What Is an MSN Degree?
Ready to pursue roles at the forefront of the nursing profession? A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an advanced, post-graduate degree that prepares you with the skills and training nurse leaders need to succeed. If you’ve completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, you can pursue an MSN program in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical areas of specialization.
Moving from a BSN to an MSN program is a common educational path for nurses who want to pursue advanced roles in areas such as specialized clinical practice, administration, and education. While the benefits of an MSN degree include increased career opportunities and income, it’s an accomplishment that requires significant time, effort, and expense.
There are a lot of choices to consider when making a commitment to enroll in an MSN program. We’re here to help you understand what a traditional MSN program involves, the types of educational options it offers, and the career opportunities it can provide so you can select the program that aligns with your career interests and goals. We’ll also explain a few other paths you can take to get an MSN.
Why a Traditional MSN Degree?
As a BSN-educated nurse, you’re prepared with the clinical skills and knowledge base you need to practice in hospitals and other healthcare settings. This allows you to gain valuable career experience as you consider options for specialization at the graduate level.
A traditional MSN degree allows you to take the next step and continue a systematic approach to expanding your education and expertise with the option to specialize. Traditional MSN programs provide a generalist degree or one of several specializations in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical areas.
“A master’s level program is going to prepare any of these nurses with advanced specialty knowledge and skills to navigate in an area of nursing expertise,” says Kathleen Poindexter, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, president-elect of the National League for Nursing (NLN), and assistant dean of undergraduate programs and faculty development and associate professor in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. “An MSN generalist degree will still give them the advanced type of skills needed to navigate our currently very complex healthcare environment.”
While options vary by institution and program, some of the most common options for a traditional MSN program include:
Earning the type of advanced, specialized knowledge provided in an MSN program can position you to succeed in today’s healthcare environment. “Nurses cannot be experts at everything across the board,” Poindexter says. “If you’re looking at the skill sets needed for the type of healthcare that we provide across the expansive array of environments that we provide care in, the master’s-prepared nurse is really the one that’s best prepared to lead the future of healthcare.”
While it’s tempting to select an MSN specialty because it offers higher-paying jobs or a convenient program, Poindexter encourages prospective MSN students to learn all they can about a specialty area they’re considering by job shadowing, interviewing current MSN graduates, and using resources on organization websites.
While it’s tempting to select an MSN specialty with higher-paying jobs, explore your interests by job shadowing and interviewing current MSN students.
“When anyone comes to me to talk about career counseling, we talk about: What do they see themselves doing? Do they have an idea of the specialty area that they want to go into?” Poindexter says. “What is most important is that a person knows where they want to go. What is it that they want out of their career?”
Other Ways to Get an MSN Degree
While a traditional MSN program is right for many post-BSN nurses, it’s not your only option. Accelerated MSN programs build on previous learning experiences to help you achieve an MSN via the quickest route.
Finding the right type of accelerated program requires having a solid understanding of what you want to achieve with your advanced degree and whether completing an MSN at a faster pace can help you reach your goals.
You may be able to earn your MSN faster than in a traditional route if you qualify for one of the following types of programs:
Joint Master’s Degree Options
Joint or dual MSN degree programs allow you to combine an MSN with another graduate degree concurrently. Options for joint degrees vary by institution. Applicants typically have to qualify for admission to both degree programs, though the degrees are earned at the same time with some overlap of curriculum. Some of the most common options include:
What is a Typical MSN Program Like?
An MSN degree isn’t a one-size-fits-all degree. With such a wide range of degree options and specializations available, you’ll find few “typical” programs.
Since an MSN is a graduate-level degree, you’ll find programs mainly at university-level institutions. These institutions include state and private schools, non-profit and for-profit. Ensuring that your program is accredited is the best way to ensure that you’ll graduate with transferrable credits, should you want to pursue a higher degree or change schools, and a degree that employers will value.
Accredited MSN programs include the study of professional nursing standards and guidelines relevant to that program and specialty tracks offered.
Core curriculum typically includes advanced classes in physiology/pathophysiology, health assessment, pharmacology, principles in nursing management, and healthcare policy and ethics.
Specialized curriculum includes content specific to the role and population that each degree offers. The minimum number of credit hours required for completion varies, with an average range between 30 and 50 credit hours.
Total number of credits and fieldwork/internship requirements also vary. Practicum hours are typically required for both clinical and non-clinical programs. The object of the master’s degree is to ensure that students achieve core competencies. APRN programs typically have a minimum of 500 clinical hours. However, many programs require more than that.
“Clinical hours are driven by competencies and potentially, in some cases, completing certain types of patient cases,” Poindexter explains. “That’s where you get the variance in clinical hours. It’s not necessarily the number of hours but the type of patient, the competencies, and the focus in addition to the hours.”
