As technology evolves and the nursing field expands, more employers are seeking nursing professionals with advanced leadership skills in specialized areas. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) ranks nursing third in expected job growth among all occupations, and it projects a growth rate of 15% for nurse practitioners between 2016-2026. According to the BLS, this increase results from the nation's aging population and the financial pressure on hospitals to release patients quickly. As a result of these factors, more patients rely on outpatient and long-term care facilities.
A master of science in nursing (MSN) allows students to complete advanced studies and specialize in areas such as gerontology, pediatric care, and women's health. In addition to clinical practice, MSN programs focus on scholarship, management, and consultant skills. These programs prepare graduates to earn advanced leadership positions in nursing.
Should I Get an MSN Degree?
Typically, professionals who have spent years in the nursing field or who would like to change careers apply for MSN programs. A few colleges offer entry into pre-licensure nursing master's programs, which allow students who have yet not completed bachelor's degrees in nursing to become registered nurses. However, most MSN programs serve professionals who have already completed BSN degrees and have their registered nurse licensure. On-campus MSN programs are ideal for students who would like to apply for their master's degrees immediately after earning a bachelor's and students who are able to take time off from their jobs in order to earn a master's degree.
MSN programs provide students with nursing research and scholarship skills. Students learn how to analyze patient data and get published in scientific journals. These programs also allow students to specialize in areas like gerontology, family healthcare, public health, pediatric care, neonatal care, nursing informatics, and nursing education.
Earning your master's in nursing provides excellent networking opportunities with professionals. Other benefits of master's nursing programs include job placement assistance and opportunities for research, internships, and other field work. After graduation, students with this degree typically have a significant competitive edge over students with BSN degrees. Finally, an MSN degree may lead to leadership positions with higher salaries in specialized areas of nursing.
What Can I Do with an MSN?
In general, individuals who earn MSN degrees possess natural leadership skills, a strong work ethic, and a passion for helping others. This degree is also a good fit for lifelong learners interested in engaging in the evolution of technology and healthcare or in making positive changes through healthcare. Finally, MSN degrees require flexibility and a calm demeanor under pressure.
- Advanced Nurse Practitioner
ARNPs often have the same duties as doctors: prescribing medication, ordering tests and other procedures, and administering physical exams and therapy. These professionals also supervise nursing teams and other hospital staff.
Median Annual Salary: $110,930
Projected Growth Rate: 31%
- Nurse Educator
A nurse educator organizes and supervises continuing education for nursing teams. They work with hospital administrators to facilitate trainings and develop staff evaluations and education programs. They occasionally develop patient care policies and systems, give presentations, and write or edit manuals and training guides.
Median Annual Salary: $72,940
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
These professionals work with children, especially those who are chronically ill. They consult with specialists to prescribe treatment such as medication or physical therapy. Pediatric nurse practitioners act as primary care providers or as the main liaisons between doctors and patients.
Median Annual Salary: $58,970
Projected Growth Rate: 31%
- Nurse Anesthetist
One of the highest-paying occupations for nurses, nurse anesthetists work alongside anesthesiologists to administer anesthesia to patients. They communicate with patients and evaluate data.
Median Annual Salary: $110,930
Projected Growth Rate: 31%
- Legal Nurse Consultant
These professionals must have extensive experience in nursing and legal matters. Legal nurse consultants primarily work for insurance companies, analyzing medical records, x-rays, and other medical data to support legal teams, often for malpractice or worker's compensation cases.
Median Annual Salary: $74,469
How to Choose an MSN Program
Several factors affect program length, including whether the program follows a part-time or full-time schedule and whether your school offers a master's in nursing online or on-campus. Online MSN programs often work well for students who need to balance work and family while earning their degree. Online programs also sometimes include self-paced or accelerated formats, which affect how quickly students can progress through a program. On-campus programs generally involve more structured, hands-on learning. If you choose an on-campus MSN program, be sure you can travel to campus every week for classes and other meetings.
Second, consider the program's cost and what you can afford. Some online programs offer discounted tuition. Also, many graduate students apply for student loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study in order to pay for their degree. Similarly, consider the cost of living around campus. While schools in larger cities sometimes have a higher cost of living, they also may present more employment opportunities.
Third, make sure your master's in nursing program offers a curriculum that fits with your career goals and interests. Does this program offer a specialization that interests you? What kinds of coursework and field work does the program require? Many MSN programs require students to complete a practicum or internship, and some require students to complete a written thesis or other final project.
Programmatic Accreditation for MSN Programs
Accreditation agencies examine college and university programs to make sure they align with certain academic standards. Attending an accredited school tells future employers and other graduate or professional programs that you received a legitimate, quality education.
