Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Guide

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A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate degree that allows nurses to increase their scope of practice and level of care. Choosing the best school for an MSN is a critical decision for nurses in the process of career growth. It is important for applicants to consider program format, cost, and specialty areas of study available. There are a range of specialties available for master's level nurses and MSN graduates can choose to work in clinical patient care, administration, or academic settings.

View our full ranking list of top MSN programs here or view our ranking list of best online MSN programs here.

What Is an MSN Degree?

Nurses with MSNs typically have more career opportunities and higher salaries than undergraduate level nurses. Many MSN programs prepare nurses to take on more clinical responsibility, such as those that train nurse practitioners (NPs) and certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs). All clinical MSN programs are specialized, meaning they focus on specific aspects of patient care, such as mental health, primary care, acute care, emergency care, or women’s health. NPs and other advanced practice nurses are then licensed in these areas by passing specialty-specific board exams. MSN programs that are not intended for direct patient care include nurse education, nursing informatics, and nursing leadership. Nurses in these roles contribute to patient care on the systems level, rather than through individual patient contact.

How to Choose an MSN Program

As mentioned previously, there are several factors that MSN applicants consider when choosing a program. First, applicants should ensure the curriculum is accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Because each school offers a different range of specialties, the prudent applicant reviews these offerings before applying to be sure their preference is availale. Information about cost, financial aid, licensure board pass rates, clinical hours, research focus, post graduate employment rates, and faculty is often readily accessible as well.

Applicants need to review each program’s prerequisites to see if they qualify. Programs may require a minimum GPA, standardized testing such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and nursing experience for admission. In addition, there are multiple earning formats and scheduling options for graduate nursing students. There are online, in-person, and hybrid programs, each of which vary in the schedule flexibility they allow for coursework. All clinical and some non-clinical MSN programs require clinical on-site training, which students may arrange themselves at local sites, or which may be dictated by the school.

Online MSN Programs

Online programs are available for students who do not live close to a school with an accredited MSN program or who prefer the convenience of learning online. Because many nurses work while pursuing their MSN, online learning provides an alternative to scheduled classroom time. As mentioned, in-person clinical training may need to be arranged, depending on specialty. Online study may not be suited to every learning style.

Types of Master’s Degrees in Nursing

Students can choose from several different MSN pathways. The appropriate program is based on the applicant’s current credentials. Options include:

  • RN to MSN programs, designed for registered nurses who seek a more advanced degree
  • BSN to MSN programs, for nurses who hold a BSN
  • ADN to MSN programs, which allow associate-level nurses to complete both BSN and MSN degrees

In addition to degree track, applicants also choose their MSN specialties. These are focus areas concerned with a variety of patient care aspects. As both MSN curriculum and licensing credentials are specialty-specific, this choice has a significant impact on post-graduate career course. These are common MSN specialties:

  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Gerontology
  • Midwifery
  • Nurse anesthetist
  • Neonatal and pediatric nurse practitioner
  • Acute care nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioner

Nursing Curriculum

Each MSN curriculum varies depending on the specialty chosen, but there are foundational concepts that each program covers. MSN curricula teach advanced nursing practice and theories, including nursing informatics, research, best practice, pharmacology, pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and leadership.

Prerequisites and core curriculum may vary depending on student credentials upon entering the MSN program. For example, an ADN to MSN program consists of more course credits and foundational nursing concepts than BSN to MSN programs do. Electives are available within MSN programs for students wishing to deepen their understanding of specific topics as well.

How Long Is Nursing School?

The duration of MSN programs depends on several factors. MSN students beginning with a less advanced degree will take longer to complete the program than those who are further along in their education. Another factor is whether a student plans to take courses part time or full time. As working nurses, many students opt for part-time study. For full-time students, BSN to MSN students usually complete the program in two years. Others with less advanced degrees may take up to three years to complete the MSN program full time.

Admission Requirements and MSN Prerequisites

A primary MSN admission requirement is an undergraduate degree. Frequently, this is an undergraduate nursing degree such as an ADN or BSN. However, some MSN programs are designed for students with a non-nursing bachelor's degree. These are generally longer than MSN programs for BSN-level nurses. Non-nursing applicants usually have to complete prerequisites in microbiology, chemistry, humanities, statistics, anatomy, and physiology.

Many MSN programs require pre-admission standardized testing, such as the graduate record examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). The GRE measures verbal skills, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing, while the MAT tests reasoning capabilities. Test scores are used to indicate candidates’ critical thinking skills.

Almost all MSN admissions require a personal written statement as well as letters of reference. These provide the opportunity for applicants to demonstrate their character and career objectives.

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Nursing?

There is a wide range of career trajectories that an MSN graduate can pursue. Graduate-level nurses have a broader scope of practice, greater opportunity, higher salaries, and more responsibility than associate- and bachelor-level nurses. These are different roles graduate nurses can fill:

Following are different roles graduate nurses can fill:

  • Advanced nurse practitioner: Acts as an advanced practitioner, overseeing care for a variety of patient populations
  • Clinical nurse specialist: Serves as a clinical expert and support for nurses; verifies use of best, evidence-based practice
  • Nurse administrator: Manages a team of nurses; directs patient care initiatives on a systems level; oversees nursing quality
  • Research nurse: Conducts and disseminates the most up-to-date research to inform patience care practices
  • Nurse educator: Works in an academic or clinical setting as a professor or expert nursing resource

Within all of these roles, MSN graduates can be found in hospitals, extended care facilities, academic settings, clinics, research labs, and their own private practices, among others.

MSN Salary

Salaries for employees with an MSN degree vary based on the graduate’s specialty and geographic area. According to PayScale, median pay for hourly employees who hold an MSN is $43 an hour, while the median annual salary for someone with an MSN is $92,000. Since an MSN is an advanced degree, it has one of the highest salary averages of all nursing degrees. States vary greatly in terms of compensation for nurses, as do geographic contexts, such as roles in urban versus rural settings. Income for MSN graduates is dependent on role as well; nurse educators generally have a lower salary than nurse anesthetists, for example.

Frequently Asked Questions About MSN Degrees

What Is a Direct Entry MSN Program?

A direct entry MSN program is designed for students who already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. It is meant for applicants seeking a career change to nursing. Accelerated direct entry MSN programs can often be completed within three years.

What Is the Difference Between a BSN and an MSN?

A BSN is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, while an MSN is a Master of Science in Nursing. An MSN allows students to obtain more advanced education and experience in order to qualify for better jobs and salaries. An MSN also enables graduates to become certified as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse.

What Is the Value of a Master's Degree in Nursing?

Because obtaining an MSN is a considerable investment of both time and money, it merits examination of its worth and value for each individual. For many, the relatively high MSN salaries, rewarding work, and extensive opportunity warrant the effort of achieving it. Furthermore, the anticipated job growth for advance practice registered nurses will be 31% between 2016 and 2026, which is considerably faster than average job growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is the Difference Between an MSN and an NP?

An MSN refers to the degree earned after completing a Master of Science in Nursing program at an accredited college or university. A nurse practitioner, or NP, is a licensed position that requires a minimum of an MSN degree. After earning an advanced degree, aspiring NPs must pass licensing and certification exams required to practice. All NPs have an MSN or higher. Not all MSN graduates are NPs.