Bachelor’s to Master’s: Advancing Your Nursing Degree

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nurse working on laptop computer

Ready for the next level of opportunities available to nurses with postgraduate degrees? If you have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), you can prepare to step up in your career by completing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). A BSN-to-MSN program helps you earn the advanced skills and knowledge you need to qualify for top clinical and non-clinical positions in the nursing profession.

While a BSN-to-MSN program is essentially the same as a traditional educational path, details such as curriculum, timing, and cost vary by institution and area of specialization. We’re here to help you understand what earning an MSN involves and how to find the program that prepares you for the types of career opportunities you desire.

What is a BSN-to-MSN Program?

A BSN-to-MSN is essentially the same as a traditional MSN program. A BSN prepares you with the general clinical skills and knowledge necessary to practice patient care in diverse nursing fields. An MSN focuses on a narrower nursing area or specialty to help you hone specific skills and prepares nurses for roles in a changing healthcare environment. This program helps you advance in your career by building on the general knowledge you earned at the bachelor’s level with more in-depth curriculum related to a specific degree area at the master’s level.

Some programs may be marketed as a way to fast-track your degree. These options to complete your degree in the least possible amount of time are more likely to involve MSN generalist programs or programs in non-clinical specializations, like nursing education or nursing administration, which typically require fewer clinical hours for completion.

A BSN-to-MSN is essentially the same as a traditional MSN program.

“Today, nurses have an increased responsibility for the patients. They’re pressured to deliver higher quality care that’s more patient-focused, based on best evidence,” 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.

What are the Benefits of This Program?

This pathway allows you to take time between the two academic degrees to work as a professional RN. Since an MSN is designed for nurses in leadership, management, or specialty roles, it helps to have some professional nursing experience before pursuing this advanced degree. Working as a BSN-educated nurse before moving on to your MSN allows you the time and opportunity to consider where you want to go so you can develop a more focused plan for your graduate studies.

An MSN is designed for nurses in leadership, management, or specialty roles, so it helps to have some professional nursing experience before pursuing this advanced degree.

While a master’s-level program prepares you with the skills you need to succeed in a profession that’s becoming more specialized, you need to combine the right BSN-to-MSN program with your goals to reap the benefits of your efforts.

“The potential applicants to a master’s program really need to know what they want to pursue in their career because there are so many opportunities,” Poindexter says, “and if they spend a lot of time and energy and effort in the wrong program in the wrong area, that’s not going to help you advance.”

Who is the Target Student?

This program is intended for licensed registered nurses (RNs) who are ready to take on more specialized or advanced roles than they could achieve with a BSN. If your career goals involve teaching the next generation of nurses, managing nursing departments in administration, or expanding your role in clinical practice, this path can help you qualify for these types of positions.

Any MSN program involves a substantial commitment of time and energy. But because this educational path, like a traditional MSN, allows for time between the two degrees, a BSN-to-MSN may be a good choice if family responsibilities, work demands, or finances require that you delay your MSN studies. Having a BSN qualifies you to work in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical positions while you wait for the right time and opportunity to pursue an MSN.

How Long Does it Take?

A typical BSN-to-MSN program takes about two years of full-time study. Program requirements vary by institution and specialization.

Part-time options typically take longer, but many programs have a specified period of time during which you must complete requirements for the degree.

The BSN-to-MSN programs that are likely to be completed in the least amount of time typically include MSN generalist programs or programs in non-clinical specializations.

Depending on your specific school and program, a non-clinical specialization may require fewer clinical hours than a clinical specialization, potentially allowing you to complete your degree faster. When considering the amount of time it will take to complete your degree, it’s important to clarify your program’s requirements and the typical amount of time required to achieve those goals.

Are Online or Night Programs Available?  

Many BSN-to-MSN programs BSN-to-MSN programs provide online and/or evening classes available at a wide range of colleges and universities. You’re likely to find options at public and private institutions, both profit and non-profit.

These options can put an MSN degree within reach for nurses juggling personal and professional responsibilities while studying.

