RN Degrees: Associate's, Bachelor's & Online Class Info

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What kind of jobs can you get with an associate's or bachelor's degree in registered nursing? Find out degree program requirements, online options and info on courses in registered nurse (RN) training programs.
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Studying Registered Nursing: Degrees at a Glance

If you'd like a job recording patient histories, administering medications and conducting health screenings in a long-term care facility, hospital or outpatient care facility as an RN, you'll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). While both associate's and bachelor's degree programs can provide you with the training you'll need to qualify for this exam, earning a bachelor's degree could give you the opportunity to pursue managerial positions or enroll in a master's degree program. However, a baccalaureate program will take an additional two years to complete.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for RNs were expected to increase 26% over the 2010-2020 decade. This growth is largely due to a growing elderly population and advances in technology that allow for new treatment procedures.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want to begin careers as RNs Aspiring RNs or current RNs who want to advance their careers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary)- Registered nurse ($66,000)*
- With years of work experience: Head nurse ($89,000)**
Time to Completion 2-3 years, full time Four years full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 70-80 credit hours
- Practicums
- Approximately 100-125 credit hours
- Practicums
Prerequisites - High school diploma or equivalent
- Coursework in biology, chemistry and psychology that meets minimum GPA requirements
- Passing scores on placement exams could also be required
Same as associate's degree programs
Online Availability Hybrid programs are fairly common Both online and hybrid programs are available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **Salary.com (May 2012 figures).

Associate's in Nursing

Admission to nursing associate's degree programs can be competitive; you'll need to perform well in prerequisite science and general education courses to ensure that you're accepted to introductory and upper-level nursing coursework. Once you're enrolled in these classes, you'll learn about nursing theory, nursing ethics and basic communication skills. You'll also complete practicums to gain hands-on experience caring for patients.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You can complete most programs in only two years
  • Some programs offer coursework online
  • RNs earn a high median wage ($66,000 in 2011)*

Cons

  • You might be competing with bachelor's degree program graduates for the same jobs
  • Much of the work day is spent on your feet
  • Job risks include exposure to hazardous materials and communicable diseases

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Before studying nursing, you'll need to complete prerequisite courses in anatomy and physiology, chemistry, psychology and microbiology. Core courses often include the following:

  • Nursing management
  • Pharmacology
  • Mental health nursing
  • Childbearing
  • Surgical nursing

Clinical practicums make up a large part of program curriculum as well. You might find yourself working up to 24 hours a week in a mental health agency, neonatal intensive care unit or long-term care facility.

Online Course Options

You do have the option of enrolling in a hybrid associate's degree program. In most cases, you'll complete practicum requirements at an approved clinical site while taking courses online. However, these programs are sometimes limited to students who've already received training and licensure as practical nurses.

How to Stand Out

The BLS projected that most job openings for RNs would be in long-term, residential and outpatient care facilities. While enrolled in your associate's degree program, look for opportunities to complete clinical rotations in these settings. You might also want to consider volunteering in a hospital or medical center to gain work experience. These commitments can entail anywhere from 4- to 12-hour weekly shifts that last up to a year.

After graduating and acquiring at least two years of work experience as an RN, you could also pursue certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). This professional organization offers specialty certifications in such areas as surgical nursing and mental health nursing.

Bachelor's in Nursing

Both traditional and RN-BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree programs are available. Students who've just graduated from high school enroll in traditional programs, while individuals who've already earned a nursing associate's degree and licensure pursue RN-BSN programs.

If you enroll in a traditional program, you could spend 1-2 years taking science, composition and humanities courses to build your analytical and critical-thinking skills. You'll then move on to study advanced nursing course topics. If you enroll in an RN-BSN program, you can apply some of the credits from your associate's degree program toward a 4-year degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Earning a bachelor's degree can help you advance to managerial positions
  • Opportunity to continue your education at the graduate level
  • Accelerated programs are available to students who've earned nursing associate's degrees

Cons

  • A bachelor's degree program prepares you for the same entry-level positions as an associate's degree but takes an extra two years to complete
  • Strong competition expected for positions in outpatient care facilities and doctors' offices*
  • Nurses often work overnight or weekend shifts

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Many of the nursing courses found in a 4-year program are similar to those found in an associate's degree program. Advanced courses particular to a BSN can cover topics in nursing management and theory, nursing research, statistics, health assessment and pharmacotherapy. You'll also complete advanced clinical practicums during your last two years of study.

Online Course Options

Students with no previous nursing experience won't be able to find any traditional bachelor's degree programs online. However, if you have an associate's degree in nursing and licensure as an RN, there are several colleges and universities offering online RN-BSN programs. Some can be completed entirely via distance education, while others require you to complete clinical experiences at a nearby health care facility. There are even programs that can be completed in as little as 16 months.

How to Stand Out

In addition to volunteering, you might want to consider completing a summer externship program. These are often 10-week experiences open to BSN students entering their final year of study. These programs can include weekly seminars and lead to jobs after graduation. Professional certification through the ANCC is also available to bachelor's degree program graduates who earn licensure and acquire two years of work experience.

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