Also called professional or specialized accreditation, programmatic accreditation supports specific programs and departments within colleges and universities. This specialized accrediting process ensures that these programs adhere to specific industry standards in addition to general academic standards. Here are some accreditation organizations related to advanced nursing degrees:
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education: Awards accreditation to master of science in nursing and bachelor of science in nursing programs.
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing: Accredits MSN, BSN, associate, and doctoral nursing programs.
- Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs: Accredits certificate, MSN, and doctoral nurse anesthetist programs.
- American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation: Accredits midwifery programs.
MSN Program Admissions
The graduate school admissions process often involves a more rigorous and competitive application than admissions for undergraduate programs. While many students believe it is easier to be accepted into online programs, the acceptance rate for online programs is generally about the same as the rate for on-campus programs. Both program types typically require a bachelor's degree, a minimum GPA, GRE scores, professional experience, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.
The number of MSN programs to which you should apply depends on your specific career needs and financial situation. Most graduate programs require an application fee. Make sure to read program websites carefully and reach out to the program advisers for information; many MSN programs have informative brochures or other materials available via email or mail.
- Bachelor's Degree: MSN program applicants must have bachelor's degrees.
- Professional Experience: Some MSN programs require students to have at least one year of clinical experience as registered nurses and at least one year of clinical experience in the area in which they'd like to specialize.
- Minimum GPA: Most MSN programs require incoming graduate students to have a minimum GPA of 3.0. According to some admission requirements, students who meet the minimum GPA are not required to submit GRE scores.
- Application: Applicants must complete each school's application separately, which often requires a personal statement.
- Transcripts: Graduate programs require applicants to submit transcripts from their undergraduate institutions, as well as transcripts for any other graduate or postgraduate study. For programs that require prerequisite classes, transcripts allow the program to verify you've taken the proper classes.
- Letters of Recommendation: Most graduate programs require two to three letters of recommendation. Ask undergraduate professors, internship supervisors, and other individuals with whom you have a strong professional relationship to write this letter. Be sure to give your recommenders a month or more to write your letters; while writing your letter may only take a few hours, recommenders often write letters for multiple students.
- Test Scores: Most MSN programs require students to take the GRE. Often, students with high enough GPAs or students who have already earned master's degrees in other fields can waive this exam requirement. While a few MSN programs do not require the GRE, they strongly recommend that students take this exam.
- Application Fee: Graduate school applications typically require an accompanying fee, ranging from $40-$105. Some programs waive fees for students with financial need or a history of military service.
What Else Can I Expect from an MSN Program?
Specializing in a specific area of nursing helps professionals become more competitive candidates for higher-paying, advanced positions. According to the BLS, the highest-paying nursing jobs, such as nurse anesthetists, require specialized, advanced training. The list below includes five of the most common concentrations for MSN programs.
|Gerontology||Nurses specializing in gerontology focus on adults and older adults. This concentration also explores aging, disease prevention, and health promotion. Students learn how to assess, diagnose, and care for adults with acute and chronic health issues.||Nurse gerontologist|
|Midwifery||This concentration prepares students for careers as certified nurse midwives. Students work closely with OB/GYN physicians and learn about care for women during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Students specializing in midwifery study women's health, childbearing care, and pharmacology.||Certified nurse midwife|
|Pediatric Health||A pediatric nurse practitioner works with children and adolescents. This concentration includes studies in primary care, health assessment and diagnosis, pediatric pharmacology, and chronic health issues for children and adolescents. Graduate students specializing in pediatric health gain skills and knowledge in school health clinical practice.||Pediatric nurse practitioner, pediatric mental health specialist|
|Neonatal||Specializing in neonatal care prepares students to care for newborn babies. Students learn how to manage various health issues such as prematurity, birth defects, infections, and parental substance abuse problems. Students will also learn how to work with families and connect them with support groups.||Neonatal nurse practitioner|
Courses in an MSN Program
Courses in your MSN program vary depending on the school and the concentration you choose. However, a few common graduate courses feature prominently across MSN programs and concentrations. This list describes five such courses:
- Advanced Physiology and Pathophysiology
This class covers scientific advances in genetics, as well as disease prevention and treatments. It prepares students for careers as adult nurse gerontologists, family nurse practitioners, and women's health nurse practitioners.
- Well Women Healthcare
This class prepares students to work in women's health. Students learn how to evaluate and care for women's physical, emotional, and mental needs, as well as discern how socioeconomics and culture affect women's lives and health.
- Healthcare of Childbearing Women
Focused on pregnant women and their families, this course introduces students to the ethics and policies relevant to pregnant women's health and how to care for pregnancy complications. This class prepares students for careers as nurse-midwives and advanced nurse practitioners in women's health.
- Introduction to Research Methods and Design
This class helps students establish advanced research skills and practices for the rest of their graduate and professional careers. Students learn how to conduct, evaluate, and apply research to their nursing practices.
