FAQ: What Are the Different Types of Master's Degrees in Nursing?

Reviewed by: Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC

This page provides essential details and introductory information on several degree paths to earn a master's in nursing. Students who possess a registered nurse (RN) licenses, bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, or bachelor's degree in an outside field can locate useful information here on graduate nursing degrees.

Learners can pursue traditional, online, and hybrid nursing programs. Some students finish their master of science in nursing (MSN) degree in as little as 15 months, depending on their level of education. Graduates can pursue exciting and lucrative careers. MSN programs also prepare nursing students to pursue work in specialized areas of the field, including pediatrics, adult-gerontology, nurse midwifery, and neonatal care.

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MSN Degree Paths

The MSN degree presents learners with many degree paths to pursue rewarding jobs. The master's in nursing also readies degree-seekers for specialized careers and increases their earning potential. Prospective students must ensure their degree comes from a school accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Accreditation shows that a program meets high academic standards and provides its learners with credentials to advance their careers.

Learners choose between three primary educational paths to earn their master's degree in nursing: the BSN-to-MSN, RN-to-MSN, or non-nursing bachelor's to MSN. Nursing master's programs require prospective students to possess a current RN license, regardless of where a master's degree-seeker begins their program.

BSN-to-MSN Programs

Schools offer BSN-to-MSN programs for learners who already possess a bachelor's degree in nursing and RN licensure. Learners can pursue this degree online or in-person, but still must complete in-person clinical training hours, regardless of the format. Schools usually offer specialty tracks, such as leadership and management, nursing informatics, and family nurse practitioner.

BSN-to-MSN programs typically require degree-seekers to earn approximately 36 credit hours. Popular courses at this level include health promotion, evidence-based practices, and theory for advanced practice nursing. In most cases, nursing students need about two years or less to finish their programs.

RN-to-MSN Programs (ADN or Diploma)

Individuals who possess current RN licenses without a bachelor's degree can apply for RN-to-MSN programs. An applicant in this scenario typically possesses an associate degree in nursing or a nursing diploma. Admission requirements by school, so degree-seekers should review each school's specifications before applying.

Some students officially earn a bachelor's degree while working toward their MSN. In other cases, schools simply award only an MSN degree. These students complete approximately 120-150 credits and take classes like basic research and evidence-based practice, professional role enhancement, and communication and collaboration for advanced nursing practice.

RN-to-MSN enrollees generally need 2-3 years to complete their requirements.

Non-Nursing Bachelor's-to-MSN Programs

A student who does not possess an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing, but has a bachelor's degree in an outside field, can apply for this master's degree. These programs may use titles, such as RN-to-MSN, BA/BS-to-MSN, and direct-entry MSN.

In most cases, degree-seekers in these programs often need only a few undergraduate-level nursing classes before they can begin to take classes from the required master's curriculum. Admissions committees often prefer applicants with competitive undergraduate GPAs.

Additionally, incoming learners without a nursing background may need to complete prerequisite courses, including anatomy, nutrition, statistics, and microbiology. Non-nursing bachelor's-to-MSN programs often take approximately 18 months to complete.

MSN Degree Specializations

MSN programs typically offer many specializations. MSN degree-seekers can follow these specially designed tracks to become clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners (NPs), and other types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Popular specialization areas include family nursing, pediatric care, psychiatric-mental health nursing, women's health nursing, and nurse anesthesia.

Several independent organizations certify APRN roles. Five organizations provide national certification for NPs. Two of these institutions also offer certifications for clinical nurse specialists. Not all specialty areas require professionals to hold state-level licenses. There is no national APRN licensure exam, although most nursing boards require an APRN certification exam before allowing a professional to practice.

Clinical practice hour requirements vary among schools and specializations. Most students can expect to complete 150-600 hours in practical clinical training. Emergency care NPs need at least 2,000 hours of direct clinical experience in emergency settings.

What Can I Do With a Master's Degree in Nursing?

The following section includes the projected job growth and annual median salary for professionals in the field. In this sample, MSN degree-holders can earn $63,690-$174,790. While these are not the only careers to pursue after completing a nursing master's program, the following roles remain popular today with promising projections for growth and earning potential.

Nurse Anesthetist: These professionals administer anesthesia before, during, and after various hospital procedures. They may provide pain management, interview patients on their medical history or medications, perform physical exams, and respond to patients' questions before and after procedures.

Projected 2018-28 Job Growth: 17%
Annual Median Salary: $174,790

Nurse Midwife: Nurse midwives provide specialized wellness care for women. They typically focus on prenatal care, delivering babies, gynecological checkups, and family planning.

Projected 2018-28 Job Growth: 16%
Annual Median Salary: $105,030

Nurse Practitioner: NPs interact directly with patients and provide many health services, including diagnosing illnesses, developing treatment plans, ordering diagnostic tests, and supervising staff. They may specialize in areas like cardiovascular health, oncology, pediatrics, and dermatology.

Projected 2018-28 Job Growth: 28%
Annual Median Salary: $109,820

Nurse Educator: These nurses train to become teachers who educate and inspire the next generation of nursing students. They often develop courses and curricula for nursing programs, write lectures, and create training scenarios for lab and clinical work.

Projected 2018-28 Job Growth: 20%
Annual Median Salary: $74,600

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Reviewed By:

Medical Reviewer: Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC

Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC

Whende M. Carroll, MSN, RN-BC, is the founder of Nurse Evolution, a resource center established to educate all nurses on how to expertly use technology, data, and innovation strategies to advance the profession. Carroll graduated from Walden University with a master of science in nursing with a nursing informatics focus, and holds board certification in informatics nursing from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She is currently a senior editor at the Online Journal of Nursing Informatics (OJNI), for which she regularly writes about big data-enabled emerging technologies.