Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree Programs Guide

MSN Degree Information

A master in nursing (MSN) is a graduate degree that you can obtain through a bachelor of nursing (BSN) degree. This is not the only option, you can also obtain an MSN through a RN-to-MSN bridge program.

Obtaining a master’s in nursing or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a great opportunity for registered nurses (RNs) to acquire a high level of education and qualification, and advance their career. Nurses with an MSN can work as a nurse educator, clinical nurse leader (CLN), health policy expert (HPE), or a nurse administrator.

Additionally, a master’s in nursing allows RNs to gain the knowledge, skills, and expertise required to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) which includes further specializations such as nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), and certified nurse-midwife (CNM).

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Nurses with specialty education and advanced skills are needed now more than ever, to provide high quality care at more reasonable costs. This is because the availability of affordable health care is quickly dwindling. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, health care costs are projected to increase at an average annual rate of 2.5 percent from 2018 to 2027, compared to a 1.3 percent annual growth rate from 2012 to 2017.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the aging population is not only driving the demand for affordable health care services, but also the growing costs for those services. Individuals 65 and above are spending almost three times more than the working-age population. Nurses with specialty education and advanced skills are needed now more than ever, to provide high quality care at more reasonable costs.

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Admissions Requirements

Many nursing master’s programs require applicants to have their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), though there are RN to MSN programs that allow RNs to earn an advanced degree without having to earn a BSN first. RN to MSN program applicants must have RN certification and a minimum of two years of clinical experience.

There are also entry-level MSN programs available. These types of programs are for individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a discipline other than nursing. Depending on a program’s admission requirements, applicants may need to complete prerequisite courses covering topics such as microbiology, chemistry, human anatomy and physiology.

Generally, schools will also ask MSN applicants for letters of recommendation, a resume, a statement of purpose, and high school or GRE transcripts. Each master’s in nursing program you apply to will outline any additional requirements expected of applicants.

Curriculum and Coursework

The coursework in nursing masters programs varies by specialty but is generally meant to prepare nurses for more advanced roles in administration, teaching, research, leadership, and direct patient care The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) outlines roles after earning your master’s in nursing.

Regardless of specialty, masters-level nursing coursework will teach subject-specific and general skills such as critical thinking and decision-making as an advanced practice nurse, criteria and justification for prescribing different medications, and conducting a head-to-toe physical examination.

Within each program, coursework can be divided into three main categories: fundamental courses, research courses, and clinical courses.

Fundamental courses may include:

  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Physical assessment
  • Microbiology and biology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Statistics

Clinical courses will teach you how to think and act like an advanced practice nurse. You will learn about:

  • Prescribing medications, and the synthesis of various medications
  • Patient communication skills
  • Diagnosing acute and chronic illnesses
  • Developing plans and follow-ups for patients
  • Using available resources to provide the best patient care

Research courses may teach you to do the following:

  • Create a quality improvement proposal
  • Critically analyze existing medical literature
  • Design your own research project with institutional review board approval

Nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist (CNS) programs are often around two years in length and include content in physical assessment, pharmacology, and pathophysiology in addition to other coursework specific to your specialty. These courses require knowledge of basic anatomy and physiology which is typically covered in previous nursing programs such as a BSN.

Certified nurse-midwife (CNM) programs often have the same main three coursework requirements found in nurse practitioner programs, in addition to a variety of women’s health subjects. CNM programs typically take two years to complete.

Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) programs teach pharmacology, anatomy, and physiology and pathophysiology. They have an additional focus on chemistry, biochemistry, clinical research and the technology used in the field. These programs may be completed in two years but can often be three-year programs.

To learn more about specific coursework for different MSN career specialties, check out our advanced practice registered nursing page.

Clinical Hour Practicum

The clinical hour practicum gives nurses the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the field through clinical placements. Practicum requirements vary greatly from specialty to specialty.

