Interested in accelerating your nursing career? If you have considered pursuing an advanced nursing education, you may have wondered, what is an MSN degree? A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree allows practicing nurses to move forward in their careers. MSN-prepared nurses might step into advanced care specialities or an executive or teaching role.1
A postgraduate degree can be a valuable way to expand your overall knowledge. Prior to entering an MSN program, it’s important to identify your career goals and a specific learning path.
What Do You Learn in an MSN Program?
There are three primary reasons to earn an MSN degree. As a graduate, you can:1
- Enter advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) careers
- Move into positions of leadership
- Increase your earning potential
General areas of study include:1
- Evidence-based nursing practices
- Advanced practice nursing theory
- Nursing informatics (data and technology)
- Leadership, management, and advocacy
MSN Clinical and Non-Clinical Study Tracks
When you enter an MSN program, you’ll select a track that will determine what specific coursework you’ll take and what speciality you’ll earn when you graduate. These may include:2
- Clinical tracks, such as Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
- Clinical tracks with a specialized focus on a patient population, through role specialities such as Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP) or Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner–Primary Care (PMHNP-PC).
- Non-clinical tracks, such as Nurse Executive or Nurse Educator
How do you choose the right track? Consider your goals, ideal work environment and which patients you would like to support.
For example, you might choose to become a Family Nurse Practitioner if you’d like to work with patients outside a hospital setting. The average family nurse practitioner salary is $92,548 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Someone interested in becoming an Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner might be passionate about helping elderly patients. Or, you may choose a non-clinical track if you want to develop leadership skills and educate future nurses.
How Does an MSN Compare to Other Nursing Degrees?
There are many avenues you can take to enter the nursing profession or advance your career. Let’s compare a few of the options.
Is an MSN the Same as an RN?
Registered Nurse (RN) is a professional designation, not a degree.3 There are multiple routes to becoming an RN, but the essential components are passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and applying for licensure in your state.
Traditional MSN programs require applicants to hold an active RN license and have at least one year of experience.
Is an MSN the Same as a BSN?
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year undergraduate program that, along with passing the NCLEX, is a common route to entering the profession as an RN.4
Traditional MSN programs generally require applicants to have completed a BSN.
What Are the Requirements for an MSN Program?
Depending on your career goals, an MSN program may appear to be the logical next step after earning an undergraduatedegree.
If you plan to apply to a traditional MSN program, you’ll need:
- A BSN degree, often with a GPA minimum level, and academic transcripts
- At least one year of practical nursing experience
- An active, unencumbered RN license in your state of residence
You’ll also submit an application that may include:1
- Your resume
- GRE scores (though some schools no longer require them)
- An essay on your career goals and/or experience
- A background check, fingerprinting and/or drug testing
- Professional references
- An interview
- Application fees
How Long Does It Take to Earn an MSN Degree?
Your background, including your degrees and professional experience, will influence the length of time it takes to earn your MSN. It will also depend on:
- Your chosen study track, particularly whether it’s clinical or non-clinical
- The in-person practica requirements of a clinical track
- Whether you attend part or full-time
- The availability of self-paced courses that allow knowledge or experience testing
Different programs may vary in length due to unique coursework and requirements. These include:
BSN to MSN Programs
A traditional MSN degree usually takes two to three years to complete. If you enter with a completed BSN, an MSN often requires around 36 to 55 credit hours to complete (depending on the student’s specialty).15
Graduate students who plan to enter an APRN field should note that different states establish their own requirements based upon their individual Nurse Practice Acts (NPA).6 Moreover, while BSN to MSN programs can be completed online, clinical hours for APRN careers must be completed in-person, generally require licensure, and may require the student to handle their personal arrangements.13
RN to MSN Bridge Programs
If you’re an RN who has not completed a BSN, an RN to MSN bridge program may also require foundational coursework. In addition, some bridge programs are combined BSN/MSN programs that grant both degrees upon completion. Depending on the program type and school you select, you can anticipate at least 51 credit hours for completion.14
As with BSN to MSN programs, RN to MSN students will need to consult their state’s NPA to determine APRN clinical hour requirements.6
Accelerated or Direct-Entry Programs
If you spent your college years earning a degree in theatre arts, political science or anything else under the sun, jumping into an MSN program as a way to career-switch to nursing may entail a longer commitment.
These programs may require full-time attendance and often include a first-year track to acquiring an RN license. Depending on which focus you choose, a direct-entry program may include:1
- Completing nursing-specific prerequisite courses
- Credit hours totalling 60 to 75
What Is the Value of an MSN Degree?
While money isn’t everything, it’s certainly a critical part of investing in your career at an academic level. What is an MSN degree worth in terms of boosting your salary?
