Nursing Undergraduate Vs. Graduate Degrees

Aug 12, 2018

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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Job Options in Nursing by Degree

An undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in nursing prepare students for different career levels. While undergraduate programs prepare students to become registered nurses, the completion of a graduate program can lead to a greater number of opportunities and advanced practice positions.

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 doctorate in some specialized type of nursing practice, research, or nursing administration. An undergraduate degree is required to become a registered nurse, while a graduate degree can lead to a wider variety of careers, including nurse practitioner, certified clinical nurse specialist, or nursing educator.

Undergraduate Degree Programs

Successful completion of a two-year or four-year undergraduate degree program in nursing prepares graduates to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination and become licensed registered nurses (RNs). The job duties of an RN vary according to the kinds of patients they see and the clinical settings in which they work. Many RNs specialize in areas such as gerontology, neonatal, diabetes management, or a specific body system. Work environments for nurses can include hospitals, physicians' offices, and nursing homes. As of May 2014, registered nurses constituted one of the largest healthcare occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Associate's 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.

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) or a similarly reputable organization. A student in a BSN program will often study the following: pharmacology, nursing management, microbiology, nursing research, health and nutrition, chemistry, and psychology.

Graduate Degree Programs

Graduate degree programs in nursing include Master of Science in Nursing, Doctor of Nursing Practice, and Ph.D. programs in a variety of specialties. Graduate degrees in nursing can allow a nurse to advance into a number of jobs, including nurse practitioner, certified clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse anesthetist, and 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 in order to prepare students for advanced practice (APRN) roles. These programs typically allow students to choose a concentration, like gerontology or acute care. There are numerous APRN positions available. The following are examples of the variety of options for nurse practitioners:

  • Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP)
  • Women's health nurse practitioner (WHNP)
  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP)
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)

A Ph.D. in Nursing often gives the skills needed to teach and perform medical research, parse out knowledge, and address issues related to chronic illness and health systems. It can take four to five years to complete a Ph.D. degree program in nursing. Common core courses include:

  • Advanced research methods
  • Statistics
  • Chronic illness
  • Philosophy of science and theory development

While a Ph.D. in nursing is considered a research degree, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is considered a practice degree that prepares nurses to implement the science developed by researchers. Recently, there has been an effort to make a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) the minimum requirement for APRNs. Program length varies, depending on the specialty that's chosen. Common core courses include:

  • Data-driven healthcare improvement
  • Budget planning
  • Effective leadership
  • Quantitative methods

An associate's or bachelor's degree will prepare students to become registered nurses through study of chemistry, nutrition, pharmacology, and nursing management. Those who complete a graduate degree program will focus on a specialty area in either research or practice in order to be prepared for advanced roles.

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