Question: What are the different types of master’s degrees in nursing (MSN programs)?

Answer: The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is available in a wide range of advanced nursing specializations, and can be pursued through several different pathways. There are programs designed for registered nurses (RNs) who possess a nursing diploma, associate degree in nursing (ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), or an ADN and a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Additionally, students can choose to pursue an MSN in one of 11 advanced clinical specialties, such as certified nurse midwife (CNM), family nurse practitioner (FNP), or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), or earn their master’s in an indirect care specialization, such as nursing administration or education.

MSN programs are also offered in several different formats, from traditional campus-based education to entirely online instruction. In a campus program, students attend all of their courses in person, travelling to campus for instruction and any associated labs. Programs with entirely online instruction, on the other hand, require zero campus visits, with students completing all of their coursework over the web. (Note: For the majority of online MSN programs, students still must complete clinical hour requirements at a local health care facility, under the supervision of a preceptor.)

Many online MSN programs supplement online courses with one or more required campus sessions, in which students get the chance to meet with classmates and faculty, and often receive hands-on training related to the course material. On OnlineFNPPrograms.com, we only define a program as “online” if it requires three or fewer of these campus visits each year. There are also hybrid programs, that might either include a mix of fully online and fully on-campus courses, or feature courses that have both an online and campus-based component. When researching MSN programs, it is important that students consider which format is best for their particular circumstances, and fully understand all course requirements before enrolling.

For more on the different MSN degree paths and specializations available to students, check out the information below.

MSN Degree Paths

There are a number of different paths students can take to earn a master’s degree in nursing, depending on their current education level. The most common type of MSN program is designed for RNs who already hold a BSN from a school accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). However, there are also programs that accept RNs with either an ADN or nursing diploma. Others may even require both an ADN and a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. In all of these cases, applicants must possess an active and unrestricted RN license in order to be considered for admission.

Here is a brief rundown of the different degree paths students can take to earn an MSN. While programs may go by different names at different schools, most fall into one of three categories:

  • BSN to MSN Programs: These are often referred to as Traditional MSN programs, and accept RNs who possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Most BSN to MSN programs consist of approximately 40 to 70 course credits, and require around two years of full-time study to complete. Students in this particular pathway can expect to take graduate-level core courses in general nursing concepts such as advanced health assessment, pharmacology, and physiology, as well as specialized training courses related to their degree focus.
  • RN to MSN Programs (ADN and/or Diploma): For RNs who have not yet completed a BSN, there are MSN programs that accept an associate degree in nursing or nursing diploma for admission. These programs can be structured in several different ways, with some awarding both a BSN and MSN, and others simply culminating in the master’s degree. Along with the graduate core courses and specialization coursework found in a BSN to MSN program, the curriculum in an RN to MSN programs typically contains bachelor’s-level general education and nursing courses. In most cases, an RN to MSN program will require the completion of roughly 120 to 150 credits (depending on how many credits a student can transfer into the program), and span about two and a half to three years of full-time study. It is important to note that while some RN to MSN programs are open to students with either an associate degree or diploma in nursing, others only accept an ADN (these may be referred to as ADN to MSN programs at some schools).
  • Non-Nursing Bachelor’s to MSN Programs: Finally, there are some MSN programs that accept RNs who possess both an ADN and a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. Sometimes called RN to MSN Bridge programs or RN BA/BS to MSN programs, these programs generally require fewer credits than a regular RN to MSN program. This is due to the fact that bachelor’s-trained students will have already completed many of the undergraduate general education courses typically required in an RN to MSN program, and often only need to take one to three BSN-level “bridge” courses before beginning the MSN curriculum. Other RN to MSN programs may not be explicitly labeled as “bridge” programs, but still accept RNs who hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, and allow them to waive a certain portion of the undergraduate course requirements.

Students can choose to pursue any of these MSN degree paths on either a full-time or part-time basis. Some schools offer both enrollment options as part of their MSN program, while others strictly have a full- or part-time program. Either way, students should be sure to carefully review all program requirements and consider their current time commitments when researching potential programs.

A full-time MSN program typically spans fewer terms, and thus can be complete in less time than a part-time program; however, students take a larger course load each term. Part-time MSN programs generally require less commitment on a weekly basis, as students take fewer courses each term, spread out over a longer period of time. These are usually ideal for RNs who want to continue working full-time while pursuing their degree, or have an otherwise busy schedule outside of school. In fact, most schools recommend that students do not enroll in a full-time program if they intend to work full time during their studies, due to the time commitment associated with these programs.

MSN Degree Specializations

Nursing master’s degree programs are available in a wide range of direct practice and indirect care specializations. Students who wish become certified APRNs (advanced practice registered nurses) can choose from 11 different clinical specialties, each associated with a specific patient population or area of advanced nursing. These include:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • 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)

In addition to the required coursework, all APRN MSN programs include a set number of clinical practice hours students must complete in order to graduate. This generally ranges from 500 to 1000 hours, depending on the particular program and specialty. Students complete these hours in actual clinical settings, under the guidance and supervision of a preceptor or instructor. Once they have fulfilled this requirement and completed their MSN, students will be eligible to sit for the national certification exam in their APRN specialty. Earning national certification will then qualify them to apply for and obtain state-level licensure from their state’s board of nursing. (Note: The exact requirements for licensure vary by state.)

MSN programs are also available in several indirect care specializations, which focus on nursing administration and systems-level innovation, as opposed to direct clinical practice. These are for RNs who are interested in leading teams of health care professionals, training future nurses, or impacting nursing policy as a whole, and do not lead to APRN certification. As such, the inclusion of clinical hours varies by specialty. For example, clinical nurse leader programs typically require at least 400 practice hours, while nurse administrator programs may require none at all.

Here are a few examples of indirect care concentrations available to MSN students:

  • Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)
  • Nursing Executive/Administrator
  • Nurse Educator
  • Nurse Researcher
  • Public Health Nursing
  • Nursing Informatics

To learn more about MSN programs and any of the degree specializations listed above, check out our Complete Guide to MSN Programs.