Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree: The Ultimate Guide

Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree: Ultimate Guide
Getting a Master's of Science in Nursing degree is a great way to advance your career. Learn all you need to know about the MSN degree here.

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Earning your Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is one of the best ways to advance your nursing career.

Not only are MSN-educated nurses able to practice with a greater level of autonomy and responsibility, but they also typically earn a much higher salary and enjoy even greater job security.

If you’re looking to become an expert and have a greater impact on the field of nursing, obtaining advanced nursing education through a graduate-level degree is a must.

To help you figure out if it’s right for you, we’ve created this guide to help you answer any questions you may have about getting your MSN.

What Is A Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree?

A Master’s of Science in Nursing, or MSN, is a graduate-level degree designed to prepare nurses to become Advanced Practice Registered Nurses or take on advanced, non-clinical nursing roles. 

Earning your MSN can prepare you to work in a number of different advanced specialties. While many of these roles are clinical, the degree can also open up administrative and educational opportunities.

Most graduate students already hold a different type of nursing degree, the Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, before entering a Master’s degree program. However, there are RN-to-MSN degree pathways available for Registered Nurses with an Associate’s degree.

What Is An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)?

An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, or APRN, is a Registered Nurse with a Master’s-level education in a particular clinical speciality or patient population. APRNs fall into one of four categories:

It’s also worth noting that there are non-clinical MSN specialities that don’t prepare you to become an APRN. 

For example, nurse educators aren’t considered APRNs because their role is teaching, not practicing in a clinical environment. To be considered an APRN, you must fall into one of the four categories above.

We’ll provide an overview of both APRN and non-APRN MSN specialities later on.

Why Should You Get Your MSN Degree?

While a BSN is a great educational foundation for nurses, getting your MSN can open up a host of new opportunities and benefits.

Here are some of the top reasons to consider advancing your education with a Master’s degree.

1. Higher Salary Potential

One of the best reasons to go for your MSN is that it increases the potential salary you can earn as a nurse. Because MSN-educated nurses have such advanced knowledge and skills, they can take on more complicated roles, making them more valuable to healthcare facilities.

As far as hard numbers go, the data is clear: nurses with Master’s degrees who take on more advanced positions make far more money than their ADN- and BSN-educated counterparts.

According to BLS, the average salary for Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners is $123,790 per year. It’s important to note that each of these positions requires a minimum of a Master’s degree.

Meanwhile, BLS reports that Registered Nurses make an average annual salary of $77,600. These types of nurses only require an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.

2. Great Job Outlook

Another great advantage of becoming a Master’s-educated nurse is that the job outlook is spectacular.

BLS reports that the job growth for Registered Nurses is about 6% over the next ten years, which is about as fast as the average for other career fields.

However, they also report that the job outlook for Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners is set to grow by a staggering 40% over the next ten years, which they classify as “much faster than average.”

So, if job security is a main priority for you, getting your MSN is likely the way to go.

3. Become An Expert

The main reason that MSN-educated nurses make a higher salary and have a better job outlook is that they have advanced knowledge in their field, making them experts in nursing.

While the salary and job outlook are enticing on their own, if you’re truly passionate about improving the lives of patients, you’ll need to have all the education and skills possible at your disposal.

Whether you want to become a Nurse Educator and guide the next generation of nurses or become a Clinical Nurse Specialist and provide your expertise in a clinical setting, an MSN will be absolutely necessary to provide the highest possible level of care and guidance.

4. More Autonomy

Since getting your Master’s of Science in Nursing degree is key to becoming an expert in your field, your expertise will permit you to practice with far more autonomy than an ADN- or BSN-educated nurse.

For example, in many states, Nurse Practitioners (a role that requires an MSN) can practice with a much greater degree of autonomy. In fact, in some state, NPs can actually prescribe and administer medication to patients.

While some states still limit the autonomy of NPs and other MSN-educated nurses, there’s no denying that the advanced degree allows you to take on more responsibilities not available to less-educated nurses.

