Deciphering nursing credentials and degrees can get very confusing very quickly. Let’s walk through the different credentials of the nursing field, as well as the different degree options.
- Associate's Degree
- Bachelor's Degree
- Master's Degree
- Doctoral Degrees
The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), which is a subsidiary of the American Nurses Association, has created a standard to help understand the significance and the value of nursing credentials. Their preferred order for the letters that follow a nurse’s name and a definition of each is as follows:
- Highest earned degree
- Educational degrees may be associate degrees (ADN), bachelor’s degrees (BSN, BA, BS), master’s degrees (MSN, MS, MA) and doctoral degrees (PhD, DNP).
- Registered Nurse (RN) and Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN),
- State designations or requirements
- Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), Nurse Practitioner (NP), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
- National certifications
- These are designations given by certifying bodies like the ANCC, or another professional nursing organization like the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN).
- Examples include CCRN (certified critical care nurse), CMSRN (certified med-surg nurse), RN-BC (registered nurse-board certified)
- Awards and honors
- There are a few major awards nurses can get, which are typically given to nurses after decades of contributions to the field.
- A very common award seen in credentials is FAAN (Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing)
- Other recognitions
- This isn’t terribly common with nurses, but an example is EMT which is awarded by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians
Now that we’ve outlined how they are listed after someone’s name, let’s just quickly differentiate between the levels of degrees nurses could have.
Please note, diploma programs are an option as a pathway to practicing as a registered nurse. However, completing a diploma program is not a collegiate degree and is therefore not listed in this section.
An associate’s degree is an undergraduate academic degree typically earned after completing a program of study that lasts two years or the equivalent of 60 credit hours. It is generally considered to be a lower-level degree than a bachelor’s degree, but it can be a valuable credential in many fields, including nursing.
In the nursing field, an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) is a common pathway to becoming a registered nurse (RN). ADN programs typically take two years to complete and provide students with a strong foundation in nursing theory, clinical skills, and patient care. Graduates of ADN programs are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and become licensed as RNs. While an ADN can be a great way to start a nursing career, many nurses choose to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) to advance their careers and increase their earning potential.
Non-Nursing Associate’s Degree Options
A quick note on the Associate’s Degree level: Some nurses may start out their college journey by getting a more general associate’s. There are four options: AA (Associate of Arts), AS (Associate of Science, AAA (Associate of Applied Arts) and AAS (Associate of Applied Science).
The requirements for an Associates in Applied Science (AAS) is most similar to the nursing prerequisite courses, and therefore nurses who go on to pursue their education further may start out with this option. This is actually what I did! I got my AAS in 2007 before beginning a BSN program. For that short period of time, my credentials would have been Kati Kleber, AAS. I did this because having the full AAS degree made it easier to apply to BSN programs.
Job Options with an Associate’s Degree
With an AAA, AAS, AA, or AS, one cannot practice as an RN. These are typically a stepping stone to another degree. After one completes an ADN and passes the NCLEX, they can practice as an RN. People with this degree tend to work at the bedside or in non-leadership roles.
A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate academic degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of a course of study usually lasting 3-4 years. Bachelor’s degrees are offered in a wide range of subjects, including the arts, sciences, and humanities. The general education requirements for a bachelor’s degree often include a mix of courses in math, science, English, social sciences, and humanities.
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year undergraduate degree program that prepares students for a career as a registered nurse (RN). The curriculum includes a mix of nursing theory, clinical practice, and general education courses. BSN programs typically require students to complete around 120 to 130 credit hours. The length of the program may vary depending on the institution and the student’s course load, but it typically takes four years to complete.
Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degrees
Today, people who are interested in becoming nurses can complete an accelerated BSN program. Entry to this program requires a bachelor’s degree, which can be from any other field. You may see people with undergraduate degrees in biology, psychology, sociology, and more.
Job Options with a BSN
With a BSN, you can work at the bedside, and also provide direct patient care in a variety of settings. BSN-prepared nurses can also begin to step into leadership roles like unit supervisor, assistant manager, education roles, and other non-patient care roles like quality outcomes. Some of these may prefer a Master’s Degree, but that wouldn’t necessarily exclude someone from being qualified.
