Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree

Curious about MSN degrees? Explore the different master's in nursing degree programs and discover the perfect MSN program format that is a fit for you.

MSN Meaning in Nursing

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is an essential degree for those who want to get into nursing administration, education, or specialty medical care. An MSN degree is undertaken by those who have already completed a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN) and have become certified registered nurses (RNs) by completing to NCLEX-RN licensing exam. MSN bridge programs are also available if you have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN).

MSN degree programs often look at nursing principles and theories with a focus on a specific medical specialty, such as neonatal nursing or oncology nursing. Those who complete an MSN degree are knowledgeable enough to sit for the national certification exams to become nurse practitioners (NPs). Other career options for graduates with an MSN degree include nurse educator, nurse administrator, and health advocate.

MSN Degree Options

MSN degrees can be found both online and on campus. However, most online programs are blended programs that include online and on campus components. Courses about foundational nursing education and theory can be taken online, but practical skills must be learned in a simulated lab, with robotic dummy patients, in a clinic, or at a hospital residency.

MSN programs can be taken directly after an ADN or BSN program. All MSN programs require applicants to have RN certification and a current license to practice. MSN programs generally take two years to complete, though other degree pathways, including accelerated programs, exist. Accelerated RN to MSN programs are appropriate for students who have only completed their ADN, and some programs award BSN degrees at graduation in addition to the MSN. RN to MSN programs typically take three to five years to complete.

MSN degrees are often focused on a single specialty within the medical field. Here are just a few of the MSN concentrations available:

  • Midwifery
  • Critical care
  • Gerontology nursing
  • Family practice
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Nurse education
  • Pediatric nursing
  • Pain management nursing
  • Neonatal nursing
  • Mental health nursing

RN to MSN

For registered nurses who are interested in working in a specialty field, an RN to MSN degree program is available. This program is typically for those who are already registered nurses with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). Some schools refer to their RN to MSN programs as ADN to MSN programs or ASN (Associate of Science in Nursing) to MSN programs; these programs have similar educational requirements, and an associate degree is a pre-requisite for any RN's looking to attend those programs.

RN to MSN programs are accelerated master's degree programs that take about three to five years to complete, rather than the six years it might take to complete both a bachelor's degree and an additional MSN degree. Some colleges provide both a BSN and MSN degree upon completion of the RN to MSN program, but not all do.

BSN to MSN

Another option to earn your MSN degree is to enter a master's program after earning your BSN degree. These programs typically take approximately 2 years to complete, but depending on your dedication and schedule, you can complete more courses in less time. Along with an introduction to graduate studies, BSN to MSN programs also introduce students to clinical settings, allowing students to gain hands-on experience in a medical setting or simulated lab.

Those who would like to earn their bachelor's and master's degrees in one fell swoop should consider applying to a BSN to MSN degree program. These programs allow nurses to earn both their BSN and MSN degrees by the end of their programs.

MSN vs. DNP

While an MSN degree will prepare you to work in a medical specialty, helping to care for patients, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) prepares you for work that improves a hospital and its patient care. Like an MSN degree, a DNP degree can also prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), such as a nurse-midwife or CRNA. Along with administrative and advocacy roles, you could become a professor at a college, teaching future nurses about the specialties you've majored in.

Depending on which track you choose, a DNP program can be completed between one and four years. If have your BSN, you can take an accelerated DNP program that skips over an MSN program; accelerated programs like this typically take three to four years to complete. An MSN-to-DNP track allows you to complete your DNP degree in one to two years after your MSN.

Let's compare MSN and DNP degree programs and career options.

Degree Program Prerequisites Years to Complete Common Career Options
MSN RN license
ADN, BSN, or bachelors degree
ADN to MSN: 3-5 years
BSN to MSN: 2 years
Nurse practitioner
Nurse midwife
ARPN
DNP RN license
BSN, bachelor's degree, or MSN
RN to DNP: 3-4 years
MSN to DNP: 2 years
APRN
Nursing professor
Health policy

MSN-MBA Dual Degrees

An MSN-MBA (Master of Business Administration) dual degree is a good way to become educated for a position as a healthcare manager, government worker, or a clinic executive role. This dual program will allow you to market your skills in both nursing and business, opening a wide selection of job opportunities. You typically begin this program with a BSN under your belt.

MSN-MBA programs are often accelerated, meaning you can earn both degrees in a shorter timeframe than you would if completing both an MSN and an MBA program individually. As a fulltime student, you can complete an MSN-MBA program in as little as five semesters, depending on how many classes you choose to take at once. Some of the courses you'll find in these dual degree programs include:

  • Financial Management
  • Resource Allocation
  • Business Communications
  • Healthcare Policy and Advocacy
  • Evidence-Based Nursing
  • Healthcare Professional Principles
  • Interpersonal Collaboration
  • Project Management
  • Statistical Analysis
  • Management in Healthcare
  • Health Systems
  • Business Leadership and Human Values

Online MSN Nursing Programs

Nursing programs are practice-focused, often requiring more than 900 clinical hours prior to graduation. As a result, you will likely not find a wholly online MSN degree program. Instead, you will find MSN hybrid degrees, which allow you to take foundational courses, such as those centered around pathophysiology, nursing education, and nursing specialties, online at your own pace. In these programs, you still need to spend time in simulated labs and in clinical settings, putting new skills and principles into practice.

Clinical practice is typically completed on campus; however, some schools will work with local medical centers so that you can complete these internships and clinicals in your area. Because schools usually require on-campus work, it may be wise to select a college that has a local campus or to find a school that groups all on-site work together in a multi-day or multi-week residency. Online programs tend to vary in cost, while some are more affordable, others charge the same per credit as their on-campus courses do.

MSN Nursing Salary & Careers

Earning an MSN degree can provide you with plenty of career opportunities and a higher salary. For example, as a nurse practitioner, you could earn an average salary of $107,480*. Another popular nursing career for MSN graduates is nurse educator; nurse educators made an average salary of $77,360* in 2017.

MSN Career Paths

MSN degrees can lead to large number of career paths. Take a look at some of the career options available to you with an MSN degree.

Career Salary* Job Description Job Outlook*
Nurse Practitioner $107,480 Examine, diagnose, and treat patients. Prescribe medication and treatments. 31%
Nurse Educator $77,360 Educate future nurses (typically a licensed practical nurse, or LPN). 35%
Nurse Midwife $103,640 Work with women's reproductive care and child delivery. 31%
Travel Nurse $100,000 Travel to high-need areas where there is a shortage of nurses. Act as a staff nurse until contract is over. 15% (for all registered nurses)
Nursing Administrator $98,350 Work to create a better environment for patients and advocate new systems and procedures. 20% (all medical and health service managers)
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA $169,450 Discuss anesthesia options with patients and doctors. Administer anesthesia and monitor patient pre-op, during, and after surgery. 31%
Health Information Manager $98,350 Keep records and statistics on patients electronically for further use and analysis. 20% (all medical and health service managers)

*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017)