Guide to getting a master of science in nursing (MSN)
If you are currently a nursing student, a registered nurse (RN), or a nursing professional, you may be considering a master of science in nursing (MSN) as the next step in your education. In addition to advance clinical skills, an MSN delves deep into the theories underpinning nursing practice.
Hildegard Peplau was one of the first published nursing theorist. In her book, “Interpersonal Relations in Nursing” published in 1952, Peplau emphasized the nurse-client relationship as the foundation of nursing practice. She believed in the importance of the human connection between a nurse and patient, with both people learning and growing from the interaction.
Communication is the crucial nursing skill according to Peplau. Nursing theory has advanced and developed significantly since Peplau’s era, but many of her ideas continue to inform nursing practice, particularly her views on the influence of culture and values in patient care.
The top MSN programs emphasize these theoretical underpinnings, as well as advanced clinical knowledge or managerial and research skills, depending on the track. A practitioner-track MSN can be a path to a career as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). A non-practitioner track can lead to careers in nursing education or administration.
Florence Nightingale defined nursing in her as “the act of utilizing the patient’s environment to assist him in his recovery.”
What is a master of science in nursing?
A master of science in nursing is an intermediate graduate degree. It has been designed to help registered nurses advance to the next level of their career. MSN degrees provide RNs with proficiencies in a nursing specialization to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Alternatively, they provide RNs with the leadership, professional management, and research skills required for nursing administration or education.
What can you do with a master of science in nursing?
Getting your master’s in nursing can open doors to nursing jobs in administration, leadership, informatics, nurse education, and health policy management. It can also be a path to specialization.
Should you get a master of science in nursing?
If you are an RN looking to transition into a role as an APRN, nurse educator, or nurse administrator, the choice is a no-brainer.
For those on the fence or concerned about the cost of an MSN, the below shows economic performance of the MSN 2 years after graduation. For comparison, it presents earnings against the median debt accrued and compares these to earnings received 2 years after graduating with a BSN. This allows you to consider the economic benefit of earning an MSN compared to having the BSN alone.
Debt and earnings
Graduate degree premium
Earning over bachelors
Annual debt repayment
The figures above give an indication of the debt incurred by graduates, and their salaries 3 years after graduation. The table on the left compares median debt and median earnings. The right-hand table compares how much a master graduate earns over a bachelor graduate 3 years after graduation, after deducting median debt repayments.
A debt to earnings ratio of 0.52 indicates an MSN is a wise choice in terms of financial investment. The cost of the degree can be quickly offset by earnings resulting from advanced credentials and increased job options.
How to pick a master of science in nursing program
An initial consideration when choosing an MSN program may be finding a school that offers the specialization you want to pursue. Most nursing specializations at the master’s level can be divided into advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles or non-APRN roles. These can be thought of as practitioner and non-practitioner specializations.
Common APRN specializations include:
- adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP)
- certified nurse midwife (CNM)
- certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
- clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
- neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP)
- psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)
Common non-APRN specializations include:
- nursing executive/administrator
- public health nurse
- nurse educator
- nurse researcher
- clinical nurse leader (CNL)
- nursing informatics
An important consideration when choosing an MSN degree is finding a program accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
Accreditation is important because it:
- ensures programs are held to common quality standards
- is likely a requirement for receiving federal financial aid
- is a requirement for licensure in most states
- assures employers that you possess the necessary skills and training
Can you earn a master of science in nursing online?
Online MSN programs are more widely available than BSN programs. While BSN degrees require significant practical components, MSN degrees are often highly theory-based, which translates well to online learning. Additionally, these degrees are frequently completed by nursing professionals with busy work lives who need the flexibility of online learning.
Masters in nursing
The above table shows the percentage of programs available either completely in person or fully online. Figures that do not add up to 100% indicate the existence of hybrid programs.
Best master of science in nursing programs
Find below our ratings of the comparative earnings, debt, debt to earnings ratio, and the earning premium by graduate program. Note that missing information is usually due to insufficient data for reporting.
How much does an MSN cost?
We are limited to measuring the median debt graduates in MSN programs incur upon graduation. See below how the debt and repayment rates for MSN programs differ based on institution type.
