FAQ: How long is an MSN program?

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Typically, a master's degree in nursing program takes two years to complete for full-time students. Learners who enroll part time and work while studying usually need longer to graduate; they may take anywhere from 2-5 years.

Sometimes universities offer accelerated MSN options as well, allowing students to finish the program in 18 months. For this option, MSN candidates must fully commit to their studies instead of working. Overall, MSN programs require about 40-70 credits, depending on a student's past education and work experience.

No matter which type of program students choose, they should make sure their program holds accreditation. Accreditation guarantees that students receive a quality education. Because of this, states only offer nursing licensure to candidates with accredited degrees. Specialty certifications also include accredited degrees among their requirements.

MSN Program Requirements

In most cases, an MSN program will require the completion of 40-70 course credits. This number varies by school, as well as by the particular nursing specialty students are pursuing. The curriculum in a traditional MSN program consists of core MSN courses and specialization courses intended to prepare RNs for work in their desired subfield. While exact course titles may vary, below are some typical classes in the MSN core curriculum:

  • Advanced health assessment
  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Advanced physiology/pathophysiology
  • Health promotions and disease prevention for diverse populations
  • Leadership in advanced nursing
  • Theoretical foundations of nursing practice
  • Health systems innovation and improvement
  • Ethics in advanced practice nursing

MSN students must complete a set number of clinical practice hours during their program. These typically take place at a local health care facility, under the supervision of a trained preceptor. Most programs require 500-1000 clinical hours, though this varies by school and specialty. Multiple rotations in different clinical settings may also be required, depending on the program.

Accelerated Direct Entry MSN Programs

Accelerated direct entry MSN programs specifically serve individuals with degrees in non-nursing fields who want to become advanced practice nurses, nursing leaders, or nurse educators. These programs take into account students' past education and work experience, which differs from an RNs entering MSN programs. These programs also generally last three years, as they synthesize bachelor's and master's-level coursework. Courses usually cover advanced physiology, pharmacology, and health assessment.

Most programs require prospective students to have a bachelor's degree with a minimum GPA of 2.5-3.2. They often must submit GRE scores and at least one recommendation letter as well. Usually admissions requirements also include an essay or personal statement in which the applicant outlines why they want to switch fields.

Length of an MSN Program: Full-Time vs. Part-Time

Post-baccalaureate students can choose to pursue their MSN on a full- or part-time basis. Many schools offer both options. While full-time MSN programs take less semesters overall to complete, they generally require a larger time commitment on a weekly basis, as students must enroll in 2-3 classes per semester. Part-time programs, on the other hand, allow students to take fewer courses each term, so they can continue to work full time or manage other work/life obligations while earning their degree.

Because of the differences in enrollment, a full-time MSN program takes 15-24 months to complete, while students earning their MSN part time finish in 24-48 months. Typically, schools recommend that MSN students who intend to maintain full-time employment during their degree program enroll part time in order to provide enough time for coursework and clinical hours each week.

Sample Full-Time Curriculum for an MSN FNP Program

 
Fall Term
Spring Term
Summer Term
Year 1
  • Advanced Physiology/Pathophysiology
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Theoretical Foundations of Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Advanced Health Assessment
  • Advanced Health Assessment Practicum
  • Evidence-Based Practice in Health Care
  • Healthcare Systems and Organizational Leadership
  • Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
  • Healthcare Policy
  • FNP I: Primary Care of Adolescents and Adult Patients
Year 2
  • FNP I Clinical Practicum: Primary Care of Adolescents and Adult Patients
  • FNP II: Primary Care of Pediatrics
  • FNP II Clinical Practicum: Primary Care of Pediatrics
  • FNP III: Women’s Health and the Childbearing Family
  • FNP III Clinical Practicum: Women’s Health and the Childbearing Family
  • FNP IV: Primary Care of Older Adults
  • FNP IV Clinical Practicum: Primary Care of Older Adults

MSN Degree Specializations

Traditional MSN programs are available in both advanced clinical concentrations and indirect care specializations, such as nursing administration, nursing education or clinical nurse leadership. Clinical practice programs are designed for students who want to work directly with patients, providing specialized care in a clinical setting. Post-baccalaureate students can choose to pursue their MSN in any of the major APRN specializations. Completing an MSN in one of these specialties will qualify graduates to sit for a national certification exam in that particular patient focus. MSN programs are offered in all of the following clinical concentrations:

  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP)
  • Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP)
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) (will require a doctorate after 2025 for new grads)
  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS) (will require a doctorate after 2030 for new grads)
  • 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)

RNs interested in taking on a more administrative role can pursue an MSN program in one of several indirect care concentrations. These are for students who want to manage and affect patient care from a systems level, instead of engaging in direct clinical practice. Examples of indirect care concentrations available at the MSN-level include:

  • Clinical nurse leader (CNL)
  • Nursing administration
  • Nursing education
  • Public health nursing
  • Nursing informatics

For more information about Traditional MSN programs, including the degree specializations mentioned above, check out our Complete Guide to MSN Programs.