Best Online Master’s in Nursing (MSN) Programs of 2021

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September 24, 2021

reviewed by Elizabeth M. Clarke, MSN, FNP, RN, MSSW, and Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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A master of science in nursing (MSN) is an advanced degree that can prepare graduates for multiple nursing career paths, including clinical research nurse, advanced practice nurse, and nurse educator. Students with an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing may earn their MSN through traditional or bridge programs.

A traditional MSN program takes about two years of full-time study to complete, with some accelerated online options leading to a degree in one year. Tuition costs vary dramatically based on the program, specialization, and school and can range from roughly $13,500-$100,000.

Earning an MSN may lead to advancement opportunities as well as increased earning potential. According to PayScale, as of September 2021, individuals with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) earned an average yearly salary of about $71,000. In contrast, those with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) made $87,000, and MSN degree-holders boasted an average annual wage of about $97,000.

MSN Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Is an Online MSN Program?

An online MSN program prepares graduates for leadership roles in various specialized areas of nursing. Students can often pursue concentrations like clinical nursing, nursing administration, advanced practice nursing, and nursing education. An MSN also provides nursing professionals with the clinical knowledge required to meet the healthcare needs of their patients.

Why Get a Graduate Nursing Degree Online?

Pursuing an online master's degree in nursing can give students greater flexibility, enabling them to set their own schedules. This option may be particularly valuable for people with family or work responsibilities. Many students continue to work full time, limiting their lost wages while pursuing their master's. Some online programs also offer accelerated tracks, leading to reduced completion times.

Additionally, online students may reduce their educational costs. For example, some schools waive campus-based student service fees and out-of-state tuition fees for distance learners.

What Can I Expect From an Online MSN Program?

An online MSN program prepares graduates for managerial roles that require leadership skills. Students seeking an MSN should possess compassion and a strong desire to care for patients. In addition, ideal candidates need strong communication and critical thinking skills and feel comfortable working in high-pressure environments.

Most programs require about 35-50 credits and take two years of full-time study to complete. Students can often choose from several concentrations, including the following:

Most programs also require clinical practicum experience, which students may acquire at their current position or a location in their area. Some programs also require on-campus weekend intensives or hands-on lab exercises once or multiple times throughout the year. Keep in mind that schools may not help online learners find practicum sites; it may be difficult to find preceptors depending on a student's speciality and location.

Types of MSN Programs

RN-to-MSN/ADN-to-MSN Programs

These bridge programs enable licensed registered nurses (RNs) to earn a BSN and an MSN. Degree-seekers must hold an associate degree or diploma in nursing and 1-2 years of nursing experience. These programs typically require about 95-125 credits and may take 3-5 years to complete.

BSN-to-MSN Programs

This traditional MSN program requires candidates to hold a BSN and an RN license. Depending on the specialization, most applicants must possess 1-3 years of clinical work experience. These programs require 35-50 credits and can be completed in two years, with accelerated online options leading to a degree in 12-18 months.

Direct-Entry MSN/Accelerated MSN Programs

This type of program enables students with a bachelor's degree in another field to pursue an MSN. Students without a science background typically take prerequisite courses in human anatomy, microbiology, and other health topics. To be formally admitted into the program, applicants must earn an RN license first. These programs require about 70-80 credits and take 2-3 years to complete.

What Courses Will I Take in an Online Master's in Nursing (MSN) Program?

Diagnostics

This course delves into differential diagnosis for physical and mental illnesses throughout the lifespan in primary care settings. Students may learn through case studies, building on their previous clinical experiences.

Advanced Roles in Nursing

Students learn about the nurse's clinical scope of practice in different settings. Learners also explore the historical development of the nursing profession and the ethical and social aspects of advanced nursing.

Research in Advanced Nursing

In this course, students examine the role of research and critical thinking in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. Additional covered topics include research methodologies and reasoning skills.

Primary Care Management

Students expand on their background in human anatomy and physiology, developing an understanding of disease and clinical manifestation. Learners explore common acute and chronic disorders, data assessment, and treatment protocols.

Alternative Therapies

This course focuses on alternative therapies used by patients in the United States. Covered complementary therapies may include chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, yoga, and massage. Additional topics include diet, exercise, and dietary supplements.

