In the time since the current COVID-19 pandemic started and changed the world so dramatically, many people have been giving a lot of thought to their current careers and whether they want to make a change. This could be because they’ve realized life is too short to stay in a job you don’t enjoy, or it could be because they’ve been inspired to retrain in a field that is more geared towards helping others. When it comes to the latter, the first sphere many people naturally think of is healthcare.

Within the medical industry there is of course a whole range of different jobs available – from surgeon or physician to therapist or technician – and one of the most trusted and respected roles is that of a nurse. If you’re interested in training to become a nurse there are lots of pathways you can follow and a number of degrees and nursing certifications you can take. For those who are just starting out on their journey towards qualifying, this can feel a little overwhelming, though!

This article will talk you through the main types of nursing certifications and qualifications that are available, to help you work out which one is the most appropriate choice. Remember there is no right or wrong answer here, and the best option for you will depend on factors such as your current experience, your specific career goals, how long you want to study for, and your personal interests.

Diplomas and certificates

For those who are looking for an entry-level nursing position, there are a few different certificates and diplomas to choose from. The main distinction between them is whether you want to train as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN – also known as a licensed vocational nurse or LVN):

  • CNA certificates and diplomas – these are the shortest qualifications available in the nursing field, taking just four to 12 weeks to complete on average. They qualify you to provide basic healthcare services such as taking vital signs and recording data, as well as helping patients with daily necessities like changing bedding, bathing and eating meals. This makes it a great option if you’re not yet sure if nursing is the right career for you, or if you want to gain some experience before enrolling on a more advanced course. After completing their nursing certifications, CNAs can work under the direction of an LPN or Registered Nurse in facilities such as hospitals and care homes as well as for home healthcare providers.
  • LPN/LVN certificates and diplomas – these are a step up from the CNA programs, and usually take around a year to complete. You’ll learn how to perform a greater range of nursing duties, such as changing wound dressings, administering medications and injections, and assisting with certain tests and procedures. These nursing certifications enable you to work under the supervision of a Registered Nurse in places such as hospitals, assisted living facilities, physicians’ offices and clinical research facilities. If you study on an accredited program, you may be able to put your LPN credits towards a higher degree at a later date.

Associate degree in nursing

These are the minimum level of nursing certifications required to become a Registered Nurse (RN). They take around two years to complete, and can be done at community colleges or as hybrid programs that blend online learning with clinical training on site. You’ll study a range of biology, anatomy and physiology modules, and learn how to perform a wider variety of duties. These include assisting physicians during certain medical procedures and surgeries, running and analyzing diagnostic tests, supervising CNAs and LPNs, and educating patients on healthcare issues.

After completing these nursing certifications you will need to sit an exam if you want to gain a license as a Registered Nurse. Once you have your license you will be eligible to work in a wide range of environments including hospitals, schools, physicians’ offices, care homes, health insurance companies, and travel nursing organizations. This makes it a good choice for those who want to pursue a career in nursing but can’t commit to a four-year college degree. Having said that, it’s worth bearing in mind that more and more employers are requiring a bachelor’s degree these days, so only having an associate degree can make your options more limited.

Bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN)

These are four-year, full-time nursing certifications that will not only prepare you to qualify as a Registered Nurse, but also give you added clinical experience and specialist knowledge ready to pursue higher level roles. The programs cover a wide variety of scientific modules, as well as training you for duties such as assisting with surgery, designing treatment plans, providing patient care and helping with laboratory testing. Depending on where you study you may also be able to specialize in an area of nursing that is of particular interest to you, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, or psychiatry.

A BSN is a great option if you are ready to commit to a longer period of study, and are confident that nursing is the right career for you. There are a few different pathways you can take to earn this degree depending on whether you already have any of the nursing certifications mentioned above. For example, you can transfer credits from your associate degree in order to shorten your study time. Alternatively, if you are retraining and already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, then you might be able to transfer credits to meet the liberal arts requirements and shorten your study time that way.

Once qualified you can sit the exam to gain your Registered Nurse license and work in any one of a number of nursing roles. In addition to those mentioned above, you could specialize in an area such as forensic nursing, nursing informatics, nursing administration or occupational health.

Master’s degree in nursing (MSN)

These nursing certifications are designed for those who wish to take up a more specialized role as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN). A master of science in nursing (MSN) builds on what you study during a bachelor’s degree in nursing, enabling you to focus more deeply on an aspect of nursing that you’re most interested in. As well as clinical topics, you will cover modules in management, policy, research and leadership in order to prepare for high-level roles with the nursing world.

