Getting a bachelor’s degree in nursing, BSN, is a feat but it’s become the bare minimum for raising yourself through the ranks and earning more respect. More importantly, nursing education directly impacts patient care. In 2017, a study showed that when it came to acute care for adults, professional nurses reduced patient mortality, thanks to the deeper skill sets that help them to navigate the complex health care landscape. This is why some organizations require nurses to already have at least a BSN degree or obtain one within a certain number of years of employment.
With a masters degree in nursing, MSN, skills in analysis and decision-making improve patient safety and care. Better communication and implementation of initiatives improve the organization’s ability to be more equipped for upcoming challenges and opportunities. The path to obtaining a nursing master’s degree allows you to build valuable skills and improve your earning potential.
Options for a master’s degree in nursing
What you can do with an MSN degree?
Sixty percent of U.S. adults have a chronic disease, and 40 percent have two or more. With the increase in chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, the medical field is going to need nursing education programs to graduate professionals who are ready to achieve the level of care needed to handle these increasing numbers. MSN programs combine experienced nurse practitioners who have extensive knowledge of how to better bridge the gap between quality care and effective administration.
With a masters in nursing, you’re able to focus three general areas:
Clinical practice: Evidence-based nursing is one of the ways an MSN can lead to better community health. When trying to get to the bottom of public health issues, many health professionals offer vague prescriptive solutions which don’t provide a long-term solution. An MSN-educated family nurse practitioner or nurse administrator tends to favor a more methodical approach that goes to the root of the problem. They research the necessary literature and come up with more impactful, lasting solutions.
Education: As an MSN degree professional, you have the chance to be an educator. You can assume the role of instructor to the next generation of nurses or you can choose to educate patients about serious health issues, which is a valuable skill in patient-centered care. Between your years of experience and a master’s degree, becoming an educator is both rewarding and lucrative.
Leadership: Inside this MSN nursing program curriculum is the focus on soft skills, such as interpersonal communication and decisiveness. Concepts such as leadership and role development are two examples of how those skills are interwoven within the program. Nurses get to put theories into practice and build up their experiential repertoire to match their own style.
Types of nursing master’s degrees
There are quite a few bridges to becoming an MSN, providing candidates with hope that they can achieve a tangible level of expertise and success within their careers.
BSN to MSN
Getting the BSN degree first is the more traditional route to the nursing Masters, and some MSN programs require this. Registered nurse students take courses part-time or full-time along with required practical clinical hours. There are accelerated programs that mean students can finish all requirements within a year or 18 months instead of two or three years.
RN to MSN
For a registered nurse without a degree to get an MSN, they’ll need an intense, fast-track curriculum. This bridge is better at instilling necessary leadership and interpersonal skills than the RN-to-MSN program, which is more about clinical experience. While some RNs do have degrees, this program doesn’t require a BSN prerequisite. Instead, nursing students fulfill their BSN degree course requirements within the first year before moving on to their nursing specialization.
ASN/ADN to MSN
Nurses with an associate’s level education can move directly to getting their MSN. An associate’s degree in nursing is considered the beginning step to a career. These degrees account for 30 percent of nursing practitioners, so ASN/ADN bridge master’s degree puts them on the direct path to nurse administration while providing them with BSN and MSN level credit within three or four years years. This type of program allows a working nursing student more flexibility than the other types, but does have accelerated options as well.
Direct-entry master’s in nursing
Students who hold a bachelor’s degree in other non-nursing disciplines and want to make a career switch to a higher level in the nursing sector can pursue a Direct-Entry master’s. They’ll need the requisite recommendation and education documentation. Candidates need to complete the biological sciences and statistics prerequisite courses before applying. Volunteering and any other practical health care experience can only help their application.
This combines the MSN with other disciplines, such as an MBA or an MHA, Masters in Health Administration.
Who should consider an MSN?
An MSN can create numerous career opportunities and increase overall earning potential, but not everyone is cut out for the profession. Because clinical hours and courses can be time-consuming and challenging, it will be nurses who have a strong desire to really get in-depth expertise who will be more successful.
Trying to get into a program is hard enough because competition is stiff. There’s usually a GPA minimum of 3.0, but that minimum is rising.
