You have seen nurses, many of them, and must have wondered about the difference between them. You must have observed – how some nurses are more active, how attentively others listen to their instructions or the respect they command. Although, all of them appear the same, wear the same scrubs and kits.

So, you must be wondering now – Do there exists any categories or levels? Yes, there are ways to arrange the nurses in categories, there are different levels of nurses, there are different nursing levels, and nursing degree levels, as well. Might sound confusing, but is plain and simple. 

In this article, we will guide you through all of this simple yet confusing stuff related to the profession of nursing and regarding the nurses as well. Hope this effort helps you figure out the level of nursing you want to pursue – from an entry-level role or up to Master’s or leadership-level positions.

Let’s start:

Nursing Degree Levels

Types of Nurses

Some nurses command respect while others don’t although they appear the same. This could be because of many factors but importantly what separates them is their education. Thus, we can arrange the nurses into 3 basic categories or types considering their education –

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Non-Degree Nurses

The nurses that have not pursued any sort of degree fall under this category. The CNAs – Certified Nursing Assistants, LPNs – Licenced Practical Nurses, and the LVNs – Licensed Vocational Nurses are the type of nurses that have gotten into nursing without a degree but with respective training programs. Thus, they are non-degree nurses.

Degree Nurses

The nurses that have got into the nursing profession with a degree – associate degree or bachelor’s degree– fall under this category. They are also known as RNs – an RN with an ADN or an RN with a BSN. Because they hold a degree, so they are termed as degree nurses.

Advanced Degree Nurses

The nurses that we see in advanced positions like administrator, or manager, have got there with advanced degrees – master’s degrees or doctorates – fall under this category. Since they hold advanced positions with advanced degrees, they are termed advanced degree nurses.  

Hope, we have cleared your confusion. Now, let’s move ahead with the different nursing degree levels –  

Different Nursing Degree Levels

Your nursing degree level separates you from the rest, that’s the beauty of the nursing profession. There are many advancement opportunities considering education, post-starting your career as a nurse or RN. And with the online learning route, there should never arise a ‘Too Late’ thought, as well.

Read -> Nursing Degree Online

Let’s explore the different levels of nursing, so you can make an educated decision to maintain your successful career as a Registered Nurse, or level up with advanced degree options.

Associate Degree

Associate degrees generally take 2 years to complete if you opt for traditional rote and with online it takes around 18 months to complete. Obviously, with online courses, the completion time depends on your learning pace.

You then need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam, post-completion of an associate degree, to become an RN and start a career in Nursing.  

With an Associate degree, you can become an RN and perform direct patient care.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degrees take around 4 years to complete. However, if you opt for online courses, it may take around 15 months and beyond depending on your pace, for completion.

There are ABSN – accelerated BSN programs – for those who aspire to join the field of nursing with a non-nursing major.

For the RNs looking to upgrade their education, there exists a fast-paced RN-to-BSN program. With this program, you get your BSN degree in just 16 months or less.

With a BSN degree, you can become an RN and perform direct patient care.

Read -> How To Get A BSN?

Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees take around 2-3 years to complete and in both traditional or online routes it completely depends on your pace of education and fulfillment of the clinical hours requisite.

Generally, you oft for MSN programs to specialize in some specific area of interest in nursing that supports your career goals. Post-completion of the program you pass the license exam and start working.

With a Master’s degree, you can become APRN or Nurse Leader or similar roles, and perform advanced roles.

Doctorate Degree

A doctorate degree is the highest degree in any field. You become an SME – Subject Matter Expert, in your specialization and hold great respect and reputation within the field. It takes around 2-4 or more years to achieve this degree.

A DNP – Doctor of Nursing Practice – allows you to hold leadership positions.

Likewise, a Ph.D. allows you to explore the research and academic aspect of nursing.

With a Doctorate degree, you can become Nurse Administrator, Nursing Professor, Nurse Researcher, or similar roles, and work toward the betterment and advancement of the nursing field.

Read More:

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What Are the Different Levels of Nursing?


Depending on your nursing career goals, and what environment excites you most, you can consider the level of nursing that is best suited for you. Considering you have finalized, let’s learn about the five levels of nursing that you can pursue.  

