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Making sense of the alphabet soup

Nurses today have more education and certifications than ever before. But how should nurses list those credentials? Should all of them be listed after your name? What about nonnursing credentials? It seems confusing; should nurses even bother?

This story was published in the Fall 2021 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

Nurses today have more education and certifications than ever before. But how should nurses list those credentials? Should all of them be listed after your name? What about nonnursing credentials? It seems confusing; should nurses even bother?

Making sense of the alphabet soup

..Yes! You’ve worked hard to earn those degrees and certifications, not to mention your nursing license. Be proud of your hard work! Listing your credentials also tells your patients and the public about your expertise and experience. You don’t have to list every single credential you’ve ever earned — that’s overkill. However, there are some simple tips and tricks to help you present your credentials in a way that is sharp, professional and showcases the hard work you’ve done over your career.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) first issued a statement, “Credentials for the Professional Nurse,” in 2009. In it, ANA stated the recommended order of credentials as follows:

  1. Highest degree earned.
  2. Licensure.
  3. State designations or requirements.
  4. National certifications.
  5. Awards and honors.
  6. Other recognitions.

An easy way to remember this is to consider them in order of permanence. Once you’ve earned your degree, it cannot be taken from you. Licensure must be renewed each year but is required for practice. State designations vary by state (and are usually only matters of APRN licensure). If a nurse has more than one national certification (CCN, CCRN, CWON, SANE, etc.), all can be listed. Other awards and honors that can be listed as credentials are professional society fellowships (FAAN, etc.).

The order of credentials is the same no matter if the nurse is working in direct patient care, academia, management or another part of the nursing profession.

Let’s try this out with an example:

Jane Doe is a registered nurse licensed in Washington. She has her AA degree in nursing, but recently completed her BSN. Throughout nursing school, she worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She recently obtained her Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN) certification and has also completed ACLS, PALS and TNCC courses through her employer.

Jane’s credentials would be listed as: Jane Doe, BSN, RN, CEN.

Jane has two nursing degrees, but the highest nursing degree is her BSN. Her degree comes before licensure, as it cannot be taken away. Her certification comes last.

While national certifications should be listed in a nurse’s credentials, technical certifications should not. National certifications speak to a nurse’s expertise, experience and continuing education in a specialty area of nursing care. Technical certifications showcase a nurse’s skill with a specific technical skillset and include BLS, ACLS, TNCC, PALS and others.

What about nonnursing degrees? It’s certainly important to note the highest nursing degree earned. However, if a nurse has earned a higher degree in a nonnursing field, that can be listed, too. If the nonnursing degree is lower than the nursing degree, the nonnursing degree is generally dropped from the credentials. The exception to this is if the nonnursing degree helps to communicate information that would be useful in interactions with another. For example, Jane Doe also has a BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration); she might want to leave that in her credentials when communicating about business-related issues.

One final word about credentials: Most professional settings do not recognize the (c) credential, which is used to mean “candidate.” An example of this is DNP(c). If you’re in school to earn a higher nursing degree, that’s great! It’s perfectly acceptable to put “DNP Student” in your signature line with your expected date of graduation. However, credentials are used to convey the qualifications that health care professionals, including nurses, have already earned.

It’s time to put this into practice. What do your credentials look like?