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Acquiring an MSN can unlock opportunities for financial stability and competitive nursing careers. Let’s explore the diverse paths to achieve an MSN degree. A master’s degree in nursing can lead to a well-paying and sought-after profession, with earnings approximately three times the national average. Different kinds of nursing master’s degrees can provide access to various professional avenues. Graduates can find positions as nurse practitioners (NPs), nurse researchers, nurse administrators, and even nurse educators.
This guide delves into the different options for master’s degrees available to registered nurses (RNs), helping you determine which degree aligns best with your career goals and providing guidance on how to apply for these master’s programs.
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Highlighted Online MSN Programs
To learn more about start dates, credit transfer options, financial aid availability, and more, get in touch with the universities listed below.
Options for MSN Degrees
An MSN degree can pave the way to a high-demand career with earnings roughly three times the national average. Various types of nursing master’s degrees offer diverse career prospects, with graduates becoming nurse practitioners (NPs), nurse researchers, nurse administrators, and even nurse educators.
We will explore the different master’s degree possibilities for registered nurses (RNs), helping you select the degree that aligns with your career objectives and guiding you through the application process.
Baccalaureate to Master’s Degree
Who it’s for: RNs with a BSN
Duration: 2-3 years
Most individuals pursuing a master’s degree in nursing hold a traditional BSN degree and possess some clinical nursing experience. BSN-to-MSN programs generally last 2-3 years, depending on the curriculum and the student’s enrollment status. Many graduate nursing programs offer online courses, while others are entirely web-based.
Distance learners enrolled in fully online programs usually meet their nursing clinical requirements in their local communities.
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MSN Bridge Program
Who it’s for: RNs with an associate degree in Nursing (ADN) seeking a master’s degree, including advanced practice programs (e.g., various NP specializations) or general MSN degrees (like nursing educator or nursing administration degrees)
Duration: 3-4 years
MSN bridge programs are a viable option for RNs with an ADN who aspire to earn a master’s degree without first completing a BSN. These bridge programs integrate the equivalent of the last two years of a BSN program with a master’s in nursing curriculum. Most of these programs have a duration of 3-4 years.
Master’s nursing programs are often available online, in-person, or in a hybrid format with on-campus components.
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Direct-Entry Master’s Degree
Who it’s for: Learners with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree
Duration: 18 months to three years
Similar to MSN bridge programs, direct-entry graduate programs are designed for students without a BSN. This type of nursing master’s degree is tailored to individuals with a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a non-nursing field. These programs leverage existing college credits toward an MSN.
The duration of a direct-entry master’s program varies depending on the prior degree, ranging from 18 months to three years. These master’s degrees in nursing can be pursued online, in a mixed format, or in a traditional classroom setting.
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Dual Master’s Degree
Who it’s for: RNs aiming for advanced roles such as chief nursing officer or manager of clinical informatics
Duration: 3-4 years
Dual master’s degree programs combine two related disciplines, such as a master’s in nursing with a master of business administration (MBA). These dual degrees prepare individuals for leadership positions that demand a deep understanding of both nursing practice and healthcare administration.
In addition to the MSN/MBA option, common dual master’s specializations include public health (MSN/MPH) or health administration (MSN/MHA). These programs typically take BSN-holders 3-4 years to complete and are available in various formats, including online, on-campus, or a combination of both.
Categories of Master’s Degree in Nursing Specializations
Nurses aspiring to become MSNs have a multitude of options to choose from. Master of Science in Nursing programs can be categorized into two major groups: general MSN programs and specialized MSN programs.
General MSN programs equip graduates to take on roles such as nurse educators, nurse researchers, nurse administrators, and more. Specialized advanced practice RN (APRN) programs include four distinct areas: certified nurse practitioner, certified registered nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist (CNS), and certified nurse midwife (CNM).
Nurse practitioner specializations can be further divided into practice areas, including pediatric primary care nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, women’s health nurse practitioner, and several other focal areas.
