What Is an MSN Degree?

| Genevieve Carlton


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MSN degrees allow current RNs and nursing students to advance in and specialize their careers.

A master of science in nursing (MSN) trains registered nurses (RNs) for specialized roles, including primary care roles as nurse practitioners (NP). In an MSN program, nurses choose a specialization like nurse educator, nurse administrator, or clinical nurse specialist. Nurse practitioner programs incorporate clinical hours to prepare nurses for primary and specialized roles.

After completing an RN program or a bachelor's-level bridge program, nurses can enroll in an MSN program to earn greater responsibilities and a higher earning potential.

What Kinds of MSN Degrees Are There?

In addition to choosing an MSN specialty, nurses must choose the MSN degree that best fits their prior training and experience. For example, nurses with associate of science in nursing (ASN) degrees from hospital nursing programs should enroll in ASN-to-MSN programs. Many nursing schools also offer RN-to-MSN programs, which admit RNs who don't have bachelor's degrees.

This section introduces the different types of MSN programs to help nurses find the option that fits their unique circumstances.

ADN-to-MSN

Students with associate degrees in nursing (ADNs) can enroll in ADN-to-MSN bridge programs. In these programs, students complete bachelor's-level coursework in health assessment, patient care, and evidence-based practice. After meeting bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) requirements, including any clinical requirements, each student chooses a graduate specialty and begins taking MSN courses.

ADN-to-MSN programs typically require applicants to have an active RN license and a minimum GPA in their ADN coursework. Nurses can complete these programs in around three years, depending on specialty area and prior coursework. After completing MSN degrees, nurses can work as NPs, nurse administrators, and nurse educators, as well as in other specialized roles.

ASN-to-MSN

Graduates from vocational schools and hospital nursing programs typically earn ASN degrees. While the degree meets the requirements for the NCLEX-RN exam and RN licensure, ASN graduates may need to complete additional general education requirements to meet undergraduate coursework requirements.

Completing an ASN-to-MSN degree generally takes around three years, depending on the student's prior coursework and graduate specialization. Some schools grant BSNs during ASN-to-MSN programs. An RN-to-BSN can also prepare ASN-level nurses to apply for master's programs in nursing.

What's the Difference Between an ADN-to-MSN and an ASN-to-MSN?

ADNs and ASNs both train nurses for RN licensure and careers in nursing. However, the two degrees provide different levels of preparation for pursuing higher degrees after graduation.

Typically, an ADN meets more admission requirements for a BSN program than an ASN. As a result, an ADN-to-MSN program may require less undergraduate coursework than an ASN-to-MSN program.

Enrollees in ADN-to-MSN and ASN-to-MSN programs complete similar clinical requirements and both receive specialized training in advanced practice areas.

RN-to-MSN

An RN-to-MSN program admits nurses with ADNs and RN licenses. Many programs also accept nurses with nursing diplomas, though you should check eligibility requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Completing an RN-to-MSN program typically takes around three years. During the first half of the program, students meet BSN requirements, and some programs issue BSN degrees. After meeting undergraduate requirements, nurses select graduate specialties and begin taking MSN courses. The remaining coursework focuses on that graduate specialization.

Nurses can also enroll in RN-to-BSN programs, which can help increase their GPAs and qualify them for competitive MSN programs.

BSN-to-MSN

Nurses who already have BSN degrees can enroll in BSN-to-MSN programs. Often simply called "MSN programs," these degrees begin with graduate-level coursework, unlike an RN-to-MSN program. With a BSN-to-MSN degree, students can specialize as NPs, nurse educators, nurse administrators, and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Each applicant needs an RN license and a BSN degree from an accredited nursing program. Some programs prefer nurses with professional experience. Typically, an MSN degree takes around two years. However, some accelerated programs offer a one-year MSN, while clinical programs may take up to three years. A BSN degree provides a strong foundation for graduate study, which is why MSN programs require them for applicants.

What's the Difference Between an RN-to-MSN and a BSN-to-MSN?

An RN-to-MSN enrolls nurses who have associate degrees or nursing diplomas, but no bachelor's level education. Because the beginning coursework is more basic, these programs do not admit nurses who already hold BSNs. In an RN-to-MSN program, nurses typically spend 1-2 years completing the requirements for a BSN before moving into graduate-level nursing courses.

By contrast, a BSN-to-MSN enrolls nurses who do have a bachelor's-level nursing education, meaning they can skip the more basic coursework. This means that BSN-to-MSN programs take less time than RN-to-MSN degrees. However, both programs require the same clinical training for the master's coursework and result in a master's degree.

What Can You Do With an MSN Degree?