- Family and Organizational Systems across the Lifespan
This course focuses on systemic theories of human functioning and prepares students to work as family nurse practitioners. Students learn theories and practices relevant to caring for families of varying cultural, socioeconomic, and racial backgrounds. The class also examines how to care for the mental and emotional healthcare of children, adolescents, and adults.
How Long Does It Take to Get an MSN?
In general, it takes about two to three years and 35-50 credit hours to earn your MSN degree. Several factors affect the program length, including the concentration you choose and the availability of online courses or part-time options. Also, certain nursing tracks, such as pediatric or neonatal care, require more credit hours. Additionally, entry into nursing or pre-licensure MSN programs often take three years to complete.
Some programs offer accelerated formats or program plans of varying length, which allow students to earn their degree more quickly. Choosing an accelerated MSN format can help you save money on tuition, even if it allows less time for jobs and other responsibilities outside of the program.
How Much Is an MSN?
MSN programs cost between $25,000 and $75,000 per year for full-time students. Several factors affect the cost of a degree, including whether you are enrolled in on-campus or online classes. Additionally, some programs charge slightly more for part-time tuition. While researching tuition for MSN programs, take into account the cost of housing, technology, books, and other school supplies.
Certifications and Licenses an MSN Prepares For
- Nurse Practitioner
The requirements for this license vary by state. NPs must first completed an advanced nursing practice program such as a master of science in nursing. Prospective nurse practitioners must then pass a national exam from an approved nurse practitioner certification organization. Additionally, most states require these professionals to complete a certain number of active practice hours and continuing education in other areas of training, such as HIV/AIDS or pharmacology.
- Certified Nurse Midwife
After completing a master's program with a nurse midwife specialization, CNMs take the American Midwifery Certification Board exam. To maintain their certification, they need to retake this exam every five years or complete three board-approved modules: Antepartum and Primary Care of the Pregnant Woman; Intrapartum/Newborn and Postpartum; Gynecology and PC of the Well-Woman.
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
CRNAs must have a master's degree or a doctoral degree in nursing. These professionals also need to pass an exam offered through the National Board of Certification & Recertification of Nurse Anesthetists. Prospective nurse anesthetists need to maintain their certification through completing 40 hours of continuing education and recertifying every two years.
- Certified Pediatric Nurse
CPNs first earn their registered nurse licensure. These professionals need an advanced nursing degree and several years of experience in pediatric nursing. Once they've graduated with a master's degree, they take the American Nurses Credentialing Center registered nurse-board certified pediatric exam. Professionals can also take even more specialized advanced practice pediatric nurse exams, such as a pediatric primary care mental health specialist exam.
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
ACNPs must have either a master's degree or a doctorate in nursing. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers several certification exams for prospective ACNPs, including critical care nursing, critical care nursing-pediatric, and progressive care nursing-adult. ACNPs also apply for advanced practice nursing licensure through their states.
Resources for MSN Students
Available in print and digital editions, the journal is published five times per year, featuring scholarly articles about trends and issues in many different areas of nursing.
This journal focuses on healthcare leadership and trends in healthcare management, policy, and economics.
Published annually, this journal has won several awards from the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors. Past issues include articles on infection prevention and control, care for undocumented immigrants, periodontal disease, and patient assessment.
Medscape features an easily accessible online database for nursing professionals, including point-of-care and disease information, the latest professional news, and continuing education opportunities.
The NSNA holds an annual conference that features seminars, workshops, presentations, and social events. The conference offers networking opportunities and information about education and leadership positions in nursing.
Professional Organizations in Nursing
Professional organizations offer several resources to current students and recent graduates. Through annual conferences and other meetings, members can network with professionals in their specialized areas. Many professional organizations provide resources particularly useful for students, including job boards, student loan debt consolidation or refinancing, and publications with the latest research. The list below describes five major professional organizations for nurses.
The AMA supports healthcare staff and improves patient care. Its resources include articles on work-life balance and the latest research. The AMA community also advocates for medical staff and works on healthcare policy.
The Academy supports nurses through its policy work and research. This organization provides awards and scholarships, an open online forum, and annual conferences. The academy also hosts expert panels discussing current trends and issues in healthcare and recommends actions to the academy and its members.
A nonprofit organization, the NPHF provides continuing education for nurses, patient education, and a specialized opioid education. The foundation's website also offers a job board for nursing professionals.
With over 52,000 members, the AANA supports nurses anesthetists and their patients. The association engages in advocacy and policy work and publishes several journals, newsletters, and books. Its member advantage program offers several resources including student loan debt consolidation or refinancing.
The NSNA supports student nurses with a health insurance marketplace, discounts, resources for nursing exams, and a student nursing magazine. The website also provides several career resources with information about passing your exams, finding a job, and education options.