The Nurse’s Guide to Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree Programs

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree Programs
Credit: Elmhurst University

What is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate level degree offered to Registered Nurses who have completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.

These Master’s degrees are offered by universities and online colleges. Nurses can choose from a variety of degrees to fit their expertise and educational goals.

MSN degrees have many different specialties. This is because these programs prepare nurses to become:

  • Clinical leaders
  • Nurse managers
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Nurse informaticists
  • Nurse educators

These degrees can lead to terminal degrees in nursing such as Doctorate of Nursing Practice. Master of Science in Nursing degrees allow you to become an advanced practice nurse.

Popular MSN Degree Programs

The following are the most common MSN degree programs offered:

  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Public Health
  • Informatics
  • Administration and Management
  • Nursing Education
  • Forensic Nursing

The degrees are obtained through:

  • BSN to MSN programs
  • RN to MSN degree programs
  • Dual master’s degree programs
  • Post-master’s certificate programs

Traditionally, an MSN is obtained after you complete your BSN degree. The natural progression of degrees in nursing include:

Although an RN license is considered the cornerstone of all MSN programs, it is not required for all of them. With the recent push for online degree programs, there are endless options offered online.

MSN Degree vs Other Nursing Degrees

An MSN degree is different than other nursing degree. This is because it is considered a graduate level degree. That means it is an advanced practice degree.

It takes 35-50 credit hours to complete. On the other hand, a BSN degree requires 120 credit hours.

MSN courses:

  • Are more advanced
  • Build on expertise
  • Require more study time

These courses build on the premise that you are already proficient in nursing. The purpose is making you an expert in your field by the time you finish.

Nurses who obtain MSN degrees may have prescriptive authority depending on which degree is obtained. This is different than other nursing degrees.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) vs Registered Nurses (RNs)

Nurse practitioners (NP) differ from Registered Nurses (RN) in that they can:

  • Diagnose, order, and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Initiate and manage treatment
  • Prescribe medications

Some states allow full practice. This means they can use their own license to practice instead of being under a physician’s license.

Other states require physician supervision when practicing. When you are an NP with restrictive practice (varies per state), a medical doctor “signs off” on all the prescriptive orders you write as an NP.

How Long Does It Take To Obtain An MSN Degree?

The time it takes to complete an MSN degree differs from other nursing degrees.

On average, the Master’s degree takes 18-24 months to complete. On the other hand, a BSN degree typically takes 3 to 4 years.

When completed, an MSN degree produces highly educated nursing leaders with an average of 6 years of total education.

The nursing profession’s primary accrediting bodies for MSN programs include:

  • The Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). 

Verify your school is accredited before you enroll in courses.

Why Should You Get Your MSN Degree?

Acquire Leadership Skills

Acquiring an MSN degree allows for specific leadership skills within healthcare organizations. These degrees promote:

  • Communication
  • Delegation
  • Flexibility
  • Commitment
  • Engagement within the nursing community

Ultimately, the key leadership qualities in healthcare include:

  • Tech savviness
  • Strong communication skills
  • Time management
  • Focus
  • Integrity

All of these are shaped while participating in your MSN program.

Make More Money

Not only does an MSN prepare you to be tomorrow’s leader in healthcare, but you also earn more.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, MSN degrees can significantly raise your earning potential. An MSN allows you to grow in your career while earning more money.

Educate Others

You should also consider getting an MSN degree if you are passionate about educating others.

Obtaining a Master’s degree in nursing education allows you to teach future nurses. Your guidance paves the way to the future of nursing. You can provide engaging leadership for future nurses that lasts a generation.

Consider an MSN degree if you want to pave the way for nursing science while contributing to the profession in a meaningful way.

It also allows you to pave the way for nursing science by performing research and updating best practices. The overall contribution you could have to the nursing profession when is immeasurable.

Can You Get Your MSN Degree If You’re Not An RN?

Recently more universities have been offering an MSN non-nurse option. This allows non-RNs to obtain an MSN and then sit for the NCLEX-RN licensure upon completion of the program.

This newer degree option allows non-nursing baccalaureate holders to pursue a graduate level nursing degree. Some would argue this route isn’t ideal, because RN experience is vital to understanding clinical leadership and nursing practice.

The key component to any nursing degree is the nurse licensure. This is the Registered Nurse (RN) license.

All 50 states offer the RN license under the accreditation board, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

How To Get Your MSN Degree

Obtaining an MSN requires the same preparation as any graduate level degree.

Decide On Your Career Path

First, you should decide on your career path.

You need to select which nursing specialty you would like to pursue.

Apply To MSN Degree Programs

Some MSN programs require you to take a GRE test and achieve a particular score. This is similar to the SAT you take to enroll in undergraduate school.

Most programs will waive GRE scores if your undergraduate GPA is above average. They may also waive them if you provide letters of recommendations speaking highly of your current nursing practice.

Select Your Core MSN Classes

Once you are accepted into a university, you will be assigned a guidance counselor to help you transition into graduate school.

Your guidance counselor will help you determine which core classes you will take for your nursing degree.

Most MSN degrees have similar core classes before breaking off into specialties. These courses are typically heavy on:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Nursing research
  • Nursing theory

Complete Your Speciality MSN Courses

Once MSN core classes are completed, you will complete your specialty courses.

For example, if you are in a MSN-NP program, you would complete clinical hours with a medical doctor or nurse practitioner.

Similarly, for the nursing education MSN capstone project, you follow a nurse educator. Other final projects include a research thesis. This is presented to the dean of nursing of your college for approval.

Prior to attending, make sure to review:

  • The school’s reputation
  • Online reviews
  • Success rates
  • Acceptance rates
  • Tuition costs
  • Program lengths
  • Whether or not it is accredited by ACEN or CCNE

Table of Contents

Top 6 Online MSN Degree Programs

The clinical portion or preceptorship of any MSN program must be completed in-person along with any orientation days or occasional class meetings. However, these programs are mostly online.