Online programs often allow you to do assignments at your convenience, though they typically set assignment due dates and exam times. These programs may also offer classes year-round to allow you to finish your degree faster.

Online programs often allow you to do assignments at your convenience, though they typically set assignment due dates and exam times.

Many schools offer a hybrid program in which you attend classes at the academic institution a specified number of times during the semester and then complete your general coursework online.

A hybrid program can make online study a very realistic option if the program aligns with your career goals, Poindexter says. “Some programs are 100 percent online, but you’re going to see more of those with programs that don’t have the advanced practice clinical skills [nurses need]. The majority still have some kind of practicum experience in the specialty area.”

What Will I Study?

BSN-to-MSN programs provide a generalist degree or one of several specializations in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical areas. However, keep in mind that the options to earn your degree in the least possible amount of time are more likely if you’re pursuing an MSN generalist programs or programs in non-clinical specializations like nursing education or nursing administration. Your curriculum and time to degree depend on your specific program and institution.

Some common areas of study for a BSN-to-MSN degree include:

  • MSN Generalist or Clinical Nurse Leader
  • Non-clinical MSN Specialties:
  • You can also pursue these specialty areas as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN):

Accredited MSN programs include the study of advanced nursing standards and guidelines as well as the skills related to the specialty track offered. This combination of advanced core and specialized knowledge sets you apart as an MSN-prepared nurse.

The minimum number of credit hours required for completion of a BSN-to-MSN degree varies by program and institution. The average range is between 30 and 50 credit hours.

Core curriculum for all MSN degrees typically includes advanced classes in physiology/pathophysiology, health assessment, pharmacology, principles in nursing management, healthcare policy, and ethics. Specialized curriculum includes coursework specific to the role (administrator, NP, CNE, etc.) and the population (pediatrics, geriatrics, women) associated with the degree.  

Are There Clinical Requirements?

The total number of clinical or practicum hours required to complete your BSN-to-MSN program varies by institution and your specialized area of focus. APRN programs typically have a minimum of 500 hours though some of these programs require more. Other types of MSN programs also typically involve related clinical hours or practicum, though the number of hours may be less than those required for an APRN.

What Should I Look for in a School and Program?

Look for accredited BSN-to-MSN programs in institutions that offer a degree in the area of specialization you’re seeking. As you narrow your choices, weigh how each program meets your personal and financial needs.

Avoid selecting a program for convenience, cost, or time-to-completion. Doing so can prevent you from entering a program that meets your needs and prepares you to reach your goals, Poindexter says.

One school may offer a “traditional” MSN, while another may offer a “BSN-to-MSN,” but both descriptions typically refer to the same  program that requires a BSN to start your MSN studies.

When looking for a school and program, make sure you understand what a specific program involves. Schools often describe their degrees in terminology that aligns with the way they market their programs. One school may describe a “traditional” MSN, while another may offer a “BSN-to-MSN,” but both descriptions typically refer to the same type of nursing program—one that requires a BSN to start your MSN studies.


Accreditation means that your program meets standards that ensure a quality education. An accredited program awards a degree that qualifies you for state licensing applications and professional certifications.

You can transfer credits from an accredited program to another institution to meet requirements for programs there. Graduating from an accredited program also shows employers that you have an education from a reputable institution.

Accreditation is awarded on both an institutional and program basis:

Some organizations accredit specific types of MSN programs:

  • The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) accredits nurse midwifery programs.
  • The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) accredits nurse anesthesia programs.

Prerequisites and Admission Requirements

Admission to a BSN-to-MSN program is typically competitive. Programs seek committed students with the professional and academic experience necessary to handle an intense advanced curriculum.

