. LPNs and LVNs are supervised by doctors and RNs.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: LPNs and LVNs usually participate in approved career training programs that last approximately one year.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: To become a licensed practical or vocational nurse, students must first pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN). They must also meet any other licensing requirements of the state in which they practice.

Certified Nursing Assistants

Certified nursing assistants provide support to nurses and doctors by administering basic care for patients in a variety of healthcare facilities. Sometimes referred to as nursing aides, these healthcare professionals can be found working in nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and home healthcare services. Duties may include transporting patients between rooms, helping patients with basic tasks (like bathing and dressing), transferring patients from wheelchairs, measuring and recording vital signs, cleaning equipment, or serving meals.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: CNAs are usually required to complete a state-approved career training program. These programs last a few months but are completed in under a year.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Certified nursing assistants must be registered to work in the state in which they practice. Requirements vary by state but usually include passing a competency exam.

Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

Nurses wanting to specialize in particular areas of healthcare may become Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs). After receiving the proper training and meeting all licensing requirements, APRNs may be allowed to provide patients with certain primary and specialty healthcare services. Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners are all examples of APRNs. Duties and responsibilities vary by specialization.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: All APRNs must earn a master's degree in their area of specialization.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Regardless of specialization, all APRNs must first earn their RN certification. They must also pass the proper licensing exams, which vary according to their specific area of specialty. APRNs must be licensed in the state in which they work and meet continuing education requirements.

Nursing Associations and Organizations

Nurses have a wide variety of organizations and associations they can turn to for support and resources. These organizations may be fraternal in nature or provide professional support and advocacy. Some include:

  • American Nurses Association -- This association represents nurses of all types and advocates for policies that advance the profession. They also publish several professional trade journals.
  • National Council of State Boards of Nursing -- This non-profit organization seeks to promote regulatory standards for the nursing profession. The NCSBN creates, administers, and oversees the National Council Licensure Examinations.
  • National League for Nursing -- The NLN promotes excellence in nursing through high quality nursing education. The league provides professional development and networking opportunities for nursing educators and faculty.


  1. Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm
  2. Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm
  3. Nursing Assistants and Orderlies, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nursing-assistants.htm
  4. Registered Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

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