Getting an Advanced Degree in Nursing: What Type of Nursing Program is Right for You?

Deciding on a Nursing Program

Deciding on a Nursing Program

Last week we started talking about advancing your nursing career by deciding to go back to school for an advanced nursing degree – be it BSN, MSN, or PhD/DNP. That post covered the types of questions to ask to see if you are ready to go back to school. This post will outline the different types of nursing program formats and give you some food for thought to help you decide which one might be right for your situation. 

You’ve made the decision to return to school and have decided on “what you want to be when you grow up.” For many of you, that will mean a bachelor’s degree. You may stop at the BSN or use it as a stepping stone to a master’s or doctoral degree.  If you want to be an advanced practice nurse or nurse executive, you will need a master’s degree at a minimum. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has wonderful resources about the different types of nursing programs for nurses wanting to go back to school (2017a; 2017b; 2017c; Amos, n.d.; Anderson, n.d.; Dracup, n.d.). Also, check out Johnson & Johnson’s Discover Nursing website for more resources and tips for going back to school. 

Once you have decided on the advanced practice role, administrative role, or advanced nursing role (e.g., informatics, nursing administration, nursing education, public health) you want to pursue, you will have to sift through the many choices you have in nursing schools and nursing program formats. 

Finding a Nursing Program

Start by searching for nursing programs at schools near you. Regardless of whether you are thinking about an online program or not (where the location would not be a factor), attending a school in your state will allow you to get the cheaper resident tuition rate. If you know the name of your nearby colleges and universities, type the name into the search bar in your search engine of choice (e.g., Google, Bing, Ask!,
Find information on the right nursing program

Do Your Research! Visit the school’s website and specifically go to the nursing school/college or nursing department pages. Review the information regarding the overview of the specific degree and program for which you are interested. Look at the courses in the curriculum and the program outcomes to see what you will be expected to complete. Don’t forget to review eligibility requirements, application deadlines, and where to download the application forms.

Chapter three of Debra Wolff’s book, Advancing Your Nursing Degree: The Experienced Nurse’s Guide to Returning to School, contains an extensive checklist that you can use to assess the characteristics and qualities of the colleges and specific nursing programs you are interested in. The “intake and assessment” form helps you collect the data you will need to make an informed decision. The rest of this chapter is full of excellent advice about curriculum, communication, and clinical experiences to investigate when making these decisions.

If you are not sure which nursing programs may be around you, you can just enter the nursing degree you are interested in the search bar of your search engine and see what comes up! There will be many types of educational formats to choose from traditional on-campus classes to off-campus/distance formats. The number of distance education programs has risen dramatically over the years and is becoming the format of choice for many students (Thompson, 2016). The number of accredited fully online nursing programs has increased over the last 10 years. 

KEY POINT: Make sure that ANY nursing program you considering is ACCREDITED! Accreditation is a sign that the institution and/or the nursing program adheres to national and/or regional standards and regulations. It’s a sign of quality.

The two major nursing program accrediting agencies to look for are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN, formerly NLNAC) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE); the National League for Nursing’s Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA) is a new option. A list of accredited programs in nursing can be found on the AACN website.

The consequences of attending an unaccredited nursing program are many and include denial of admission to a master’s or doctoral nursing program, denial of transfer credit, and/or denial of the ability to sit for certification after graduation (Best Value Schools, n.d.). 

“The best assurance of quality education is college accreditation” (Best Value Schools, n.d.).

For a full list of undergraduate and graduate nursing education programs, go to AACN’s Nursing Education Programs page.  

Deciding on the Type of Nursing Program You Want to Attend

There are many types of nursing program choices such as accelerated or fast-track programs, traditional programs, and dual enrollment programs. All of these types of programs may offer courses in a traditional format such as face-to-face (F2F) classes, intensive classes, or weeknight/weekend classes. Classes (or whole degree plans) may be offered totally online or as a hybrid of F2F and online classes. 

Deciding on the type of nursing program you want to attend will help you choose a school because not all nursing schools offer all kinds of teaching and learning formats.

Accelerated or Fast-Track Nursing Program

Decide whether you want, or are qualified, to do an accelerated or fast-track program – that is, where the curriculum is “sped up.” You might go from RN to BSN in 9- to 18-months or an RN to MSN in about 2-3 years. To get into an accelerated nursing program you usually have to first have a minimum GPA of at least a 3.0, and a “bachelor’s or graduate degree in a non-nursing discipline” (AACN, 2017b, para. 2). 

