If you want to earn an advanced practice degree—such as a Nurse Practitioner (NP) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), among others—you will need to get a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. But there are many other reasons to have one as well.
Last year, Laura Browne, MSN, RN, CNL, a second-career nurse, graduated from Georgetown University with her MSN-CNL. This means she went through a master’s-entry to nursing program with a specialty in becoming a clinical nurse leader.
Browne works as a preop and recovery nurse in the Austin, Texas, area and provides content for an informational dental care website called Smile Prep.
“In general, MSN programs offer nurses the opportunity to grow their careers in various ways, whether applicants are new to the nursing field or established nurses looking for a change of pace,” says Browne. “A major benefit of master’s-level nursing education in specialties outside of the NP role, beyond coursework at an advanced level and deep exposure to evidence-based practice (EBP) projects, is the flexibility it affords you in your career. As a nurse with a master’s degree, you meet the education requirement to be a clinical preceptor for nursing students at many universities. This is a great opportunity if you are interested in nursing education.”
Sometimes, nurses know exactly what they want to do when entering nursing school. Such is the case with Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN, owner of Ascend Health Center and author of How to Succeed in Anesthesia School. “I started nursing school with the goal of becoming a nurse anesthetist, which requires at least an MSN,” he says. The MSN degree is “a springboard to better opportunities. In some cases, it allows nurses to continue in the place where they currently work but receive better compensation. This is most worth it if an employer provides tuition reimbursement. Specializing as an NP or CRNA allows for better compensation and better work/life balance. Most outpatient clinics are open 9–5 and closed on weekends and holidays.”
Kate Rowe, MSN, CNM, DNP, a certified nurse midwife, says, “For those nurses who wish to work more in nursing education, nursing/healthcare research, academia or advanced practice, an MSN is for you. MSNs can specialize in several different fields depending on your field of interest. Women’s health, psychiatric care, adult/gerontology, midwifery, public and community health, and emergency medicine are just some potential avenues for providers to take.”
Angelis says that before earning his MSN, he worked the night shift, doubles, and traveled from hospital to hospital. “Now I take the time I need with each patient and make my schedule. I can immediately see the effects of my anesthesia as I take patient’s pain away and safely guide them through complex surgeries. I can also collaborate with therapists, physicians, and everyone else on the care team,” he says.
As for how long earning an MSN will take, that depends on whether you’re working part-time, full-time, or not. Rowe says that they typically take two years to earn, but there are accelerated programs that can take as little as five quarters.
While working full-time, Angelis says he took his core MSN classes. When he began taking anesthesia clinicals, he would take occasional nursing shifts. “Most MSN specialties allow students to work through school. Anesthesia school is unique in the massive amount of time and effort required for several years, including up to 40 hours a week in hospitals providing anesthesia. Accelerated online programs are available for some MSN specialties and can be completed within 18 months,” he explains.
The amount of work to earn an MSN is worth it, says Rowe. She adds, “The greatest rewards of earning an MSN involve the ability to give back to your community and positively impact the lives of your patients through all the hard work in graduate school and then again when you are in practice.”
Read the October issue of Minority Nurse focusing on the MSN and Magnet Hospitals here.
Nurses have an embarrassment of riches to choose from when planning their nursing education journey and professional career in healthcare. From entry-level Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) to a terminal degree like a PhD or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), there are a myriad of pathways in the nursing profession.
For many nurses, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is an achievable goal worth the effort in terms of the return on investment it can offer. But how can you measure the potential value of earning your MSN?
Why the MSN?
With nursing becoming increasingly complex in this new millennium, nurses are expected to have a broader scope of knowledge, more skill and expertise, and the ability to be dynamic leaders within a multidisciplinary industry, whether that leadership comes from an official title or simply through a nurse’s words and deeds.
An MSN is an advanced degree that can open many doors for an ambitious nurse seeking increased knowledge and expertise. Often, but not always, more nursing education brings a relative increase in career opportunities and earning power, and the MSN is no exception.
Having a master’s degree creates a certain level of credibility in the eyes of patients, nursing, and non-nursing colleagues, and the value of professional credibility cannot be overstated.
