Online Degrees in Nursing

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As the largest occupation in the growing health care field, employment for nurses is expected to be excellent in the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall job growth for registered nurses is projected to be 22 percent between 2008 and 2018. Job growth is expected to be even higher for certain categories of nurses. For example, the need for registered nurses in physician offices is expected to rise 48 percent during this period. However, as medicine advances, job prospects should be best for nurses with advanced education and expertise.

Choosing the Right Nursing Degree

The American Nurses Association (ANA) identifies three paths to becoming a nurse:

While diplomas previously were the most common way for individuals to enter the nursing field, ADNs are now the most popular route, the ANA reports.

The ANA and BLS indicate that many nurses who originally opt for an ADN eventually go back to school to receive a BSN. Master's and doctoral online health care degree programs are also available for those who want to advance their education -- and in turn, careers.

The main advantages of a BSN or graduate degree compared to an ADN are increased opportunities for promotion and the ability to work at the managerial level. A master's degree in nursing is needed to become an advanced practice nurse, and a doctoral degree is often necessary for those wishing to teach nursing at colleges and universities.

To get more information, browse through our network of schools and find a program most appropriate for you.

How Online Nursing Programs Work

Online degrees in nursing offer an ideal way for working nurses to advance their credentials, but students should be aware that not all nursing programs are available online. Generally speaking, online degrees in nursing are geared toward registered nurses or licensed practical nurses who wish to earn a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree, though continuing education coursework and "bridge" programs are also common.

Clinical experience is an integral part of learning the essentials of nursing. For those entering the field for the first time, hands-on instruction from experienced teachers is required by most states. This requirement makes a fully online ADN program impossible in many areas, but hybrid options are often available. In these programs, courses such as anatomy, chemistry and nutrition can be completed online and the clinical experience component is completed through on-campus coursework or an externship.

Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses who are pursuing higher education can use their current employment as the basis for the clinical experience needed by degree programs. Online nursing degrees at this level may rely on message boards and forums to allow students to collaborate with one another as well as facilitate communication with professors. Before enrolling in any program, determine how clinical requirements will be met and look for a program approved by the state as well as industry organizations such as the National League of Nursing.

Starting a Career in Nursing

The first step toward starting a career in nursing is to become licensed by the state. To become licensed, students must graduate from an approved nursing program and pass a national licensing examination.

BLS statistics show that 2.6 million registered nurses were working in the United States in 2008. Of these, 60 percent were employed in hospitals. Physician offices, nursing care facilities and government agencies are among the other major employers of nurses. Nurses who plan to specialize in areas such as pediatrics, gerontology and ambulatory care can receive voluntary credentials from industry associations that may boost their employment opportunities. These credentials are often restricted to nurses with a BSN or higher.

Since nursing requires ongoing education, individuals interested in this occupation should have a love of learning. Compassion and empathy are also important traits for anyone in the health care field. Finally, nurses need to be responsible, well-organized and detail oriented.

  • A 2010 survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing found 65 percent of new BSN grads received job offers by the time they graduated.
  • Registered nurses earned a mean annual wage of $67,720 in 2010 according to the BLS.
  • The metro area with the highest concentration of registered nurses is Rochester, Minnesota with 67.212 nurses per 1,000 workers.

Nurses represent a vital part of medical teams, whether they work directly with patients, as a nurse educator, or in another capacity. And their services are expected to be in demand in coming years, as the health care industry develops new technologies and baby boomers seek additional medical treatment, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012).

Online associate degrees in nursing can help students gain the tools to earn their nursing license, including the clinical knowledge and problem-solving skills needed to treat patients. The core curriculum in these programs typically includes subjects such as the nursing process, therapeutic communication, ethical issues in nursing, and computer applications used in the profession.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Nursing Entail?

