Masters Degree in Nursing (MSN)

The main goal of an MSN program is to help you convert your general skills into specialized knowledge of advanced nursing theory and practice. Traditional and online MSN programs will take you between 2 to 3 years to complete depending whether you enroll part time or full time.

With an MSN degree you will be qualified for 1 of 4 jobs within advanced practice registered nurse (APN or APRN) specialty fields. These include nurse practitioner (NP), nurse midwife (CNM), clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and nurse anesthetist (CRNA). Earning a traditional or online MSN degree will give you more professional freedom, help you earn higher pay and make you eligible to apply for doctorate programs.

The core curriculum for a brick-and-mortar program will usually be very similar to the best online MSN program. First, you must satisfy general education requirements before you can move on to upper-level specialist classes. After, you start to take specialty courses in a sub-field of nursing and perform clinical work that is specific to your chosen MSN track.

Who should pursue a nursing masters degree?

You should pursue a traditional or accredited online masters if you already have a bachelors and want to continue your education at the graduate level. Many MSN students are already licensed RNs and continue to work and earn a nursing salary during their studies.

The 4 main types of APRN specialization include:

Nurse practitioners (NPs)

These advanced practice nurses diagnose and treat chronic and acute illnesses, educate patients about self-care and disease prevention and assign rehabilitation treatment plans. NPs can prescribe medications as well as diagnose and treat many illnesses without a physician’s oversight. Nurse practitioners often work independently or with a group of physicians in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and public health departments.

Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs)

According to the APRN Consensus Model for Regulation, the CNS’s unique role is to integrate patient care across 3 areas: patients, nurses and the healthcare system. Clinical health specialists often work in physician offices, urgent care centers and walk-in clinics, working with patients and consulting teams.

Certified nurse midwives (CNMs)

CNMs consult patients and families during the childbearing process, conduct physical examinations, interpret diagnostic tests and prescribe medication and contraceptive materials. According to the American College of Nurse-Midwives, these specialists commonly work in birth centers, hospitals, private medical offices and ambulatory care clinics.

Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNAs)

Registered nurse anesthetists work with physicians and doctors to administer anesthesia during surgical or medical procedures. CRNAs can find jobs in hospital operating rooms, intensive care units, military medical units and outpatient centers.

If you are interested in a career as an APRN in 1 of these specializations, you should be aware that a recent decisionby the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) will make the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) rather than the MSN the entry-level degree for APRNs after 2015. The AACS has stated, however, that it will still recognize APRNs who already hold a traditional MSN or a top nursing masters online prior to this date.

Studying online for a masters degree in nursing

If you already know that you want to enroll in an online MSN program, then you will be glad to know that you have a variety of options to choose from. The most common and best online masters in nursing are usually offered as hybrid programs by traditional universities.

Like all accredited degrees, hybrid MSN programs will still require you to complete your clinical hours on site in a healthcare setting. However, because the clinical requirements for an MSN are much more self-directed in undergraduate programs, you will usually be able to choose the location where you fulfill your clinical practice hours.

The majority of students choose MSN programs in order to enter 1 of the 4 APRN specialty fields. However, a number of online masters programs also offer advanced MSN tracks in nursing education, healthcare system management, informatics and clinical nursing leadership.

Nursing masters courses

The exact courses that you take for your traditional or online nursing masters degree will depend on the specialty field that you choose. A few examples of these classes include:

Advanced pharmacotherapeutics

This specialty course for nurse anesthetists teaches you how to administer medication and safely manage chronic and acute illnesses. These courses explore the biochemistry of different classes of medication in much greater depth than RN pharmacology courses.

Nurse-midwifery practicum

In this class CNM students learn how to balance the physical and psychological needs of women during the childbearing process. Advanced practice students will have the chance to treat real patients under the supervision of APRNs and physicians. This hands-on clinical course may not be available to students enrolled in nursing master online programs.

Population care management

In this common nurse practitioner class, you will use nursing theory and research data to develop healthcare strategies for different types of patient populations. You will gain the skills that you need to evaluate and respond to the ethical, economic and organizational challenges that APRNs confront on the community healthcare level.

Gaining admission to a nursing masters program

Traditional MSN programs require you to have a bachelors degree from a school accredited by either the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Masters programs also require applicants to have an RN license in the same state where they will satisfy their clinical practice hours.

In addition, some brick-and-mortar and MSN online programs will ask you to submit several letters of recommendation from past instructors or employers. Many of these programs also require you to take and submit test scores from a graduate assessment exam such as the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). Interviews with faculty and an undergraduate minimum GPA of 3.0 are also common requirements.

The admissions process for traditional programs and online masters degree programs is even more competitive than it is at the bachelors level. However, there are 2 simple and reliable tips for strengthening your application and improving your chances of being accepted to an MSN college.

The first tip is to study hard and be sure that your undergraduate grades in upper-level coursework are at the top of your class. At the graduate level, admissions boards want to be sure that you have the dedication and intellectual abilities needed to succeed in challenging theoretical courses.

The second tip is to simply gain as much clinical experience as you can outside of your undergraduate program’s required clinical hours. Most students who are serious about getting into a masters program do this by working or volunteering at a local healthcare facility while they are still undergraduates.

Holding a job during your nursing masters program

Some brick-and-mortar MSN schools will advise you not to take an outside job while studying because of the program’s heavy workload. However, many students enrolled in online MSN programs continue to work as RNs at least part time. If you are able to balance your work schedule with your study schedule, you will probably find that continuing to earn a nursing salary while also keeping your clinical skills sharp are very important advantages that you will not want to give up.