What Classes Will I Have to Take for a Degree in Nursing?

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Before you decide to enroll in nursing school, it can help to have a good idea of what to expect from your education. Your exact curriculum will depend on factors like how advanced your degree program is, your starting level of education, your areas of specialization, and the nursing school you choose. However, some coursework is consistent across all approved and accredited nursing degree programs.

The following are the different levels of nursing and the requirements to attain each.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Nursing assistants or nursing aides work in long-term healthcare, home care, nursing homes, and hospital settings. Their purpose is to administer care to the patient who needs help bathing, dressing, eating, and mobility. Depending on qualifications and training, other responsibilities are taking vital signs, wound care, and making chart entries.

Many Red Cross locations offer CNA training to qualify graduates for the state license examination. Students require a high school diploma to apply to a CNA program whose length varies from four to twelve weeks. The coursework differs by state; for example, Texas CNA training consists of 60 hours of classroom instruction and 40 hours of clinical training. The typical program includes classes in human anatomy, first aid, CPR, infection control and recognition, personal hygiene, and mobility exercises. The program should also have direct patient care in a real-world setting.

Licensed Vocational Nurse

The next level is the LVN or Licensed Vocational Nurse, which some programs offer those with a CNA, a current state license or certification, and six months experience. Houston Community College, for example, requires at least six months of work in an acute or chronic care setting for licensed CNAs. LVN students take more classes in the natural sciences, like biology, nutrition, physiology, pharmacology, obstetrics, psychology, and anatomy. Applicants must pass a criminal background check and submit proof of specific immunizations.

Depending on the state regulations, an LVN program typically takes one year, including the 500-750 requisite clinical practice hours. Once you have received state certification, there are jobs in general hospitals, physicians’ offices, blood banks, ambulatory surgical facilities, and dialysis centers.

Another term applied to the profession is the Licensed Practical Nurse or LPN. What is the difference between the LVN and LPN? The two are interchangeable depending on the state using each title. California and Texas prefer to use the LVN designation, whereas most other states use the LPN terminology. Both nursing types work in the same settings, such as hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, long-term care, and doctors’ offices. They perform many of the same patient-care tasks, like assisting RNs, taking vitals, wound care, mobility assistance, and related procedures.

Registered Nurse

Individuals who aspire to be registered nurses or RNs need to have at least an associate degree in nursing. Some programs may have chemistry and/or the requirement that applicants have had chemistry during high school. Examples of classes are microbiology, psychology, basic pharmacology, nutrition, anatomy, physiology, arithmetic, and anthropology. The ADN or Associate degree in nursing might be available at a local community college whose convenience saves time and money.

ADN programs also emphasize nursing skills to evaluate a patient’s condition professionally and effectively. In this endeavor, classes may also include leadership, ethical issues, communication, and mental health nursing.

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology offers an LVN to RN program that reduces the completion by six months. By attending classes full-time in Dallas, students can graduate in twelve or eighteen months with an ADN. After which, you will be ready to sit for the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. Before taking the test, nurses need to apply for an Authorization to Test (ATT) from the nursing regulatory body (NRB). Testing locations can be viewed at the NCSBN (National Council of State Boards of Nursing) site.

College-Level Science Classes

Whatever level of nursing degree you pursue, a good chunk of your coursework will be in the fields of natural sciences. Biology is an essential subject of study, especially microbiology. Chemistry classes are often required for registered nurse degree programs, as you’ll read below. On the other hand, licensed practical nurse (LPN) and licensed vocational nurse (LVN) programs focus more on basic pharmacology. As referenced, anatomy and physiology courses are essential for nursing students in any degree program.

It should come as no surprise that nursing programs include coursework in the field of nursing. How else would students learn how to care for patients?

Which nursing courses you take depends a lot on your level of study. Aspiring LPNs and LVNs will primarily study the fundamentals of nursing and introductory courses in nursing care for adult, pediatric and geriatric patients.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

RN programs differ depending on culminating in an ADN or a BSN degree. Both degree programs will include coursework in the foundations of nursing, health assessment, and introductory through intermediate nursing theory and practice. One of the most significant differences between ADN and BSN degree programs is the opportunity for BSN students to gain more extensive knowledge of public health, nursing research and management, and leadership in nursing.

Another significant difference is that the ADN, an associate degree, takes about two years; in contrast, the BSN is the standard four-year undergraduate degree. The latter will generally provide better qualifications, job opportunities, and higher salaries. According to Nightingale College data, the median salaries are (2020):

Licensed Practical Nurse or LVN:  $23.75/hour or $49,409 annual

Registered Nurse (without a BSN):  $35.97/hour or $74,811 annual

RN with a BSN:  $44.95/hour or $93,590 annual

The highest paying states in 2020 for BSNs were California, Massachusetts, Alaska, and Oregon, at a median wage of $147,830 per year. The lowest was Alabama at $68,960.

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A BSN program may require college-level classes in several sciences. Applicants for the University of Washington need three or four prerequisite courses in general chemistry, organic chemistry, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, and nutrition, depending on your GPA. If your GPA is 2.8 or less, you need four and only three if your GPA is 3.0 or more.

Simpson University in Redding, California, doesn’t omit chemistry either; moreover, admissions require students to have introductory chemistry, college writing, microbiology, physiology, and psychology. Therefore, an ADN program may not satisfy the admission requirements for many BSN programs.