Candidates who want a nursing master’s degree usually do it for one of a few reasons:
It’s a growing industry: The health sector is growing and is not just about in-person care anymore. As a nurse practitioner with an advanced degree, you’ll be in a great position to capitalize on growth in the Telehealth/Telemedicine sector, which will be close to $200 billion by 2025. The more knowledge you have, the better prepared you will be to take advantage of this emerging industry.
You want to be a change agent: If you’re seeing things in the industry that you don’t like, one of the best ways to find answers is through better education. If you have a need to be part of the solution, learning more about the administrative side only helps the industry innovate.
You want to pass on tricks you’ve learned: As a seasoned nurse practitioner, you’ve learned a lot of practical tips and tricks that don’t really get covered in school. If your calling is about passing on what you know in an effort to help the next generation navigate the increasing complexities of the medical industry. Going for your master’s and filling the void of nurse educators is the best reason for you to get your MSN.
Differences between master’s degrees in nursing
Should you go for an MS or an MA nursing degree program
While both degrees are about learning more advanced skills, the MA has always been more about theory than practice. Typically a Masters of Arts in Nursing is a smoother line to a doctorate because it’s more geared towards academia. One of the most valuable MA nursing degrees is the Masters in Health Administration, MHA. It’s considered a versatile degree for individuals looking to work in academia or in hospital management. It’s great for those in the profession or those who are switching careers to nursing.
MSN degrees are more popular, because nursing students see them as more serious and rigorous. They feel that it gives them the opportunity to gain more practical skills and experience, which allows them to better leverage the knowledge they’ve already gained. BSN nursing degrees are more flexible in their offerings and leave the professionals open to career opportunities in all corners of the health care sector. Additionally, there are a few MS degrees that incorporate health administration into their specialization.
Specialization paths for nurses with a BSN
With a bachelor’s degree in nursing, there are plenty of exciting opportunities available to graduates, such as:
Forensic nursing: Forensic nurses bridge the gap between Criminal Justice and Medicine. They work along with law enforcement professionals to process crime scenes, and they provide compassionate care to victims at the scene while carefully documenting evidence. These professionals also work with coroners and pathologists for more detailed reporting.
Becoming a flight nurse: Flight nurses stabilize victims and patients during air transit. In cases where transferring the victim by flight is a matter of life and death, they provide the necessary emergency care and can interface with medical professionals to better prepare the patients for treatment once they land. By 2029, the health care sector will need over 220,000 flight nurses.
Travel nursing: While a BSN is not required to be a travel nurse, it’s become preferred by many hospitals looking to work with them. Travel nurses are employed by nurse staffing agencies and can be sent to provide temporary help to local hospitals, any hospitals across the country, or even internationally. It’s a very flexible profession that allows you to decide your schedule and locations.
Specializations available for MSN graduates
Nurses who choose to pursue a master’s degree can become an advanced practice registered nurse, APRN, in four areas. An APRN is a highly desirable specialist that is considered credible and viable to any medical organization. As a result, these specialists are in high demand.
Certified nurse midwife
Nurse midwives work as independent practitioners or part of an Obstetrics team. They coordinate and manage all aspects of the birthing process and can even perform gynecological exams. Nurse midwives average about $110,000 annually.
Critical-care registered nurse
Clinical nurse registered nurse, CCRN, is a broad field that encompasses patient consultations and care. They can focus on gerontology, cardiovascular health, and other nursing specialties. These nurses can even conduct research, manage staff, and teach. CCRNs are able to consult with other medical professionals and develop better policies and standards. Salaries range from $90,000 to over $120,000 per year.
Clinical nurse practitioner
To be a nurse practitioner, NP, you need to have graduate training and advanced practice nursing certification. They work in hospitals and other environments, such as outpatient care facilities. A clinical nurse practitioner can execute the same responsibilities as a physician including diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medication. NPs can focus on many areas, including gynecology, family care, and psychiatry. Potential earnings for this type of specialization average between $130,000 and $150,000 per year.
