Whether you’re a current nurse or a nursing student, you might be looking to take your career to the next level. To work in some of the most advanced nursing positions, you’ll need to complete a master’s degree in nursing, also called a Master of Science in Nursing or MSN.
Of course, like any graduate-level program of study, pursuing an MSN is a big investment of money, time, and effort, so you want to be sure that you know what you’re getting into before you move forward.
This article will explore what an MSN is all about and show you some of the pros and cons of an MSN so you can decide if it’s the right path for you!
Master’s degrees in nursing programs are similar to other master’s level programs in that they usually take about two years to complete (if you’re taking a full course load, that is).
What makes nursing programs unique is that there are a couple of different routes toward earning a master’s degree.
1. Direct-Entry MSN
Direct-entry MSN programs are for applicants with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field and no nursing experience. This path takes you through entry-level nursing coursework first.
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The most traditional way to go for your master’s is after already completing a bachelor’s degree program in nursing (BSN).
To go this route, you earn your Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) first, then enroll in a master’s program. BSN to MSN programs take around two years full-time. The MSN coursework can include training to specialize as a nurse practitioner or other advanced practice role or be a general MSN without additional licensing.
For applicants with a two-year nursing degree or a diploma RN, there are RN-to-MSN programs which help nurses who do not have a bachelor’s degree in nursing or another field. With an RN-to-MSN bridge program, you can pursue a master’s without having to earn a bachelor’s first. These programs usually take a bit longer and might be more intensive since there is more material to cover.
All MSN programs cover both general nursing topics like anatomy and pharmacology, along with coursework in a variety of nursing specializations, depending on which track you choose to pursue.
You will also have to complete a certain number of clinical rotation hours.
When choosing an MSN program as a means to earn an advanced nursing certification, make sure that it will satisfy the requirements so you can sit for the corresponding licensing exams.
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4. Bridge RN-to-MSN
This is for RNs with a two-year degree in nursing and a 4-year bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field.
Now that you have an idea of what an MSN program entails, here are some of the biggest reasons why people choose to complete them.
1. An MSN can open up new career doors
Besides the fact that some nursing specializations require a master’s degree, certain positions at prestigious hospitals and healthcare organizations may give preference to candidates who have their MSN as well.
If you have any intentions of focusing on one type of nursing, like nursing informatics or nurse practitioner, or taking on a nursing leadership role in a hospital, completing an MSN is probably in your best interest.
Following are some advanced practice roles that require an MSN
- Nurse Practitioner
- Nurse Educator
- Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Nurse Anesthetist
- Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
- Nurse Midwife
2. You have the potential to earn a higher salary with an advanced degree
As mentioned above, some advanced nursing practices do require an MSN, but they also have significantly higher salaries than what an RN typically earns. For example, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists earned a median salary of $195,610 as of May 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than double that of an average RN’s salary.
3. There are many program options
From part-time programs to accelerated ones and even online MSN degrees, there are more choices than ever for earning an advanced nursing degree. Students can choose full or part-time in some cases and customize their course schedules thanks to schools catering more to adult students and technology that allows for remote and distance learning. This is especially helpful for people who would like to continue working while they go to school.
4. You’ll gain a deeper knowledge of a specific area of nursing
Some advanced nursing practices may require learning an advanced skill set than what typical RNs are exposed to, whether it’s working exclusively with cardiac patients, in a neonatal unit, or as a forensic nurse. MSN programs often allow students to choose a specialty track so they go more in-depth with their studies and become experts in their field.
If MSN programs were simple and free, everyone would get one. But, like any other educational pursuit, there are some potential obstacles to consider.
1. MSN programs are expensive
There’s no avoiding the fact that advanced degrees are a big investment, costing in the tens of thousands of dollars. Even though they have the potential to pay for themselves in a few years, coming up with the money to pay tuition or borrowing funds is sometimes a deterrent.
Fortune.com estimates that an online master’s degree in nursing can cost somewhere between $35,000 and $70,000, and even up to $100,000.
2. Advanced degrees in nursing are tough
Master’s programs are challenging – there’s no doubt about that. But even more so for nurses who are continuing to work and juggle family responsibilities as they take classes. It can certainly be done, as thousands of students prove each year, but it’s not an endeavor to be taken lightly.
3. Coursework and clinical hours are time-consuming
Even if you decide to take your time or go the online MSN route, you should still be prepared to dedicate a significant number of hours per week to your studies and/or clinical requirements. Doing so will likely require some shuffling around of responsibilities and a strong support network at home and work.
4. You may need prerequisites
Some MSN programs have prerequisites required for enrollment, such as a recent statistics class or experience as a nurse
An MSN degree is probably a good idea for those who want to pursue the following:
- Advanced practice areas such as
- Nurse leadership such as a nurse administrator role
- Education-related roles at the postsecondary level such as a nurse educator
- Research-related roles such as in clinical trials and case studies
- Legal consultation practice within and outside of the hospital setting
- Other advanced career opportunities with higher pay
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The exact figure will vary considerably based on your specialty, employment setting, and full- or part-time employment.
It’s not uncommon for a nurse with an MSN to earn more than $100,000 per year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some advanced practice registered nurses like nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners earn an average of $123,780 annually.
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Whatever school you choose, make sure it is accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
If your school was not accredited, your degree may not help you. That’s because hospitals and other employers check the school accreditation for any degrees before hiring.
A lot depends on your area of focus and which school you attend. A few courses from one school (BSN-MSN program) with classes posted online are as follows:
- MSN Professional Nursing Core
- Professional Presence and Influence
- Organizational Leadership and Interprofessional Team Development
- Pathopharmacological Foundations for Advanced Nursing Practice
- Nursing Science
- Advanced Information Management and the Application of Technology
- Nursing Education
- Emerging Trends and Challenges in 21st-Century Nursing Education
- Evolving Roles of Nurse Educators in Diverse Environments
- Facilitation of Context-Based Student-Centered Learning
- Assessment and Evaluation Strategies for Measuring Student Learning
This is just a small sample of total coursework, and only from one school. To find out your particular path, you will need to find a program based on your
- Current degree level and experience
- Desired specialization
- Ability to take online or local, in-person classes
Getting your MSN is certainly an option for nurses who want to change the trajectory of their careers, earn more, or specialize. But by no means do you have to feel pressure to get one right away.
Many nurses wait until they are in a good place financially or have more time to dedicate to a program of study before they head back to the classroom. If you’re considering an MSN, it is a big decision, so think through the pros and cons to decide if it’s a good professional move for you.
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