Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in Context
Increasingly in the world of medicine, we’re beginning to see a shift in the essential role that nurses play. No longer are treatment and decision-making the sole responsibility of doctors, with advanced practice nurses also performing a fundamental function.
From operating rooms to intermediate-care facilities, these health care professionals are increasingly in demand, and a graduate degree can offer the skills and leadership abilities to reach the top of the field.
The evolving role of graduate nurses
According to a recent study, the United States could save around $8.75 billion each year if advanced practice nurses were used in place of physicians where appropriate.  This has helped to spur an increasing demand for nurses with graduate-level degrees, meaning employment prospects have never been better for those who possess a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). With more than 330 accredited programs to choose from, it is an ideal time for those considering specializing to do so.
Master’s degree specializations
A master’s degree in nursing is the starting point for those hoping to specialize in a particular nursing field. It can qualify you to work in a variety of roles, such as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, clinical nurse specialist, or nurse anesthetist.
Nurse practitioner: Nurse practitioners perform a wide variety of functions, such as conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries, managing chronic problems, and administering immunizations.
Nurse midwife: A nurse midwife provides gynecological, prenatal, and postpartum care. Such professionals are among the highest paid nursing specialists, earning an average salary of around $100,000, according to estimates by the BLS. 
Clinical nurse specialist: A clinical nurse specialist provides care in specialty areas such as cardiac, neonatal, neurological, pediatric, or psychiatric nursing.
Nurse anesthetist: A nurse anesthetist administers anesthesia in a medical setting, such as hospitals or dental offices. They are the highest paid nursing specialists, with average salaries of more than $160,000, according to estimates by the BLS. 
The benefits of completing an MSN
Master of Science in Nursing programs are designed to provide nurses with the chance to specialize in their field of choice. Intended to impart an enhanced knowledge of nursing and a more fully developed skill set, they are quite rigorous and require a substantial time commitment.
Despite this, many nurses seek to earn an MSN because of the advantages it provides, in terms of both employment and earning potential. The MSN can help you progress to the next level in your career by teaching you the advanced skills necessary to perform more complex roles. With these advanced roles also often comes an increase in pay, as nurses with an MSN earn an average salary of about $86,000. 
Common areas of practice
There are a wide variety of specializations and settings in which it can be helpful to have an MSN, with certain nursing specialties specifically requiring such an education. Three examples are nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, and nurse anesthetists.
Nursing professionals with an MSN may work in a variety of workplaces, including but not limited to:
- Private practice
- Patients’ homes
- Correctional facilities
- Nursing and residential care facilities
- Teaching establishments
Who might choose this degree program?
Those who pursue an MSN often do so because of the educational and professional opportunities it affords them, opening many new career doors. Indeed, an advanced education is now becoming the industry standard, with some nursing specializations making a master’s a requirement. 
Even where the MSN is not required, employers at the most prestigious hospitals and health care organizations often give priority to candidates who have this additional credential. 
The master’s is especially recommended for those who desire to focus on and specialize in one particular area of nursing, as well as those who wish to assume a managerial role within a hospital at some point. Such programs can teach you an advanced skill set and deepen your knowledge of a specific sphere to help you become an expert in your field.
An MSN can also give you the chance to earn a higher salary. For example, a certified registered nurse anesthetist earns a median salary of $153,780 as of May 2014 — almost double the salary of a bachelor’s-prepared nurse. 
Other high-earning specialties include: 
Chief nursing officer: $111,418
Nurse practitioner: $95,070
Nurse midwife: $92,230
Acute care nurse practitioner: $89,263
Psychiatric nurse practitioner: $89,014
Adult nurse practitioner: $86,642
Things to consider when choosing an MSN degree
Asynchronous or synchronous: When choosing an MSN program, it’s important to understand the difference between an asynchronous or synchronous structure. With an asynchronous program, you will be able to access and complete materials at your own discretion, while in a synchronous program, these must be accessed at specific times. Be sure to choose the option that best suits your preferences.