Certified nurse anesthetist
A Certified Nurse Anesthetist, CNA, aids surgeons and anesthesiologists by evaluating how much and what type of anesthesia surgical patients need based on thorough medical evaluation. The training for this role is very specific as nurse anesthetists also need to provide therapeutic and pain management care throughout the patient’s tenure. As a result, this is one of the fastest-growing job paths that can earn viable candidates well over $100,000 a year. While an MSN is mandatory, starting in 2025, nurses will need a professional doctorate in nurse anesthesia practice, DNAP, to be CRNAs.
Apart from these fast-growing specializations there are a few others to consider:
Clinical research nurses
Clinical research nurses focus on patients involved in clinical trials. They deal with improving patient care by supporting them throughout the trial. They also prepare documentation related to the trial, research drugs, collect data, and other vital roles in the process. Clinical research nurses earn anywhere between $57,000 and $95,000 annually.
A nursing educator combines their years of practical experience in the field with academic expertise to train the next generation of nursing students about how to navigate the complexities of the sector while providing patient-centered care. Along with teaching, instructors provide guidance about how students can transition from academia into the profession as well. There is a serious need for nurse educators as the number of retiring nurses will leave a significant void in the workforce. In addition to creating and running a hospital’s nursing education program, these professionals are needed within the nursing administration and as consultants within professional nursing practice.
As technology permeates all aspects of life, informatics nurses are the specialists that use the data to provide better care and support. They come up with ways to manage information and communication in ways that boost productivity and decision-making without compromising care quality. As people are living longer and healthier, informatics specialists and analysts help hospitals and care facilities to better control their costs. Average yearly salary for this field is approximately $66,000.
Certified legal nurse consultants
While forensic nurses interact with victims and gather necessary evidence, legal nurse consultants review and study the evidence in different kinds of cases including malpractice, criminal, and fraud. While they may also gather evidence, these consultants may work behind the scenes or can be called as expert witnesses. Based on education experience, the average annual salary falls between $70,000 and $80,000.
Educational requirements for a nursing master’s degree
Find an accredited nursing graduate program
There are many online MSN programs available, but not all of them are duly accredited. While the institution may be accredited, the nursing programs need to be accredited by at least one of the independent entities: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, ACEN, and Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, CCNE. Not only is proper accreditation important for peace of mind and education quality, but some employers may specifically require that students get their MSN from ACEN or CCEN accredited institutions. Additionally, if you need to transfer credits to another Institution, accreditation may affect how the new school will accept credits from the old school.
Guidelines for application and acceptance to the MSN program
Almost all MSN programs require candidates to have an active RN license. Applying to a graduate nursing program is a lengthy process that requires precision and patience. Some schools may require applicants to submit standardized test scores from the GRE, MAT, GMAT, or MCAT, depending on the specialization. Nursing students enrolled in a dual-degree may need a combination of these tests. Nurses who have a certain level of professional experience or have already attained a separate graduate degree can have this requirement waived.
Nursing students with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, whether it’s a nursing or non-nursing subject, will need to forward their school transcripts and show that they achieved a minimum GPA of 3.0 in their coursework. For some schools, candidates need at least a 3.5 GPA. Registered nurses without a degree may submit their nursing diploma.
International students may need to take an English proficiency exam and need to submit evaluations from the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools, CGFNS, for their nursing coursework verification and World Education Services, WES, for non-nursing course verification.
All students will need to submit their resumes, which must highlight their strengths and relevant work experience, while accurately describing your previous positions. Any volunteer experience must also be included as that can only strengthen your chances of being admitted, especially if your GPA is a little weak.
Along with required personal and professional letters of recommendation, schools require a personal essay. This is the most pivotal piece of your application because it is the one piece that allows you to speak directly to the admissions board in your own voice. Make sure your personal statement is well-written, without excessive grammatical errors, and speaks clearly and compellingly about your aspirations and inspirations.
As soon as all of your documents are ready and the application deadline is open, apply. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can start your program when accepted.
Applying to your desired nursing graduate school
Every school charges different fees for your application, and some can be expensive. One of the most economical ways to submit applications to your desired school is with NursingCAS. This system enables nursing school applicants to apply to multiple programs from one dashboard. The first school application costs $70, while each one after cost $40. For students who show proof of financial need, application fees can be waived.
Applying to multiple schools is a good idea because all programs are so competitive, and you want it to improve your chances of getting accepted and getting started.
