Alphabet Soup: A Guide to Nursing Credentials and Degrees

A bowl of alphabet soup containing nursing credentials.

The confusing nature of nursing credentials has led to widespread use of the term “alphabet soup.” The letters that follow a nurse’s name can be perplexing to professionals in the medical field, and especially to patients and families. To solve this problem, nursing credentials need to be displayed properly.

“Having a standard way ensures that everyone—including nurses, healthcare providers, consumers, third-party payers, and government officials—understands the significance and value of credentials,” says the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), a subsidiary of the American Nurses Association.

The following sections clarify the established order of nursing credentials and what these letters mean.

Understanding Nursing Credentials

The ANCC’s preferred order for nursing credentials is:

  • Highest Degree Earned: Educational degrees include associate degrees (AD, ADN), bachelor’s degrees (BS, BSN, BA), master’s degrees (MSN, MS, MA) and doctoral degrees (PhD, DrPH, DNS, EdD, DNP).
  • Licensure: Licensure credentials include registered nurse (RN) and licensed practical nurse (LPN).
  • State Designations or Requirements: State designations or requirements signify the nurse practices at a more advanced level in the state. Examples of these credentials include APRN (advanced practice registered nurse), NP (nurse practitioner) and CNS (clinical nurse specialist).
  • National Certifications: National certifications are awarded through accredited certifying bodies such as the ANCC, including the RN-BC (Registered Nurse-Board Certified) and FNP-BC (Family Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified).
  • Awards and Honors: Awards and honors recognize outstanding achievements in nursing, such as FAAN (Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing) and FCCM (Fellow of Critical Care Medicine).
  • Other Recognitions: Other certifications include non-nursing certifications that recognize skills, such as EMT-Basic/EMT (awarded by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians) and BELS (Board-Certified Editor for the Life Sciences).

On legal documents, nurses must use the credentials required by the state for the nurse’s area of practice. In professional endeavors, nurses are advised to use relevant credentials.

If there is more than one type of the same nursing credential, nurses should consider listing them in order of relevance to their practice or in the order they were obtained. If multiple degrees should be listed, nurses should list the highest degree (e.g., PhD, MSN) or the most relevant degree (e.g., MBA, MSN for a nurse executive) first.

A Closer Look at Degrees and Licensure

Educational Degrees

  • Associate Degrees: Associate degree programs take two years to complete and offer the quickest way for someone to become an RN. However, many employers are requiring nurses to have a bachelor’s degree, so graduates of associate programs often continue their education. An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is the most common program at this level.
  • Bachelor’s Degrees: Bachelor’s degree programs take a total of four years to complete. However, RNs often enter bridge programs (RN to BSN) to earn their bachelor’s degree in two years while they keep working. A bachelor’s degree helps current nurses keep up with educational requirements and can lead to salary increases and career advancement. Many specialties of nursing and leadership positions require nurses to have a bachelor’s degree. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is the most common program at this level.
  • Master’s Degrees: Master’s degree programs take two years of graduate study to complete. They are for applicants pursuing management positions or a number of advanced specialties that can benefit from or require the degree. For instance, a master’s is required to become a nurse anesthetist or family nurse practitioner. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the most common program at this level.
  • Doctoral Degrees: Doctoral degree programs take four to six years of study to complete, after earning a master’s degree. There are various types of doctoral programs. Two of the most common are the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The DNP focuses on evidence-based practice and is appropriate for management positions and positions of leadership in nursing practice. The PhD is a research degree appropriate for nurse faculty and nurse researcher/scientist positions.

Licensure Credentials

  • LPN: An LPN provides basic medical care under the supervision of doctors or RNs. To become an LPN, a certificate or diploma is required, which takes one to two years to complete. The median annual wage for LPNs is $43,170 and employment of LPNs is expected to increase 16 percent by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
  • RN: An RN is involved in all aspects of patient care and works in one of many specialties. To become an RN, at least an associate degree is required, although a bachelor’s degree is becoming the standard minimum education requirement. The median annual wage for RNs is $67,490 and employment of RNs is expected to increase 16 percent by 2024, according to the BLS.

Advancing Nursing Education

Alvernia University’s online RN to BSN and online DNP prepare nurses for the next step in providing high-quality patient care. The online RN to BSN Completion Program is designed for RNs who are graduates of diploma or associate degree nursing programs. The online Post-Master’s DNP Clinical Leadership Program is designed for master’s-prepared and licensed APRNs who are seeking a practice doctorate to advance their careers to the highest levels in nursing.

Each program takes place in a flexible and convenient online learning environment that accommodates students’ work and personal schedules.