Cohort or non-cohort: Different schools offer cohort or non-cohort classes. In a cohort system, you stay with the same students throughout your degree, which might be a factor if the social aspect of learning is important to you.
Careers and Advancement Overview
Most of those who complete an MSN will do so with the objective of becoming a nurse practitioner: a registered nurse who has an advanced skill set and enhanced knowledge gained through either a nursing degree or specialized training.
Due to their unique skill sets and specialty, they will be able to perform a wide spectrum of functions in a health care setting, many normally taken care of by doctors and physicians, and can also prescribe and administer medications in most states. 
The utility of such professionals means they are now in high demand, and thus have a significantly higher earning potential than their standard nursing counterparts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for such professionals is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years at 31%. 
Nurse practitioners can expect to earn a significantly higher salary than their less qualified counterparts. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, typical yearly incomes for these professionals are between $64,000 and $120,000, with the most experienced practitioners able to earn even more. 
Some of the highest-earning specialties with average salaries include: 
- Chief nurse anesthetist: $166,106
- Chief nursing officer: $111,418
- Nurse practitioner: $95,070
- Nurse midwife: $92,230
- Acute care nurse practitioner: $89,263
- Psychiatric nurse practitioner: $89,014
- Adult nurse practitioner: $86,642
Key areas of employment
Those with MSN degrees can expect to be in demand throughout the United States and Canada, with the highest employment levels found in California, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and New York. 
Although opportunities in hospitals continue to grow, there are also more nurses working outside of this setting in locations such as outpatient clinics, community settings, and even businesses. 
Avenues of career advancement
Although an MSN can be invaluable in enhancing your earning potential, it can also open up a number of career opportunities.
Although the exact path will vary according to your ambitions, an MSN can help you to move to the next level in your nursing career, outfitting you with the advanced skills necessary to perform a wider variety of roles and functions.
Primarily, these are likely to be leadership or specialization-based, such as:
- Nurse consultant: Nurse consultants work in a variety of fields, providing advice to a range of facilities or entities. There are multiple areas that they can choose to specialize in. Such professionals account for 8% of the MSN workforce.
- Research nurse: A further 9% of MSN graduates work as research nurses. Specializing in various fields, these professionals help to gather and evaluate data as part of a specialist team.
- Nurse educator: Nurse educators represent 1% of the MSN workforce. They may act as instructors or professors in educational institutions such as colleges and universities.
- Nurse administrator: Nurse administrators oversee nursing facilities or teams within the focus of their specialization. Their duties may include everything from hiring to scheduling. 
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A typical MSN curriculum aims to provide you with an in-depth understanding of advanced theories of nursing practice and science, as well as the skills necessary to succeed within a managerial role. Expanding on the expertise gained during your baccalaureate degree, the overall aim of the course will be to help you develop effective leadership qualities, while also imbuing you with specialist knowledge to help you improve the health care system.
What to look for when choosing a degree program
One of the first things to take into account when choosing a program is the caliber of the school itself, as well as the particular topics of study that will be available to you.
Points to consider include:
- The core competencies and specializations you will cover as part of the program
- The facilities and resources that will be available to you
- The amount and breadth of the coursework you will be expected to complete
- The faculty experience
- Practice experiences
- How well the program aligns with your professional objectives
The core courses
Students interested in pursuing an MSN ought to first understand the core courses required as part of a typical academic program. At a graduate level, these will often include the following:
- Research management
- Health economics
- Health policy
- Health care ethics
- Health promotion
- Family planning
- Mental health
- The prevention of family and social violence
All MSN students will be expected to take the core courses set by their school, and will also be required to enroll in concentration-specific courses relating to their clinical specialty (e.g. psychiatric mental health nursing or nurse-midwifery), with a unique master’s curriculum formulated for each educational track.
