RN vs. BSN: What’s the Difference?

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Two nurses side by side, one representing an RN and one representing a nurse with a BSN degree.

Those who wish to pursue a nursing career have numerous opportunities available. It can sometimes be daunting to keep track of all the certifications, professional distinctions and degrees in the nursing profession. For example, many aspiring nurses may wonder about the key RN and BSN differences.

An RN, or registered nurse, refers to both a job title and a licensing credential. A BSN, or Bachelor of Science in Nursing, is a four-year degree program that nurses may complete. Because RN and BSN are categorically distinct, it can be hard to make a direct comparison. Nevertheless, nurses and nursing students may benefit from a closer look at what the RN vs. BSN distinction entails.

With a predicted nurse shortage as America’s population ages and the health care system continues to evolve, both RN credentialing and a BSN education can provide paths for nursing professionals to fill the coverage gap and facilitate positive patient outcomes.

What’s an RN?

An RN is a licensed credential, which is a professional designation that individuals must both earn and maintain. It is also a job title; in many hospitals and health organizations, RNs are distinct from LPNs, or licensed practical nurses, and other nursing professionals, with unique duties, responsibilities and authority.

How Long Does It Take to Become an RN?

The timeline for becoming an RN can vary depending on the educational path the student chooses, but generally, it will take between two and four years to become an RN.

An RN career typically requires either an ADN, or Associate Degree in Nursing, or a BSN. Nursing diploma programs aren’t nearly as common as they used to be, with fewer than 10% offering diplomas today.

Earning an ADN typically takes between two and three years, while earning a BSN usually takes four years. To enroll in either program requires a high school education and ideally strong math and science coursework. ADN and BSN programs generally require a high school GPA of at least 2.0, depending on the specific degree and school.

A nursing degree program provides familiarity with some of the concepts that are critical when taking the RN examination, including anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and human growth and development.

After completing the necessary education requirements, nurses may sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Upon obtaining a passing grade, nurses are licensed to practice as an RN in their state.

Where Do RNs Work?

RN careers offer plenty of work environments to choose from; indeed, RNs are crucial in delivering high-quality patient care throughout the medical ecosystem. Examples of RN work environments include the following, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Hospitals
  • Ambulatory health care providers
  • Nursing and residential care facilities
  • Government health centers, including public health centers and Veterans Affairs health centers
  • Schools

Some RNs eventually choose to become nurse educators, who work in nursing schools or teaching hospitals, instructing the next generation of nurses on how to deliver optimal care. This career requires additional education and certification but may be a rewarding long-term goal.

Additionally, RNs may find work as traveling nurses, filling shifts at hospitals, clinics or health centers throughout a particular geographic area.

RN Salary and Job Outlook

In addition to questions about the work environment, aspiring RNs may also be curious about salary ranges and the overall job outlook.

RN Salary

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for an RN is $73,300. Several factors influence the pay that an RN receives. For example, nurses with more experience tend to command higher salaries. Advanced nursing degrees can also lead to higher pay. Nurses who practice in larger, more metropolitan areas will typically receive more competitive salary offers.

RN Job Outlook

The BLS data also shows a promising outlook for RN careers. Job growth in this field is projected at about 7%, which is faster than the average job growth rate. Nursing professionals warn of a pending nurse shortage as the profession struggles to keep up with the clinical care needs of an aging population and evolving health care system. As such, opportunities for rewarding RN careers may become increasingly abundant.

Resources for RN Careers

To find out more about pursuing an RN career, consider the following resources:

The five top employers for RNs in the U.S.

Of the 3.1 million registered nurses working in the U.S. in 2019, more than half were employed by hospitals. These are the most common employers of RNs: state, local and private hospitals (60%), ambulatory health care providers (18%), nursing and residential care facilities (7%), government (5%) and state, local and private educational institutions (3%).

What’s a BSN?

A BSN is a bachelor’s degree in nursing. By obtaining this degree, nurses can prepare for successful careers or for still more advanced education in the field, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

To enroll in a BSN program, prospective students need to have either a high school diploma or a GED. GPA requirements vary, and some schools may consider SAT scores as well. Ample math and science coursework is valuable to the BSN admissions process. In addition to requiring a thorough and complete application and school transcripts, nursing schools may require an interview or an essay in which candidates explain their career goals and why they chose the specific program.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a BSN?

As with any degree program, students may complete the necessary credit hours at their own pace; with that said, the BSN is generally a four-year degree program. It can take less time for people who already hold a bachelor’s degree or other undergraduate degree.

BSN from ADN

Some nurses choose to begin with an ADN, which allows them to complete their education in two years and enter the job market more quickly. Most nursing schools offer programs in which ADN credits can count toward the BSN, meaning those who already have an associate-level degree can complete their BSN in as little as two years.

BSN from BA

Alternatively, some nurses earn a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, and then later seek their BSN; often, basic core curriculum credits earned in the BA can be put toward the BSN, meaning completion of the degree in as little as two or three years as opposed to a full four years.

Reentry Programs

Many BSN programs also offer options for practicing RNs who are looking to hone their skills, brush up on the latest nursing techniques and technologies, or simply advance from ADN to BSN. These programs typically offer more flexible schedules to accommodate RNs who are already in the workforce.