An MSN prepares graduates for many nursing career paths that require advanced skills. For example, nurses with MSN degrees can work as NPs, nurse educators, nurse administrators, and nurse midwives. In these roles, nurses take on more responsibilities and increase their earning potential.

During an MSN degree, nursing students build specialized skills in their focus area. Nurse practitioner programs, for example, offer classroom and clinical training in multiple NP specialty areas.

Graduates with accredited MSN degrees can apply for specialty certification and state licensure. MSN graduates can also apply to doctor of nursing programs.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses

NPs, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists are all types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), providing specialty care. These roles require graduate-level training, so APRNs must hold either MSN or DNP degrees. There are a few types of APRNs, as outlined below.

Nurse Practitioners

NPs are advanced practice RNs who provide primary and specialty care. An NP must hold at least a master's degree with clinical training to earn certification in a specialty, such as family care, pediatrics, or oncology. You can learn more about NP specialties below.

During a nurse practitioner program, students complete several hundred clinical hours to build their patient care skills. Like RNs, NPs must apply for state licenses. States typically require a master's degree for NP licensure, and some may require DNPs in the future. Learn more about NP careers or check out online MSN nurse practitioner programs with our helpful guides.

  • Acute Care: Acute care nurse practitioners (ACNPs) treat patients experiencing medical issues such as injuries or illness. ACNPs commonly work in emergency healthcare settings or ambulatory clinics.
  • Cardiac: A cardiac nurse practitioner specializes in heart health and diseases that affect the circulatory system. As specialty care providers, they diagnose and treat heart conditions and monitor patients with acute or chronic heart problems.
  • Clinical: Clinical nurse practitioners can assess and diagnose patients, prescribe treatments and medications, and order diagnostic tests. Within the clinical specialty, NPs can focus on many different subspecialties.
  • Emergency: Emergency nurse practitioners specialize in emergency medicine. They assess critically ill or injured patients, diagnose acute conditions, and determine treatment plans in settings like emergency rooms or urgent care clinics.
  • Family: Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) act as primary care providers for patients of all ages. Their training prepares them for family practice, typically in a doctor's office or community clinic. FNPs conduct health assessments, perform wellness checks, and educate patients on wellness.
  • Gerontology Acute Care: A gerontology acute care nurse practitioner treats acute and chronic conditions in older patients. They conduct health assessments, diagnose acute or critical conditions, and create treatment plans for their patients.
  • Gerontology Primary Care: A gerontology primary care nurse practitioner specializes in primary care for aging patients. They monitor physical and mental conditions related to aging and refer patients to specialists for acute care needs.
  • Neonatal: Neonatal nurse practitioners care for newborn babies who require specialty medical attention. They monitor infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and work with physicians and neonatal nurses to treat premature infants and babies with health issues.
  • Oncology: Oncology nurse practitioners care for cancer patients, particularly those actively undergoing treatments. They often coordinate with physicians on treatment plans. Some oncology NPs conduct cancer research.
  • Orthopedic: Orthopedic nurse practitioners treat patients with musculoskeletal problems. They specialize in injuries that affect the bones or muscles, including orthopedic diseases. Orthopedic NPs often work closely with orthopedic surgeons.
  • Pediatric Acute Care: Pediatric acute care nurse practitioners specialize in working with children who have acute and chronic illnesses. They monitor patients that require ongoing management, often working in hospitals or pediatric intensive care units.
  • Pediatric: Pediatric nurse practitioners are primary care providers for children from birth through adolescence. They conduct wellness examinations, discuss health issues with the child's parent or guardian, and manage common pediatric medical conditions.
  • Psychiatry and Mental Health: Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners diagnose and treat patients with mental health disorders. They conduct psychiatric evaluations, evaluate patients' medical histories, and recommend treatment plans.
  • Women's Health: Women's health nurse practitioners specialize in primary care for female patients. Also called OBGYN nurses, they offer gynecological exams, family planning services, and women's wellness care. Women's health NPs often work in doctor's offices or hospitals.
Nurse Anesthetists

Nurse anesthetists care for patients before, during, and after medical procedures that require anesthesia. They interview patients, administer pain management during surgery, and monitor patients after procedures. Nurse anesthetists also monitor vital signs and discuss pain management needs for discharged patients.

An MSN program trains nurses in administering anesthesia. By 2025, nurse anesthetist programs will shift from the master's level to the doctoral level, so RNs considering nurse anesthetist graduate programs may not be able to find MSN-only anesthetist programs in the future.

Nurse Midwives

Nurse midwives care for pregnant women and newborn babies. They conduct gynecological and prenatal exams, deliver babies, and offer primary maternity care. During labor and delivery, nurse midwives assess patient needs and manage any emergencies. Nurse midwives also educate patients on wellness and provide family planning care.