As your study further expands into clinical areas, any number of additional topics may be covered as electives to support your chosen specialization, professional interests, and background.
Prerequisites for entry
To embark on a master’s program, most students need a bachelor’s degree from a school accredited by one of two bodies: The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission. In addition, they will require a state RN license. Many colleges and universities will also ask for college transcripts, reference letters, and an essay. Some may require GRE or MAT scores.
Non-nurses and nurses who have a non-nursing degree may be eligible for entry too, although there will be different requirements for those who fall into this category. These will vary from school to school but may include holding a bachelor’s degree in another field from an accredited institution and a grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Additionally, requests may be made for letters of recommendation, along with transcripts from any educational institutions you previously attended.
Some specialties require further specific qualifications, such as nurse anesthetist programs, which will only accept those with an upper-level college course in biochemistry.
Alternative pathways to MSN programs
A Master of Science in Nursing is specifically formulated to allow nurses to specialize in a particular area, such as advanced clinical training or anesthesia. They are usually completed by those already employed in the field to help them move to the next level in their career.
There are many ways to earn such a degree, and for those without a bachelor’s degree who want to save time and money, there are RN to MSN programs. Sometimes referred to as a fast track option, this allows registered nurses to earn their master’s degree without first completing a BSN.
There are also direct entry MSN programs which are aimed at non-nurses with a bachelor’s in another field. These accelerated master’s programs for non-nurses can be ideal for those planning a career change. Allowing you to earn both an accredited bachelor’s degree in nursing, plus a master’s in your chosen specialization, these take just three to four years to complete, with the first year largely focused on helping you to prepare for your NCLEX exam and become a registered nurse.
Additionally, you could consider a joint degree program, fusing your nursing education with a master’s in business administration, public health, hospital administration, or another related subject.
Online vs. campus-based programs
Those who wish to pursue an MSN will usually have the option to do so either online or on-campus, depending on their personal preferences. With online programs becoming increasingly popular, it’s important to consider the similarities and differences between the two delivery methods before you commit to one or the other.
Cost: In most instances, online and on-campus programs will be priced the same, although online programs can significantly decrease or eliminate living expenses or commuting cost, and most online programs are designed to let you continue to work as you study.
Difficulty: A lot of people believe that online programs will be easier than on-campus programs. The truth is both delivery formats tend to be equally challenging, because they cover the same information. Online programs require you to have a degree of self-discipline and motivation, whereas on-campus programs are good for students who prefer a rigidly defined structure.
Degree designation: Some students wonder whether an online degree will be viewed the same way as an on-campus one. Schools that offer both online and campus-based versions of the same program do not distinguish between the two when awarding their diplomas. This means that both will hold equal weight with employers.
Availability of student services: Whereas an on-campus program might provide face-to-face communication and set office hours, interaction through an online program is typically through less formal channels like chat rooms, bulletin boards, and emails. However, most online programs offer the same tutoring, mentorship, library, and student support services as their on-campus counterparts.
Program culmination: thesis or capstone
Performing and utilizing research are integral to evidence-based nursing practice and will form a key part of the MSN course. This is why most degree programs will culminate in either a thesis or capstone project.
A master’s thesis is an independently performed research project that will typically require you to design a study and perform any research-related aspects of it. It should identify and address a theory or knowledge gap to contribute to the wider field of nursing.
A capstone project is different. Although it will still address a theoretical or clinical problem in nursing practice, it will use contemporary evidence and apply it to bring about a solution. The final manuscript will usually need to be of publishable quality.
Many programs give you the option to choose between a thesis or capstone. Either way, the coursework and curriculum will adhere to strict guidelines set by the AACN and other authorities. This will ensure that upon completion of your master’s, you are qualified to meet the challenges of a 21st-century health care setting. 
Electives, specializations, and areas of focus
While pursuing an MSN, students will have the chance to choose a specialty, and it is imperative that this aligns with your individual career goals.