Damion K. Jenkins, MSN, RN, is a nurse educator, nurse career coach, mentor, and author. He states, “My MSN in nursing education provided me with essential insight, knowledge, and skills that have been imperative throughout my career as a nurse educator.”
In terms of any further return on investment for earning his MSN, Jenkins adds, “My education has offered me many opportunities to position myself into nursing leadership positions where I can make tremendous positive impact in all areas of nursing practice. From bedside nursing to academic nursing to clinical administration, I have fully leveraged everything my MSN education and training offered. I’m not so sure I’d be as successful as I am today without the privilege to receive this extremely valuable education.”
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) also says it well:
“Beyond the professional opportunities nurses gain through graduate education, there are some tangible benefits to one’s quality of life. Nurses with advanced preparation typically enjoy more opportunities to impact the overall design and implementation of care. As education increases, salaries follow suit. Nurses with master’s degrees can command six-figure salaries and often rise to the top of healthcare’s leadership ranks. With new practice opportunities emerging and the demand for highly specialized nursing skills rising, the time is right for you to begin your graduate-level nursing education. The earlier in your career you complete your formal education, the longer your professional life and the higher your lifetime earnings will be.”
The AACN is a cheerleader of the drive toward a growing body of master’s-prepared nursing professionals. They continue:
“The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) encourages all nurses to strive for higher levels of education to advance their capacity to enhance the quality of care available to our nation’s diverse patient populations. Calls for more nurses with graduate-level preparation are coming from inside and outside the profession from authorities as diverse as the Institute of Medicine, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Now is the time to invest in your future and begin your journey into graduate nursing education.”
There is no question of the potential value of the MSN. But what about the value of the MSN for you?
The MSN: What’s in it for You?
What can an MSN mean for you? There’s a lot to chew on since the number of choices is growing. Let’s examine a few.
The rising importance of nurse practitioners (NPs), also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), cannot be denied. That said, there are multiple roads a nurse can choose as an APRN, including:
Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Acute Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP-AC)
Primary Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP-PC)
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
For a non-APRN MSN, there is another dizzying array of choices, including, but not limited to:
MSN, Public Health Nursing
MSN, Nursing Education
MSN, Health Informatics, or Nursing Informatics
MSN, Health Care Quality & Patient Safety
MSN, Nursing Leadership in Health Care Systems
MBA & MSN, Nursing Leadership in Health Care Systems
MSN, Care Coordination
MSN, Nursing Leadership and Administration
Informatics, leadership, systems, safety, and quality are areas where many nurses are making a difference, and an MSN is a pathway to these types of positions.
Show Me the Money
In terms of earning power and job growth, we can attest from the data that a master’s degree in nursing can increase the amount of money a nurse can make, especially for APRNs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the breakdown shows us the reality:
Registered nurses earn a median annual salary of $77,600, a mean hourly wage of $37.31, and have projected job growth of 6% (as fast as average) through 2031.
For other MSN roles, Indeed reports that a nurse manager earns an average of $78,474 per year, and a research nurse earns an average of $79,610. From these numbers, we can see that the earning power of an APRN far outstrips that of the nurse manager or nurse researcher, who earns the same annual salary as a registered nurse despite a higher level of education and potentially a much higher level of debt in student loans. (We are, of course, assuming that the researcher and manager have an MSN.)
Numbers are approximate for some regions of the country and every facet of healthcare and related industries, and there are always opportunities outside of the norm.
We can say with much clarity that, when considering pursuing an MSN, you’ll want to do your homework in terms of what your earning potential will be, what opportunities exist for that nursing specialty, and how satisfied you might be in the particular role that your chosen MSN program will prepare you for.
Networking, speaking with school representatives, working with a career coach or counselor, and doing your due diligence and research are all prudent uses of your time and energy before you sign on the dotted line and enter an MSN program.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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My nursing education journey began when I received my BSN in Nursing at Rutgers College of Nursing in 2011. During my time there, I met some strong, professional women professors. They took such a personal interest in me that, over a decade later, I think of them with much gratitude. Their strength helped me to see myself as a strong but caring nurse.
