Alphabet Soup: Making Sense of Nursing Degrees

Last Updated on June 21, 2019 by Christina Crisologo

Nursing is a career that has well-defined levels of advancement, but for a medical student just starting out on the wards, it can be confusing to know who’s who and what those letters on the nurse’s name tag mean. Entry-level positions for nursing often only require a certification or on the on-the-job training. Other positions require a more extensive education. This article will give you an overview of the various levels of nursing training from entry level to doctorate level training.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

A Certified Nursing Assistant is an entry-level nursing position that requires a federally mandated minimum of 75 hours of training. CNAs are often employed in skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes), rehabilitations centers, emergency rooms, hospitals, and other sites where long-term or dependent care is provided. CNAs are often responsible for feeding, bathing, changing, dressing, moving, positioning, and caring for patients. Other responsibilities can include obtaining vital signs, reporting to the RN about changes in patient status, and other information that would be useful for the nurse to know.

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Registered Nurse (RN, ADN)

A registered nursing degree is an associate’s degree program that lasts anywhere from 1.5-2 years depending upon the program that is completed. RNs work in physician offices, hospitals, clinics, and other settings in a variety of different specializations. Registered nurses are responsible for formulating a nursing diagnosis, starting intravenous lines, examining the patient, administering medications, reporting changes in patient status to the physician, and providing bedside care to patients while receiving medical care.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A registered nurse with a bachelor of science in nursing degree. To obtain a BSN, one must complete a 4-year nursing degree or obtain an associate’s degree in nursing, followed by a completion bachelor’s degree. A BSN can open doors in nursing such as higher pay, nurse management positions, and a stepping stone towards higher nursing degrees such as family nurse practitioner (FNP), nurse anesthetist (CRNA), or a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

A nurse with a master’s degree or higher who has completed additional education in the practice of providing anesthesia to patients undergoing operations or procedures. Some states allow for independent practice of CRNAs, but other states require a physician who is an anesthesiologist to provide oversight while the nurse is providing anesthesia.

Nurse Practitioner (NP, APRN, DNP)

A nurse who also has a master’s degree or higher. Nurse practitioners work in various different fields within medicine. According to, the specialties in which a NP can practice are clinical nursing practice (adult health, public health, geriatric health), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), and Certified Nurse Midwife. In addition to acute care, nurse practitioners can also specialize in adult gerontology, emergency, family, neonatal, pediatric, psychiatric, and women’s health.

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