This is where it can get somewhat confusing.
Master’s degree options for nurses include many different programs with varying focuses. The most popular option is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), which is a generalist degree that prepares nurses for advanced practice roles in a variety of settings if the program provides it. One can complete a general MSN degree with a focus in education, healthcare administration, leadership, informatics, or care coordination. However, if the nurse wants to work as a nurse practitioner, he or she can pursue an MSN that includes an NP track. This program would be longer, have a much larger clinical component, and require the graduate to pass a licensing exam before being able to practice as an NP. By becoming an NP, the nurse would be considered and advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).
Are you ready to feel confident as a nurse?
FreshRN VIP is packed full of tools and peers to help you ditch that imposter syndrome.
Other master’s degree options for nurses include specialized programs such as a Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia (MSNA), which prepares nurses to administer anesthesia in a variety of medical settings as a CRNA.
(Please note, there is quite the push for CRNAs and NPs to be doctorate-prepared.)
Non-Nursing Master’s Degrees
Nurses may also choose to pursue a dual degree program, such as a Master of Science in Nursing and Master of Business Administration (MSN/MBA), to gain a broader understanding of healthcare administration and business operations. This is extremely helpful for nurses who want to pursue leadership positions in hospitals (like manager, director) because of the value of the education regarding finances.
Job Options with an MSN
With a general MSN, one can work as a nurse educator, as an informatics nurse, as a nurse manager/director, or another type of leadership position, or other non-patient care roles like leading a quality outcomes or education team, case management.
If the nurse has the APRN designation and completed additional specialized training, one can work as a nurse practitioner (which has many subspecialities like family nurse practitioner, neonatal, mental health, midwifery, and more) or a CRNA.
With an additional 4-6 years of study, you may earn a terminal degree such as a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is research driven and is most appropriate for a nurse researcher/scientist or nurse faculty position. The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is best suited for positions of leadership in nursing practice or management positions. However, for the more advanced patient care roles, like nurse practitioner and nurse anesthetist, there field of nursing education is really moving towards requiring a DNP.
Examples of Names With Nursing Credentials and Degrees
Associates Degree and Med-Surg Certification
If you have your ADN and obtained your med-surg certification, your credentials would be Din Djarin, RN CMSRN. Here’s a weird exception to the rule: With associate-level degrees and a nursing license, most don’t indicate their degree in their credentials. They just write RN after their name.
Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing and Critical Care Certification
Let’s say have a bachelor’s in nursing and also obtained a critical care certification. In this case, your credentials would be Moff Gideon, BSN CCRN
Master’s in Nursing Education with Education Certification
This is a certification without a special acronym. This one would be Cara Dune, MSN RN-BC.
Doctorate in Nursing, Family Nurse Practitioner
This would read something like Fennec Shand, DNP APRN FNP.
Getting ready for nursing school clinicals, but feeling unprepared?
Nursing School Clinical Prep from FreshRN is a self-paced video course that will prepare you for your first nursing clinical experience. Each lesson walks you through the basic tasks and concepts you will experience in the clinical setting. Once completed, you’ll feel comfortable in a hospital setting, understand the basics of what the bedside experience will feel like, and know insider tips and tricks that will make you feel confident and in control.
What about you? What are your credentials? And if you’re still working on building them, what are your credential goals?
Cassidy Tripi says
Do you think you could do a segment or add on to this post about CCRN certification and others like that? More of a how to go about getting them. It seems like it’s exactly what I want to do when I graduate but I know nothing about it. Thanks for your time!
Kati Kleber says
Cassidy – WONDERFUL suggestion. So wonderful in fact that I’m going to do another post devoted solely to specialty certifications. But so you don’t have to wait for the CCRN one… I got my CCRN in 2015, had been in Neuro ICU for 3 years at that point. Went to the AACN’s website to see what I had to do to qualify, took a review course from the AACN and bought PASS CCRN for the practice questions, studied for a few months… scheduled my exam, tested, and that’s that!
Cassidy Tripi says
That’s great! Thank you!