A Strong Caring Nurse
My education gave me the confidence to care for my patients competently. I had a tough clinical practice specialist on the Med/Surg/Tele unit I first worked on. When she asked me questions on the spot, I almost always knew the answer. I credit Rutgers and fellow student nurses who supported each other through nursing school.
Prisca Benson, MSN, RN is a a nurse navigator for the neuroscience department at The Valley Hospital
While there was a lot to learn on the job, the education I received provided a foundation I used to excel clinically. It was not long before I started picking up per diem job opportunities to explore and broaden my horizons as a nurse. I worked in home care as an intake nurse, home care nurse, and infusion nurse for different companies.
In 2014, I got a job as a neurology nurse at my dream hospital, NYP-Columbia University Hospital. While per diem there, I joined committees I was interested in and disseminated the information to the staff in my unit to improve our practice.
I also noticed that some patients lacked a basic understanding of their medical history and medication. So I used the principles I learned in school to educate them effectively so they could be more knowledgeable about their health and care.
A Life’s Passion Realized
I soon realized that my passion was teaching.
I began searching for nursing opportunities to give me more time to teach patients. I applied for a position as Neuroscience Nurse Navigator at The Valley Hospital, which allowed me to create and develop the role to support the patients during their admission and help them maintain outpatient follow-up.
This was a dream come true! I finally had the time to sit at a patient’s bedside, teach them about their new diagnosis and answer all their questions.
While working this job, I received my MSN in Nurse Education at Chamberlain University. The modalities taught have allowed me to be a better peer and patient educator. It encouraged me to start with the other person’s understanding as a foundation for effectively educating someone. I participated in my organization’s student nurse externship by teaching skills, theory, and even creating an educational game to increase knowledge retention.
Love and Desire to Educate
My love and desire to educate led me to start a personal finance and health blog, Our Green Life, during the pandemic. The fear and misinformation were very unsettling, so I wanted to provide a reliable but approachable space for information. I use what I have learned through my education and experience to make the information easy to grasp and to demonstrate how it could be applied.
My nursing education helped shape my career, goals, and values, and I will be forever grateful for it.
Obtaining either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Baccalaureate of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a pre-licensure pathway to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN). This is often the required academic path for entering into the nursing profession. Earning a Master’s in Nursing (MSN) may lead to many new paths and opportunities.
An MSN helps prepare practicing Registered Nurses (RN) for advanced practice by developing skills and knowledge in specialized areas of nursing. It can help enhance a nurse’s skills by increased autonomy and expanded practice roles. The health care delivery arena broadens beyond acute care hospitals and other traditional health care settings. The experience will both challenge and change you.
Here are a few of the practical benefits associated with the MSN:
Learn advanced skills. An MSN program teaches advanced clinical skills and management strategies. The nurse’s skills expands with increased autonomy and expanded practice roles. Many MSN programs offer specialized tracks that prepare nurses to learn advanced skills that are applicable to their clinical practice and outside of the normal scope of job responsibilities.
Pursue flexible career options. Nurses who earn an MSN may be able to perform their job remotely, during shifts that are more convenient, and with the freedom to determine the workday schedule. With greater flexibility and greater responsibility associated with an MSN, there is also an opportunity to extend the life of the nursing career as those with an advanced degree are often charged with less physically demanding job duties.
Increase professional networks. A graduate degree can help provide added respect from colleagues, other health care professionals and peers. Nurses are among the most-trusted professionals in the nation and that trust and admiration can extend and expand as nurses pursue educational and professional growth. Master’s programs in nursing help students establish valuable relationships with other nurses and professors.
Partake in lifelong learning. The master’s degree often becomes the gateway to the PhD in nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Prospective students might consider online programs, or take advantage of bridge programs that help students go directly from the pre-licensure program into a graduate program.
Make a difference.Often nurses enter the profession to make a difference in the lives of others. Expanding knowledge through advanced education can serve as an inspiration to others, including others in the profession. The personal fulfillment and professional satisfaction that accompany the MSN can be measured in the sense of accomplishment and improved self-esteem.