BSN Curriculum

A BSN program is designed to help nurses hone their skills in delivering patient care and prepare for successful BSN careers. Specific courses may vary from one program to another, but the typical BSN curriculum will likely cover the following:

  • Health and disease assessment
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Research
  • Mental health and psychology
  • Reproductive health
  • Nurse leadership
  • Patient care

BSN Careers

Obtaining a BSN provides the foundation to pursue a wide range of different career paths. Specific BSN careers include the following:

  • Nurse manager/supervisor
  • Charge nurse
  • Nurse field assessor
  • Nurse case manager
  • Nursing informatics specialist
  • School nurse
  • Diabetes management nurse
  • Occupational health nurse
  • Public health nurse
  • Hospice nurse
  • Rehabilitation center nurse
  • Nutrition and fitness nurse
  • Transplant nurse

BSN Salary and Job Outlook

Those pursuing a BSN will naturally wonder about the expected salary range, as well as the job outlook available for BSN degree holders.

BSN Salary

PayScale data as of October 2020 provides some useful information regarding the salary range for those with a BSN. Specifically, nurses who hold a BSN can anticipate a median annual salary of about $85,200. Several factors can influence the pay scale for nurses, including geography and years of experience. BSN degree holders in larger metropolitan areas will typically command higher salaries because the cost of living is also higher in these areas. Those with additional years of nursing experience can also expect to earn higher salaries.

BSN Job Outlook

While the BLS doesn’t offer a job outlook specific to BSN holders, it’s worth reiterating that the overall demand for nurses is rising, and the nursing job market is growing at a faster rate than the overall job market. Also, some states are now requiring professional nurses to have a BSN, an important consideration when thinking about the job outlook for nurses.

Resources for BSN Careers

For those curious about pursuing different BSN careers, the following links and resources may be valuable:

Difference Between an RN and a BSN

It’s imperative to understand that an RN and a BSN are categorically different: The former refers to a level of credentialing as well as a potential job title, while the latter is a degree program. With this important distinction made, let’s further consider the differences between an RN and a BSN.

Education Requirements for an RN vs. BSN

One key difference between an RN and a BSN is the education that’s required.

To become an RN, it’s necessary to obtain a nursing diploma or degree. Historically, the options here have included getting a nursing diploma, ADN or BSN. Nursing diplomas can be obtained in two to three years, though these programs have become rare in recent years. Likewise, an ADN may be obtained in as little as two years. A BSN, by contrast, is usually a full four-year commitment. (Those who’ve already earned an ADN may complete their BSN requirements in just two years, but the total time commitment works out to be about the same.)

With all this said, it’s worth emphasizing that the BSN is increasingly seen as the educational standard for those who wish to practice as nursing professionals, including as RNs. For example, in 2019, the  American Association of Colleges of Nursing released a position statement saying that RNs “should be, at minimum, prepared with the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or equivalent baccalaureate nursing degree.” As such, many aspiring nurses will want to think seriously about obtaining their full four-year degree, as it may open more doors for them to pursue nursing careers across a wide range of locations, niches and care specialties.

Licensing Requirements for an RN vs. BSN

Another difference between an RN and a BSN is in licensing.

Those who graduate with an ADN may begin working as a nurse, but only after they complete a licensure exam. The specifics of the exam requirements vary by state. However, passing the exam is always a requirement to become a nurse.

Meanwhile, to earn RN status, nurses must first complete a degree program, which may be either the ADN or BSN. Upon verification of their graduation, they must then sit for the NCLEX-RN. Once it’s verified that they’ve passed the exam, nurses can begin working as RNs.

The requirements for obtaining RN status are changing, however, with some states now pushing for RNs to complete a full BSN degree. The first state to move in this direction is New York, which recently passed new requirements for licensed RNs to obtain a BSN. Specifically, a BSN is required within 10 years of obtaining an RN license.

Anyone wishing to become an RN should consult the specific licensing guidelines in their state; not only can these guidelines vary, but they may change over time.

Job Duties and Responsibilities: RN vs. BSN

Another angle for exploring the differences between an RN and a BSN is to consider job duties and responsibilities.

Generally speaking, obtaining a BSN will qualify you for a wider range of nursing positions, including positions of greater authority and responsibility. In many hospitals, a BSN is required to become a nurse leader or shift leader. Nurses who wish to one day lead or manage other nurses or be more actively involved in shaping organizational nursing policies should consider the BSN path.

Additionally, many hospitals now require entry-level nurses to hold a BSN. Some of the clearest opportunities for nurses without BSNs come from community health centers, private practices and long-term care facilities.

Resources for RN vs. BSN

To learn more about the differences between an RN and a BSN, consider the following resources and guides:

A comparison of ADN and BSN degree programs.

While ADN and BSN degree programs share many characteristics, there are clear distinctions between the two in terms of nursing career paths. The ADN is a two-year degree offered by community colleges and hospital-based schools of nursing that qualifies graduates for a range of technical nursing roles and offers fewer opportunities for advanced nursing positions. The BSN is a four-year degree offered by colleges and universities that qualifies graduates for management and leadership nursing positions and higher average salaries.

Aspects to Consider When Choosing a Nursing Career Path

For those who aspire to long and successful careers delivering optimal patient care, an academic background in nursing can be essential. In particular, consider options for obtaining a BSN, including programs like Rider University’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-BSN) program, which is designed for licensed RNs looking to advance their careers. The right educational framework can provide the skills needed to improve patients’ lives and achieve higher levels of nursing responsibility and authority.

Infographic Sources:

American Nurses Association, “How to Become a Nurse”
Normal Nurse Life, “ADN vs BSN Salary, Competencies, and Pros and Cons”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Registered Nurses”