It’s crucial to choose your desired career path before enrolling in a specialized MSN program, as each MSN degree has varying time commitments and graduation requirements. The time to completion is influenced by factors such as program type (e.g., accelerated programs), your time commitment (part-time or full-time), and whether you opt for a general MSN degree or an advanced practice certification.
Some nurses opt to begin with a general MSN degree program and then return to complete the specialized portion that leads to an APRN certification.
Nurse practitioner MSN programs prepare students for careers as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Graduates of these programs are eligible to sit for national board certification. Nurse practitioners can choose from various practice areas, including adult-gerontology, family practice, women’s health, mental health, and more.
Nurse practitioners are responsible for health promotion and disease prevention. Depending on state regulations, they may perform many duties akin to physicians, such as ordering lab tests and prescribing medication. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for nurse practitioners is $118,040.
A clinical nurse specialist program prepares graduates for a career as an APRN with specialized training in a specific clinical aspect of nursing practice, such as pediatrics, family care, and mental health. According to Payscale, as of October 2022, the average annual salary for clinical nurse specialists is $94,390.
Like nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists specialize in the patient populations they serve. However, their focus leans more towards research and education, keeping abreast of the latest clinical research studies. They educate nursing staff on enhancing patient outcomes, provide patient teaching, and promote evidence-based nursing care. Similar to other APRN programs, many online clinical nurse specialist programs are available and typically take around two years to complete.
Certified nurse midwifery programs emphasize individualized care and wellness throughout pregnancy and the birthing process, as well as postpartum care. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for a certified nurse midwife is $114,210.
After completing an accredited MSN program, a certified nurse midwife (CNM) must pass the nurse midwife certification exam conducted by the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB). The number of accredited MSN programs for nurse-midwives is limited, including online options. CNMs can work independently or under physician supervision, depending on state regulations. They often work in hospitals, ambulatory care facilities, or private birthing centers, where their duties include assisting parents and expectant individuals in creating birth plans, conducting prenatal and postnatal examinations, and prescribing medications.
MSN programs in public health prepare graduates to educate individuals at risk of health issues, focusing on long-term health and wellness improvement and enhancing healthcare access within communities. Public health nurses often work with low-income, underserved populations.
Their roles can include providing health screenings at community health centers and developing health education and disease prevention campaigns for other healthcare professionals to use in their communities. A public health nursing MSN program covers topics like global health issues, health outcome evaluation, research methods and biostatistics, and advanced nursing practice in population health. According to Payscale data from October 2023, public health nurses earn an average hourly rate of $29.40 or an annual salary ranging from $48,000 to $94,000.
MSN programs in nursing education prepare graduates for careers as teachers, mentors, and guides in the field of nursing. These professionals help other nurses apply best practices in nursing care, combining their clinical experience and knowledge of evidence-based practices to instruct both new and experienced nurses. They also offer professional development training.
Nurse educators put their teaching skills to use in various settings, including healthcare organizations, universities and colleges, and health system institutions. As of October 2022, Payscale reported that the average annual salary for nurse educators is $79,120. Nurse educator programs are available in face-to-face, hybrid, and online formats.
Graduates of an MSN in nurse administration take on management roles in healthcare, working in human resources or serving as clinical nurse managers, nursing supervisors, chief nursing officers, and more. Their responsibilities include implementing nursing policies in healthcare settings, ensuring patient safety, maintaining quality care standards, and managing financial aspects like budget preparation to ensure sufficient financial resources for a unit or facility.
Online dual degree programs that combine an MSN with a master of health administration degree are also available. According to the BLS, nursing administrators earn an average annual salary of $119,840.
Nursing informatics is a specialized MSN field that leverages technology to enhance the quality of nursing care. Professionals in this discipline use data analysis, report design, and collaboration with nurse administrators to improve nursing practices. Nurse informatics programs encompass coursework on clinical health information systems, database management, data quality management, statistics, principles and practices of medical research, evidence-based practices, and risk management. Courses delve into machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data visualization.