What Are the Admission Requirements for an Online Master's in Nursing (MSN) Program?

Admission requirements vary based on the type of online MSN program. For example, a traditional MSN program requires a BSN from an accredited program, while applicants must hold an ADN or diploma in nursing for bridge programs.

Prospective students also need an unencumbered RN license and 1-3 years of clinical work experience. Before enrollment, a clear background check is required, and students undergo a committee interview. During this interview, applicants should highlight their leadership skills, nursing experience, and honors or achievements that help them stand out.

The following requirements apply to most MSN programs.

Test Scores

Many schools require GRE scores, with some also accepting MAT scores. While admission requirements vary, minimum GRE test scores may include qualitative and verbal scores above the 50th percentile. International students may also be asked to submit their TOEFL or IELTS test results.

Letters of Recommendation

Most schools require at least two letters of recommendation. These professional references should come from previous professors, work supervisors, and/or professionals in the industry who can highlight an applicant's achievements and strengths.

Resume

Many online MSN programs require at least one year of clinical work experience. Varying specialties may also have unique requirements, such as experience in a family care clinic or neonatal unit. Some programs may require 2-3 years of work experience. A current resume summarizes this work history.

Essays

Essays or personal statements demonstrate an applicant's goals, long-term career plans, and educational aspirations. Students can also share why they want to attend a particular school and their relevant achievements.

Official Transcripts

Schools require official transcripts from all postsecondary institutions that applicants have attended. Many online MSN programs require a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA, and some require specific prerequisite courses in statistics and nursing research. Some programs also accept transfer credits, which can reduce the completion time and costs.

Still Looking for the Right Fit? Discover Similar Programs.

What Can I Do With an Online Master's in Nursing (MSN) Degree?

Career Outlook

Nurse practitioners and other advanced nursing professionals should see great demand in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 45% job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners between 2020 and 2030, with continued expansion expected due to an aging U.S. population. These professionals earned a median annual salary of $117,670 as of May 2020, with the top 10% of earners making more than $190,900 per year.

MSN programs enable students to specialize in specific areas. A master's can also serve as a stepping stone to a doctorate in nursing. Graduates of these programs can pursue careers as clinical nurse specialists and certified registered nurse anesthetists. These highly specialized pathways may require three or more years of critical care experience before entering a program.

Many graduates work in clinical practice in hospitals and primary care facilities, although others work in government agencies promoting public health or at universities performing research. While state requirements vary, professionals in many positions must pass a national exam and earn state licensure.

See where an online MSN degree can take you. Learn more about nursing careers.

Career Paths

Nurse Practitioner

Allowable nurse practitioner (NP) duties vary by state. Many provide primary patient care, including assessments, diagnosis, and treatment. They may also request laboratory tests and prescribe certain medications. Most specialize in treating specific populations, such as geriatrics, pediatrics, and patients with mental health challenges. NPs need a license to practice. Depending on their speciality, they may also need certification from various boards, including the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board.

Median Annual Salary: $111,680 (May 2020)

Nurse Anesthetist

Nursing anesthetists prepare and administer anesthesia to patients undergoing surgery, diagnostic procedures, and other therapies. They may provide general anesthesia that requires monitoring vital signs or local anesthesia that numbs a specific body area. These professionals must earn the certified registered nurse anesthetist credential from the National Board of Certification for Nurse Anesthetists.

Median Annual Salary: $183,580 (May 2020)

Nurse Midwife

Nurse midwives provide primary maternity care for women. This care may include gynecological exams, prenatal care, performing the delivery, and repairing lacerations. They may also make dietary and lifestyle suggestions that help both babies and mothers. These professionals can qualify to practice as certified nurse midwives by passing the American Midwifery Certification Board exam.

Median Annual Salary: $111,130 (May 2020)

Nurse Administrator

Nurse administrators supervise the nursing staff at clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. Additional tasks may include managing patient care, overseeing operations, budgeting finances, and meeting regulatory requirements. Although a specific certification is not required, pursuing a voluntary credential can increase job opportunities and earnings. Common certifications include the nurse executive certification and certified nurse manager and leader.

