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Nursing Undergraduate Vs. Graduate Degrees

The biggest difference between an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in nursing is the skill level achieved. Nurses holding a graduate degree have received more intensive and specialized training and have a deeper foundation of knowledge than nurses with an undergraduate degree. This generally leads to greater job responsibilities and higher salaries.

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Differences Between an Undergraduate and a Graduate Nursing Degree

Many nurses follow the traditional educational progression of a nursing career, beginning with an associate's or a bachelor's degree and ending with a master's or a some specialized type of nursing, research or nursing administration. An undergraduate degree is required to become a registered nurse, while a graduate degree can lead to a variety of careers including nurse practitioner, certified clinical nurse specialist or nursing educator.

Undergraduate Degree Programs

The job duties of a registered nurse (RN) vary according to population demographics and clinical settings. Many RNs specialize in areas such as gerontology, neonatal, diabetes management or a specific body system. Clinical settings can include hospitals and nursing homes. Successful completion of these undergraduate degree programs prepares graduates to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination. Registered nurses constitute one of the largest healthcare occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (

Associate's Degree Programs

An associate's or bachelor's degree is needed to become a registered nurse. Associate degree programs are offered at many vocational schools and community colleges. Earning an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) can take between two to three years. Coursework generally includes a combination of classroom study and hands-on clinical practice. Many ADN programs are designed to be credit-transferable to bachelor's degree programs in nursing.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

According to the BLS, registered nurses with a bachelor's degree often have more career advancement opportunities. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) usually takes four years to complete, but students can also find accelerated BSN programs that allow them to finish in less time. BSN degree programs should be accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). A student in a BSN program will often study pharmacology, nursing management, microbiology, nursing research, health and nutrition, chemistry and psychology.

Graduate Degree Programs

Graduate degree programs in nursing include a Master of Science in Nursing and Ph.D. programs in a variety of specialties. A master's degree in nursing can allow a nurse to advance into a number of jobs, including nurse practitioner, certified clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse anesthetist or certified nurse midwife.

A master's degree program can take 18 to 24 months to complete and often builds on the core foundational courses of a BSN degree program. These programs typically allow students to choose a concentration, like gerontology or acute care. A Ph.D. in Nursing often gives the skills needed to teach and perform some forms of medical research. Many Ph.D. degree programs culminate in a dissertation. It can take six to eight years to complete a Ph.D. degree program in nursing.

Admissions Requirements

Requirements for admission to a Ph.D. nursing program generally include a bachelor's or master's degree in nursing, submission of General Education Requirements (GRE) scores, reference letters, a personal interview and an essay outlining student goals and interests in research.

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Other Schools:

  • School locations:
    • Pennsylvania (1 campus)
    Areas of study you may find at University of Pennsylvania include:
      • Graduate: Doctorate, First Professional Degree, Master
      • Post Degree Certificate: First Professional Certificate, Post Master's Certificate, Postbaccalaureate Certificate
      • Undergraduate: Associate, Bachelor
    • Medical and Health Professions
      • Dental
      • Medical Administrative Services
      • Medical Ethics and Bioethics
      • Medical Residency Programs
      • Mental Health Services
      • Nursing Professions
        • Clinical Nursing
        • Critical Care Nursing
        • Mental Health Nursing
        • Neonatal Nursing
        • Nurse Anesthetist
        • Nurse Midwife
        • Nurse Practitioner or Family Nurse Practitioner
        • Nursing Administration
        • Nursing for Adults and Seniors
        • Occupational Health Nursing
        • Operating Room and Surgical Nursing
        • Pediatric Nursing
        • Registered Nurse
      • Public Health and Safety
      • Veterinary Medicine and Clinical Sciences

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics