Answer: There are numerous reasons why a registered nurse (RN) might want to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). For those interested in becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), an MSN is the standard educational requirement to qualify for national APRN certification. Once RNs successfully pass the certification exam, they can apply for state-level APRN licensure through their state’s board of nursing, and start practicing in their APRN specialty. The chance to receive advanced training in a particular nursing specialization, such as pediatrics, mental health, or administration, is another benefit to earning an MSN. Additionally, master’s-trained nurses typically have better job prospects, higher salaries, and more autonomy than RNs who only possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN).
MSN programs are designed to prepare RNs for advanced roles in clinical practice, nursing leadership, or education. Depending on their particular program focus, graduates may go on to become nurse practitioners, administrators, clinical nurse leaders, researchers, or instructors, directing teams of health care professionals, making critical care decisions, and leading innovation in a variety of medical settings. While RNs primarily assist physicians and other medical specialists, providing important support services as part of the health care team, nurse practitioners and other MSN-trained nurses have more autonomy, and are allowed to handle a broader range of responsibilities on their own. Some states even grant NPs the authority to practice and prescribe medication without the supervision of a physician (see our Guide to APRN Scope of Practice for more information).
To learn more about the benefits of earning an MSN, including projected salary and job growth numbers for MSN graduates, check out the sections below.
MSN Degree Specializations
One of the many draws of earning an MSN is the ability to specialize in an advanced nursing focus. RNs can pursue their master’s in a role or patient population they are particularly passionate about, gaining expertise in that area through specialized coursework and clinical training.
MSN degree programs are available in both direct clinical practice specialties and indirect care concentrations. Students who want to work closely with patients in a clinical setting, administering care to a particular demographic such as women or children, can opt for one of the 10 available APRN specialties listed below:
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
- Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
- Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
- Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
- Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PACNP)
- Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP)
- Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
- Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
For RNs who wish to take on a more administrative role, leading teams of medical professionals or affecting change on a systems level, there are MSN programs available in several indirect care concentrations. Here are a few of the most common degree foci:
- Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)
- Nursing Executive/Administrator
- Nurse Educator
- Public Health Nursing
- Nursing Informatics
To learn more about any of these specializations, check out our Complete Guide to Online MSN Programs.
Clinical Practice Experience
For many MSN programs, particularly those in one of the clinical concentrations listed above, students are required to complete a set number of clinical practice hours in order to graduate. This exact number varies by program, but most APRN specialties require 500 to 1000 clinical hours performed under the supervision of a preceptor. Some specializations may entail more clinical hours than others, or require students to perform multiple rotations in different clinical settings. Along with being a mandatory element of an APRN program, clinical hours are also a requirement for national certification in any advanced clinical nursing specialty. MSN programs in non-APRN specializations, such as clinical nurse leader and nurse educator, often involve clinical practice hours as well; however, not all indirect care concentrations require them.
During these clinical sessions, students gain valuable experience and hands-on training in real medical settings, providing care to actual patients. The chance to train in this way, under the guidance of a knowledgeable instructor, is a major benefit to pursuing an MSN. Along with learning about various patient populations and advanced nursing methods firsthand, students get to add this professional experience to their resume, and make valuable contacts in the medical community.
For prospective nurse practitioners, perhaps the biggest reason to pursue an MSN is to gain the education and training necessary to become a certified and state-licensed APRN. An MSN degree has long been the entry-level educational requirement for APRN certification. In recent years, there has been a push to raise this requirement to the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP); however, as of November 2017, this goal has not been fully realized. If and when the change comes, it is expected that APRNs already practicing with an MSN will be grandfathered in, and not required to earn a doctorate in order to maintain their certification. This means, in most cases, earning an MSN remains the quickest way for RNs to become APRN certified.
In order to qualify for national certification exams administered by any of the following organizations, RNs must possess an MSN or higher:
- American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB)
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)
- Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
- National Certification Corporation (NCC)
- American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB)
- National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA)
For more information on APRN certification and which organizations certify which specialties, see our FAQ entitled: What are the different APRN certification options for nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse midwives, and certified registered nurse anesthetists?
Salary and Job Outlook for MSN Graduates
As the national need for health care increases, the demand for advanced nursing professionals and specialized clinical services will continue to grow. As such, many positions that require an MSN are projected to experience considerable job growth over the next decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), employment of nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists is expected to rise 31 percent from 2016 to 2026. This is substantially faster than the projected national growth for all occupations surveyed, which averages out to around seven percent during that timeframe. Similarly, while RNs are also projected to see a significant boost in employment opportunities between 2016 and 2026, bls.gov only estimates their job growth at 15 percent.
Along with this particularly positive job outlook, bls.gov data reveals that NPs and other APRNs have the potential to earn considerably high salaries. As of May 2016, bls.gov reports that nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists in the U.S. earned a median annual wage of $107,460. For comparison, the median annual wage for RNs that year was $68,450, according to data from bls.gov. It is important to note, however, that earning potential for RNs and APRNs is highly dependent on location and experience, and may vary widely based on employer.