Average Annual Salary: $99,000 (September 2021)

Nurse Educator

Nurse educators train and mentor nurses at varying experience levels. Specific tasks include preparing curricula, delivering lectures, and supervising student's clinical rotations. Some educators continue to work in clinical practice, teaching 1-2 days a week. Certification is not required but may be preferred by some employers. Professionals can earn certification through the National League of Nursing.

Average Annual Salary: $78,000 (September 2021)

Nursing Not for You? Check Out These Related Careers.

Licenses and Certifications

Online nursing programs prepare graduates to take board certification exams related to their specific field. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) must pass a national board certification exam administered by varying national accreditation organizations, depending on the specialization. APRNs include certified nurse midwives, certified registered nurse anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse practitioners.

Organizations that offer board certification exams that apply to different specializations include the following:

Many boards require candidates to complete a certain number of clinical hours before sitting for the exam. For example, the acute-care nurse practitioner certification requires 1,000 clinical hours.

To practice in a specific state, APRNs must pursue state licensure, which is usually awarded through the state's board of nursing. Specific requirements vary by state.

Continuing Education

After earning an MSN, some students pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a Ph.D. in nursing. Both represent the highest level of education for the profession.

A DNP focuses on advanced clinical practice and is suited for advanced practice nurse practitioners. A Ph.D. prepares graduates for careers in research, education, and administration.

Many practicing nurses also need to complete regular continuing education units to maintain their licenses. Requirements vary depending on the state and speciality.

How Do I Choose an Online Master's in Nursing Program?

Cost

Tuition costs for online MSN programs range from from as little as $13,500 to more than $100,000. Public schools in the state where a student resides may offer the lowest tuition rates, while prestigious private schools tend to charge the highest tuition rates. Keep in mind that some online MSN programs do not charge non-resident tuition fees.

Program Format

Online MSN programs may offer asynchronous, synchronous, and hybrid learning formats. Asynchronous learning offers the greatest flexibility by eliminating set class times. Synchronous learning usually requires scheduled weekly virtual class sessions. Hybrid formats require some on-campus participation every term or at the beginning of the program. Additionally, some programs offer part-time enrollment or accelerated tracks.

Location

It may seem counterintuitive, but distance learners should also consider geographic location when choosing an online program. As mentioned, some online programs offer significantly reduced tuition rates for in-state students. Additionally, because nursing requirements vary by state, out-of-state learners should make sure that their degree will be recognized in the state where they intend to practice.

Accreditation

Nursing programs accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting body ensure the highest educational standards. Additionally, most colleges and universities only accept transfer credits from other accredited schools, and some employers only consider candidates who graduated from an accredited institution and program. To sit for certification exams, nursing students must also hold an accredited degree. Two premier accrediting agencies for nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Clinical Experience

All programs require participants to complete at least 500 clinical hours, although some may require more. Schools may help online students find these opportunities within their state or with their current employer. Students should check on their school's requirements, as some only support clinical experience in certain states.

School Certification Exam Pass Rates

Many programs list their graduates' first-time exam pass rates for certification. This passing percentage is an indicator of a nursing program's quality and signals how well it prepares students for board certification.

Student Support

Make sure to research the student support services schools offer online students. Top considerations may include academic advising and career counseling services. Online networking programs can also provide students the chance to connect with peers, mentors, and alumni, providing a sense of community and helping learners establish important professional connections.

2021 Best Accredited Online MSN Programs

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Johns Hopkins University true View School Profile Baltimore, MD

Johns Hopkins offers an online MSN with a healthcare organizational leadership track. This master's degree in nursing combines online coursework with in-person clinical experience. Nurses can prepare for careers in management and administration, IT, and healthcare policy.

Applicants must hold a bachelor of science in nursing or an entry-level master's in nursing with specialized nursing accreditation. They also must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and a current registered nurse license. Additionally, students should have completed an undergraduate statistics course.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $1,790 per credit
  • Program Length: 4 semesters (full time); 7 semesters (part time)
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 35 credits
  • On-Campus Requirement: No
  • School Status: Private
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 97.49% (2020)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
University of Central Florida true View School Profile Orlando, FL

UCF offers an online master's degree for registered nurses (RNs) looking to advance in their careers. The program offers a choice of three tracks: nursing leadership and management, nurse educator, or nursing and healthcare simulation. The curriculum emphasizes evidence-based practice and critical thinking skills.