Can I Apply MSN Credits to a Doctorate Degree?
A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the highest degree in nursing practice. A traditional DNP program builds on an MSN program and prepares you for leadership positions at the top of the profession.
Admission requirements for a DNP program vary by program and institution. Some DNP programs offer BSN-to-DNP options that allow you to achieve both an MSN and DNP at the completion of the program.
Since much of the learning in doctorate programs is independent and research-based, online DNP programs can facilitate your learning if you’re a parent caring for young children or for your own parent, a student in a remote rural area, or a nurse who wants to continue working as you learn.
All students matriculating into a nurse anesthetist program after January 1, 2021, must be enrolled in a doctoral program.
Accredited DNP programs require a minimum of 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours, including those in post-master’s programs. Your institution determines how many graduate clinical hours are applied to the DNP and the number of additional clinical hours required for you to reach the 1,000-hour minimum. Any graduate credits and clinical hours applied toward the DNP must be completed at accredited institutions.
As you explore your options for an MSN degree, note that the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) has ruled that all students matriculating into a nurse anesthetist program after January 1, 2021, must be enrolled in a doctoral program. This aligns with the fact that a doctoral education will be required for entry into nurse anesthesia practice by 2025.
How Long Does it Take to Complete an MSN?
Typically, this program can take up to two years to complete. Some schools will require that you have a certain amount of work experience before you can be admitted, but MSN programs generally require the following:
- A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- A registered nurse (RN) license
- Minimum GPA and GRE scores (varies by program)
- Clinical experience (varies by program)
Many traditional MSN programs are offered on a part-time or full-time level. Time-to-completion depends on type of program and area of specialty. Non-clinical, generalist degrees typically take the shortest amount of time.
Some accelerated programs require full-time participation because the program is designed to provide an intense immersion experience. Direct-entry MSN programs can range between 18 months to about three years of full-time study. Bridge RN-to-MSN programs can be completed in about three years, with variations based on areas of specialization.
What to Look for in a School
Before enrolling at a school, check that it will allow you to qualify for the licensure exam in your state. Your state board of nursing has the authority to approve the programs that meet its standards for education. Attending a school that your state board of nursing doesn’t recognize can jeopardize your ability to qualify to take the NCLEX-RN or APRN exam for that state. You can check with your state board of nursing for a list of schools that meet their licensure criteria.
“Today, more than ever, you have to be aware of state licensure and certification requirements,” Poindexter advises. “There’s also increased restrictions on ‘state authorization,’ so that you may take an online program, but your state may not let you sit for licensure or certification there. They may not accept that program as part of that state’s academic programs.”
Accreditation involves a process during which your MSN program undergoes a voluntary review to assure that it meets quality standards of professional education. Having a degree from an accredited program qualifies you for state licensing applications and meets requirements for professional certifications. Accredited programs grant credits that can be transferred to other accredited programs for application toward higher degrees.
Both the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) accredit traditional MSN programs.
The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) accredits nurse anesthesia programs. The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) accredits midwifery education programs at all levels. Institutional accreditation is provided by six regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. You can verify an institution’s accreditation on the database maintained by the department.
Institutional accreditation is provided by six regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. You can verify an institution’s accreditation on the database maintained by the department.
Prerequisite and Admission Requirements
An MSN degree program is an intense course of study. Admission is typically competitive for the best programs. While pre-requisites vary, many traditional MSN programs require the following for admission:
Career Counseling/Job Placement Help
While graduation may seem a long way off, knowing you’ll have opportunities to reach your goals can keep you motivated. Many programs provide career counseling and job placement help after you’ve completed your degree.
How Much Will It Cost/Financial Aid
You’ll find a wide range of expenses associated with the completion of a traditional MSN. Costs vary depending on factors such as the type of school and length of program.
According to the most recent (2020) figures from the National Center for Education statistics, the tuition and fees associated with a graduate degree at a public institution average about $12,410, while tuition for a graduate degree at a non-profit private school costs about $28,430. Most schools publish tuition fees on their websites for comparison.
There are a wide range of tuition models, including variation between online vs onsite, resident vs non-resident, and charging by the semester or by credit hour.
When comparing costs, it’s important to understand the different ways that traditional MSN programs price tuition. You can typically find the most affordable tuition at public state-affiliated institutions, though variables such as resident and non-resident status typically apply.
You may also find pricing variations between onsite and online MSN programs. Some online programs have different tuition rates for onsite versus online tuition, while many online programs also have different pricing models that charge by credit hour rather than by semester. In addition, many state schools differentiate between resident and non-resident status tuition for online programs while others charge the same tuition for all online students.
