How Long Does it Take to Go to Grad School in Nursing?

by Beth Greenwood

A graduate school education is time-consuming. No matter how you look at it, a nurse who wants a graduate degree must be prepared to spend years in the process. The exact length of the process, however, can vary. The nurse’s initial education, whether she goes to school part-time or full-time and whether she has access to or qualifies for an accelerated program can all affect how long it takes to get a graduate degree.

Basic Education Timeline

A newly-graduated registered nurse may have an associate degree, a nursing diploma or a bachelor’s degree. Associate degrees typically take two full years and may require an additional year to complete prerequisites. A nursing diploma can take two or three years, depending on the school. A bachelor’s degree in nursing, or BSN, typically takes four years. Any of the three degrees, however, meets the requirements for a nurse to take the NCLEX-RN exam and become licensed.

Going Back to School

Although it is possible for an RN to take a direct course from high school to a master’s degree or doctorate, it is much more likely that she will work for a while after her initial graduation to gain clinical skills and experience or to earn enough money to finance the rest of her education, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. If she is able to go straight through, however, the shortest course is typically a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree. This could take as little as six years. A doctorate typically adds another two or three years to the educational process. An RN who first graduates with a diploma or associate degree, however, will need more time, as she must first obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Work Plus School

Nurses who complete their education by combining work and school spend varying lengths of time in the educational process. Typical full-time shift work in a hospital with 12-hour shifts could allow the nurse to go to school on a full-time basis if she can arrange her work and class schedules for maximum benefit. A nurse who works eight hour shifts, however, will need to use her free time -- including weekends -- to pursue her studies. Estimating how long it will take depends on many variables, such as whether the nurse started her education with a bachelor’s degree, whether she can take some classes online and whether she pursues a master’s degree or a doctorate.

Accelerated Degrees

Some people enter nursing from another career and may already have a degree in their field. Accelerated programs can shorten the time needed for a graduate degree in nursing, as they build on previous educational attainments. A student who already has a bachelor’s degree in another field can use an accelerated program to obtain a BSN in 11 to 18 months, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. An accelerated program can allow the transition student to obtain a master’s degree within three years. Some accelerated programs also allow an RN with an associate degree to go on for a master's degree within two to three years.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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