This specialty is an opportunity for you to match the topics you study to the field you wish to work in, whether this is management, neonatal care, or even research. For this reason, it must be chosen with care and confidence.
MSN students can choose from any number of specialization areas, with some of the most common being:
- Acute care
- Adult health
- Community health
- Critical care
- Women’s health
- Emergency care
- Geriatric care
The professional implications of your specialization
A master’s degree in nursing acts as the educational core to qualify advanced practice nurses to work as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives, and more.
Each of these professionals provides an invaluable health care service, and they usually earn a significantly higher salary than their less qualified peers. For advanced practice nurses, this means the opportunity to earn between $60,000 to $90,000 immediately upon graduation; for nurse midwives, it means earnings of up to $90,000 annually, rising to up to $120,000 after five years of practice. 
Areas of significant demand
A master’s degree can be invaluable to enhance your career, and nurses who possess one are in demand. There is a growing call for these professionals in outpatient clinics, community settings, and even in business. As a result, many of those with specializations are becoming private health care providers. 
The focus of an MSN degree is to provide nurses with a more fully developed knowledge of certain medical fields, so you will be required to demonstrate your abilities by performing several hours of clinicals related to your chosen specialty.
The time spent on clinicals will form part of the 18 to 24 months total that it will generally take to finish a master’s program, and helps demonstrate your practical skills in your chosen specialization.
The specific amount of time you spend in clinicals depends on the individual mandates of your school. This time should be sufficiently comprehensive to furnish students with the skills required by various professional organizations for specific advanced nursing roles. 
The dictates of the AACN mean this clinical work is not optional: all students in MSN programs must complete advanced clinical educational activities in accordance with the guidelines set out in the Master’s Essentials.  However, the specific curricular design is the purview of each academic institution and will be based on what its educators believe to be necessary.
A number of methods may be used to assess the student’s attainment of these clinical competencies, including portfolios, advanced simulations, virtual simulations, high-fidelity mannequins, and tele-monitoring of students at distant sites.
Program Length Overview
Before you commit to an MSN program, it’s important to know how long it will take you to complete, how much it will cost you, and the admission requirements.
A traditional MSN program can be completed more quickly than a BSN. Most extend over a period of 18 to 24 months, but they are still rigorous.
Most programs let you choose between part-time or full-time study. Although part-time will often be best for those who wish to continue working, these will take longer to complete than a full-time program.
However, even standard full-time options are not out of the question for those who hope to work while studying. With most programs designed with the working RN in mind, they are structured to allow you to continue fulfilling your responsibilities. 
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Admission Requirements Overview
While each program will set its admission requirements based on its own criteria, many requirements are universal across all programs. No matter where you apply, you can expect to provide items like transcripts from previous degrees or coursework; standardized test scores; a personal statement or essay; letters of recommendation; and an overview of relevant work experience.
In certain cases, some of these requirements may be waived.
For more information about admissions, please visit our admission requirements page.
To demonstrate your background in nursing, your program may ask you to meet additional requirements for admission. These may include:
- Earning a bachelor’s degree from a Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or National League for Nursing (NLN) Accrediting Commission approved school.
- Holding an unencumbered state RN license. (Some programs will require that this license was gained in the state in which the college is located, although this will not always bar you from enrolling.)
- Have at least one year of clinical experience. (Some programs may allow students to gain this experience as part of their education.)
Some specialties may have extra criteria that you must fulfill before being admitted, such as nurse anesthetist programs, which will expect you to have an upper-level college course in biochemistry.
The requirements will be different for non-nurses and nurses with non-nursing degrees, with special programs available. Admission criteria for these depends on the individual college or university.
Regional accreditation is the most prestigious type of accreditation that an online or traditional college or university can receive. It is granted only after careful consideration by private, not-for-profit organizations tasked with evaluating educational quality.
