What Degree Do I Need to Be a Nurse?

female nurse wearing mask in hospital

Healthcare jobs in general and nursing jobs in particular are enjoying robust growth in the U.S. economy. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth rate for registered nurse (RN) positions through 2029 is projected to be 7%.1 That rate is much faster than average, which is great news for students who are thinking of enrolling in a nursing degree program. The specific type of nursing degree you should pursue depends on your circumstances. There are various degree pathways for entering the nursing field.

Associate Degree in Nursing

An associate degree is a two-year or three-year degree program, rather than a traditional four-year bachelor's degree. This shortened program enables students to pursue licensure as a registered nurse more quickly than if they had earned a bachelor’s degree. Students will graduate prepared to pursue entry-level positions within the nursing field.

However, it should be noted that associate degree holders often find they need to return to school to improve their job prospects and advancement opportunities. Fortunately, when they do go back to school, associate degree holders will not typically need to invest another four years in a bachelor’s degree. Instead, they can opt for the RN to BSN program.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure)

Many aspiring nurses decide to go directly into a bachelor’s degree program, bypassing an associate degree program. A pre-licensure bachelor’s degree will teach future nurses everything they need to know about caring for inpatients and outpatients. Students will explore key topics such as:

  • The structure and function of the human body
  • The pathophysiology of diseases and conditions
  • Pharmacotherapy for disease prevention and treatment
  • Evidence-based nursing practices

In addition, a pre-licensure program will blend classroom instruction with hands-on learning opportunities. Practice is critical for nursing students, as the lives of their future patients will literally be in their hands. Upon graduating, individuals will be prepared to take the RN licensure exam (NCLEX-RN).

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN)

Students who have already earned an associate degree in nursing and have spent some time working in the field may decide that they would like to enhance their career opportunities by returning to school. Since they already hold nursing licensure, these RNs should choose an RN to BSN program. Unlike a pre-licensure program that takes four years, an RN to BSN program is typically accelerated. There are many benefits to earning a BSN, including the following:

  • Nurses with more education are more likely to contribute to better patient outcomes
  • Nurses who hold a BSN have access to a wider variety of job opportunities
  • A BSN can pave the way to leadership positions within the healthcare setting
  • Nurses who set their sights on graduate school must first earn a bachelor’s degree

Students in this type of nursing degree program will focus on acquiring in-depth knowledge regarding clinical patient care and healthcare management. There may also be a focus on healthcare leadership and professional development. Typically, an RN to BSN program will combine classroom or online instruction with clinical practice hours. The flexibility of this type of nursing degree can allow working professionals to continue to meet their workplace obligations while studying for a brighter future.

Accelerated Nursing Degree Programs

However, not everyone who enters the nursing field starts in healthcare. You may already be a working professional who holds a degree or credits in another field. In this case, it might not be necessary to spend an additional four years as an undergraduate. Look for an accelerated BSN program that will accept your non-nursing education and allow you to apply it toward your graduation requirements.

These accelerated programs typically require that you attend school on a full-time basis. However, you may be able to take many of your classes online for greater flexibility. These will be paired with hands-on experience and simulation labs to give you the clinical skills needed to successfully pursue a nursing career.

Advanced Nursing Degree Options


A graduate-level nursing degree is not a requirement for entering the field. However, at some point during your career, you may decide to return to school to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing. Either of these options will enable you to develop advanced clinical skills and acquire in-depth nursing knowledge.

You can put your advanced skills and knowledge to good use improving patient outcomes. Graduate degree holders are also better equipped to step into leadership roles within healthcare organizations, inspiring those around them to take proactive measures to improve healthcare delivery. In addition, registered nurses who hold master’s or doctorate degrees are better qualified to pursue high-level positions that offer lucrative compensation and personal satisfaction.

Grand Canyon University is known for excellence in nursing education. Explore our many nursing degree options, including the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN), as well as our graduate-level programs. Begin working toward an exciting career in healthcare by clicking on Request Info at the top of your screen.

1 Retrieved from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic Career Outlook, Registered Nurses, in February 2021.

Retrieved from Nurse Journal, Top 9 Advantages of a BSN Degree, in March 2021. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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