If you have wondered about becoming a registered nurse (RN) but have not started to really look into it, you may not know what kind of education or degree you need to become an RN. There are various pathways to nursing. Each individual must consider which path is best for his or her unique situation. However, all pathways (in the US) eventually lead to the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which is the exam that ultimately determines whether or not someone becomes a registered nurse. Regardless of your background or degree, all aspiring RNs must pass the NCLEX in order to become a licensed registered nurse. Now that you know the NCLEX is the common gateway to obtaining an RN license, let’s discuss the three pre-licensure degrees you could obtain prior to taking the NCLEX: the Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), the Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing (BSN), and the entry-level Masters Degree in Nursing (MSN-E).
You do not need a BSN in order to become a nurse; you may become an RN with an Associate’s Degree. Many ADN programs are only a couple of years long and are a fraction of the cost of BSN programs. Unfortunately, many ADN programs are known for their two-year waitlists and are just as competitive to enter as any other nursing degree program. If you can get into an ADN program, however, this is a great affordable option to become a nurse.
Many wonderful and established nurses I know have ADNs. Numerous facilities and hospitals do indeed hire new-grads with ADNs. However, certain hospitals have (or desire) magnet status and require a large percentage of their nurses to have a BSN, and thus prefer BSN graduates. Other hospitals may require nurses with ADNs to pursue a BSN within a certain timeframe from their date of hire or require 20 years of experience for ADN graduates. Some hospital nurses with ADNs acknowledge that they are able to work in their hospital or hold their supervisory role because they have many years of experience. They notice that most of the new hires in their hospital are BSN graduates.
ADN to BSN
As a result of this push to have a nursing workforce filled with BSN degree-holders, there are many RN to BSN programs designed specifically for nurses with ADNs. There are hospitals that will reimburse or partially pay for their nurses with ADNs to pursue BSNs. If you do not mind working while going to school or extending the time you spend in school to get a BSN, getting an ADN first may be the most economical way to eventually getting a BSN. It is not necessary to have a BSN to work as a nurse, but having an advanced degree may make you a more attractive candidate when applying for competitive jobs against those with similar work experience.
If you decide to get a BSN directly, you can apply to traditional 3-4 year programs. Program costs vary and depend on whether or not you attend a public or private school. There’s a general sentiment that nursing programs in public schools have lower acceptance rates than their more expensive private school counterparts.
If you have a bachelor of science in a non-nursing field, consider applying to an accelerated BSN program, which lasts only 1-2 years. The shorter program time can be worth the cost if you start working as a nurse sooner. Your opportunity cost of income lost while you are in school could be minimized with a shorter program length. However, such condensed programs are intense and “accelerated”, as their name implies.
If you have a non-nursing bachelor of science degree, you also could consider applying to entry-level Master of Science in Nursing (MSN-E) programs, which are typically two years duration. Maybe you don’t want to spend time getting a bachelor degree in Nursing; you’d rather go straight into a master’s program because you ultimately desire to be an advanced practice nurse. If you want to be a nurse educator or clinical nurse leader, many entry-level master’s programs are perfect for you. However, if you want to become a nurse practitioner, entry-level master’s programs that I’ve reviewed are not applicable towards becoming a nurse practitioner – a second graduate degree would be required.
If you want an MSN, do not feel pressured to obtain one immediately. You can become a registered nurse with a lower degree. Just as ADN graduates can get their BSNs after becoming an RN, BSN graduates can also further their education after obtaining their license to get advanced degrees in nursing.
Begin with the End
It’s important to think about your longer-term goals as you consider the various pathways to Nursing. Always “begin with the end in mind”, as Franklin Covey suggests. If you want to work in a magnet hospital as a new grad, perhaps you will want to bypass the ADN option for nursing. If you want to work as an RN as quickly as possible, consider the ADN or accelerated BSN options. Take into account private schools without waitlists. Research the job requirements for RNs at the places you would like to work or the requirements for your dream nursing job. Job postings typically list education and experience required for each position and can give you an idea of the degree(s) you should target.
Very simply, an RN is someone who has passed the NCLEX with either an ADN, BSN, or MSN-E. You now know there are many degree programs that can lead you to become an RN. Knowing what you want to do as a nurse, how quickly you want to get there, and how much you are willing (or able) to spend will help decide which route may be best for you. Regardless of what route you take, please ensure the nursing program you choose is accredited. Good luck on your journey!
Disclaimer: I speak only from my own personal experience and am not an expert in all things Nursing. If you know of other pathways to nursing and becoming an RN, I would enjoy your feedback. I invite readers to share any information or comments that would be helpful to others!