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Median earnings and median debt of graduates of this degree program. The debt-to-earnings ratio compares student debt to annual earnings. The lower the debt-to-earnings ratio the better, and total debt should never exceed annual earnings (a debt-to-earnings ratio of 1.0).
Private programs are somewhat more expensive but result in slightly higher earnings than public programs. However, public programs win out in debt to earnings, though by a close margin.
Financial aid and scholarships for MSN students
It is wise to begin your search for financial aid by filling out the FAFSA form on the Federal Student Aid website. Master’s students are not usually eligible for direct subsidized loans or Pell grants, but many other types of loans, grants, and work-study programs are available. Be sure to meet with the student financial aid service at your chosen school to uncover other aid options you may be eligible for.
There are also numerous loan forgiveness programs available specifically for nurses, including:
- National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program (NHSC LRP)
The NHSC loan repayment programs is specifically for nurses with a master’s degree. In exchange for 2 years of full- or part-time healthcare practice in a Health Professional Shortage Area, you can receive up to $50,000 towards your student loans. Only certain nursing disciplines qualify, including primary and mental care.
- Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program (NCLRP)
The Health Resources and Services Administration may cover up to 85% of debts incurred earning an education as an APRN or nurse educator. In exchange, beneficiaries teach at an eligible nursing school or practice in a Critical Shortage Facility for at least 2 years.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF)
PSLF forgives any remaining federal loans after a minimum of 120 monthly payments (approximately 10 years) while working full-time for a qualifying government or nonprofit employer.
- State-level Loan Forgiveness for Nurses
Every state offers some form of loan forgiveness for nurses. Look into the details for your state, as eligibility requirements vary. You can find more information on individual state webpages.
What to expect from a master of science in nursing
MSN programs have been designed to develop skills for specialist roles. In non-practitioner tracks, you can learn administrative, management, and leadership skills. This may include business and financial savvy as well as theories of leadership and management.
In practitioner tracks, you can developed the advanced clinical knowledge to become a nurse practitioner or a certified nurse in a specialist field like midwifery. Where the BSN or ADN focused primarily on practical clinical skills, an MSN may expand on theoretical knowledge such as the healthcare models informing nursing practice.
Common admission requirements for MSN programs include:
- at least 1 year of professional experience in nursing or a related field; MSN students seeking to specialize may need additional experience
- unrestricted registered nurse (RN) license
- bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) with minimum GPA requirements set by individual schools; some programs accept applicants with an associate degree in nursing
- prerequisite college-level courses, usually in statistics and nursing research
Some nursing schools offer MSN tracks for applicants with bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing fields who are seeking to become RNs. These programs may be twice as long as regular programs, as students catch up with nursing education. After 2 years of study, students take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)z0079 to become RNs and then continue with master’s-level studies.
How long does it take to get master of science in nursing?
MSN programs typically take 2 to 3 years to complete.
Near the end of the MSN, students complete on-site practicums. Those studying administration or specialized nursing care complete these in a clinical setting, while those in nurse education can choose academic or clinical settings. MSN students may be responsible for finding their own practicums and preceptors.
What is a preceptor in healthcare?
A preceptor in healthcare is an experienced practitioner who formally supervises the practicum of a less experienced practitioner.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) credential
Licensure as an APRN requires 500–2000 clinical experience hours, depending on your educational institution and chosen specialization. Following that, nurses complete a national certification exam. Your specialty also determines which national APRN certification exam you take.
What courses are there in an MSN?
Most MSN programs require core coursework in advanced nursing practice and research and electives in a chosen specialization.
Common foundational courses include:
This course consider the key issues and trends in contemporary nursing and healthcare practice. The influence of socioeconomic, political, legal, and ethical factors is considered. The course also examines the evolution of nursing as a profession.
Students are introduced to the use of nursing and medical research for the application of evidence-based practice. The research process, literacy skills, clinical practice guidelines, and research ethics are also covered.
This course examines the role of healthcare reform and its impact on nursing practice. Students are taught to critically evaluate policies that influence quality, structure, and financing. The use of advocacy to promote the health of specific populations and the skills to influence policy and support changes in healthcare legislation are also covered.