Realize that accelerated or fast-track programs are very challenging! Once you meet the requirements and get accepted, you will be required to take a full-time course load with very brief to no breaks between sessions, go to school throughout the summer, and complete the same number of clinical hours as the traditional students – to complete the program in the time promised. You have to be totally committed to doing what it takes to get through school.

I taught in an accelerated BSN program and I know how hard the students had to work to understand the concepts from multiple topic areas, complete assignments from multiple classes, and pull everything together! They really had to fully concentrate on school — there was no time for anything else. Full-time work can hinder your ability to complete the demanding school schedule and course requirements, so accelerated students are “encouraged NOT to work” at all (AACN, 2017b, para. 6).

The fact that you have already graduated from your non-nursing degree program, bodes well for your graduation from the accelerated nursing program and success in your nursing career. Second-degree nursing students are older than traditional first-degree students and frequently are more motivated and self-directed (AACN, 2017b, 2017c). 

Traditional Nursing Program

Traditional bachelor’s or master’s programs usually take 2-4 years, including prerequisite required courses. The curricula for these programs are organized in either a semester or quarter system. There are breaks in between the sessions for holidays, spring break, and winter break. Core classes may be offered in the summer; many times, optional special topics are offered in the summer. Many students still work even if taking a full course load because the classes and assignments are more spread out (especially in a semester system) than in an accelerated program. Working part-time is doable with a full load — but I’d still caution you to try not to work full-time if you can help it. 

Seriously.  Take it from someone who worked full-time through all of my degrees, had a family to care for, was on a national nursing board of directors, and was writing articles and book chapters the whole time I was in school — aaahhhhh!

I was fortunate because we had a Baylor program at my hospital. I worked weekend nights and got paid for 36 hours plus night differential. So at least I had the weekdays free to go to school, which made the program more doable.  But you’ll learn and retain so much more if you are not sleep-deprived or pulled in too many directions. Trust me. 

I was determined and wanted to move on with my career as quickly as possible. So, I got through –albeit with a lot of all-nighters and stress. But if I had it to do over — I’d be kinder to myself. I would have read every resource thoroughly. And I’d have taken more time to reflect upon what I was learning – especially when I had ready access to nursing scholars to answer my questions and discuss the issues with me. But that depth of reflection and discussion is hard to do when you “have to get to work.”

My advice: Savor the time you have as a student! Seek out new opportunities for learning. Take that class that sounds interesting, but is not required. Take advantage of your status as a student to ask questions and then ponder or reflect on the answers. 

Dual Enrollment Nursing Program 

The need to prepare nurses to care for an aging population and increasingly complex healthcare system requires acknowledgment of previous knowledge and access to new knowledge, skills, and diverse ways of thinking. Educational mobility is the impetus for many innovative nursing education pathways.

The dual enrollment programs are relatively new and involve getting your ADN and BSN either simultaneously or in rapid succession. The student is dually enrolled in a community college for the ADN and a University for the BSN. The content is either completed at the same time or the BSN program (about 30 credits) begins after you’ve graduated with your ADN. Many baccalaureate programs partner with neighboring community colleges to offer this innovative option. 


There’s a lot to think about when making the important decision of which school and nursing program to attend — so many choices! But once you put your mind to the fact that you are moving on, things will fall into place. For now — I’m proud of you for making the decision to go back to school! Take a deep breath and get ready to grow!


American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2017a, June). Degree completion programs for registered nurses: RN to master’s degree and RN to baccalaureate programs [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved from

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2017b, June). Accelerated baccalaureate and master’s degrees in nursing [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved from

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2017c). Accelerated programs: The fast track to careers in nursing. Retrieved from

Amos, L. K. (n.d.). Baccalaureate nursing programs. American Association of Colleges of Nursing website. Retrieved from

Anderson, C. A. (n.d.). The nurse Ph.D.: A vital profession needs leaders. American Association of Colleges of Nursing website. Retrieved from

Dracup, K. (n.d.). Master’s nursing programs. American Association of Colleges of Nursing website. Retrieved from

Thompson, C. J. (2016). Disruptive innovation: The rise of distance education. Clinical Nurse Specialist: The Journal for Advanced Nursing Practice, 30(4), 238-241. doi: 10.1097/NUR.0000000000000213

Wolff, D. A. (2017). Advancing your nursing degree: The experienced nurse’s guide to returning to schoolNew York, NY: Springer Publishing.