Applicants must have an associate degree, bachelor's degree, or diploma in nursing and a current RN license. Students with a non-nursing bachelor's degree may qualify for admission by completing undergraduate prerequisites. Candidates must reside in Florida or another state operating under the National Council of State Boards of Nursing compact.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $327 per credit (in state); $1,152 per credit (out of state)
  • Program Length: Varies
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 31-36 credits
  • On-Campus Requirement: No
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 96.64% (2019)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Georgetown University true View School Profile Washington, DC

Georgetown's online MSN offers four tracks: adult-gerontology acute care, family nurse practitioner, nurse-midwifery/women's health, and women's health. Programs may include a choice of full-time or part-time enrollment. All tracks reflect Georgetown's Jesuit values.

Qualified applicants are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with a bachelor of science in nursing or entry-level MSN with specialized nursing accreditation. Applicants also need to have a current registered nurse license, a minimum 3.0 GPA, and experience with college-level statistics.

Aspiring adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners must have one year of experience in an emergency department, intensive care unit, telemetry unit, or progressive care unit.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $2,278 per credit
  • Program Length: 19-27 months
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 40-49 credits
  • Instruction Style: Synchronous
  • On-Campus Requirement: No
  • School Status: Private
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: N/A
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Ohio State University-Main Campus true View School Profile Columbus, OH

Students enrolled in Ohio State's online MSN program can choose from four tracks: family nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, and clinical nurse leader. Each track aims to prepare learners for a specialty nursing certification.

Ohio State's online master's in nursing incorporates online coursework, evidence-based practice, and clinical experience. Applicants should hold a bachelor of science in nursing or MSN with specialized nursing accreditation. They also must have an active registered nurse license and a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Program Cost Estimates: $47,568 (full time); $64,512 (part time)
  • Program Length: 5 semesters (full time); 8 semesters (part time)
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 55-63 credits
  • Instruction Style: Synchronous and asynchronous
  • On-Campus Requirement: Yes, for some specializations
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: N/A
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
George Washington University true View School Profile Washington, DC

GW's master's degree in nursing program uses a hybrid learning model. It combines online and in-person coursework. Students may choose from six specializations: adult-gerontology acute care, adult-gerontology primary care, family nurse practitioner, nursing leadership and management, nurse-midwifery, and psychiatric mental health.

Applicants must hold a regionally accredited bachelor's degree in nursing with a minimum 3.0 GPA and a current, unencumbered nursing license. Some specializations, such as adult-gerontology acute care, require applicants to have at least one year of professional experience in that area.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $1,395 per credit
  • Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 36-50 credits
  • On-Campus Requirement: Yes
  • School Status: Private
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: N/A
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Appalachian State University View School Profile Boone, NC

Appalachian offers an online MSN degree with flexible, part-time enrollment. The curriculum draws from nursing, healthcare, and professional studies to help prepare graduates to become nurse educators in academic and healthcare settings. The online MSN includes a practicum component.

Applicants must hold a bachelor of science in nursing degree with specialized nursing accreditation or a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field with an associate degree or diploma in nursing. They also need a minimum 3.5 GPA or a GPA of 3.0-3.49 with satisfactory GRE or MAT scores from the last five years. A current, unencumbered registered nurse license and prerequisites in statistics and research are also required.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $304 per credit (in state); $1,138 per credit (out of state)
  • Program Length: 2 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 39 credits
  • On-Campus Requirement: No
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 100% (2019)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
The University of Alabama View School Profile Tuscaloosa, AL

UA's online MSN program features a concentration in nurse administration. The curriculum emphasizes nursing policy, management, and leadership. It helps prepare graduates to pursue careers as nursing services directors, chief nursing executives, and clinical coordinators. Students must complete a practicum and may opt to complete a thesis.