Evidence-based practice refers using sound and tested evidence in patient care. Student are taught to analyze and appraise evidence and understand research design, including quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-method research models.
Students are taught to consider and solve real nursing leadership practice problems using evidence-based and quality improvement approaches. Teambuilding, communication, interdisciplinary collaboration, and organizational growth strategies are also considered.
What are the types of nursing master’s degrees?
MSN degrees are distinguished by their track, which is related to students’ previous experience and future goals.
Practitioner tracks are primarily aimed at earning an APRN credential in different specializations. APRN go on to practice advanced nursing care in clinical settings. Non-practitioner tracks are aimed at administrative, management, leadership, and educational roles in clinical and non-clinical settings. The titles BSN track or RN-to-BSN track refer to which degree you enter the program with rather than which degree you earn in the program.
Practitioner BSN track or RN to BSN
for students wishing to become APRNs
requires a BSN or an ADN with an RN license
focuses on skills and knowledge applicable in clinical settings
Non-practitioner BSN track or RN to BSN
for students wishing to work in nursing
administration, management, leadership, or education
requires a BSN or an ADN with an RN license
focuses less on clinical skills and knowledge
Other options include a second master’s degree track for nurses who already hold an MSN and are seeking further education. There are also entry-level MSN tracks for individuals with bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing disciplines.
What careers can I have with a master of science in nursing?
An MSN opens doors to a range of practitioner and non-practitioner roles in nursing. The specific roles you qualify for depend on your state’s regulations and the specializations and sub-specializations you train and gain credentials in.
Nurse practitioners are licensed to provide advanced nursing care to a specific population. In many states, they can practice without the supervision of a doctor and take on many of the same duties doctors perform. They are usually employed at hospitals, clinics, and other care facilities.
District of Columbia
Their responsibilities may include:
- performing physical exams
- taking patient histories
- managing treatment
- prescribing medication
- diagnosing illnesses and injuries
- requesting and interpreting diagnostic and imaging results
Nursing administration combines advanced clinical knowledge with leadership and managerial acumen. In large hospitals, nurse administrators may manage an entire department. In smaller healthcare facilities and physical group practices, they oversee nursing staff.
District of Columbia
Their responsibilities may also include:
- providing strategic direction and planning
- managing day-to-day operations
- managing departmental budgets
- developing policies and procedures
- recruiting nursing staff
Specific titles in nursing administration include:
- nurse manager
- nurse executive
- nurse director
- clinical nursing manager
Nurse ethicistMedian salary: 104K US$
This challenging position combines advisory roles, educational skills, and on-the-ground nursing work. Nurse ethicists flag the importance of ethical considerations in all fields of medical practice and through conversation, conference, and debate, develop positive implementation of ethically sound nursing. Ethical issues are most common in palliative care, critical care, and oncology.
Emotive and divisive decisions are common, such as mediating between a patient, their family, and healthcare workers on how to respond to a request to end curative treatment. Nurse ethicists serve on committees and organizational bodies and form policy and ethical guidelines.See more
Frequently asked questions
Is a nurse practitioner the same as APRN?
APRN is the broader category. All nurse practitioners are APRNs, but not all APRNs are nurse practitioners. Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNAs) are 2 examples of non-APRN nurse practitioners.
Can nurse practitioners prescribe medication?
Yes, in all 50 states, licensed nurse practitioners can prescribe, order, administer, and dispense mediation, including schedule II-V controlled substances.
Do NPs deliver babies?
Nurse practitioners specialized in women’s health can provide neonatal care but do not deliver babies. Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs), another type of APRN, do.
Can NPs practice independently?
NPs can have full, reduced, or restricted practice authority, depending on the state they practice in. As of 2021, 24 states and the District of Columbia have approved full practice autonomy for NPs.
Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing
This is the site for the main body that provides accreditation for all levels of nursing programs across the U.S.
Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education
The site for national accreditation for degree-level nursing courses in the U.S.
National Council Licensure Examination
Website for the national licensure for RN qualification. Provides information on preparation and organization for examination.