The BSN coursework at Simpson covers the standard sciences of anatomy, chemistry, psychology, microbiology, and pharmacology. During the third and fourth years, students learn about public health issues, newborn care, leadership, caring for critically ill adults, and research.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

Registered nurses who expect to land in a leadership position should consider a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). As stated by the NCSBN, there are different types of APRNs – all require a master’s or post-master’s degree to be eligible. Nurse practitioners train to provide direct patient care, including ordering tests, diagnosing diseases, and writing prescriptions. They may further specialize in family medicine, pediatrics, mental health, or geriatrics.

Practitioner options are:

Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)

Nurses have choices in a master’s program to specialize. Examples are:

  • Adult Gerontology – Primary Care (AGPCNP)
  • Adult Gerontology – Acute Care (AGACNP)
  • Family Nurse (FNP)
  • Pediatric Nurse (PNP)
  • Psychiatric Mental Health (PMHNP)
  • Women’s Health (WHNP)

The MSN programs deviate from the sciences; for example, The University of Texas-Austin (UT) has core classes in leadership development, health policy, safety in healthcare, and healthcare research. Upon their completion, nurses progress to their chosen concentration. There are classes in illness prevention, acute and chronic care, adult health issues, and six practicum hours for the Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist.

The Primary Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at UT has the same core courses, plus 24 hours of pediatric primary health care concepts. Candidates require a BSN or a non-nursing undergraduate degree and an ADN, and at least one year of full-time RN experience with children or adolescents.

Nurses choosing a psychiatric concentration to become an NP in mental health will encounter more sciences than other specialties. Walden University has an online BSN to MSN in Psychiatric-Mental Health that covers Advanced Pharmacology and Advanced Pathophysiology. The former explores the role of medications as therapy for different psychiatric problems. However, most of the credits involve practicums to gain clinical experience in a mental healthcare setting. One practicum stipulates that nurses need 160 clinical hours – for only two credits.

Graduate and doctoral degree programs like the Master of Science in Nursing and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) include advanced coursework in nursing. According to U.S. News & World Report, high-level coursework in nursing theory, pathophysiology, nursing research, and nursing education is a part of most master’s level nursing degree programs. Beyond these core subjects, students preparing for an APRN role will devote much of their studies to their chosen specialty. APRNs’ most commonly recognized specialties are nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, and nurse practitioner. Aspiring nurse anesthetists will study how to safely and effectively administer anesthesia while nurse midwives develop the skills to provide prenatal care, deliver babies and care for mothers after birth.

RELATED: What Is the Difference Between an Anesthesiologist vs Nurse Anesthetist?

A nurse anesthetist is at the pinnacle of salary for the profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median wage for the nurse anesthetist, midwives, and NP occupation at $117,670 as of May 2020. By isolating the nurse anesthetist, the average salary was $189,190. More impressive is the projected ten-year job growth rate of 45%.

Most nurses in this specialty work in physicians’ offices (21,560), followed by General Medical and Surgical Hospitals (14,030). Outpatient care centers pay the highest at $224,810 (national average), with specialty hospitals second at $201,220. These metropolitan areas have a median pay of over $200k:

  • New York-Newark-Jersey City
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington (MN-WI)
  • Charlotte-Concorde-Gastonia (NC-SC)

To become a nurse anesthetist, you need a penchant for biology and chemistry.

Starting in 2022, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) must have a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a doctor of nurse anesthesia practice (DNAP). An MSN no longer suffices for this profession.

Potential candidates to enter a CRNA program must have these courses at the BSN or MSN level:

  • Human Anatomy
  • Pathophysiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology

In addition, most programs require years of experience in critical care and/or medical-surgical nursing.

Nurse anesthetists can administer anesthesia and pain medications independently of a physician’s supervision in select states. This nurse might be the sole anesthetic provider for patients in rural hospitals. The profession also requires continued education – more details are available at the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA).

Nursing isn’t a field of study you can learn solely through lectures in a classroom. At every level of nursing degree, students will gain hands-on experience working with patients through a supervised clinical practicum, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because clinical work is so important to learn the career field of nursing, you can expect to spend hundreds of hours during your education working in a clinical setting.

Other specializations in advanced nursing degree programs include forensic nursing, nurse informatics, nursing education, and nursing leadership.

General Education Requirements

One crucial aspect of a four-year program is the General Education Requirements, which learning institutions incorporate into the curriculum. These classes come before your major or core courses – the purpose is to provide a well-rounded education. In addition to the science and nursing courses most closely related to your degree, you will also have to complete other nursing school requirements. These requirements vary from one school to another, but usually, they include studies in mathematics, English, social science, and humanities.

Why does a nurse need to study these subjects? You might be surprised by how valuable they can be. Nurses use math daily in their work, so they must have strong fundamental and medical math skills. Statistics courses are also standard in nursing degree programs to understand and interpret health data. Studying subjects such as English and the humanities help students develop their communication and critical-thinking skills, both of which are essential for success in nursing.

Nursing students will have to fulfill any school’s comprehensive liberal arts or general education requirements and their major course requirements.

How to excel in nursing?

Academics aside, certain qualities define a nurse’s excellence. Some of these are:

  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Integrity
  • Confidence
  • Emotional Stability

According to the BLS, there are over three million registered nurses. The current COVID pandemic coupled with an aging population assures nurses long-lasting employment prospects.

Additional Resources:

Why Is the Future Demand for a Nurse Anesthetist So High?

Is Certification to Be a Nurse Anesthetist Done By the State? Can I Move to Another State and Still Work as a Nurse Anesthetist?

What Kind of Job Satisfaction Does the Nurse Anesthetist Occupation See?

What Is the Benefit of a BSN Degree Vs an ADN Degree? 

What Is the Benefit of an MSN Degree Vs a BSN Degree?

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What Is the Benefit of a Biomedical Engineering Degree Vs a Medical Degree?