Program applicants need a regionally accredited bachelor's degree in nursing with a minimum cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.0 and a current, unencumbered registered nurse license.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $440 per credit
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 33-39 credits
  • On-Campus Requirement: No
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 98.06% (2019)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Georgia Southern University View School Profile Statesboro, GA

Georgia Southern offers an online MSN program with a choice of tracks in chronic care management or nursing education. Each track requires completion of core coursework, specialized lab or practicum components, and a final capstone project.

Applicants must have a bachelor of science in nursing degree with specialized nursing accreditation and a minimum 3.0 GPA. A current, unrestricted registered nurse license in Georgia or in a Georgia-nursing-compact affiliate state is required. Applicants also must have one year of clinical nursing experience. Georgia Southern does not require GRE scores.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $277 per credit
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 36 credits
  • Instruction Style: Synchronous and asynchronous
  • On-Campus Requirement: Yes, for chronic care management track
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 87.2% (2019)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
The University of West Florida View School Profile Pensacola, FL

UWF offers an online, accelerated BSN-to-MSN degree. Designed for transfer students with previous academic experience, the program enables learners to complete their bachelor of science in nursing on the path toward earning a master's. Students can choose a nursing education or nurse executive track.

Applicants to the online BSN-to-MSN program must hold a current registered nurse license. UWF also requires prospective students to hold an accredited associate degree with a GPA of at least 3.25. Before beginning master's-level coursework, participants must complete all BSN requirements.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $282 per credit (bachelor's-level courses); $500 per credit (master's-level courses)
  • Program Length: 3-4 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 59 credits (including 20 undergraduate credits)
  • On-Campus Requirement: No
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 91.45% (2019)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of Arkansas View School Profile Fayetteville, AR

U of A's online master's program in nursing offers thesis and non-thesis options. Students can apply at any time during the academic year and enroll full time or part time. The curriculum includes online coursework, an in-person practicum, and minimal campus visits.

Prospective students must earn admission into both U of A's graduate school and the MSN program. Qualified applicants hold a nationally accredited bachelor's degree in nursing with a cumulative 3.0 GPA over their last 60 credits of undergraduate study. Admission also requires a current, unencumbered nursing license.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per Credit: $583 per credit
  • Program Length: 4 semesters
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 39 credits
  • On-Campus Requirement: Yes
  • School Status: Public
  • NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 95.1% (2020)
  • Program Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Master's in Nursing Programs

Is an online MSN degree worth it? true

An online master's degree in nursing allows students to focus their education on their career goals, leading to advanced nursing positions and increased earning potential. Graduates can pursue various careers, including nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and clinical nurse specialist.

How long is an online MSN program? true

Earning an online MSN degree in nursing can take 1-5 years. Completion times vary widely because of the breadth of MSN programs and specializations.

How much does an online MSN program cost? true

Tuition costs for an online master's degree in nursing range from roughly $13,500-$100,000. Students may find that public schools in their state offer the lowest tuition rates, while private universities tend to charge the highest rates.

Are nurses in high demand?

Nurses are in high demand. The BLS projects 45% job growth for nurse practitioners and other nursing specialists between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average projected growth rate for all occupations (8%).

How much money can I make with an MSN?

Salaries vary based on position, employer, location, and experience. However, many nursing professionals with a master's degree earn six-figure salaries. For example, nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $111,680 in May 2020. In California, these practitioners earned an average annual wage of $145,970.

What are the highest-paying jobs I can get with a master's in nursing?

One of the highest-paying careers for those with an online master's degree in nursing is nurse anesthetist. According to the BLS, these professionals took home a median annual salary of $183,580 (as of May 2020).

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Reviewed by:

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches in a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master's students through their culminating projects.

Gleason brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.

Gleason is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the well-being of students and healthcare professionals.

Brandy Gleason is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. A Boston native, Clarke tired of the cold and snowy winters and moved to Coral Gables, Florida, to complete her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Miami (UM). After working for several years in the cardiac and ER units at the UHealth and Jackson Memorial Medical Systems, Clarke returned to UM to complete her master of science in nursing (MSN). Since completing her MSN degree, Clarke has worked providing primary and urgent care to pediatric populations.

Elizabeth Clarke is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

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