Students working towards an online associate degree in nursing on a full-time basis generally finish within two years. Coursework in these programs give students the theoretical framework that can help them prepare for the nursing field, as well as the hands-on experience to successfully treat patients on a daily basis. In order to do this, nursing programs cover subjects such as administering drugs to patients, principles of clinical care, patient management, psychological concepts in nursing, and sociological factors that influence patient treatments. Examples of course topics include:

  • Principles of Pharmacology: Administering drugs to patients is often a huge part of a nurse's duties, so it's imperative for them to learn the best practices. In this course, students look at how different drugs are classified, how drugs affect the systems of the body, how drugs interact with each other, and the side effects associated with drugs commonly dispensed by nurses. In addition, students in pharmacology courses learn about the legal standards of drug administration and how drugs are regulated. Since hands-on experience is vital when learning about pharmacology, students in this course may be expected to complete drug calculations for different kinds of patients, including children, the elderly and pregnant women.
  • Basic Anatomy and Physiology: In this course, students examine different systems within the human body, including the skeletal, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive and muscular systems. Additionally, students often learn about basic anatomical terminology, cell biology, homeostasis, and how fluid/electrolyte balance works. In order for student to get a full understanding of anatomy and physiology, they may be required to dissect animals or human cadavers in the laboratory section of the class.
  • Introduction to Psychiatric Nursing: It's not uncommon for nurses to treat patients with psychiatric illnesses. This course trains students on how to deliver quality care to these patients and deal with the challenges that arise when working with them. Typically, students learn about the classifications, causes, symptoms and treatments of mental illnesses, as well as the principles of therapeutic nursing, treating patients in individual and group settings, and supporting the families of mentally ill patients. To demonstrate their understanding of class material, students may be required to diagnose a hypothetical patient and develop a treatment plan.
  • Family Health Nursing: This course teaches students how to deal with patients such as pregnant women, newborns, and children in different stages of development. Topics covered in this course often include the growth and development of children, unique health care needs of pregnant mothers, and common childhood illnesses. In order to gain hands-on experience in family nursing, students may be required to participate in simulated clinical experiences, allowing them to work with patients during different stages of development.

Students pursuing online nursing associate degrees are often required to take electives that cover different areas of the nursing experience. Students may gain an understanding of societal issues involved in nursing by taking sociology classes, learn about computer resources used by nurses in health informatics classes, or get a primer of what's legally expected of healthcare professionals in ethics classes.

In addition, online students, like their on-campus peers, are required to take on-campus laboratory courses, as well as supervised hands-on clinicals. These sessions give students practical experience in the different types of duties they will be performing throughout their careers.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Nursing

After finishing an associate degree in nursing, students are required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and meet other state requirements before they can get a job in the field. When they have completed these requirements, there may be jobs open to them at a variety of healthcare facilities, including hospitals, long-term care institutions, physicians' offices and nursing homes. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be a 26 percent increase in the number of registered nursing positions nationwide between 2010 and 2020 (bls.gov, 2012).

There are several different career paths those with nursing associate degrees can pursue. For example, rehabilitation nurses work with patients who are recovering from temporary disabilities, cardiovascular nurses treat patients who have undergone heart surgery or are living with heart disease, and critical care nurses handle patients who are suffering from acute illnesses or injuries (bls.gov, 2012).

The world of health care is changing at a rapid pace, making this is an exciting time for anyone interested in earning an online bachelor's degree in nursing. Qualified nurses are in high demand according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov 2012), thanks to factors such as the aging baby boomer generation and advances in health care technologies.

In order to help prepare nurses for these emerging jobs, bachelor's programs combine nursing theory with practical experience so that students learn the science behind the art of nursing. Core curriculum typically focuses on topics such as case management, community nursing techniques, anatomy and physiology, data management, and the psychology of nursing.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Nursing Entail?

Offered as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, or BSN, this degree generally takes four years of full-time study to complete. Courses may cover a wide range of subjects, including the history of nursing care, the administration of drugs, clinical care principles, therapeutic communication, and nursing ethics. Examples of other topics include:

  • Fundamentals of Nursing Science: Students in this course are taught the historical evolution of nursing philosophy and how it relates to modern-day nursing, as well as effective decision making for patient care and documentation practices for health care professionals. In order for students to gain a deeper understanding of the class material, they may be required to create a treatment plan for a hypothetical patient or participate in role playing exercises designed to demonstrate their ability to interact with patients.
  • Introduction to Geriatric Nursing: This course is designed to prepare students for the unique challenges that come with treating elderly patients. Students typically learn about common medical conditions that these patients suffer from, how to prevent diseases in the elderly, and which maintenance procedures should be followed to prevent geriatric conditions from getting worse. In addition, students may learn about the process of aging, including how aging affects patients on a physical, mental and emotional level; how people adapt to the idea of getting older and the prospect of dying; how to support family members as they watch their loved ones approach death; and the societal and governmental responses to geriatric patients and the care they receive.
  • Evidence-Based Nursing Research: Nurses need to have strong critical thinking skills in order to properly assess each individual patient and determine the appropriate course of treatment. This class helps develop those skills and provides vital information about the research that drives the nursing profession. In order to help students become savvy consumers of scientific research, this class covers the concepts and practices that researchers use when investigating issues in nursing, as well as the ethical standards that guide how research is conducted. Additionally, students learn the basic components of a research study -- including the definition of variables, sample selection, data collection tools and data analysis -- which can help them conduct their own original research. Students may be required to demonstrate their understanding of the relationship between nursing theory and nursing practice by critiquing research articles based on real-world situations, or conducting qualitative and quantitative research themselves.
  • Introduction to Health Assessment Practices: This course gives students a look at how to holistically assess the health of their patients. Typically, students learn about getting a patient's health history through different interviewing techniques, conducting physical examinations and interpreting the findings from these assessments. In addition, this course covers whether or not findings are normal or abnormal based on a patient's age, gender or ethnicity. It may also explore the physical, social, environmental and psychological factors that influence patient assessments, and how a patient's history can be used to predict future health challenges. To give students hands-on experience with health assessments, they may be required to participate in simulated examinations of diverse patient populations.

Students in online BSN programs are also typically required to take electives, which can include health related courses, as well as courses from other disciplines. For example, students who want to supplement the therapeutic communication skills they learn in the program may choose to take business writing or public speaking classes, while those looking to improve their math skills may take algebra or calculus. Additionally, students might take elective nursing courses such as maternity nursing, mental health nursing, nursing leadership, health care law and ethics, and epidemiology.

Whether studying online or on campus, students must gain hands-on clinical experience in a supervised health care setting, according to the BLS. Furthermore, before students can begin their careers, they are required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination and meet other state requirements (bls.gov, 2012).

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Nursing

According to the BLS, nursing jobs have been on the rise in recent years. In fact, the agency predicts that the amount of jobs available to registered nurses will increase by 26 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2020 -- including positions in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, physicians' offices, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities.

There are many specialties in the field that nurses can pursue. For example, those interested in working with elderly patients could become a geriatric nurse, while those who would rather work with young children can pursue pediatric nursing. Some may even choose to work in non-patient-facing roles such as health educators or health care consultants (bls.gov, 2012).

As the health care industry advances, the role of nurses is evolving. Nurses are taking on more and more responsibility in health organizations, and as a result, they often need advanced training to prepare for leadership roles. Online master's degrees in nursing are designed to train existing nurses to adopt these roles and gain expertise in a specific area of the field. Students in these programs can expect to learn about advanced nursing theory and research methods, workforce management, health care technology, public policy, health care finance, and disease prevention.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Nursing Entail?

An online master's degree in nursing, or MSN, typically takes two years of full-time study to complete. The curriculum in these programs gives students an advanced knowledge of nursing science, while applying theory to the real world of health care. Core offerings include subjects like public health, information technology, health economics, and health care management. In addition, students are often given the opportunity to gain expertise in a specific area of nursing, such as mental health, cardiovascular, critical care, women's health, or surgical nursing. Examples of course topics include:

  • Health Care Informatics: Technology in the health care field is always advancing. Health care informatics classes give students an overview of the information systems used in the industry, while keeping them abreast of the latest technological developments. Subjects covered in this course typically include database management, information processing, systems development and electronic records. Furthermore, students can expect to learn about the political, legislative and ethical issues associated with health care informatics; privacy concerns that arise from the use of electronic records systems; how to provide management oversight for information systems and communicate effectively with technical personnel; and the theoretical frameworks that shape health care informatics.
  • Human Resources Management: The success of a health care facility has as much to do with management as it does with medicine. In order to give students the knowledge they need to thrive in managerial roles, this course covers topics such as recruiting, training, appraising and retaining effective employees; the principles of health care management; laws that govern human resources; the allocation of staff resources in a company; and conflict resolution techniques. Since hands-on experience is imperative in this area, students may be required to participate in exercises such as conducting mock job interviews, employee performance reviews, training sessions, or salary negotiations. Additionally, students could be asked to demonstrate their knowledge of the law by writing a sexual harassment policy, a new employee manual or a diversity training course.
  • Nursing Theory: All practice begins with theory, so in order to understand the underlying rationale behind nursing, students in this class are taught how nursing theories are developed and tested. Course topics can include the factors that influence the development of nursing theory, contemporary nursing theories, historical perspectives, or inductive and deductive strategies for developing new theories. In addition, students are typically required to learn how to evaluate nursing theories and determine the relationship between theory and practical application in the field. Students in this course may be asked to read and critique nursing research studies, identify the theoretical framework behind specific practices in nursing, or construct their own nursing theories.
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Care: This course gives students an understanding of the legal and ethical matters that affect the nursing field, as well as the health care industry as a whole. Topics in this course include the economic and sociopolitical factors that influence health care laws; how federal and state laws and regulations affect the way health care providers work with patients; and the legal principles governing patients' rights, professional liability, data security, and labor relations. Additionally, students in this course often learn about the major ethical theories in the health care industry and how ethical standards influence clinical nursing practice, academic research, health policy and nursing education. To demonstrate their understanding of the material, students may be required to role play common scenarios in the health care field, applying ethical principles and case law to them.

Students enrolled in master's degree programs in nursing are generally required to choose a specialization to major in, which can help them hone their skills in an specific area of nursing. For example, those who want to teach the next generation of nurses may pursue a concentration in nursing education, while those interested in managing staff at a health care facility might concentrate in nursing administration. Depending on the program, students could be required to complete a master's thesis or a comprehensive examination in order to obtain their degree. Some programs also include hands-on training sessions or labs.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Nursing

Online master's degree programs in nursing can help prepare students for a number of jobs in the health care industry. Nursing graduates who wish to continue working directly with patients can pursue a job as an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, APNs are divided into four main specialties: clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetics, nurse midwives or nurse practitioners. In addition to a degree, APNs must gain certification for their specialty that's recognized in the state they wish to work in (bls.gov, 2012).

Those seeking management roles may be able to move into positions such as assistant unit manager or head nurse, and eventually executive positions like chief of nursing. Employment of registered nurses (RNs) is expected to experience a 26 percent growth nationwide between 2010 and 2020. Those in administrative roles may also fall under the umbrella of medical and health services managers. These professionals are projected to see national job growth of 22 percent over the same 10-year span (bls.gov, 2012).

Other potential careers for those with an online master's degree in nursing include nurse researcher, clinical care specialist, nurse educator or community health nurse.

The health care industry continues to evolve, and strong leadership is needed to train the next generation of nurses as well as contribute to the research that moves nursing science forward. Online doctoral degrees in nursing help professionals learn how to affect positive change in the nursing field and ensure future nurses are ready for the challenges that await them.

As with other doctoral programs, nursing students can choose to pursue either a professional degree (Doctor of Nursing Practice) or research degree (Ph.D. in nursing). The curriculum of a Ph.D. program is designed to prepare students for an academic role in the nursing field that may include teaching at the college level and/or conducting original research. In comparison, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program can help graduates pursue leadership roles in the health care industry or become advanced practitioners in a specific area of nursing.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Nursing Entail?

When enrolled full time, students can generally expect to earn an online nursing doctoral degree in three to seven years, though this can vary greatly.

Core curriculum in these programs may include health care research methods, health care policy, fundamentals of nursing education, the relationship between nursing theory and nursing practice, and ethical and legal considerations that influence the nursing profession. Examples of course topics include:

  • Health Care Publication Writing: The nursing profession progresses in part because of research conducted by leaders in the field. Nurses who are interested in contributing to this research must be able to properly present their ideas to professional journals in order to get published. Students in this course learn about the journal publication process, selecting a journal that is appropriate for a particular research idea, understanding submission guidelines, searching for literature to support a research paper and how to use reference management software. In addition, students are taught how to overcome common challenges that research writers face that can sabotage their progress, such as writer's block, poor time management, and procrastination. To give students the hands-on experience they need to succeed in academic writing, students may be required to conceptualize an idea to submit to a journal, conduct a literature search for an article idea, write a publication-ready research paper and review the journal articles of their peers.
  • Nursing Theory: In order to understand the field of nursing, students must understand the theory that guides the industry. This course gives nurses a comprehensive view of nursing theory and how it has been applied to the practice of nursing. Students can expect to learn the history of nursing science theory, the role of experimentation in determining the validity of a theory, the criteria used to evaluate a theory, and the factors that can influence theory development. To gain a first-hand understanding of the course material, students may be required to develop their own nursing theories, as well as critique the theories of their classmates.
  • Nursing Education: Developing the next generation of skilled nurses depends on quality education. Nursing education courses give nurses the knowledge, theories and skills needed to take on an academic role at colleges and universities. Students in this course can expect to learn about the teaching and learning processes; the trends, issues and evolution of higher education procedures and policies; communication skills needed to succeed in the classroom; historical and contemporary theories that guide higher education; legal and ethical issues that influence nursing education; and best practices for creating a class curriculum. To give students hands-on experience with the course material, professors may require them to teach an undergraduate nursing class, create a curriculum or critique their colleagues' performance in the classroom.
  • Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods: This course is designed to give students the tools they need to contribute to the research that shapes the nursing profession. Students in this course can expect to learn qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, data collection, data sampling and validation, and experimental research designs. In addition, this class also teaches students the relationship between research results and health care policy, ethical considerations associated with research, and threats to research credibility. Classwork may include hands-on activities like critiquing published research studies and conducting original research.

In addition, students enrolled in Ph.D. programs are required to write and defend a dissertation on a specific nursing theory topic while those in DNP programs may have to complete a comprehensive examination, clinical practicum and/or capstone project. Students may also be required to choose an area of nursing to concentrate on, such as health care informatics, nursing education, clinical research, or health care management.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Nursing

Those who complete online doctoral degree programs in nursing generally pursue careers that allow them to make a significant contribution to the health care field. One potential career for these professionals is a college professor. Nurses who pursue this profession teach nursing classes, conduct and present health care research to expand knowledge in the field, serve on academic committees that shape policies at a college or university, and write nursing textbooks or articles for professional journals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), this field is expected to grow by 17 percent nationally between 2010 and 2020.

Those who wish to continue practicing in the medical field can choose to pursue work as an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN). APNs can choose to specialize as clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetics, nurse midwives or nurse practitioners - all of which require additional certification. Registered nurses are expected to see 26 percent national growth between 2010 and 2020 (bls.gov, 2012).

Health care management positions may also be open to graduates of online doctoral programs in nursing, including head nurse, nurse administrator or chief of nursing.

"Management Analysts," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/management-analysts.htm
"Medical and Health Services Managers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Management/Medical-and-health-services-managers.htm
"Nurse," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 19, 2010, http://www.bls.gov/k12/help04.htm
"Postsecondary Teachers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 10, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm
"Registered Nurses," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

If you need to work or need more flexibility with your time schedule, taking an online class is the best way to go. This is especially true for young stay-at-home moms. - Amy Young 
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