Aspiring nurses have options for pursuing their career. While a formal nursing education is essential to becoming a registered nurse (RN), candidates can earn the education required for an entry-level staff nursing job in three different ways, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Which educational path you choose determines how long you will spend in school, what subjects you will study and even what kind of clinical experience you will attain during your education.

Nursing Diploma Program

The minimum amount of education you need to become a registered nurse is a diploma from a specialized nursing program approved by the Board of Nursing in your state. Like a nursing education at the associate’s and bachelor’s degree levels, a nursing diploma program will include coursework in anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, nutrition, physiology and psychology, according to the BLS. These programs focus less on academic subjects outside of nursing than programs at the associate’s and bachelor’s degree levels would. Nursing diploma programs are often sponsored by hospitals, so they typically emphasize clinical experience in a hospital setting.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing

Like a diploma in nursing, an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) typically takes two to three years to complete, the BLS reported. However, the educational path differs from a diploma program in a few key ways.

Students in ADN programs take college courses both within and outside the field of nursing to earn an associate’s degree. These additional courses may make it easier for RNs who decide to advance their careers to enter a bachelor’s degree program, because they have met any prerequisites already, or to use the college credits they already have to shorten the length of time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

All nursing programs include a clinical experience component, but ADN programs are less hospital-based in their clinical experience opportunities than diploma programs are. This means students may gain different types of nursing experience depending on which of the two programs they choose – and either could be a better choice, depending on what type of workplace the student ultimately wants to work in after becoming an RN.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree provides the maximum amount of undergraduate college education a registered nurse needs. The four-year program covers all of the nursing coursework you will find in diploma and ADN programs but also exposes students to studies in the physical and social sciences. Students in BSN programs have more of a chance to develop leadership abilities and communication and critical thinking skills during their education than their peers in diploma and associate’s degree programs, the BLS reported. They also gain more non-hospital clinical experience.

A BSN is a good choice for ambitious students who want to eventually advance to roles in research, teaching or administration. Earning a BSN can also improve a candidate’s job prospects.

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