When calculating your total cost, there’s more than tuition to consider when comparing MSN programs. “Nursing is an expensive program,” Poindexter says. “You want to make sure that you understand the full costs that are involved in the program beyond the credit hours. What are the other costs that students are expected to pay? Fees for background checks, fingerprinting, equipment, supplies, and more may be required to fulfill the clinical hours.”
Many traditional MSN programs are designed to allow you to keep working while you earn your degree. That may allow you to take advantage of employer tuition reimbursement.
If you need help financing your degree, you can apply for financial aid. The first step is to determine your eligibility for need-based assistance by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and financial institutions use this information for allocating financial aid and student loan eligibility.
You may also qualify for financial awards from nursing scholarships or academic merit from a school. Some potential sources include:
Options for Online Versus Classroom Learning
Programs that offer an MSN online allow you to complete your theory-based coursework at your convenience. This option can make the difference in reaching your goals if you’re also juggling family responsibilities and/or a job. However, most traditional MSN programs require that students complete a clinical component that must be completed in person, so you may not be able to complete your entire MSN degree from the comfort of your home.
“I think it’s very commonplace to see a good number of master’s programs offered online for students who are already registered nurses,” Poindexter says. “You’ll often see a hybrid program where maybe the students come to the academic institution a number of times during the semester but complete their general coursework in an online web delivery system. Can it be high quality and is it realistic? Absolutely.”
A traditional MSN program can prepare you with the educational experience necessary to qualify for a specialty certification that aligns with your degree. A specialty certification demonstrates your commitment to advancing your knowledge and skill set to a level of recognized expertise in your area of certification. Each certification has its own education and experience requirements.
There are about 40 professional nursing boards or centers that offer specialty certifications exams, though not all require an MSN. Here are some common specialty organizations and popular certifications they award to MSN-prepared nurses:
Get the Required Licensing
Knowing the requirements for nursing licensure in your state can ensure that you don’t waste your money on a traditional MSN program that you can’t apply to licensure requirements there. If you’re pursuing a traditional MSN, it’s likely that you’ve already passed your state’s NCLEX with your BSN but you may need an additional license to practice as an APRN there.
Career and Salary Outlook for MSN Grads
Pursuing a traditional MSN can prepare you for leadership positions in clinical and non-clinical roles. While APRNs working as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners can expect faster than average job growth through 2032, growth for each career is as follows:
- Nurse Anesthetist: $203,090
- Nurse Midwife: $120,880
- Nurse Practitioner: $121,610
There’s also plenty of opportunities for nurses who want to pursue specialized MSNs in a wide range of in-demand career paths like nurse educators, clinical nurse specialists, and genetics nurses, Poindexter says.
There’s a tremendous demand for psychiatric advanced practice nurses.
“A nurse practitioner can be a psychiatric nurse practitioner, an acute care nurse practitioner, or primary care nurse practitioner,” Poindexter says. “And within some of those roles there is greater demand. For example, we’re seeing a tremendous demand for psychiatric advanced practice nurses because we have such an extreme shortage of providers nationally and those needs are growing.”
Of course, your exact salary depends on your geographic area, years of experience, area of specialization, and type of employer.
While it’s difficult to calculate the exact impact a traditional MSN can have on your earnings, the difference between a BSN-educated RN and an MSN-educated RN averages about 9 percent, according to a Medscape survey of nurses. If you advance your career to a DNP, you’ll see an additional increase in salary.
“If you’ve got that type of experience and you’ve got that strong foundation, you’re ready to jump into those leadership roles as an educator, or an informaticist, or administrator, or one of the advanced practice positions,” Poindexter says. “You’re also going to see an increase in pay with those positions and increased opportunities. There’s much more career mobility once you have that master’s degree.”
Here’s a sample of median annual incomes, based on 2022 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, for MSN-qualified positions. Note that the general RN category does not differentiate between RNs, BSNs, or MSNs.
|Career||Median Annual Salary|
|Medical and Health Services Managers||$104,830|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||$78,580|
Stay Informed From Education to Career
Whether you’re ready to move toward a traditional MSN now or sometime soon, it’s important to stay informed about current trends in the nursing profession. General professional nursing organizations as well as specialty organizations can provide tremendous resources to nurses interested in pursuing a traditional MSN degree.
Poindexter also encourages prospective MSN students to connect with the profession on the social media accounts of organizations whose interests they share.
“As you begin to think about a specialized area of practice, seek specialty organizations on a national as well as regional or state level,” she says. “Stay tuned in to understand what trends are changing in our profession and how you can be a part of that positive change.”
Which MSN Program Is Best for You?
With so many options, it can be hard to decide which program can help you reach your goals. “These are really important questions to ask before you jump into a program and make the commitment,” Poindexter advises. “This is your career. This is your money. This is precious time that you’ve got, so you want to make sure that what you’re committing to is a program that will help you get where you want to go.”