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

CNAs also known as “nursing assistants” or “nursing aides” assist the RNs or physicians in their daily tasks in performing direct patient care. As a CNA you can work in home care and long-term care settings.  

To become one, you must enroll and complete a state-approved CNA program that takes around 3 to 8 weeks. Post-completion of your program you need to pass the state CNA certification exam to start working.

As a CNA, you can earn an average annual salary of $29,640, or $14.25 per hour. The BLS reports projected growth of 8% in this decade.

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Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

LPN or LVNs are considered similar. Their role is to assist the RNs and the healthcare professionals or physicians in their daily tasks of patient care by monitoring them, checking their blood pressure, delivering them medications, and assisting them with changing clothes or using restrooms, etc.

To become one, you need to enroll in a Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse program that will take anywhere between 12-18 months to complete. Post-completion you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination – NCLEX-PN/VN – to be job ready.

As an LPN/LVN, you can earn an average annual salary of $47,480 or $22.83 per hour. The BLS projects employment growth of 9% in this decade.

Registered Nurse (RN)

RNs basically provide direct patient care by administering medications and treatments as prescribed by doctors, monitoring patient health, and tracking their progress during treatment. They are the bridge between the patient and the doctor.

You can become an RN by completing your Associate or BSN degree. Post-completion of your degree you need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam, to become one and start joining the workforce.

As an RN you can earn an average annual salary of $73,300 or $35.24 per hour. The BLS reports a projected growth of faster than average – 7% or higher in this decade.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

You should be an RN to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). APRNs are the ones with a leadership role in patient care.

You need to have an MSN and a license in your specialization to become an APRN. As we have discussed earlier, an MSN degree is much more into specializations, the APRNs are also of different specializations like – Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, Clinical Nurse Specialists, etc. 

As an APRN you can earn an average annual salary of $115,800 or $55.67 per hour. The BLS projects employment growth of APRNs with a much faster than average rate of 45% increase in this decade.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

This is the highest level or degree in nursing. If you aim for the highest levels of nursing or become a subject matter expert, a doctorate degree is your best bet.

DNPs often hold organizational leadership or academic roles like – Nurse Managers or Executives, and Nurse Educator. You need to have a BSN or MSN degree and one-year work experience as an RN, to achieve a Doctorate degree.

As an DNP you can earn an average annual salary of $115,800 or $55.67 per hour. The BLS projects healthy employment growth in this decade.

Different Levels of Nurses

So, you now know the levels of nursing, degree levels, and the types of nurses as well. It’s time we discuss the five possible levels of Nurses depending on their expertise. Let’s go –

Novice Nurses

The Nurses who are still in nursing school are considered at the novice stage. They must have been undergoing the clinical hours requisite.

Advanced Beginner Nurses

The Nurses who can apply learned procedures, and are aware of rules to determine the actions required for the immediate situation are at the advanced beginner stage. They must have joined the workforce recently.

Competent Nurses

The nurses who have gained some experience and are task-oriented and honed organizational skills to plan their work for goal achievement are competent nurses. They are able to respond to many clinical situations but are not fully proficient in handling the problems on their own.

Proficient Nurses

Nurses who can perceive and handle situations and can recognize and respond to changing circumstances as well are called proficient nurses. This means they are fully proficient in their roles.

Expert Nurses

The nurses who can intuitively manage sudden critical situations, can diagnose with precision, and respond faster and more efficiently are expert nurses. Their experience, performance, and level of expertise command respect for them, and can even be consulted by doctors or other nurses.


-> 7 Best Online Nursing Degrees for 2023

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In short, a nurse depending on their experience and education level can be categorized and this might also allow employers to maintain a healthy ratio among the level of nurses. The earning potential and respect of the nurses depend on the level they are.

So, if you aspire to be joining the nursing team, you must have a clear idea of which level is it for you, that suits you the best so you never feel burned out. Also, you need to consider where you thrive – working with patients or in advanced leadership positions.

If you are already working – keep in mind – regardless of your nursing level there are ways for you to upgrade your level through education and pursue the career you strive for.

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About the Author
Grant founded with a purpose-driven mission: make college accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their education. He's a frequent speaker and author in higher education, and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider, American Express, AOL, MSN, Thrive Global, Reader's Digest, Inside Higher Ed, Evolllution, EducationDive, and nearly 100 radio shows and podcasts.