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How Does a Nurse Become a Doctor?

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When a nurse wants to become a doctor, she has two options. She can earn a doctorate in nursing or go to medical school. If she chooses medical school, she can become a medical doctor or a doctor of osteopathic medicine, but if she chooses a nursing doctorate, she has multiple options. In either case, she must go back to school.

Three Paths to Licensure

Unlike many health care professions, nursing offers three different entry points for nursing licensure. The first is a diploma from a hospital-based school of nursing, which takes two or three years. The second is an associate degree in nursing from a community college or university, which typically takes two years. Her last choice is a bachelor of science in nursing – a four-year degree. She must then pass the NCLEX-RN national licensing exam to practice as a registered nurse. At this point, she has the option to go on for more education in nursing, or – if she has a bachelor of science in nursing – can apply to medical school.

Taking the Medical School Route

An RN who wants to become a physician typically begins her journey by obtaining a bachelor’s degree if she does not already have one. She must then take the Medical College Admission Test and be accepted at a medical school – a highly competitive process. Some schools offer another option – combined undergraduate and medical school programs. After four years of medical school, she will obtain a doctor of medicine (MD) degree or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree and typically will go on to a three- or four-year residency, depending on the specialty she chooses. She might also complete an extended period of training called a fellowship. Most physicians also choose to become board certified.

When the Nurse Is a Doctor

A registered nurse who chooses the nursing doctorate path must start by completing her education at the master’s level. If she has a nursing diploma or associate degree, she first must earn a bachelor of science in nursing. Another option is the registered nurse to master of science in nursing program, which is designed to help associate- and diploma-prepared nurses earn a graduate degree without first earning a bachelor of science in nursing in the traditional fashion. Registered nurse to master of science in nursing programs typically offer many courses online, to allow the nurse to work while going to school.

Six Choices

Once she has her master of science in nursing in hand, a registered nurse must choose one of six different doctoral paths, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The doctorate of nursing education is designed to prepare nursing educators. A doctorate in nursing science includes both clinical proficiency and nursing research. A Ph.D. in nursing is another degree focused on research. The doctor of nursing degree, however, focuses exclusively on clinical practice. The doctorate of nursing practice degree is designed to prepare nurse practitioners for independent primary care, although a master's degree is the minimum requirement for licensure. The doctor of nursing practice is another degree that concentrates on direct care.


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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