Nursing Undergraduate Degrees Vs. Graduate Degrees: What's the Difference?

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 a associate's or bachelor's degree and ending with a master's or a Ph.D.in 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 clinics, hospitals and nursing homes. Successful completion of these undergraduate degree programs prepares graduates to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination. Registered nurses constitute the largest healthcare occupation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov).

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-transferrable 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 includes 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. A Ph.D. in Nursing often gives the skills needed to teach and perform some forms of medical research. In a typical Ph.D. degree program, students produce knowledge instead of consuming it. It can take six to eight years to complete a Ph.D. degree program in nursing.

Admissions Requirements

Requirements for admittance into a Ph.D. nursing program generally includes a 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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