Nurse midwife MSN programs blend classroom and practicum training to prepare RNs for advanced clinical roles in the women's health specialty.

Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical nurse specialists offer direct patient care in pediatrics, home health, and public health. They also research patient care and design policies to improve quality in healthcare settings, often acting as leaders in healthcare organizations and participating in research and policymaking.

An MSN degree trains clinical nurse specialists through both classroom and experiential learning. Graduate students also complete clinical hours to strengthen their practical skills.

Nurse Educators

Nurse educators teach other nurses in healthcare and academic environments. In a healthcare setting, nurse educators provide clinical instruction to RNs and other healthcare staff. They train employees on procedures and help them build clinical skills. In academic settings, they give lectures and teach classes.

The role requires at least an MSN degree, though nursing professors often hold doctorates. During a nurse educator program, nurses build the pedagogical skills needed to teach other nurses.

Nurse Administrators

Nurse administrators manage teams of nurses and healthcare staff. Also known as nurse leaders or nurse executives, they implement procedures to improve patient care, manage budgets, and monitor long-term goals. Nurse administrators also recruit and hire nurses, evaluate staff performance, and create shift schedules.

MSN programs for nurse administrators strengthen the leadership, management, and financial skills necessary for administrative roles in healthcare organizations. Graduates with MSNs can pursue roles in hospitals, doctor's offices, ambulatory care facilities, and other healthcare settings.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With an MSN Degree?

Nurses with MSNs earn higher salaries than those with bachelor's-level educations. Demand for nurses with graduate degrees also exceeds the demand for RNs.

Salary expectations and job availability depend on the nurse's specialty area and specific nursing degree. The following table covers the median annual salary and projected job growth rates for MSN nursing jobs.

MSN Career Outlooks
Career Median Annual Salary (2019) Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)
Nurse Practitioners $109,820 52%
Nurse Anesthetists $174,790 14%
Nurse Midwives $105,030 12%
Clinical Nurse Specialists $73,300 12%
Nurse Educator $74,600 20%
Nurse Administrators $100,980 18%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Projections Central

Professional Organizations

AANP represents more than 118,000 NPs and students in the U.S. The association provides educational and career resources, including a guide to becoming an NP and a database of local NPs. Members also benefit from research opportunities and the AANP job center, which connects NPs with openings in the field.

Founded in 1931, AANA represents over 57,000 certified registered nurse anesthetists and students pursuing nurse anesthetist degrees. The association provides resources for students and educators, continuing education opportunities, and access to a professional support network. AANA also offers career development resources, recognition awards, and volunteer opportunities.

The association advocates for nurse midwives by providing educational resources and leadership development support. Members participate in continuing education opportunities, attend meetings and events, or strengthen their training by reading ACNM research. The association also offers student resources and professional development support.

NACNS represents the 70,000 clinical nurse specialists working in the U.S. The association provides professional resources, including clinical resources and research in the field. NACNS also connects clinical nurse specialists with continuing education opportunities and reports. Members also have access to publications and professional certifications offered by the association.

American Association of Colleges of Nursing AACN sets curriculum standards for nursing education and provides resources for individuals considering MSN degrees. The association maintains a database of statistics on nursing programs, hosts conferences and webinars, and offers leadership development for nurses at different stages of their careers.

Accreditation for MSN Programs

Only accredited MSN programs meet the requirements for board certification and advanced nursing licenses, so students should only enroll in nurse practitioner programs that hold accreditation from a recognized accrediting organization.

For example, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools all grant accreditation for MSN programs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an MSN the Same as a Nurse Practitioner?

NP is a job title, while an MSN is a degree. NPs must earn MSNs, but the degree also prepares students to become nurse midwives, nurse educators, and nurse administrators. Nursing schools usually offer many MSN concentration options.

How Many Years Is an MSN Degree?

Earning an MSN typically takes 2-3 years after earning a bachelor's, depending on the specialty. Clinical programs often take longer because they require additional practicum hours.

Will DNPs Replace MSNs?

Certain specialties, such as nurse anesthetist, will soon require a DNP for licensure. An MSN still meets licensure requirements for many roles, however, such as NP and nurse executives.

Is an MSN Degree Better than a BSN Degree?

Compared to nurses with BSNs, professionals with graduate degrees can take on more responsibilities and earn higher salaries. An MSN prepares nurses for advanced practice roles, like NP and nurse midwife. Nurses with MSNs can also work as nurse educators, nurse administrators, and clinical nurse leaders.

Header Image Credit: Fly View Productions | Getty Images

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