At the very least, all didactical instruction is online. This makes getting your degree easier and more convenient.

Most nurses are working full or part time while acquiring an MSN degree. Having most class time online is beneficial for those nurses trying to balance their work, school, and personal life.

Online programs are a great way to get your Master’s degree outside of traditional classrooms. Most online schools require students to already have a BSN in order to complete the MSN program. However, some colleges offer bridge programs which include the:

  • RN to MSN pathway
  • Non-RN to MSN pathway

Most online MSN programs do not prepare students for RN licensure. They expect students to already have licensure prior to attending. However, there are some non-nursing programs offered for those who do not yet have an RN license.

MSN degrees prepare nurses to further their careers and advance nursing practice. Other than NP programs, MSN graduates are ready to advance their careers immediately after graduation. 

MSN NP programs require graduates to sit and obtain APRN licensure. This can take several weeks or months after getting approval.

Other MSN degrees do not require advanced licensure. This makes transitions into the work environment more streamlined.

An online Master’s degree program prepares you to advance your nursing career while benefiting nursing practice. Online programs are usually geared toward working nurses. This allows flexibility and rolling start dates. Some even offer payment plans.

According to the US News and World Report, the best online MSN programs were calculated by:

  • Engagement
  • Expert opinion
  • Faculty credentialing
  • Faculty training
  • Services and technology
  • Student excellence

Top 5 In-Person MSN Degree Programs

In-person, also known as on-campus, programs are geared toward students that wish to engage in a more traditional setting. On-campus MSN programs offer in-person didactic learning while providing clinical rotations at local hospitals.

Some people may prefer in-person learning to online because of the structure and allotted study time. They may perform better when exposed to an in-person teacher.

An in-person Master’s degree program prepares you for advanced practice roles in many healthcare settings. The following in-person MSN programs were ranked by US News and World Report by:

  • Methodology of peer assessment score
  • Mean undergraduate GPA
  • Acceptance rate
  • Program size
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • Faculty credentials
  • Faculty accolades
  • Nursing practice participation
  • Total research expenditures


How Much Does An MSN Degree Program Cost?

On-campus, private institution MSN programs cost the most. This is followed by MSN public inperson programs, then online MSN programs


MSN programs that do not require clinical hours are inherently cheaper because they require less requirements than clinical counterparts. These include roles like:

  • Leadership
  • Administrative
  • Educational
  • Informatics

MSN programs that require clinical hours such as nurse practitioning programs are more expensive.


In-person, private institutions are the more expensive than in-person public institutions. This is because they do not receive state subsidies. They support themselves solely through tuition and donations.


Public universities are cheaper due to federal and state funding. Also, state residents pay taxes that help fund their state’s public universities. As a result, the government covers part of the cost of attendance at public colleges.


Furthermore, online MSN programs are generally cheaper than in-person attendance because online programs have fewer expenses. Online programs do not have to pay as much for:

  • Land
  • Property
  • Building maintenance


UniversityAnnual TuitionOnline or On-Campus
Northeastern State University$4,048Online
Tennessee State University$4,294Online
Drexel University$4,428Online
University of Kansas$9,984Online
University of Cincinnati$8,952Online
University of Arizona$7,800Online
University of Texas at Arlington$5,021Online
University of North Carolina Charlotte$2,556Online
University of North Carolina Greensboro$2,336Online
Ball State University$2,541Online

Online MSN programs are cheaper than in-person programs.

The total cost for a MSN degree varies. However, degrees typically range from $35,00 to $70,000. Some private institutions cost upwards of $100,000. The average cost of an online MSN degree is $29,000.

The cost differs based on:

  • Credit costs
  • In-state verses out-of-state tuition costs
  • Program length

How Much Does An MSN Nurse Make?

Master of Science in Nursing degrees can significantly raise your earning potential.

Advanced practice nurses can earn a median annual wage of $113,930 compared to $75,030 for Registered Nurses.

*Average salaries were determined via the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics:

TitleSalary (annual pay)*Employment settings
MSN – Nurse Practitioner$115,800Hospital, clinic, and physician offices
MSN – Nurse Educator$83,240Colleges, universities, professional schools, junior colleges, technical and trade
MSN – Forensics$81,800Hospitals, emergency rooms, anti-violence programs, psychiatric
institutions, medical examiners offices, communities (after natural disasters),
and correctional facilities.
MSN – Administration & Management$86,000Hospitals, clinics, residential care facilities, healthcare
MSN – Informatics$122,840Hospitals, software system companies, healthcare facilities, consulting firms, universities, and corporations.

The job outlook for nurse practitioners is 45%. This is much faster than the average job growth overall, which is 4%.

Which MSN Degree Is Right For Me?


When searching for your next degree, you should take into consideration:

  • Your long-term goals
  • Total cost of the program
  • Program length
  • Established accreditations

First, decide which MSN specialty you would like to acquire. Are you passionate about teaching the next generation of nurses or helping develop the next electronic medical record documentation systems?


Once you decide your specialty, you can pursue your MSN degree.


If you want to advance your bedside practice and still work directly with patient care, nurse practitioning may be the option for you. Advanced practice RNs are involved in bedside care but have multiple roles in providing healthcare.


You may find that information systems are intriguing and you want to focus on documentation solutions for healthcare systems. If so, nursing informatics may be the direction you go for an advanced degree. Nurse informaticists do not work directly with patients.


If you want to teach the next generation of nurses either didactically or during clinical rotations, nursing education is the path you should take. This is a balance between patient care and administrative work. That means you can choose how much you are involved with clinical rotations.

We ❤ Nurses

Thank you.