Master of Science in Nursing

Lindsay Smith
Last updated at May 11, 2021

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an advanced, post-graduate degree in nursing. The MSN degree is designed to prepare registered nurses to operate with greater independence and become managers, administrators, nurse educators, or advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

An MSN can also help nurses increase their earning potential and further their careers beyond their bachelor of science degree. Master of Science in Nursing programs enable nursing students to build valuable clinical skills while also completing core and specialty classes like advanced pharmacology, advanced health assessment, and nursing research.

What Can You Do With a Master of Science in Nursing?

With a master's degree in nursing, a registered nurse can pursue a number of different roles in professional nursing. They can become a clinical nurse leader and be advocates for best practices in the delivery of patient care or become a nurse educator and prepare other nurses for their future practice positions by providing continuing education to nursing staff.

Nurses that have completed an MSN at a school of nursing may also choose to become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse and specialize as one of the following.

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

A CNM focuses on reproductive health. They deliver care primarily for women over the course of their pregnancies including prenatal, postpartum, and childbirth.

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

A clinical nurse specialist can be found working in a specific type of care such as critical or acute care, or with a certain population, like geriatric adults. CNSs act as consultants or educators to help deliver improved patient care through evidence-based practices within a given healthcare setting.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

A CRNA is trained to deliver anesthesia to patients before, during, and after surgery. They also oversee conscious sedation and provide pain management during childbirth.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Nurse practitioners can be found working in nearly every area of healthcare. For example, in an acute care setting, you may find them assisting with surgeries or performing procedures such as intubations and suturing. In a primary care setting, a nurse practitioner could be diagnosing patients and prescribing treatment plans and medication.

Nurse practitioners have a greater level of autonomy than RNs. NPs possess the authority to make diagnoses and write prescriptions. Nurse practitioners also have many advanced nursing sub-specialty opportunities with a master's degree including:

  • Cardiac NP
  • Oncology NP
  • Orthopaedic NP
  • Family NP (FNP)
  • Pediatric NP (PNP)
  • Neonatal NP (NNP) 
  • Acute Care NP (ACNP)
  • Women’s Health NP (WHNP)
  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult/Gerontology NP (AGNP)
  • Pediatric Acute Care NP (PNP-AC)
  • Adult/Gerontology NP—Acute (AGNP-AC)
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health NP (PMHNP)
  • Adult/Gerontology NP—Primary (AGNP-PC)

How Much Can I Make with an MSN?

The salary for a nurse with a master's degree can range from $80,000 to $188,000. Naturally, a number of factors go into determining salary such as years of experience and specialization to name two.

While experience and specialization are probably the two biggest factors in determining pay, the region in which you live and practice, as well as the facility or institution you work for, are also important determinants.

An MSN degree on top of your bachelor's degree could provide a big boost to your career options and pay at the same time. The MSN or advanced practice registered nursing degree also shows that you are dedicated to your nursing profile and committed to growth. 

How Long Does it Take to Get a Masters in Nursing?

Getting a master of science in nursing can take up to two years to obtain. Most master of science in nursing programs offer both part-time and full-time attendance, supplemented with online learning. So how long it takes you to complete your degree depends on the program as well as what specialization you choose to focus on.

A direct-entry MSN program can take between 18 and 36 months to complete when attending full time. And a bridge RN-to-MSN program can also take about 36 months depending on your choice of specialization.

You can also pursue a dual master's degree in nursing. Although academically tougher, a dual MSN program has many career benefits.

For example, MSN programs offering a dual Master's could give you the opportunity to have a Master's in both nursing and business administration, nursing and health administration, or nursing and public health. A dual master's degree takes about 24 months to complete depending on the school of nursing chosen.

What Are the Requirements to be Admitted into a Master of Science in Nursing Program?

In order to be admitted to an MSN program at a school of nursing, you'll usually need a bachelor's degree or associate degree in nursing along with the following admission requirements:

  • A registered nurse license and at least one year of clinical experience
  • Minimum GPA and GRE scores (varies by program)
  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
  • GPA of at least 3.0
  • Personal statement of professional goals
  • Letters of academic or professional reference
  • In-person interview

However, if you don't have a degree in nursing, you can still pursue a master of science in nursing if you have a non-nursing bachelor's degree or graduate degree through a direct-entry MSN or RN-to-MSN bridge program.  

Some of the most popular BSN-to-MSN programs are:

  • Nursing Education
  • Adult-Gerontology
  • Nursing Informatics
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Leadership and Management
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

What are the Different Types of Online Master’s Degrees in Nursing

There are four primary types of online master's degree programs in nursing. The best program for you will depend on your current type and level of education completed, as well as the area of specialization and general path of your career.