Regional accreditation is particularly important if you anticipate that you might want to transfer credits from one online degree program to another or use those credits to pursue another degree. Most regionally accredited schools will only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions of higher learning.
You can learn more on this topic at our regional accreditation page.
Nursing accrediting bodies
The following national organizations offer specialized accreditation for nursing programs:
- The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN): This body accredits all types of nursing programs, from master’s to baccalaureate, associate, and diploma.
- The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE): This body only accredits programs at the master’s and baccalaureate level.
- The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA): The COA accredits certificate, master’s, and doctoral degree-level nurse anesthesia programs.
The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM): This organization accredits midwifery education programs.
Alternative Degree/Field of Study Options
It is important to fully understand your options, which is why you should comprehensively explore the degree paths open to you before committing to your MSN.
Other degrees you might want to research further include:
PhD in Nursing: Two terminal degrees exist in nursing, and either one is worth exploring should you wish to continue your education to the highest level. The first of these is the PhD, which is intended for those wishing to go into research-focused or academic roles.
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): Like a PhD, a DNP is a terminal degree, the difference being that although it will educate you to the highest level in your field, it will focus more heavily on clinical practice.
The different paths to achieving your MSN
There are various paths to earning a Master of Science in Nursing.
BSN to MSN programs: Direct-entry BSN-MSN programs are formulated for students who wish to pursue an advanced nursing degree and know which MSN specialty they would like to focus on.
RN to MSN programs: Alternatively, RNs with an associate degree can enroll in an RN to MSN program, which allows them to earn their MSN without separately obtaining their BSN. These typically take around three years to complete, with the first year devoted to entry-level nursing coursework and the last two focusing on master’s-level study.
Licensure and Certification Overview
To act as a registered nurse in the United States, you first need a nursing license, which you can get by graduating from an approved nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).
There are also other requirements based on the state you will work in. These can vary widely, so you should contact the appropriate board of nursing. The requirements are based on the Nurse Practice Act, although each state has its own administrative rules and regulations. 
Depending on your chosen specialty, those who obtain an MSN may be required to obtain additional certifications. These gauge a nurse’s ability to provide exceptional care, and can help you further advance your career in your preferred field.
Available American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) certifications include inter-professional certifications, nurse practitioner certifications, clinical nurse specialist certifications, and specialty certifications, and cover fields as diverse as:
- Acute care
- Adult health
- Cardiac rehabilitation
- Community health
- Home health
- Nurse executive
- Pain management
- Psychiatric-mental health care
- Pediatric primary care
In some states, it is not only recommended that MSNs gain additional certification to practice in their chosen field, but necessary for those seeking employment as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). This certification must usually be accompanied by both the requisite education as well as a set number of clinical hours before licensing can be achieved.
APRN positions with certifications that an MSN can be applied to include:
Certified nurse midwife: 11,194 CNMs were in practice in 2015, according to figures from the American College of Nurse-Midwives.  To qualify, individuals are required to obtain a CNM or CM credential, which requires a graduate degree in the field. 
Clinical nurse specialist: Performing a similar role to nurse practitioners, CNSes further specialize according to factors such as setting, type of care, or type of pain. 
Certified registered nurse anesthetist: Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that there are 39,410 CRNAs practicing in the United States.  To qualify, they must possess an appropriate baccalaureate degree, registered nurse licensure in the United States, a minimum of one year of critical care experience, a master’s degree in their field, and national certification. 
Nurse practitioner: 96% of the 220,000 NPs nationwide hold a graduate degree, according to research from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.  Of these, 83% focus on primary care, with other specializations including family, adult, pediatric, and women’s health. Although an MSN is the most common degree program in the field, some experts suggest a requirement for all nurse practitioners to earn a DNP. 
The History of Professional Nursing
Throughout recorded history, there have always been those who offered their services in caring for the sick and the injured. But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that modern nursing as we know it came into being, thanks to the efforts during the Crimean War of Florence Nightingale to help standardize and organize the profession. 