Just like with the BSN, there are a few different pathways available for earning your master’s. For example, you can first complete the BSN and then enroll on the MSN, or if you are already a Registered Nurse, you might be able to combine the two qualifications into one program to complete the qualification in a shorter amount of time.

There are four main Advanced Practice Registered Nurse roles that you can train for through these nursing certifications:

  • Certified Nurse Midwife – this involves specializing in reproductive health, pregnancy and childbirth, helping to deliver babies and providing prenatal and postnatal care
  • Certified Nurse Specialist – this involves gaining advanced skills in a specific area of nursing, such as a particular health condition, patient population or treatment setting, with a greater focus on education and research
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist – this involves administering anesthesia to patients so they are ready for surgery, monitoring them during the procedure, and overseeing their recovery afterwards
  • Certified Nurse Practitioner – this involves greater responsibility when it comes to diagnosing and treating patients, and also a strong focus on preventative health measures and health management

Post-MSN nursing certifications

These are a range of nursing certifications that are available to qualified nurses who have already completed a master’s degree in nursing. Taking between six months and three years to study for depending on which one you choose, they are designed to deepen your knowledge and sharpen your clinical skills in a specialism of your choice.

There are many different subjects available that you can take nursing certifications in, such as:

  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Nurse educator
  • Adult gerontology
  • Executive nurse leadership
  • Forensic nursing
  • Mental health
  • Emergency care
  • Neonatal care
  • Pediatrics
  • Women’s health

These qualifications are aimed at people who are currently working as nurses, and as such are intended to be studied alongside your existing job. Consequently, many of them are available as online programs, with clinical hours to be completed at a location that’s convenient for you. They help prepare you for the necessary exams that will qualify you for a variety of high-level roles within the nursing field. This makes nursing certifications perfect for those who are midway through their careers and looking for a change in focus or a promotion.

Doctoral degrees in nursing

Doctoral degrees are the highest level of nursing certifications available. There are two main types of doctoral degrees in nursing:

  • Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of philosophy in nursing (PhD)

The one that’s right for you will depend on the precise career aspirations that you have. For instance, the DNP is focused on practical and clinical nursing, training you for the highest level of leadership and management positions in hospitals and other healthcare settings. It can be completed in as little as two years, and puts an emphasis on developing advanced clinical skills that you can use in high-level roles. As part of the curriculum you will be required to undertake a certain number of clinical hours too.

A PhD on the other hand is more of an academic qualification, preparing you to teach at a university level and conduct research in the field of nursing. It also takes longer than a DNP, usually around four to seven years depending on whether you study on a full-time or part-time basis. The curriculum has more of an emphasis on research methods and writing skills, with no clinical hours required.

How do I choose the right nursing certifications for me?

As you can see, there is a great variety of choices when it comes to nursing certifications. This is a positive thing, however, it can leave prospective students feeling somewhat overwhelmed and unsure which program is the right one for them. One of the best ways to figure it out is to spend some time thinking about exactly where you hope to be in the future, and picking the qualification that will get you there. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • What relevant qualifications do I already have?
  • How much time do I want to dedicate to studying?
  • Do I want to be able to work while I study?
  • What kind of job role do I want?
  • Where do I want to work, and who with?
  • How certain am I that nursing is the career for me?
  • Do I want to focus on clinical skills or academics?
  • Do I want to focus on direct patient care or indirect patient care?

Due to the fact that the credits you get from lower level qualifications can often be put towards higher level nursing certifications, you always have the option to take a shorter program first and then move on to the more advanced ones at a later date. If possible, try to speak to some people who have taken these qualifications or who are already working in the field of nursing, as that will help you to get an inside view on what the different programs and job roles are truly like. If you don’t know anyone suitable, consider trying to reach out to someone on social media instead.

Another good idea is to try and get some volunteering experience in a relevant role, especially if you are completely new to nursing. That will not only help you to understand the position better, it will also be a boost on your application form when it comes to contacting colleges.

Finally, spend some time browsing college websites and looking in more detail at the programs that are available. Even within the same type of degree there can be big differences in module lists and clinical options, because there are various specialisms you can choose to focus on. You can also speak directly to admissions tutors to get more information or have your specific questions answered.