Nurse practitioners have the smallest requirement of 500-600 hours. The clinical nurse specialist program requires more than 600 clinical hours, while certified nurse-midwife programs require upwards of 1,000 hours. Certified registered nurse anesthetist programs require 2,500 hours and the administering of 800 anesthetics.

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Master’s in Nursing Specialties

  1. Scroll to Nurse Practitioner
  2. Scroll to Certified Nurse Midwife
  3. Scroll to Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
  4. Scroll to Certified Nurse Specialist

As health care for an expanding and aging population becomes more complex, the demand and range of nursing specialties will only continue to grow. There are a number of nurse practitioner specialties as well as several types of pre-baccalaureate nursing roles.

Nurse Practitioner

Scope of Practice: Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses who provide direct patient care by diagnosing and treating illness or offering preventive care and checkups. Nurse practitioners can practice independently or as part of a team. In many states NPs have the authority to prescribe medication.

Education: NPs must complete a master’s nursing degree program. This is the minimum education requirement to become licensed.

Licensure: Nurse practitioner license requirements are set at the state level. However, RN licensure is a prerequisite for becoming an NP.

Salary: According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the mean annual wage for nurse practitioners is $110,030.

Job Outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of nurse practitioners will grow 28 percent from 2018 to 2028.

Certified Nurse Midwife

Scope of Practice: Certified nurse midwives (CNMs) provide gynecologic and primary health care to women from adolescence to menopause. They assess and manage contraception, support women through pregnancy and childbirth, care for newborns, and diagnose and treat gynecological and general health issues. CNMs can prescribe medication, treatments, diagnostic tests, and medical devices.

Education: CNMs must earn at least a master’s degree from an accredited nurse education program.

Licensure: CNMs must pass a national certification exam administered by the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB) and complete their state’s licensing requirements.

Salary: According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the mean annual wage for certified nurse midwives is $106,910.

Job Outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of certified nurse midwives will grow 16 percent from 2018 to 2028.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

Scope of Practice: Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) perform very specialized duties including administering general and local anesthesia, sedation, epidural, and spinal or peripheral nerve blocks during surgery, childbirth, and other procedures.

Education: The entire process of becoming a CRNA is often longer than that of other nursing specialties, with nurse anesthesia programs ranging from 24-51 months and graduates earning, on average, over 9,000 hours of clinical experience.

Licensure: CRNAs must pass the national certifying exam administered by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists.

Salary: According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the mean annual wage for certified registered nurse anesthetists is $174,790.

Job Outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of certified registered nurse anesthetists to grow 17 percent from 2018 to 2028.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Scope of Practice: Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are registered nurses with expert knowledge and experience in a specific care setting, patient population, or medical specialty, such as critical care, geriatrics, or oncology. Clinical nurse specialists provide direct patient care and also advise and support other nurses in caring for patients within their specialty.

Education: To become a CNS, you need a master’s degree in nursing.

Licensure: Clinical nurse specialists must pass relevant state and/or national licensing exams.

Salary: There is no salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for clinical nurse specialists. Clinical nurse specialists may however be able to earn more than other registered nurses based on their additional education and experience. Salaries will vary based on care setting and geographical location.

Job Outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics currently does not have employment projections for clinical nurse specialists. You may refer to job outlook data for other advanced practice registered nurses.

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Types of MSN Degrees

  1. Scroll toASN to MSN
  2. Scroll toADN to MSN
  3. Scroll toRN to MSN
  4. Scroll toBSN to MSN
  5. Scroll toWHNP
  6. Scroll toFNP
  7. Scroll toAG-ANCP
  8. Scroll toCNM

There are as many types of nursing degrees as there are nursing specialties. Many degrees can be completed while maintaining employment, but others require a full-time commitment to school.

ASN to MSN: Associate of Science in Nursing to Master of Science in Nursing. These degree programs are for students with an Associate of Science in Nursing. The program is designed to bridge any knowledge gaps in baccalaureate-level coursework and allow students to earn their degree in a shorter time than it would take to complete an ASN or MSN.