Once accepted, the pace of your degree will be rigorous. Depending on the program, your MSN can take three years to complete. For those who chose an accelerated path or one that requires less coursework, it may take as little as 18 months. RNs in a bridge program typically fulfill their BSN requirements during the first year. The MSN program requires at least 500 clinical hours and as much as 2,000 hours to fulfill the specialist fieldwork, which is why nursing students must have an active RN license.
How to choose a master’s degree in nursing
Finding the MSN program that’s right for you
Pursuing an MSN is an important step. On average a nursing master’s degree costs about $30,000, which is a significant financial commitment on top of the personal and professional sacrifices you need to make. When choosing the right MSN program for your desired nursing specialty, there are a few key questions you need to ask yourself.
- Where do you see your career in 3 to 5 years: This may seem like a cliché interview question, but it speaks to whether you see yourself in an office as a nurse administrator or in the field dealing with patients daily. Because not all MSN programs are created equally, this simple question may show you that despite the fact that you currently work in the ER, you really want to move into the research side or you see yourself doing something with in public health & policy space, which may require a dual MSN/MPH degree
- School faculty experience and student certification pass rate: Once you figured out your specialization path, it’s time to take a serious look at the faculty and their ability to properly prepare students for their certification exams. Instructors with deep real-world experience can give you both practical and theoretical tools. When it comes to how their students do during the first certification test, it will help you decide if this institution is worth your investment.
- Financial aid and scholarship opportunities: Higher education costs are a daunting deterrence. The financial burden is significantly higher for students who are considered out-of-state or international. For some, this may be a reason to indefinitely delay pursuing their nursing master’s degree. In an effort to salvage your dream, it’s good to know what kinds of financial aid may be available. While you may be eligible for high interest federal school loans, a school with a healthy list of scholarships, loan forgiveness programs, and options for military members and veterans can give hope that there’s enough help to reduce the lifelong education debt.
- Support services available: As a working nursing student, your schedule is demanding. To succeed, you’ll need a reliable support system, especially when things go wrong. Some graduate programs provide mentoring services to help students balance responsibilities and stay on a successful path. These can include one-on-one touch bases and check-ins in addition to IT support for online students.
In addition to having good student certification pass rates and retention, the best MSN programs have solid student support that instills peace of mind. The built-in conveniences that make the process of going to school more manageable winds up being the right fit for you.
Best full-time MSN programs
Johns Hopkins has a MSN Entry to Nursing program for students with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. With this generalist graduate program, they get to explore their areas of interest and can continue after graduation towards their APRN specialty or a doctorate. Graduates from JHU MSN degree program will be prepared to take the RN license exam. ItsJHU nurses earn between 15 and 20 percent above the national average.
Ranked as the second best MSN program in the U.S., Duke University’s nursing graduate program offers several specializations, including Neonatal NP, informatics as well as who roster of certifications in oncology, HIV and other categories. For this program, GRE is only required for those seeking the DNAP. Duke has 83 full-time faculty, and students are required to come to campus one semester for hands-on activities and intensives.
As a public university, UNC Chapel Hill’s MSN program has 93 full-time faculty that help nurses use evidence-based practice to improve patient safety. They have a BSN-to-MSN path as well as an online RN-to-MSN bridge along with post-graduate certifications, such as family nurse practitioner.
Penn Nursing provides several nurse practitioner programs as well as advanced nursing specialty in Midwifery. It has administration programs in leadership as well as health care and offers dual-degree programs that combine MSN with MBA as well as master’s in public health, bioethics, and law. Students can pursue full-time or part-time studies. On average, full-time students take about 12 months to complete their degree while part-time students take 24 months. However, students have up to five years to complete their MSN.
Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing is an incredibly competitive program with only a 19 percent acceptance rate. It offers an accelerated BSN/MSN program for non-nursing students who want to switch careers. There’s also a dual degree MSN/MPH program available.
Top online MSN program
Rush University’s Nursing Leadership is an online MSN program has a 26% acceptance rate. It provides a wide array of nurse practitioner specializations in addition to leadership and clinical nursing paths. Rush has a 90% student retention rate. Upon graduation, nurses are ready to take on formal leadership roles and prepared to provide acute care.