And, of course, with more responsibility comes a higher salary and more job security.

5. Terminal Degree Preparation

Finally, one more reason to consider getting your MSN is that it is the best way to prepare for a terminal degree, like a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD in Nursing.

While it’s true that there are some BSN-to-DNP bridge programs available, MSN programs will give you the best preparation to succeed in a terminal-level degree program.

A Master’s degree certainly provides you a good deal of nursing expertise, but if you want to have the biggest impact possible, you’ll eventually want to go for your DNP or PhD. An MSN is the best way to prepare for that.

MSN Specialties

There are a lot of different MSN specialities you can choose from. While APRN specialities prepare you for various clinical roles, non-APRN specialities prepare you for advanced, non-clinical nursing positions.

Below we list all the different MSN specialties for both APRN and non-APRN roles.

APRN MSN Specialties

There are four different types of clinical nursing specialties that require a Master’s of Science in Nursing degree.

Below, we provide a brief overview of each one.

1. Nurse Practitioner

One nursing role an MSN prepares you for is Nurse Practitioner, or NP. Unlike Registered Nurses, who have a more limited scope of practice, NP’s can:

  • Assess and diagnose patients
  • Order and interpret lab tests
  • Prescribe medications and treatments

In some states, Nurse Practitioners can even practice autonomously without the oversight of a physician. 

For example, in Maine, NPs can prescribe medications and treat patients with no oversight. Meanwhile, in states like Pennsylvania, NPs can treat patients but cannot prescribe medications, and in states like California they can’t do either without physician oversight.

Nurse Practitioners also concentrate in a particular speciality or patient population. The various NP patient population specializations include:

  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care
  • Primary Care Pediatric
  • Acute Care Pediatric
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric Mental Health
  • Women’s Health 

Once you earn your MSN in one of the above Nurse Practitioner specialities, you can obtain additional certifications or fellowships to further specialize in the areas like:

  • Emergency Nurse Practitioner (ENP)
  • Aesthetic Nurse Practitioner
  • Cardiology Nurse Practitioner
  • Dermatology Certified Nurse Practitioner
  • Oncology Nurse Practitioner
  • Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner

If you have an interest in any of the patient populations or additional specializations above and you want a more autonomous and advanced nursing role, getting your MSN with a Nurse Practitioner focus is definitely the way to go.

2. Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

An MSN can also prepare you to become a Certified Nurse Midwife, or CNM. This type of APRN focuses on women’s health. 

More specifically, CNMs typically provide care to patients throughout every step of the reproductive process, including:

  • Preconception
  • Pregnancy
  • Childbirth
  • Postpartum and newborn care

Certified Nurse Midwives play a critical role in the delivery of children. In fact, CNMs and Certified Midwives (CMs) attended 8.3% of all births, and 12.1% of all vaginal births, in the United States in 2014.

Additionally, they are a valuable resource for new mothers and families when it comes to teaching them about newborn care, family planning, and sexual health. 

If you’re passionate about helping new families, educating women on reproductive health, and playing a key role in the childbirth process, becoming a Certified Nurse Midwife could make a great career choice.

3. Clinical Nurse Specialist

A Clinical Nurse Specialist, or CNS, is a type of APRN with clinical expertise in a particular nursing speciality. CNS specialities can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Pediatrics
  • Women’s Health
  • Geriatrics
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health
  • Critical Care

In addition to diagnosing and treating patients, Clinical Nurse Specialists also provide support and teach Registered Nurses how to care for patients, ensuring all nurses are providing care according to best practices.

This type of APRN plays a key role in healthcare organizations because they’re able to provide all nursing staff with their advanced knowledge in their chosen speciality to create the best possible patient outcomes.

Since Clinical Nurse Specialists not only have an active role in caring for patients, but also serve as a sort of expert consultant for their area of expertise, they often take on nurse management positions and develop policies and procedures for the entire nursing team.

