How many years you’ll spend in nursing school depends on what type of education you need to get the job you want:
Nursing assistant: less than a few months in a diploma or certificate program.
Licensed practical nurse: one year in a diploma or certificate program.
Registered nurse: two years in an associate program to earn an associate degree, or four years to earn a bachelor’s nursing degree.
Advanced practice registered nurse: at least six years of total education to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees; more than eight years if your specialty also requires a doctorate degree.
Some programs condense the number of years of nursing school to save you time and money. For example, bridge programs allow registered nurses with an associate degree to earn a bachelor’s degree without spending an additional four years in nursing school.
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Jobs requiring 1 year or less in nursing school
Entry-level nursing jobs require the least amount of time in school. Nurse assistant programs are the quickest path to a career in nursing, with certificate programs typically lasting less than a few months.
Nurse assistant duties are limited to basic services, like checking patient vital signs. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) — sometimes called licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) — may be able do more advanced tasks, such as running routine tests or maintaining patient records.
Taking on those additional duties requires passing the NCLEX-PN exam and spending extra time in nursing school. LPN certificate and degree programs typically last about one year.
Jobs requiring 2 years or 4 years in nursing school
Registered nurses (RNs) are a step above LPNs and can handle tasks that LPNs may not be allowed to, like distributing medication. You can become an RN in two ways:
Earn an ADN. An Associate Degree Nursing, or ADN, requires two years in school; you can complete these programs at a technical or community college.
Earn a BSN. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing, or BSN, typically requires four years at a university, or however long it takes to complete the necessary credits or coursework.
While getting an ADN requires less time in nursing school, some employers may prefer or require nurses with a BSN degree. You’ll also need a BSN if you wish to pursue a master’s in nursing.
Differences in nursing salaries between ADNs and RNs are minimal. All RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN exam.
If you have a bachelor’s degree — but not a BSN — and want to become a registered nurse, accelerated BSN programs are available. These typically last less than two years.
Jobs requiring 6+ years in nursing school
Advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, can include nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners and nurse educators.
The number of years an APRN spends in nursing school will depend on what kind of degree your speciality requires:
A master’s degree. Jobs such as nurse midwives and nurse anesthetist require at least a Master of Science in Nursing degree, or MSN. MSN programs typically last at least two years, meaning you’ll spend at least six years in nursing school.
A doctorate degree. After earning an MSN, you may still need a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree to become a nurse practitioner; nurse educators may need a Doctor of Nursing Philosophy degree. Doctoral programs vary by specialty and can last anywhere from two to five years.
Many schools offer part-time graduate nursing programs. If you work while pursuing an advanced degree, you could easily extend your number of years spent in nursing school to double digits.
Managing nursing school debt
The biggest benefit to spending more time in school is a better nursing salary: LPNs have a median salary of $46,240, but that number for a nurse with an MSN — such as a nurse anesthetist — is $113,930 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But more time in school also likely means more nursing student debt.
Nurses in graduate programs finish school with an average debt of $47,321, according to an analysis of Department of Education data. That’s on top of any undergraduate debt you have.
No matter how long you plan to spend in nursing school, take the following steps to manage any potential debt: