Bachelor of Science in Nursing Programs (BSN)
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, nurses are the most trusted professionals in the United States, with four in five Americans rating their honesty and ethical standards as “high” or “very high.” Additionally, nurses are in very high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics places nursing among the careers with the highest projected job growth between 2016 and 2026.
All of these elements make nursing a top field to pursue, and a bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN) is one of the best ways to launch your new career.
Earning a BSN opens up a vast array of specializations within the profession that can be pursued, all with an important bonus: You’re helping people and making the world a better place.
This page provides an introduction to pursuing a BSN and will guide you through the following topics:
- What a BSN is
- What you can do with a BSN
- Deciding whether a BSN is right for you
- Future earnings and career outlook with a BSN
- The different pathways to earning a BSN
- How to choose a BSN program
- Licensure and certification information
- How to advance through your nursing career
What Is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree?
A Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) degree is a four-year program that not only leads to becoming a registered nurse (RN) but can open up many opportunities within the field of nursing. The curriculum varies from program to program. Core requirements typically include foundational coursework in areas such as pharmacology, anatomy, assessment, ethics and legal issues in nursing, and nursing theory. Each program requires a certain number of clinical hours and rotations.
BSN degree programs expose students to different specializations, such as pediatric nursing, women’s health, community nursing, or medical surgical nursing. In addition, some BSN programs are specifically geared to a particular specialty. So, if you already know what area you are interested in, look out for programs that focus on that area.
What Can I Do With a BSN Degree?
One of the exciting outcomes for an RN with a BSN is that the career opportunities within the field of nursing are expansive and seemingly endless. By earning a degree, you might start in one specialization (e.g., women’s health, pediatric nursing, or mental health); but if your interests shift, there are countless ways to advance in other areas with the right mentorship and training. The following provides some examples of career paths, types and locations of positions, and specializations available with a BSN degree.
Common RN Careers
Nurses work in a wide variety of settings, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Medical and surgical hospitals (public or private)
- Community health centers
- Private physicians’ clinics or offices
- Home healthcare services
- Nursing care facilities
- Outpatient care facilities
The type of work and scope of practice often depends on the work setting and varies based on the professional situation. Some of the job duties a nurse can expect to take on include the following:
- Taking patient histories
- Administering medications
- Creating and collaborating on care plans for patients and families
- Working directly with physicians to administer care or create treatment plans
- Performing tests and relaying results
- Working with and educating families and other loved ones to ensure patient care
- Serving as emotional support to patients and families
- Operating medical equipment and applying treatment methods
- Communicating essential health education to patients and communities
- Communicating and collaborating with doctors about patient care
- Advising patients on managing illness and injury and working with them to understand and adequately care for themselves after treatment
The opportunity to specialize in different populations or types of care is an exciting element of nursing. While a BSN provides entry into the field, there are countless ways to dig deeper, learn more, and advance your career through specialization. Some of the specializations listed may require additional credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree. The following includes a variety of nursing career opportunities with a BSN (note that this is not an exhaustive list, as the opportunities are vast):
- Acute care nurse: Acute care nurses work in hospital critical care units, such as intensive care units (ICUs) or trauma floors.
- Neonatal nurse: Neonatal nurses work with newborn babies. Some specialize in labor and delivery, ensuring the health of babies after birth. Others work in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), caring for babies who were born with complications.
- Informatics nurse: Informatics nurses work at the intersection of technology and healthcare by helping to gather and manage data. Informatics nursing typically requires several years of experience as a bedside nurse and a graduate certificate in informatics.
- Pain management nurse: Pain management nurses specialize in helping patients to alleviate their chronic or acute pain.
- Perianesthesia nurse: Perianesthesia nurses work with patients who have just completed surgery or other procedures that require anesthesia to monitor recovery and pain.
- Pediatric nurse: Pediatric nurses work with children in a variety of settings including hospitals or clinics.
- Geriatric nurse: On the other end of the age spectrum, geriatric nurses work with the aging population and their needs in a variety of settings, sometimes within nursing homes or in end-of-life care.
- Public health nurse: Public health nursing looks at large-scale, community-wide health. RNs in these positions can be involved in activities such as public health education and vaccination campaigns.
- Oncology nurse: With cancer being one of the most prevalent diseases in the world (according to the National Cancer Institute), oncology nurses are needed more than ever. These nurses take on an important role in cancer care by working with patients in a variety of settings.
Is a BSN Degree Right for Me?
Beginning a nursing career with a BSN is an excellent way to start your upward momentum in the field of nursing right off the bat. While an associate degree is an economical way to begin your career, the likelihood of needing a BSN in the future is high, and starting on that track could, overall, take less time and allow you to begin earning a higher salary more quickly.
Both an associate degree (ADN, ASN, or AAS) and a BSN will prepare you to complete the NCLEX-RN licensure; however, you will generally need to obtain a BSN if you have specific career goals, such as working in pediatrics or oncology. In addition, the potential for growth within the nursing field is much greater with a BSN. With this degree you often have access to higher-level positions, including leadership positions; and it is only with a BSN that you will be able to teach. Having a BSN also better prepares you for getting a higher degree (such as Master’s in ).
Another advantage of earning a BSN is that it can lead to a higher salary. A 2018 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the median pay for an RN with a bachelor’s degree is $71,730. While the salary can vary from state to state, a 2017 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce confirms that RNs with a BSN do have a salary advantage over those with an associate degree.
Finally, it is important to note that having a BSN degree may eventually be a requirement for RNs. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report recommending that 80% of practicing nurses should have a bachelor’s degree by 2020. Indeed, some hospitals and clinics already require BSN degrees for employment. This IOM recommendation is rooted in the findings that a BSN education exposes students to a broader range of skill sets, such as systems thinking, quality improvement, leadership and health policy, to name but a few. Not only do these skills prepare you for future leadership roles, they also have an ongoing effect on patient safety, because you will be better prepared to navigate the increasingly complex hospital and clinical systems.
Salary: What Can I Earn With a BSN?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for RNs in May 2018 was $71,730 per year. Additionally, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that RNs earn around $7,000 more than the average salary of all workers aged 25 to 54 – this difference is even higher for those with a BSN versus an ADN.
Within different specializations and environments, salaries may vary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down salary by nursing industries. The following are a selection of median annual salaries from May 2018:
- Government: $78,390
- Hospitals (state, local, and private): $73,650
- Ambulatory healthcare services: $68,320
- Nursing and residential care facilities: $63,990
- Educational services (state, local, and private): $61,850
According to Onet, the projected career growth for registered nurses between 2016 and 2026 is 15% or higher. This higher-than-average growth appears to be consistent within many nursing specialties, including critical care, acute care, and advanced practice nursing specialties that require additional education beyond a BSN (e.g., nurse anesthetist).
How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing
There are several pathways to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Having several options available provides flexibility for anyone entering the field at different times in their lives, be it right after high school or mid-career. The following provides details about those pathways.
Four-Year BSN Program
If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree yet and know you want to become a nurse, then a BSN program is the best place to start. To complete the four-year program, you’ll complete all undergraduate general education coursework required by the college or university (e.g., English, math, humanities) alongside core coursework and clinicals required to major in nursing. Full-time coursework can be completed in four years.
To be accepted into a bachelor’s level nursing program you will need to meet the basic education and admissions requirements of your school. You will generally have to apply for admission to the college you choose as well as to the nursing department itself. The best undergraduate nursing schools can be highly competitive, so make sure that your application stands out.
Admissions requirements for a four-year nursing degree can include any or all of the items listed below:
- High school diploma or GED
- High school transcripts or past college transcripts
- GPA (grade point average) for previous education
- Personal essays demonstrating your English proficiency
- Involvement in extracurricular activities such as clubs and career organizations
- Shadowing and internship experience
- Civic, religious, and community-based volunteer activities
- Healthcare work experience
- CPR and/or BLS (Basic Life Saving) certification
- Certified Nursing Aide license or courses
- Background checks
- Nursing Assistant Certification
Many nursing schools look at both academic and non-academic qualifications as part of their admissions process, especially in highly competitive programs.
BSN curriculum at the best undergraduate nursing schools typically includes:
- Fundamentals/Core Concepts in Nursing
- Nursing Theory and Theorists
- Nursing Assessment
- Clinical Nursing Concepts I-IV
- Nursing Research and Evidence-Based Practice
- Ethical and Legal Issues in Nursing
- Community/Population Based Health Concepts
- Professional Development in Nursing
Although many BSN nursing programs focus on the general practice of nursing, which will prepare you to work in a wide variety of different environments and with a broad scope of patient demographics, some programs focus on a particular specialization. Thus, if you know what area you want to go into, you should look for this type of program.
Another way to specialize is to get additional training after you earn your BSN. This may be in the form of work experience, specific training, becoming certified, or a combination. For example, to become a neonatal nurse, you will need to complete the Neonatal Resuscitation Program.
If you’re already an RN or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), a bridge program is a great way to earn a BSN efficiently while continuing to work. Bridge programs honor your existing skills and knowledge while giving you the opportunity to advance within the field. For more information, refer to our pages about RN to BSN programs and LPN to BSN .
Accelerated BSN Paths
Accelerated BSN programs are ideal if you already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Because the general education requirements have already been completed, these programs focus solely on the nursing degree track. For more information, refer to our page about accelerated BSN .
Online BSN Programs
The offerings of high-quality online BSN programs are continuously providing an excellent way for working professionals to pursue a degree. You should note that while most of the coursework can be completed online, nursing licensing requirements (and thus, nursing education programs) do require in-person clinical and lab components.
An online education might be key to earning your degree, but it isn’t for everyone. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages to consider:
- Flexibility: Online programs allow you to take on coursework on your own time and in your own space.
- Pacing: You can pace out your coursework in a way that works for you and your busy schedule.
- Opportunities beyond where you live: Online programs don’t limit you just to the institutions in your geographical area. If the best program for you is across the country, online coursework brings that program to you.
- Cost: So much of costs associated with education aren’t the actual schooling you’re receiving. You also have to pay for transportation, housing, moving costs, and more. Taking an online course lets you focus your budget specifically on your education; and because of the flexibility of online programming, you can also work while you go to school.
- Less face-to-face time with faculty: In-person interactions can often result in more immediate feedback.
- Self-discipline and time management: With added flexibility comes the need to stay focused and disciplined to complete assignments.
- Less interaction with other students: While some online programs have improved the interpersonal interactions between students, the lack of facetime with peers can be difficult for some.
How to Choose a BSN Degree Program
With thousands of nursing programs available in the U.S., it can be hard to choose, or even know where to start, when looking at BSN programs. Here are a few elements to consider when choosing a program:
- Accreditation: Accredited programs are vetted by reputable organizations dedicated to ensuring the quality standards of nursing education are upheld. For more information, refer to the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
- Location: If you’re firmly rooted in a specific city or region (or you’re interested in moving to another place completely), location might be the first consideration you should focus on.
- Specialization: If you know what area of nursing you want to focus on, look for specialized degree programs or programs that include courses in your area.
- Online vs. on-campus: High-quality online BSN nursing programs are becoming increasingly common, making earning a degree more accessible for mid-career professionals. Some programs also offer a hybrid model with both online and in-person offerings. Studying online may be ideal for those who need extra flexibility.
- Reputation: Look into the reputation of the program by checking out our rankings.
- Faculty: Look for a faculty that includes experienced practitioners in nursing, or those who study or practice in your specialty interest area.
- Scholarships: Look for programs that have a variety of scholarship offerings. You’ll typically need to apply to the scholarships in addition to the program.
- Tuition/financial aid: A robust financial aid offering is essential for many students, so look for assistance beyond student loans. Options might include tuition remission for student assistantships or work-study opportunities.
- Student Nurses Association chapter: A quality education isn’t just about the coursework, it’s about the other students, too. An active and engaged Student Nurses Association chapter demonstrates that community can be an excellent way to network within the field. Simply search for “Student Nurses Association” along with your state to find a local chapter.
- Clinical sites: Because clinical rotations are an essential part of a nursing degree, you should practice your skills in a site that fits you. Programs with diverse connections to clinical sites (ranging from hospital settings to community and public health sites) give you a wider view of possibilities within the field of nursing.
Licensure or Certification
Upon earning your BSN, you’ll need to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination, otherwise known as the NCLEX-RN. All states in the U.S. require this exam, but other requirements can vary by state. Many states also require fingerprinting, and some even require a jurisprudence exam, which demonstrates a nurse’s understanding of the rules that govern their practice in that state. NursingLicensure.org is a great resource for identifying the specific standards for your state.
Once you’re licensed in one state, transferring your license to another state is fairly straightforward. It’s even easier to transfer between nursing licensure compact states, which make up over half the states in the country.
In addition to licensure exams and background checks, most states require nurses to complete a certain number of continuing education hours or units (CE or CEUs) to maintain their licensure. Each state has different requirements, but it’s typically between 24 to 30 contact hours in addition to a certain number of clinical hours every two to three years. The types of continuing education can vary, including conference attendance, relevant online or in-person coursework, and other meetings.
Additional licensure may be required for particular specializations. The Lippincott Nursing Center provides a comprehensive list of specialty certifications to learn about the different areas. While certification isn’t always required to specialize, it can often help you stand out as a candidate and advance quickly to leadership roles in the field. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Nurses Association (ANA) also offer many certification and professional development opportunities as well.
As always, look into your state requirements for the specialty you want to work in, as well as local healthcare institutions (the latter may have stricter requirements than the state does).
Advancing Your Career
Achieving a BSN is not only a huge accomplishment, it also opens up a variety of other professional pathways, including leadership positions within the field. In many cases, further education through certification or advanced degrees are the best way to further your career. Depending on the track, advanced practice nurses such as nurse practitioners typically have a greater degree of independence and expertise in a specific area and are some of the highest paid professionals in healthcare.
You don’t necessarily need a master’s or doctorate degree to advance in your profession, however. You can also pursue specialty certifications and participate in continuing education to hone your skills and expertise.
Because continuing professional development is also a requirement to maintain licensure for nurses in most states, there is a vast array of continuing education materials specifically created for nurses all over the country and online. While these are a requirement, you can use this to your advantage and tailor your professional development activities to areas in which you’d like to advance. By being strategic in honing your skills, you can carve a specific path for advancement that’s tailor-made for you.