If you want to have an active role in caring for patients, explain your practice to fellow nurses, and enjoy serving as a go-to expert for a team, becoming a CNS could make a great career choice.

4. Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist*

The final type of APRN is the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, or CRNA. These nurses are responsible for administering anesthesia to patients for various types of procedures.

While an MSN has traditionally been the minimum qualifications for Nurse Anesthetists, by 2025, this type of nurse will require a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree or Doctorate of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP).

Since this post primarily covers the Master’s of Science in Nursing and that’s no longer the minimum educational requirement for this type of nurse, that’s all we’ll say about CRNA’s for now.

Non-APRN MSN Specialities

There’s also no shortage of specializations for nurses interested in non-clinical roles.

Below we provide a brief overview of all the non-clinical MSN specialities.

1. Clinical Nurse Leader

A Clinical Nurse Leader, or CNL, is a type of nurse whose primary responsibilities are to coordinate patient care and improve patient outcomes. 

Though Clinical Nurse Leaders may sound similar to Clinical Nurse Specialists at first glance, there are some key differences between the two roles.

First, a CNL doesn’t typically provide direct patient care. Instead, they take on a leadership role in which they research and implement best nursing practices to improve patient outcomes and quality of care. They focus on areas like:

  • Quality and safety of care
  • Risk assessment
  • Cost-efficiency

Additionally, while a CNS specializes in one particular patient population or area of care, a CNL is more of a generalist. In other words, Clinical Nurse Leaders don’t have a particular speciality. Instead, they coordinate care for the entire nursing team, often under the title of Nurse Manager.

If you’re more interested in organization and coordination than providing direct patient care, becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader could be a great decision.

2. Nurse Administrator

Though Nurse Administrators don’t provide direct patient care, they are invaluable to any nursing team. They play a key role supervising nurses and all members of the healthcare team.

Like CNLs, Nurse Administrators often take on designations like Nurse Manager. However, unlike CNLs, Nurse Administrators are less focused on researching and implementing best nursing practices.

For example, one key responsibility for Nurse Administrators is recruiting, hiring, and training new nursing staff. Additionally, Nurse Administrators are responsible for creating work schedules and conducting performance reviews.

So, what’s the key difference between a CNL and Nurse Administrator? Put simply, Clinical Nurse Leaders are more practice- and care-focused, while Nurse Administrators are more people- and staff-focused.

If you enjoy focusing on creating and maintaining a great work environment for nurses, becoming a Nurse Administrator could be the right career path for you.

3. Nurse Educator

Nurse educators are responsible for teaching nurses in colleges and universities, as well as in clinical settings. While nurse educators don’t typically provide direct patient care, they play a key role in the nursing field by training new nurses how to care for patients.

Since nurse educators are responsible for teaching, they require comprehensive knowledge of how various types of nursing work.

Some of their most important responsibilities include:

  • Guiding nurses through their clinical rotations
  • Instructing nurses how to provide patient care
  • Designing and delivering nursing curriculum

If you’re passionate about teaching and having an impact on the next generation of nurses, becoming a Nurse Educator could make for a great career path.

4. Nurse Researcher

Unlike Nurse Educators, Nurse Researchers focus more on designing and performing scientific studies related to nursing as opposed to delivering curriculum. However, they still play a vital role in the healthcare industry.

By researching best practices in nursing, Nurse Researchers are critical to improving patient outcomes.

Their key responsibilities typically include:

  • Identifying research questions to study
  • Designing and conducting studies
  • Collecting and analyzing data

While Nurse Researchers usually work in college and university settings, they may also work in more traditional healthcare institutions. Often, these nurses carry out privately-funded research and can move from project to project when grant funding ends.

If you enjoy collecting and analyzing data that can have a big impact on the nursing industry as a whole, becoming a Nurse Researcher could be a great choice.

5. Public Health Nurse

While most nurses typically focus on one patient at a time, Public Health Nurses focus on whole patient populations. Additionally, these nurses typically try to improve public health by reaching out to the community as opposed to waiting for patients to develop problems and seek care.