For example, an RN can choose an RN-to-MSN program to earn a master’s degree without a BSN. Or, nurses with a BSN can enter a BSN-to-MSN program.

For nurses with an associate degree in nursing, it will take approximately 36 months to obtain their MSN degree. For nurses with a graduate level degree, the BSN-to-MSN program takes about 24 months to finish. And for nurses with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, a direct entry MSN program can take about 24 months to complete.

RN-to-MSN

A nurse with an active RN license can complete their MSN in 24 months by enrolling in an RN-to-MSN program. For nurses with an associate degree or diploma in nursing, this program offers an efficient path to a career in advanced practice nursing.

During this nursing program, nursing students complete BSN-level courses to qualify for the MSN program. Once meeting hose requirements, nursing students choose their specialization and move on to taking graduate-level courses specific to their specialty. Nurses pursuing this nursing degree must also complete approximately 200 clinical hours in his/her specialization of choice.

Oftentimes students following the RN-to-MSN path will also continue working. Fortunately, a lot of programs offer full time and part time options.

BSN-to-MSN

A BSN-to-MSN online is a great option for nurses with a bachelor's degree in nursing who want to continue working while they learn. If you hold an active RN license, have a bachelor of science in nursing, and meet the program's GPA requirements, you can enter the program, choose your area of specialization, and complete the required coursework and clinical requirements in 18-24 months. Accelerated programs allow you to earn your MSN within 12 months.

Students in this program take courses in patient care, advanced health assessment, and evidence-based practice. Not only do nursing students choose paths for becoming nurse practitioners, but also choose specializations like anesthesiology, midwifery, or gerontology. Most programs require at least 200 clinical hours, while some NP programs require over 600 depending on the sub-specialty chosen.

One great thing about an online program is that students can typically complete their clinical requirements where they presently work.

ADN-to-MSN

More and more nursing schools are offering ADN-to-MSN programs. These are for nurses with an ADN who choose to pursue advanced nursing opportunities. As with the programs mentioned above, this one requires an active RN license, proof of their associate's degree, and a GPA or level of experience that meets the school's requirements.

This program typically begins with entry level undergraduate-level coursework. Some programs give credit for previous experience or by testing and meeting certain requirements. Once the undergrad coursework is complete, students can enter the master's portion of the program, select the area of focus, and move on to complete their coursework and clinical hours required for the degree.

ASN-to-MSN

Nurses with an associate's degree may qualify for ASN-to-MSN programs. With an active RN license and a minimum GPA of 3.0, students can begin the program.

Students of this program typically start off with entry level bachelor of science in nursing coursework. It typically takes 12 months to complete these courses before moving into the master's portion of the program, selecting an area of focus, and moving through the courses and clinical hours required to graduate in which nurses with an ASN complete their MSN within 24 months.

Like the other programs above, nurses who choose an online ASN-to-MSN program usually keep working while completing this program. Most programs offer flexible schedules as well as full or part-time schedules.

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Master of Science in Nursing?

The tuition for both the BSN-to-MSN and RN-to-MSN program is around $500-$1000 per credit hour. However, this will depend on which school of nursing you choose.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the tuition and fees associated with a graduate degree at a public institution for 2019 average about $12,000, while tuition for a graduate degree at a non-profit private school costs about $28,000.

Some programs have different tuition rates for online vs onsite tuition. Some may charge by credit hour while others charge by the semester. Also, most state schools charge differently for in-state residents versus out-of-state residents.

What to Look for in a School

Before you choose your school and enroll, be sure that graduates of that school of nursing qualify to sit for the NCLEX exam in your state. In short, if your state's board of nursing hasn't recognized your school of choice for meeting its standards, you may not be able to take your NCLEX-RN or APRN exam. And without taking the exam, you cannot get a license to practice.

The accreditation process ensures all qualified MSN programs meet certain professional education quality standards. Credits from accredited institutions can also be transferred to another accredited school of nursing should you need to transfer before obtaining your nursing degree.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) accredit traditional MSN programs while the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) accredits nurse anesthesia programs. And the American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) accredits all levels of midwifery nursing education programs.

Institutional accreditation is provided by six regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. You can verify an institution’s accreditation on the database maintained by the department. You may also check with your state's board of nursing to be sure your school is qualified.

Financial Aid

To apply for aid, your first step is to determine your eligibility for need-based assistance. You can do so by completing the free FAFSA application

You may also qualify for certain scholarships. These can come from your nursing program or school, reimbursement from your employer, student loans, military scholarships, or other scholarships.

Take a look at this list of some scholarships available for advanced nursing degrees.