ADN to MSN: Associate Degree in Nursing to Master of Science in Nursing. This nursing degree program is similar to the ASN to MSN pathway. Some programs allow students to earn their degree in just 24 months.

RN to MSN: Registered Nurse to Master of Science in Nursing. These programs are designed for registered nurses with a nursing diploma, associate degree in nursing, or a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. RN to MSN programs typically last two to three years and include baccalaureate-level content that may be missing from associate’s-level curricula, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Specific requirements vary based on the school and the student’s previously completed coursework.

Learn more about RN to MSN programs.

BSN to MSN: Bachelor of Science in Nursing to Master of Science in Nursing. This post-baccalaureate master’s degree program is for nurses seeking more specialized education. These programs may build on baccalaureate-level competencies and can often be completed in two years or less.

MSN-WHNP: Master of Science in Nursing Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner. For nurses who are specifically interested in women’s health, becoming a women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP) can be a fulfilling option. Curriculum for WHNP programs include general advance practice courses as well as courses specific to women’s health and clinical practicum hours. After completing the graduate program, candidates also need to obtain or maintain their registered nursing license and successfully pass a certification exam.

MSN-FNP: Master of Science in Nursing Family Nurse Practitioner. Family nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses working with families in a primary care setting. FNP master’s programs may include up to 60 credit hours of classes and 600 supervised practicum hours and take around two years to finish. Online classes may enable candidates to continue working while in their graduate program. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners and the American Nurses Credentialing Center administer the certification exams for family nurse practitioners.

MSN-AGACNP: Master of Science in Nursing Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners with this specialization work with adult, older adult, and elderly patients with acute, chronic, or critical conditions. Curriculum and core classes may vary slightly from program to program, but students should be prepared to complete between 40 and 50 credit hours. Required practicum hours can range from 500 to 600 hours or more depending on the program. The American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses are the certifying bodies for AG-ACNPs.

Learn more about online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner programs.

MSN-Midwife: Master of Science in Nursing Certified Nurse Midwife. Certified nurse midwives can obtain graduate degrees in nursing, midwifery, or public health. MSN midwifery programs frequently require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. After successful completion of an accredited program, nurse-midwives are certified by the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB). You must hold a graduate degree and hold a valid license as a registered nurse to sit for the certified nurse-midwife examination.

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Master’s in Nursing Salary

How much money can you earn with a master’s degree in nursing? The answer to that question depends on a variety of factors such as the state in which you live and the type of job title you have.

The table below shows the mean annual wages for different types of nurses.

Mean Annual Wages for Different types of Nurses
Job Title Mean Annual Wage (2018)
Certified Nurse Midwife $106,910
Nurse Practitioner $110,030
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist $174,790

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on Nurse Anesthetist, Nurse Midwife, and Nurse Practitioner

For more salary information, visit our Nurse Salary page.

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MSN Degree FAQs

Is a MSN Right for Me?

If you want to specialize in a particular nursing field, and are interested in nursing managerial roles, or are actively seeking out opportunities to contribute to the development of health care policy, consider enrolling in an MSN program.

You can obtain your MSN degree online and in-person. Earning an MSN can take anywhere from one to six years depending on the program or specialty you choose, your previous educational background, and your work schedule.

What is an MSN Degree?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is a graduate level degree for advanced practice registered nurses. It is most often completed after a nurse obtains their bachelor’s degree in nursing or a related field and registered nurse license.

What can I do with a master’s in nursing?

A master’s in nursing can open the door for many career opportunities. In addition to providing high levels of direct patient care, nurses with masters’ degrees can work in nurse education, administration, or health policy.

How long does it take to get your MSN?

The time needed to obtain an MSN degree depends on how much prior nursing experience and coursework a student has already competed, as well as the nursing specialty they are studying. It can take as little as 18 months to get a master’s for general nurse practitioners or more than three years for certified registered nurse anesthetists.

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