Practicums provide students with real-world informatics scenarios, allowing them to collaborate with various nursing units, information technology departments, and healthcare administration. A survey conducted in May 2020 found that 63% of nursing informaticists reported an annual salary ranging from $61,000 to $115,000.
A diabetes MSN program equips nurses to collaborate with multidisciplinary teams to diagnose, treat, and educate patients with diabetes. Teaching is a significant aspect of this profession. Diabetes nurses educate patients on the importance of diet and exercise, self-managing the disease at home, and effectively managing complex medication regimens.
According to Payscale data as of October 2022, the average annual salary for a diabetes care specialist is $70,840 or $32.77 per hour. A subspecialty within this field is pediatric endocrinology nursing, where nurses collaborate on testing, treatment, and medication management for children and adolescents with Type I diabetes. These nurses educate kids and their parents or guardians about healthy lifestyle choices and how to effectively manage the complexities of diabetes at home.
Clinical nurse leaders work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, ambulatory clinics, and urgent care centers. They hold degrees in specific nursing specialties and lead teams or departments, implement nursing policies, and mentor other nurses in evidence-based practices. Their responsibilities include staff training, team management, quality control, and strategic planning.
Clinical nurse managers develop treatment plans, monitor patient care, and oversee nurses’ hiring, termination, and supervision. Nurse leaders may serve as head nurses in hospital nursing units, patient care directors, chief nursing officers, or chief executive officers of healthcare institutions.
Community health nurses and public health nurses both focus on educating the public and stakeholders about health and disease prevention. However, community health nurses are more likely to provide healthcare to the public, addressing both communicable and noncommunicable diseases.
These nurses frequently work in clinics and government agencies, where they concentrate on the most vulnerable members of the community. A community health nurse curriculum covers the social determinants of health, health promotion, working with marginalized populations, and providing health education to individuals with varying levels of health knowledge.
Nurse researchers often work in academic medical centers, such as research and teaching hospitals, or in companies engaged in medical research, such as pharmaceutical or medical equipment companies. Their roles include overseeing and monitoring patient results in medical research or conducting original research to enhance nursing quality.
The curriculum for nurse researcher programs emphasizes the ethical treatment of research subjects, advanced data collection and analysis, statistics, principles and practices of medical research, evidence-based practices, and risk management.
Nurses pursuing a graduate degree in nursing can choose from various types of MSN programs based on their current education level. These options include baccalaureate to master’s degree programs, MSN bridge programs, direct-entry master’s degrees, and dual master’s degrees.
Once you’ve selected the most suitable MSN program for your goals, you can explore a wide range of specializations and tracks based on your desired job role, nursing field, and specialty. If you feel overwhelmed by the multitude of choices, narrow down your list of potential MSN programs and seek guidance from advisors at each institution to determine the right MSN path for you.
Common Questions About Earning a Master’s Degree in Nursing
1. What types of master’s degrees are available in nursing?
There are various master’s degrees in nursing that cater to different clinical specialties and come in various formats. These formats may include dual master’s degrees or bridge programs. Some programs, like clinical nurse leadership or APRN programs, equip candidates for traditional healthcare roles, while others, like nursing research programs, concentrate on advancing evidence-based nursing practices.
2. What are the different kinds of nursing degrees?
Nursing offers a range of degree options. These include a three-year RN diploma program, a two-year ADN program, and a four-year BSN degree. For those looking to advance further, there are graduate programs such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.
3. Which nursing master’s degree is the most suitable?
Choosing a nursing career based solely on income or demand may not ensure long-term job satisfaction unless other important factors are considered. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to which nursing master’s degree is the best. The ideal MSN degree is the one that aligns with your specific area of nursing practice, your passion, your professional strengths, and your career aspirations.
4. What distinguishes a BSN from an MSN?
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is typically a four-year degree, whereas a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) generally requires an additional 2-3 years of study. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) certifications typically necessitate an MSN, but nurse anesthetists certified after 2025 will need a doctorate. Many MSN programs often expect applicants to have some clinical nursing experience, while BSN programs usually do not have this requirement.
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