Earning an MSN Online

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If you’re ready to take the next step in your nursing career, an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is ready and waiting for you in a format that works with the other demands in your life. Online programs provide flexibility in getting the education and experience needed for a wide range of specialized clinical and non-clinical positions.

With an MSN, you’ll join the ranks of highly skilled healthcare providers who take on greater responsibilities and potentially bring home a bigger paycheck.

“A Master of Nursing degree, whether it’s in a traditional classroom format or an online setting, really opens up the doors to nurses at an advanced level from a leadership perspective, from a policy development perspective, and also from a practice perspective,” says Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB, associate dean for the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global.

With an MSN, you’ll join the ranks of highly skilled healthcare providers who take on greater responsibilities and bring home a bigger paycheck.

Nursing schools offer online MSN degrees in program formats that accommodate students from varied educational and professional backgrounds. We’ll help you understand what’s involved with earning this degree online, and your options for program format and specialization.

What Kind of Online Programs Are Available?

There are many paths to an MSN. Online nursing schools offer the same types of MSN programs that you can complete in campus settings. With an online degree, you typically complete most of your theory-based education online and attend clinical training in an approved medical setting.

Online nursing schools offer the same types of MSN programs as campus settings.

No matter how much education or professional experience you have, it’s likely that you can find an online MSN program to meet your needs.

Online MSN programs include:

  • Traditional MSN: This program is designed for registered nurses who already have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). A BSN-to-MSN program is considered a traditional program, so you’ll often see these names used interchangeably.
  • Fast-track BSN-to-MSN: This program allows you to earn your degree faster than normal. Options include taking classes year-round and progressing through a program at your own pace by completing coursework as fast as you like. Burdi says fast-track programs like these may include a competency-based “modularized curriculum.”
  • RN-to-MSN Bridge Program: This bridge program provides a faster pace of learning because it takes into consideration your previous nursing experience. It’s for nurses with an active registered nurse (RN) license.
  • Direct Entry or Entry into Nursing Program: This route is often called an “accelerated program.” It’s for nursing students who have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. These programs allow you to apply undergraduate coursework from your non-nursing degree toward completing a BSN and an MSN simultaneously.
  • Joint or Dual MSN Degrees: A dual degree combines an MSN with another graduate degree. Applicants typically must qualify for admission to both degree programs, and the degrees are earned at the same time with some overlap in curriculum. Some of the most common joint master’s are:

MSN and Master of Public Health (MSN/MPH)

MSN and Master of Business Administration (MSN/MBA)

MSN and Master of Healthcare Administration (MSN/MHA)

Who is the Ideal Candidate?

Online MSN programs are geared toward students who are unable to attend campus-based classes. The online format lets you complete your education when it’s convenient as long as you meet established milestones and deadlines for course requirements such as assignments, projects, and exams.

“Often, this type of setting is very beneficial for students who are actively employed, maybe caring for families, or have outside obligations,” Burdi says. “It allows students to complete their coursework at a time and place of their choosing.”

Online MSN programs are geared toward students who are unable to attend campus-based classes.

Online programs may also be attractive if you live in a remote or rural area where traveling to a campus for weekly classes isn’t realistic.

How Long Does It Take to Complete?

An online MSN typically takes about two years to complete, while a clinical MSN program, such as one for an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN,) typically requires about three years.

If your program offers year-round education, you’ll be able to progress through classes at your own pace. If you choose a faster pace, you’ll likely reduce your time in school.

What Will I Study?

An MSN degree provides an advanced and often more specialized level of education.

Online programs include the study of professional nursing standards and guidelines relevant to the degree program and specialty tracks you’re pursuing. The core curriculum is much the same as an on-campus program and typically includes advanced classes in physiology/pathophysiology, health assessment, pharmacology, principles in nursing management, and healthcare policy and ethics.

Core curriculum includes online coursework and clinical training at a hospital or similar medical setting.

Specialized curriculum includes classes and training specific to the role you’re pursuing. The number of required credit hours varies, with an average range between 30 and 50.

While not all schools offer every specialty, you can find online MSN programs in the following areas:

  • MSN generalist or clinical nurse leader (CNL)
  • Non-clinical MSN specialties:

Certified nurse educator (CNE)

Nurse informatics

Public health nurse

Executive nurse leader (ENL)

Nurse administrator

Genetics nurse

You can also pursue these APRN degrees in Online MSN programs:

  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)*
  • Certified nurse practitioner (CNP)
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM)
  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)

*The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) has ruled that all students matriculating in a nurse anesthetist program after January 1, 2021, must be enrolled in a doctoral program. This is in line with the requirement for nurse anesthetists entering the field in 2025 to hold a doctoral degree.

Do I Need to Be Physically Present for Anything?

Your responsibility to be physically present for any coursework depends on program requirements. In a hybrid format, you’ll travel to campus or another location for weekly or periodic labs or classroom instruction.

Students can complete most classroom requirements online, while specialty tracks that lead to licensure or certification for direct patient care require clinical hours in face-to-face care, says Carla D. Sanderson, PhD, RN, Provost at Chamberlain University.  Other nursing degrees and specialty tracks require practicum—or “mini internship”—experiences in nursing leadership, education, informatics, and health policy. Online options are sometimes available.

Hands-On Clinical Requirements

Clinical hours demand commitment to a specific schedule. It’s important to know these requirements and weigh them against personal and professional commitments before you choose an online program.

Clinical hours vary by program and specialization. Practicum hours are typically required for both clinical and non-clinical programs, although non-clinical programs generally require less hands-on time.

Clinical hours demand commitment to a specific schedule, so make sure to weigh personal and professional commitments before choosing a program.

APRN programs typically have a minimum of 500 clinical hours, but many require more.  To meet licensing requirements, it’s important to verify that your state nursing board approves the program  you’re taking and accepts a degree from it.

Will an Online Degree Matter to Employers?

At least 33% of all students in post-secondary institutions were enrolled in distance education in 2017, the latest year for which numbers are available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Attending a program with institutional and program accreditation means that your education meets professional standards. An online MSN degree typically doesn’t indicate whether you earned it on campus or online.

“From the employer standpoint, I don’t see an online degree as a hindrance at all,” says Lisa Smith, PhD, RN, CNE, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions at Grand Canyon University. “I think it’s because online learning has been out there now for such a long time, and so much study and research has been done on it. I think employers are pretty comfortable with it, and they don’t really look at online learning as a deterrent to hire.”

Set Yourself Up for Success

Before you sign up for an online program, dig deeper to find out if it’s right for you.

From how online classes work to collaborating with peers to the best tech setup for at-home learning, get tips on how to choose an online program by weighing factors like costs, financial aid, accreditation, and job placement help.

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB

Associate Dean for the School of Nursing, Purdue University Global

Carla D. Sanderson, PhD, RN

Provost, Chamberlain University