Requirements for standardized test scores such as the GRE, MAT, GMAT, and MCAT vary by institution. Common admission criteria for a BSN-to-MSN program include:

  • BSN degree from an accredited program
  • Grade Point Average (GPA) of at least 3.0 on a scale of 4.0
  • Current, unencumbered RN licensure in the United States
  • One year of relevant clinical experience as an RN
  • Letters of academic or professional reference
  • Completion of courses in areas such as human anatomy, human physiology, and microbiology within five years of applying to the program
  • Completion of statistics course
  • Essay or personal statement of professional goals
  • In-person interview

Does the School Offer Career Counseling/Job Placement Help?

Check with a BSN-to-MSN program to determine the type of career counseling or job placement they provide. Career counseling can help you understand how your education can help you get to the next level in the nursing profession. 

Career counseling services can provide valuable assistance with getting the job you want upon graduation.

These services can help you make informed career choices, guide you in preparing for the types of positions you want, and provide valuable networking opportunities to connect with professionals in your area of specialization. Career counseling services can also provide valuable assistance with getting the job you want upon graduation.

How Much Will it Cost?

The cost of your BSN-to-MSN program depends on the type of school you attend and the length of the program you select.

The cost of tuition and fees for a graduate degree averages about $12,000 at a public institution and about $27,000 at a non-profit private school, according to the most recent figures available.

Many online schools have 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. Ask the schools you’re exploring about the specifics.

You should also prepare to pay for costs related to transportation, background checks, fingerprinting, equipment, uniforms, and other supplies you may need to fulfill clinical hours.

Many BSN-to-MSN programs are designed for working students. If you have a job, that can help offset expenses and may make you eligible for employer tuition reimbursement if it’s available where you work.

Financial Aid

Finding the right nursing program can empower you to make the personal commitment necessary to succeed in this type of program. However, lacking adequate financial resources can mean missing out on this type of life-changing opportunity.

To qualify for financial aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a standard form that schools use to determine your eligibility for need-based grants and scholarships. Financial institutions also use the FAFSA to determine student loan eligibility. If you qualify for federal student loans, find out how you can take advantage of federal student loan forgiveness programs after graduation. 


You may be able to offset the cost of your degree with nursing scholarships. Many schools have program-specific scholarships. Local, state, and national nursing associations, as well as private foundations, promote growth of the profession by awarding annual scholarships.

Many nursing scholarships provide awards based on criteria such as your area of specialty, geographic location, or personal characteristics like being a nontraditional student.

What Kind of Licensing Do I Need?

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The RN license required to complete a BSN-to-MSN program must allow you to participate in the full and unrestricted practice of nursing in the state in which you’re licensed. To fulfill clinical requirements, you’ll need an RN license in the geographic area where you plan to serve those hours.

It’s important to ensure that your degree meets the requirements for the type of license you’re seeking in the state where you plan to work. Knowing your state’s requirements for advanced licensure for specific APRN roles can prevent you from wasting money on education that your state doesn’t recognize.

What Kinds of Jobs Will I Be Qualified For?

Your MSN qualifies you to assume leadership roles in advanced clinical care or nonclinical areas such as administration, education, informatics, and public health. Depending on your interests, you can find these roles in traditional hospital or healthcare environments, public health clinics, or private organizations.

“An MSN degree will qualify you for positions in which you provide advanced care, whether at the bedside or leading organizational change,” Poindexter says. 

What is the Salary Difference Between a BSN and MSN?

Having an MSN will qualify you for higher-paying positions, though factors such as your specialization, geographic area, type of employer, and years of experience also affect the salary you earn.

According to a Medscape survey of over 7,000 nurses, the difference between a BSN-educated RN and an MSN-educated RN averages about 9%. Advancing your career to a DNP gives you an additional increase in salary.

Compare average annual incomes for positions that require an MSN to judge the earning power of an advanced nursing degree.

Career Median Annual Salary
Registered Nurses $81,220
Nurse Midwives $120,880
Nurse Anesthetists $203,090
Nurse Practitioners $121,610
Medical and Health Services Managers $104,830
Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary $78,580

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

Kathleen Poindexter, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF

President-Elect, National League for Nursing (NLF); and Associate Professor & Assistant Dean Undergraduate Programs and Faculty Development MSU College of Nursing