These nurses may also provide services like developing preventative care best practices and performing health screenings.

Their other key responsibilities may include:

  • Monitoring health trends within specific patient populations
  • Developing preventative health interventions for communities so patients require less care, lowering the burden on the healthcare system
  • Developing health education and disease prevention campaigns for various communities

While education is the main priority of Public Health Nurses, they are not Nurse Educators. Whereas Nurse Educators focus on training new nurses, Public Health Nurses attempt to educate patient populations so they stay healthy and require less care.

This is a great career path for nurses who want to focus on improving the health of entire populations of people, especially underserved communities.

6. Nursing Informaticist

Nurse Informaticists focus on using data and analytical tools to improve patient care. Essentially, Nursing Informatics is the crossroads of nursing and tech.

Since new developments in technology have allowed healthcare facilities to collect large amounts of data, these nurses are able to use this data in a responsible way to improve patient outcomes.

Nurse Informaticists use data in combination with new technological tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the field of nursing. As facilities continue to collect more and more data and technology becomes more and more robust, this type of nurse is becoming increasingly valuable.

Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Technological system development and implementation
  • Managing computer networks
  • Acting as a liaison between nursing and IT departments

If you’re interested in how technology and data can impact the healthcare system, becoming a Nurse Informaticist could be the right choice for you.

Types of MSN Degrees

While completing a BSN program and becoming an RN is the most common pathway to get your MSN, it’s not the only one.

Below are a few different types of MSN degrees.

BSN-to-MSN

As we just mentioned, getting your BSN program before getting your MSN is the most common way to obtain your Master’s degree.

We’ve listed this option first because it’s typically the track we recommend. That’s because getting your BSN is a great way to set the educational foundation you need to succeed in an MSN program.

Additionally, getting your BSN and then gaining some nursing experience is a good way to figure out what kind of nursing career you want to pursue in the long term. 

For example, you need to figure out if you prefer a more clinical or non-clinical pathway. Additionally, you may find that you prefer working with certain patient populations more than others. Getting some experience could allow you find out that you prefer Pediatrics to Adult-Gerontology, for instance.

RN-to-MSN

Just because the BSN-to-MSN pathway is most common doesn’t mean you have to follow what others are doing. That’s why some schools also offer RN-to-MSN programs. 

These programs are designed for ADN-educated nurses who earned their RN license but not their BSN. Often, these programs allow you to earn your BSN while working towards your MSN, providing a seamless path toward advanced education.

While you may lack the educational foundation a BSN provides when you begin the program, by the end you ‘ll be all caught up. The only downside may be that changing tracks could be a little trickier than it would by getting your BSN first.

However, if you know the kind of MSN specialization you want to pursue, and you’re confident that it will help you achieve your goals, an RN-to-MSN program can make an excellent choice that provides a seamless transition for RNs desiring an graduate-level education.

Dual MSN

One more type of MSN degree is a Dual degree. This allows you to earn your Master’s of Science in Nursing degree in addition to a supplementary degree.

One of the most popular dual degrees is the MSN/MBA degree. This degree pathway allows you to develop your expertise in both nursing leadership and business administration.

While this type of pathway would likely be best for those interested in more non-clinical or administrative positions, those are key roles in nursing that need to be filled. If you’re looking to become a leader at a healthcare facility, a dual degree could be a great idea.

How To Get Your MSN Degree

While we just gave you a few different degree pathways to earn your MSN, below we detail the most common way to get your Master’s of Science in Nursing: the RN-to-BSN.

1. Earn Your BSN

The first step to becoming an MSN-edcuated nurse is to complete a BSN program. This program will both prepare you to become a licensed RN and give you the knowledge you need to succeed in a Master’s-level program.

While you can become an RN by completing an Associate’s Degree in Nursing program, we recommend you go straight for your BSN.

If you’re already an ADN-educated nurse, you can also enroll in an RN-to-BSN program to prepare you for an advanced degree program down the road.