It was her efforts to implement hygiene standards and improve care that arguably demonstrated the fundamentality of the nursing profession in the medical sphere, and it is in her endeavors that the very roots of modern-day healthcare lie.  Her methods and practices heavily influenced both the role of the nurse and the training required for the profession worldwide. 
By the 1920s, nursing would start to become more professional and academic in nature. In 1923, the Yale School of Nursing was the first autonomous institution in America to offer a formal nursing education which wasn’t aligned to a training hospital as an apprenticeship. 
This establishment eventually led to a rise in nursing schools and education programs across the U.S. and the world, with Columbia University School of Nursing the first American institution to award a master’s degree in clinical nursing in 1956.  In the 1960s, as nursing became more nuanced and specialized, universities began offering more specialized master’s degrees, such as nurse practitioner. 
Over the years since, nursing would become seen less as an apprenticeship and increasingly as a desirable career choice for men and women alike as fields of research and specialization became more nuanced.
Tuition and Fees Overview
There are a number of factors that can greatly affect how much your education will cost. These include whether you attend a public or private institution; whether you attend as an in-state or out-of-state student; and whether you qualify for financial aid like grants or scholarships.
For a more detailed breakdown of tuition, fees, and other financial issues, please visit our tuition and fees page.
There are many financial aid resources for nursing students to explore. These include the following scholarships :
- Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) Graduate Student Award: Designed to support research advancing infection prevention, this scholarship awards $5,000 toward project costs.
- DiversityNursing.com award: Available to those enrolled as a full- or part-time student in a professional registered nurse program, this award is worth $5,000.
- National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) scholarship: NANN offers scholarships to those pursuing graduate degrees in nursing administration or neonatal nursing.
- National Hartford Center of Gerontological Nursing Excellence award: Worth $100,000, this scholarship takes the form of tuition waivers, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, grants-in-aid, or scholarships.
- NIDA Blending Initiative: Moving Science from Research to Practice project grant: Worth up to $10,000, this project grant is open to any graduate student who is part of an accredited program at an AACN member school.
- The State Nursing Assumption Program of Loans for Education (SNAPLE): Providing up to $25,000 in loan repayments, this is open to any nurse serving as faculty at a college or university in California.
Some graduate students will also be eligible for a grant from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. 
Loan forgiveness opportunities
An additional financial incentive is available in the guise of loan forgiveness programs, which allow students to repay their college loans through their work in a nursing setting.
Twenty-two percent of all graduate nursing students make use of these programs to pay off the remaining balances on their federal loans , and while individual states and schools operate their own programs, the national Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is open to any nursing students who would like to take advantage of it.
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Q: Would an MSN be right for me?
A: If you’re hoping for career advancement, increased earning opportunities, and the ability to specialize in an area of special interest, an MSN would be ideal for you.
Q: Would an MSN help me advance my career?
A: Almost certainly. Investing in an MSN degree is one of the best ways to help progress your nursing career to the next level. Whether you wish to be a nurse practitioner or pursue other leadership positions, an MSN can teach you the advanced skills necessary to fill an increased variety of roles in a health care environment.
Q: Would I be eligible to enroll in an MSN program?
A: Most MSN programs require you to hold a valid and unencumbered license as a registered nurse in the United States, along with a bachelor’s degree from a facility accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission. If you possess these, you should be eligible.
Q: Would I have access to grants or scholarships?
A: Both grant and scholarship opportunities are available to MSN students.
Q: Would I be eligible for a loan forgiveness program?
A: Yes. Individual states and schools operate their own programs, and there is also a national Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that you can to participate in.
Q: Is an MSN worth the cost?
A: Although an MSN will undoubtedly boost your earning potential, this is something you must decide for yourself. Begin with a strict cost-benefit analysis, taking into account the price of your chosen degree and the potential ROI. You may also want to factor in advantages such as increased career mobility and job satisfaction.