Getting your MSN degree in nursing is a significant step in mapping out the next part of a nursing career. But making this decision and choosing the right program for your personal and professional goals takes a lot of research and thought.

An MSN degree offers more profound knowledge and experience, leading to more significant career opportunities. However, with many specialized degree options, you must reflect and research to find the best program.

MSN programs are diverse and focused on specific career paths, including nurse practitioner, so choosing the right program for you will pay off.

“It’s important to look at your career goals and your interests,” says Dr. Latina Brooks, Ph.D., CNP, FAANP, and assistant professor and director of the Master of Science in Nursing Program and the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western University. For example, she says if you’re seeking more knowledge or something different from your current career path, you’d naturally look to an MSN degree as one way to move forward.

If you want to become an advanced practice nurse practitioner (APRN), look for schools that offer clinical programs aligned with what you see yourself doing. Many nurses can narrow down their preferences while in their pre-licensure programs and through required clinical rotations and nonclinical courses, says Brooks.

“It starts in the RN programs, and then while they are working as an RN or in different areas, they will understand their strengths and interests,” she says. With that clarity, you can start to think about what you need to do to meet your career goals.

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Changing Advanced Practice Qualifications

While the MSN is the fundamental path to advanced practice and licensure as a nurse practitioner, there are changes toward making the DNP a benchmark requirement for NP work. The difference seeks to ensure consistency of experience upon graduation with an MSN. Still, only some nurses want to pursue a DNP path, says Anne Derouin, DNP, APRN, CPNP, PMHS, FAANP, assistant dean and director of the MSN program at Duke University School of Nursing.

“A very dynamic change is happening,” she says, “and not all nurses are prepared in the same way.” Unlike a BSN program, where the end goal is to graduate and become a working registered nurse, the master’s degree in nursing offers vastly different outcomes.

choosing-the-best-msn-specialty-to-meet-your-career-goals

Anne Derouin, DNP, APRN, CPNP, PMHS, FAANP, is the assistant dean and director of the MSN program at Duke University School of Nursing

As a prospective MSN student, you’ll quickly notice curriculums vary widely. To find the program that matches the degree you need for the job you want, check all program guidelines and options to see all the courses and what the curriculum requires based on your credentials. While some programs are shorter, they aren’t necessarily going to give you the clinical hours you need for a particular role or that an organization requires.

Accelerated programs for those with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing may require students to complete prerequisites to advance into an MSN program. Other schools have MSN programs that are accelerated MSN/DNP programs, so you’ll graduate with both degrees.

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Pay Attention to Your Interests

“When I counsel students considering a master’s degree, I ask what they are passionate about and what patients or populations they love to care for,” says Derouin. The answers should guide prospective MSN students because they will show the result that will help them become the nurse they want to be.

MSN programs can be clinical for an advanced nurse practitioner specialization or nonclinical for nurses who want to work in management, with data or technology in informatics, or who plan to become an educator.

Within the APRN clinical routes, there are additional choices.

A family nurse practitioner path offers the greatest flexibility and job potential, but Derouin says it’s not the best option for every nurse. For a student to make that decision, she says, you’ll need to be comfortable caring for patients across the lifespan.

A pediatric specialization will give greater you depth and breadth of experience and knowledge if you prefer to work with infants and children. And if you enjoy working with older or cardiac patients, the degree path geared toward those populations will offer a better career and skill match, she says. “Then you are no longer a generalist but an expert,” Derouin says. “Think of what you love to do and hone your skills in that area.”

Brooks agrees, noting that nurses should keep their minds open when considering different paths. For example, nurses who enjoy technology or business might find careers in nursing informatics or management that blends their interests and goals.

Look into Every Aspect of MSN Programs

When assessing programs, Derouin advises students to look at certain factors. For example, ensure each program is accredited and that the faculty are practicing nurse practitioners or nurse educators, as those faculty will have the most current industry knowledge.

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Ask about clinical placement, she says, as it’s an extraordinarily competitive part of many programs. Find out what kind of clinical access is available, if the school places students, or if the students have to research and secure their placements.

And use your time out of school to find out more. Ask people in your chosen field if you can shadow them or talk with them to see their daily work. “Most NPs are willing to share their journey into their role,” Derouin says.

“If you go on to graduate-level education, it opens up a whole other world of all that you can do,” says Brooks.

If researching an MSN path, you still aren’t sure what area of nursing you want to pursue, or if you have the resources to devote to an advanced degree, she recommends taking more time to make a decision. “You don’t want to waste your time or money if you’re not sure it’s something you want to jump into,” says Brooks. Then, investigate all the possibilities to reap the full benefits of an advanced degree.

“With graduate programs, there are so many avenues you can take, and that’s the beauty of our profession,” says Brooks. “There are so many aspects to nursing.”

Check out our Career Center to connect with employers seeking diverse nursing candidates.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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