2. Become A Licensed RN

After you complete your BSN program, you’ll be eligible to take the NCLEX. This is the exam that all Registered Nurses must pass before they become licensed.

Upon passing the exam, you’ll officially be a licensed RN, meaning you can apply to nursing jobs.

3. Gain Experience

Many MSN programs will require that you gain some RN experience before you can enroll. This experience will also allow you to figure out what types of nursing positions you do and don’t like.

Once you have an idea of what type of nursing you enjoy, it will be easier to pick an MSN speciality suited to your interests.

4. Enroll in an MSN Degree Program

Finally, after you get some nursing experience, you’ll be ready to apply to MSN programs.

Fortunately, many programs, especially online programs, allow you to work while you pursue your degree.

Once you complete your MSN degree, you’ll be prepared to take on advanced nursing roles and more responsibilities.

How Long Does It Take To Get Your MSN?

There’s no set answer to the question of how long it will take to get your MSN degree. Each program has different requirements, and how long it takes to complete will depend on additional factors such as whether you’re attending full-time or part-time.

However, as a general rule of thumb, you can typically expect an MSN program to take about two years to complete. This doesn’t include the time it takes to get your BSN and gain RN experience, however.

When taking into account your undergraduate degree and other experience, you can probably expect to spend about six to eight years in total obtaining your Master’s-level degree. However, there are also direct-entry MSN programs that will allow you to get your degree in a much shorter period of time.

MSN Admission Requirements

Every MSN program has different admission requirements. However, the basic requirements are generally pretty similar from program to program.

Here is an example of the admission requirements for the MSN program at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing:

  • Application Fee
  • Completed online application
  • Transcripts from your BSN program and other undergraduate and graduate schools
  • Proof that you’ve completed a prerequisite statistics course
  • GRE scores (though many programs no longer require these scores)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Responses to essay questions
  • Copy of your active RN license
  • Interview

MSN Curriculum

The curriculum for MSN programs can vary greatly from school to school and track to track. 

For example, the curriculum for a clinical MSN speciality, like a Nurse Practitioner program, will look a lot different than the curriculum for a non-clinical speciality, like Nursing Education.

Therefore, if you’re interested in learning more about what the typical curriculum looks like for specialties you’re interested in, we recommend you perform a little independent research to figure out if a particular school’s curriculum looks like something you’d be interested in.

How Much Does An MSN Degree Cost?

Like curriculum, the cost of an MSN degree program will vary greatly from school to school.

There are a lot of factors that can impact the total cost of your degree, like whether you attend school in your home state or out-of-state and whether you attend a public or private institution.

However, keep in mind that online degrees are typically much cheaper than on-campus degrees. So, if you’re looking to get your Master’s of Science in Nursing degree for as cheap as possible, we recommend checking out the best online MSN programs.

How Much Does An MSN Nurse Make?

The amount of money an MSN nurse makes can vary greatly. However, getting your Master’s is definitely a great way to increase your earning potential.

As we mentioned toward the top of this article, the average salary for a Registered Nurse is about $77,600 per year. Meanwhile, the average annual salary for Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners is $123,780 per year.

Remember, the amount of money you can make is heavily dependent on the type of MSN degree and speciality you pursue. For example, according to Payscale, the average annual salary for a Nurse Educator is $80,723.

If a higher salary is your main priority, you should look into clinical MSN specialities that allow you to become an APRN.

Best Online MSN Degree Programs

There are an overwhelming number of MSN degree programs to choose from. To help you in your search, we compiled a list of the best online MSN degree programs.

We found that the top-ranked online Master’s of Science in Nursing program is at Aspen University.

Additionally, the five next-best programs are:

Is An MSN Degree Worth It?

Given the higher salaries, improved job security, and greater level of autonomy and responsibility, we believe getting your MSN degree is usually worth it. 

While it will take a large time and financial commitment, the benefits you can reap in the long term are certainly enticing.

If you’re ready to start looking for an MSN program suited to your needs and interests, click here!

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