Question: How long is an RN to MSN program?

Answer: There are several different types of Registered Nurse (RN) to Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs available to students, depending on their current level of education. Some programs require an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) for enrollment, while others will accept RNs with either an ADN or a nursing diploma. There are also programs that use the term RN to MSN which actually require RNs to hold both an ADN and a bachelor’s degree (typically in a non-nursing field). The amount of time it takes to complete these programs will vary.

Generally, students can expect to finish a traditional RN to MSN program (one that requires an ADN or diploma) in roughly three years of full-time study, or three to four years of part-time study. RN to MSN programs that require a non-nursing bachelors degree take slightly less time to complete, as students will have already fulfilled their undergraduate general education requirements. RNs pursuing one of these programs full-time can typically graduate in around two years, while part-time students may need anywhere from two to four years.

In most cases, RN to MSN programs offer students the chance to earn their BSN and MSN through a single accelerated program in less time than it would take to complete both degrees separately. This is due to several factors, one of which is that BSN and MSN programs include some of the same courses, so RN to MSN students may end up taking less classes overall. The streamlined curriculum in an RN to MSN program is comprised of both undergraduate- and graduate-level coursework, and often omits certain general education courses that are not directly related to nursing, which also helps shorten the length of study. Along with this, students can typically transfer credits from their ADN, diploma, or non-nursing bachelor’s degree program towards the completion of a RN to MSN program. Students should note that while some RN to MSN programs grant both a BSN and MSN, others only culminate in an MSN degree (no BSN is conferred).

RN to MSN programs are available in a wide range of advanced clinical and administrative nursing specialties. Students who want to pursue a career in direct patient care can choose from APRN specializations such as Nurse Practitioner, Clinical Nurse Specialist or Nurse Midwife. For prospective Nurse Practitioners, there are degree programs in a number of different population foci, including family nursing, neonatal nursing, pediatric nursing, women’s health nursing, psychiatric mental health nursing, and adult-gerontology nursing. Those looking to take on a role in indirect care can find RN to MSN programs with concentrations in nursing administration, nursing education, or Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL).

RN to MSN programs vary by school in terms of admission requirements and length, and can go by a number of different names. In general, these programs fall into one of two categories:

  • Traditional RN to MSN Programs (ADN or Diploma in Nursing Accepted): Sometimes called ADN to MSN or Diploma to MSN programs, this pathway is designed for licensed RNs who hold an associate degree in nursing or nursing diploma. While some programs accept either an ADN or a diploma, others only accept students who have completed an ADN. Students entering an RN to MSN program with a diploma in nursing often must complete more credits than those with an ADN in order to graduate.
  • Bridge RN to MSN Programs (Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree Required): These programs require RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field in addition to an ADN (or, in some cases, a diploma in nursing). This degree path may be referred to as a Bachelor’s to MSN program or RN BA/BS to MSN program at some schools.

To learn more about the specific requirements for these RN to MSN programs, and the time commitment associated with each, see the sections below.

Traditional RN to MSN Programs (ADN or Diploma in Nursing Accepted)

Traditional RN to MSN programs are designed for licensed RNs who possess an ADN from a CCNE- or ACEN-accredited institution. Some programs accept RNs who have either an ADN or a diploma in nursing; however, students enrolling with a diploma often must complete additional courses to bring them up to speed with their ADN-prepared peers. Due to the demanding nature of an RN to MSN program, admission may be selective. Applicants are often required to meet a minimum GPA threshold, and have at least one to two years of professional RN experience. Certain specializations may require experience with a specific patient population (like children or neonates) or experience in specific settings (like acute care or the NICU).

Students interested in pursuing a traditional RN to MSN program should read the admission requirements at different schools carefully, as some require students to complete general education credits at a local college or university before applying. These types of programs are mainly comprised of undergraduate nursing courses, with students using transfer credits to cover the general education requirements. Some traditional RN to MSN programs may also accept students who have earned both an ADN and a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, allowing them to transfer general education credits from their bachelor’s program towards the RN to MSN requirements.

Along with the admission requirements, the specific structure and length of a traditional RN to MSN program will vary from school to school. Students generally must complete the required BSN coursework and general education courses before moving onto the MSN curriculum; however, there may be terms that include both undergraduate and graduate-level coursework. Some programs may even allow students to leave the program with their BSN after they have fulfilled all of the necessary requirements, if they decide they do not want to complete the MSN portion. This is sometimes referred to as a “stop-out” option.

In all, a traditional RN to MSN program typically requires 120 to 150 course credits. Full-time students can expect to earn their master’s degree in approximately 30 to 36 months, while those enrolled on a part-time basis can generally complete the program in 36 to 48 months. Along with the required course credits, traditional RN to MSN students will need to complete anywhere from 500 to 1000 clinical practice hours over the course of the program, depending on their particular specialization.

Bridge RN to MSN Programs (Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree Required)

In addition to an ADN and current RN licensure, some RN to MSN programs require students to possess a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. Since students will have already completed the required general education courses as part of their previous bachelor’s program, they are typically able to jump into MSN-level coursework in less time than traditional RN to MSN students. These programs are often labeled as “bridge” programs, as RNs will need to take one or more baccalaureate-level nursing courses meant to bridge the gap between their current education and the MSN curriculum. Examples of common bridge courses include:

  • Health Assessment
  • Leadership and Management in Nursing
  • Evidence-Based Nursing Practice
  • Community Health Nursing
  • Population Health
  • Health Promotion
  • Nursing Research

Additionally, applicants are expected to have completed certain prerequisite courses before beginning the program, such as Human Anatomy, Psychology, Microbiology, or Statistics.

Once students have successfully passed the required bridge courses, they are able to start the MSN portion of the program. This curriculum consists of core courses such as Advanced Health Assessment, Advanced Pharmacology, and Advanced Physiology/Pathophysiology, as well as clinical coursework in their advanced nursing specialty. Non-Nursing Bachelor’s to MSN programs are usually comprised of anywhere from 45 to 70 course credits. Students also must complete a total of 500 to 1000 clinical hours (based on their specialization) in order to earn their master’s degree. Full-time students can often complete a Bridge RN to MSN program in around 20 to 25 months. Part-time options are also available, and typically range from 25 to 40 months of study.