Without considering an exact job role, seniority or experience level, the average annual base salary for nurses based on degrees held is:
Note that your location is another key factor in salary averages and ceilings. In particular, consider whether you’re headed to a destination that’s large enough to support your desired specialization or executive role. Be sure to investigate your target city and state, as well as national figures both at a cost of living and salary level.
Job Outlook for Nurses with an MSN
Among registered nurses working in the U.S. in 2020, only 14.9% held a master’s degree—not nearly enough to fill the demand.9
Between 2021 and 2031, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 5% growth rate for all occupations and 6% for RNs.87 Comparatively, growth in advanced practical and executive nursing is slated to significantly outpace that, at:
- 40% for APRNs, such as nurse practitioners8
- 28% for medical and health services managers, which is a business activity planning and coordination role available to nurses10
While your exact hiring prospects may vary depending on your location and speciality, it’s safe to say that the demand for nurses with advanced knowledge is expected to continue growing.
MSN Career Options
After finishing your MSN degree program, there are several jobs you can apply for, depending on your speciality. These include:
- Nurse Practitioner – Nurse practitioners mainly focus on acute care, primary care and speciality care. For example, a neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP), who primarily cares for newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit.
- Nurse Administrator – The nurse administrator is basically a head nurse. They may run nursing departments in hospitals, clinics and other health facilities.
- Clinical Nurse Leader – This type of nurse runs the administrative side of nursing, such as care coordination, risk assessment, outcome management, etc.
Some nursing career paths may require pursuing a doctorate (DNP) as well. For example, becoming a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist that is in charge of providing anesthesia during crucial procedures requires a doctoral education as of January 1, 2022.11
Is an MSN Degree Worth It?
Determining the worth of earning an MSN degree requires an evaluation of your specific goals and circumstances. There are plenty of opportunities to branch out, find new positions and reach a higher earning potential within this role. There are also personal questions you’ll need to answer as you decide whether to pursue an MSN.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Total cost – In addition to tuition, account for books and school fees (which may range from roughly $4,000 to $8,000) plus travel, if required.
- Clinical vs. non-clinical – While most APRN tracks require more credit hours and are more expensive, the largest average earning potential is generally found in APRN and executive roles.
- Financial aid – Apply for jobs with employers who offer tuition reimbursement and explore scholarships and other financial aid options.
- APRN requirements – Check on the latest credentialing requirements before committing to an advanced practice track to ensure you can pursue your specialty of choice.10
You might also consider:
- The time, effort and cost to family or other commitments
- Your career goals and what motivates you in your daily professional life
- A comparison of accredited schools for cost, reputation, graduation rate, and reputation
MSN vs DNP
MSN isn’t the most advanced nursing program you might pursue. After completing your MSN degree program, you can get a DNP degree. Consider earning a DNP degree if you want to run your own practice someday.
Ready to Learn More?
Whether an MSN is a future goal or the next step on your career ladder, you’ll benefit from reviewing the application process and program details now.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program as well as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses.
Our MSN program provides both clinical and non-clinical tracks to choose from Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner–Primary Care (PMHNP-PC), Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP), Nurse Executive and Nurse Educator. Our programs offer flexibility to combine virtual, self-paced and in-person learning experiences to adapt to your schedule.
Visit our website to read more about the program, request further information or get started on an application.
- “Master’s of Science in Nursing – MSN Degree Programs,” Registered Nursing.org, last modified October 2022. https://www.registerednursing.org/degree/msn/
- “Master of Science in Nursing (MSN),” University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, https://www.usa.edu/college-health-sciences/school-of-nursing/master-science-nursing-msn/
- Maura Deering JD, “RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?” Nurse Journal, last modified January 2023. https://nursejournal.org/degrees/bsn/rn-and-bsn-degree-differences/
- Julie Monroe BSN, RN, “RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN – Which Degree is Better?” Nursing Process, https://www.nursingprocess.org/rn-to-bsn-vs-rn-to-msn.html
- Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC, “FAQ: What Are the Different Types of Master’s Degrees in Nursing?” Online FNP Programs, last modified June 24, 2020. https://www.onlinefnpprograms.com/faqs/types-of-msn-degree-programs/
- “APRN State Law and Regulation,” nursingworld.org. https://www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/advocacy/state/aprn-state-law-and-regulation/
- “Registered Nurses,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, last modified September 8, 2022. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
- “Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, last modified September 8, 2022. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm
- Robert Rosseter, “Nursing Fact Sheet,” American Association of Colleges of Nursing, last modified September 2022. https://www.aacnnursing.org/News-Information/Fact-Sheets/Nursing-Fact-Sheet
- “Medical and Health Services Managers,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, last modified September 8, 2022. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm
- Anna Giorgi and Kathleen Poindexter PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, “Earning a Master’s of Nursing Degree,” All Nursing Schools. https://www.allnursingschools.com/msn/