Distance Learning Options for an RN to MSN Graduate Degree

Learn about online degree programs with RN to MSN courses. Get an overview of the program types, requirements and course descriptions available for this field.

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Essential Information

Online RN-to-MSN (registered nurse to Master of Science in Nursing) programs are common. They allow an RN with a nursing diploma or associate's degree in nursing to combine bachelor's and master's degree studies and earn both degrees in less time than enrolling in separate degree programs.

Online studies allow nurses to continue working full-time while taking courses as their schedules allow. The program cannot be completed entirely online due to clinical practice requirements, but nurses can usually complete those requirements at the healthcare facilities where they work.

There are several options for specialization in online RN-to-MSN programs. Possible specializations include nurse educator, nursing informatics, clinical nurse leader and patient care services administration.


RN-to-MSN programs typically offer a variety of specialization options for students to consider. Students trained to become clinical nurse leaders are prepared to deal with all aspects of patient care, including quality, coordination, safety and cost. Those who specialize in patient care services administration are trained in the administrative side of nursing leadership, ensuring effective and high-quality patient care. Other students may specialize in nursing education, which appeals to RNs who wish to become nursing instructors.

Although specific prerequisites can vary, all schools require applicants to be RNs. An RN who holds a diploma or an associate's degree may enroll in a program that combines Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) completion requirements and leads to a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. RNs who hold a bachelor's degree with a specified minimum grade point average (GPA) are eligible to enroll in just the MSN program.

Information and Requirements

Individuals who opt for the RN-to-BSN-to-MSN program are able to complete the program in 3-4 years. Those who already hold bachelor's degrees can usually fulfill the MSN requirements in about two years.

Clinical or practical courses are often completed at an approved hospital or facility near the student's home. Most often, this is where the student is already employed. The didactic portions of the program are delivered entirely online. Using a course management system, such as Blackboard, students have access to classes and assignments 24 hours a day. Students are generally advised to log in a certain number of times each week. Assignments are completed and entered online. Exams are presented either online or completed live in an approved, proctored facility.

Technical requirements include a computer with Internet access using at least Windows XP or Mac OS X. Recommended browsers include Internet Explorer 7.0, Firefox 2.0 and Safari 3.0. The computer may also need such programs as Microsoft Office Professional and Adobe Acrobat Professional.

List of Common RN-to-MSN Courses

Courses in the RN-to-MSN program will vary depending on the specialization. However, some basic foundation courses are included in virtually every program.

Policy and Ethics

With an examination of past and present healthcare policies, students explore issues such as financing, quality and safety. This course considers the possible ethical implications of applying social practices to healthcare policies.


Students learn to identify and analyze possible problems in research studies. They learn to design quantitative and qualitative research projects in order to address the problems and offer possible solutions.


As students learn to run the various diagnostic tests used in advanced nursing, they become familiar with how to analyze and assess the pathophysiology of common diseases. They examine changes that can occur in body systems in similar primary care settings as the body ages.

Patient Care Services Leadership

Among the primary focal points of this course are strategic planning, patient expectations and needs, care delivery and quality control. All aspects of patient care are examined as students learn how to design effective strategies to ensure successful outcomes.

Curriculum Development

Students learn the process of curriculum development for the nursing profession. Taken into consideration are course objectives, activities, course content, competent delivery of course content and methods for student performance evaluation.

Career Information for Graduates

Some common jobs available to graduates holding Master of Science in Nursing degrees include nurse educator, director of nurse education, nurse manager, clinical nurse educator, practice administrator and director of patient care services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities for all nurses, including those holding an MSN, will increase by 16% from 2014-2024. This is much faster than the national average for all occupations, reports the BLS (

In October 2016, a survey conducted by found the median national salary for nurse educators to be $71,575. The median salaries for patient care services administrators and clinical nurse leaders were reported to be $94,579 and $74,770, respectively.

Professional Certification and Continuing Education Information

Qualified graduates are eligible to sit for certification examinations to become Certified Nurse Leaders (CNLs), a credential offered by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Those looking to teach nursing can look to the National League for Nursing (NLN) for their Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) credential. CNLs must renew their certification every five years, and they must maintain their RN licensure, work a minimum number of hours during each 5-year certification interval and complete continuing education courses.

Requirements for CNE renewal are very similar, plus they must demonstrate that they follow the Certified Nurse Educator Code of Ethics. Other nursing credentials are offered by numerous organizations; RN-to-MSN students are encouraged to do as much research as possible when considering certification options.

There are several paths a registered nurse can take if they wish to pursue an MSN degree. If they already have a bachelor's degree in nursing degree, they can expedite the process by directly enrolling in an MSN program. If not, they can enroll in an RN-to-BSN-to-MSN program.

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