Answer: There are numerous career paths registered nurses (RNs) can take after earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). This largely depends on the particular specialization students decide to pursue in their degree program. MSN programs are available in both direct care concentrations, which focus on working closely with patients in clinical settings, and indirect care concentrations, for nurses who want to take on more administrative or systems-level roles. Earning an MSN in a clinical specialty can prepare RNs to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), such as a nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified nurse midwife (CNM), or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). Those who earn their MSN in an indirect care concentration might go on to become a clinical nurse leader (CNL), nurse administrator, or nurse educator, to name just a few possible career paths.
In general, MSN-trained nurses have better job prospects and higher earning potential than RNs who only possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). With their advanced training, they are able to handle more responsibilities, and have the autonomy to make critical care decisions and lead teams of health care professionals in a wide range of medical settings. In some states, APRNs even have full practice authority, allowing them to diagnose patients, order laboratory tests, and prescribe medication and other treatment measures independent of a physician (see our Guide to APRN Scope of Practice for more information).
To learn more about the career paths available to MSN graduates, as well as the different types of MSN programs students can pursue, check out the sections below.
Direct Care Specializations and Career Paths
RNs interested in pursuing a career in advanced clinical practice can earn their MSN in one of 10 APRN specializations. Each specialty is focused on a specific role or patient population, with the intention of preparing graduates for national certification and state licensure in that area of advanced nursing. Students can pursue their MSN in a concentration they are passionate about, such as family nursing, women’s health, or nurse midwifery, and receive the specialized training necessary to qualify for a career in that specialty.
Below are the 10 major APRN specializations available to MSN students. Each one is directly associated with an advanced clinical practice role that students can move into after graduation:
- 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)
Earning an MSN in any of the clinical specializations listed above will qualify graduates to sit for a national certification exam in that specialty. Once nurses have obtained national certification as an APRN, they can apply for state licensure through their state’s board of nursing. This process differs by state, so prospective APRNs should be sure to carefully review all requirements for licensure in their state before applying (see our FAQ on APRN Certification Organizations for more information).
APRNs handle many of the same responsibilities as RNs, including evaluating patients’ health, administering treatments, and performing certain medical procedures; however, they have the specialized training to determine, coordinate, and implement care plans largely on their own. Unlike RNs, who provide support services to help carry out patient treatment plans, APRNs often create these plans themselves or alongside other medical specialists, overseeing their implementation and the health care team assigned to it. As mentioned earlier, they may even have the authority to practice or prescribe medication without the supervision of a physician, depending on their state’s scope of practice laws.
The specific duties of an APRN, as well as the patient demographic they serve, will depend largely on their specialization. For example, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners function much like psychiatrists, providing advanced care to individuals suffering from psychological, emotional, or behavioral health issues, while certified nurse midwives work with women throughout their pregnancy, including during and after the birthing process, to ensure the health of both mother and infant. In any case, APRNs can expect to be coordinating patient care, managing complex medical conditions, and making critical care decisions all while performing the clinical tasks typically associated with an RN. They typically have a larger patient load as well, and may have long-term relationships with their patients, tending to them over a period of months or even years.
APRNs can be found in almost any health care setting, practicing in primary care or a specific area of medicine such as cardiology, oncology, or gynecology, depending on their specialty and certifications. Below are just a few examples of where an APRN might work:
- Private Practices
- Community Clinics
- Intensive Care Units
- Emergency Rooms
- School-Based Clinics
- Corporate Health Centers
- Specialty Practices
For in-depth information on any of the APRN specialties discussed above, check out our comprehensive Guide to Advanced Practice Registered Nursing.
Indirect Care Specializations and Career Paths
For RNs interested in impacting patient care on a larger scale, either through organizational leadership, influencing health policy, or training the next generation of nurses, there are MSN programs offered in indirect care concentrations such as nursing administration or nursing education. As opposed to APRN specializations, which focus on the direct clinical care of patients, these indirect care concentrations and their associated career paths are more concerned with nursing on a systems-level.
There are several indirect care concentrations available to MSN students, which can lead to a variety of jobs in nursing leadership, academics, health care policy, or similar fields. The following are some of the most common program specializations:
- Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)
- Nursing Executive/Administrator
- Nurse Educator
- Nurse Researcher
- Public Health Nursing
- Nursing Informatics
Each of these concentrations is designed to prepare graduates for a unique type of non-clinical nursing work. Nurse executive and administrators, for example, are trained to oversee large teams of health care professionals, and might manage operations for an entire department within a hospital or network of hospitals. Nurse educators train other nurses and nursing students, either in an academic setting, such as a college or university, or an actual health care facility. There are multiple indirect care concentrations and career paths that deal with studying and improving current nursing practices and systems. These include nurse researcher, for students interested in conducting scientific studies and analyzing data to better understand or improve health care services, and nursing informatics, for those who want to design and manage health information systems and other technology essential to nursing practice.
Much like APRNs, these health care professionals might work in a wide range of medical-related settings. Here are several examples of where nurse administrators, educators, and other indirect care specialists can be employed:
- Community Health Agencies
- Colleges or Universities
- Government Organizations
- Public Policy Organizations
Types of MSN Degree Programs
There are several different paths students can take to earn an MSN, based on their current level of education. The most common type of MSN program is designed for students with a BSN from a school accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN); however, there are also programs available for RNs who possess an ADN or even a diploma in nursing. Students can pursue any of these MSN pathways on a full- or part-time basis, and in the advanced nursing specialization of their choosing.
While programs may go by different names at different schools, here are the major MSN pathways available to students:
- BSN to MSN Programs: Often referred to as a Traditional MSN program, this pathway is the most common, and requires a Bachelor of Science in Nursing for admission. Students in a BSN to MSN program take both graduate-level core courses in general nursing concepts such as advanced health assessment, advanced pharmacology, and leadership in nursing, as well as specialization courses unique to their program focus. The exact program structure will vary by school; however, most BSN to MSN programs consist of approximately 40 to 70 course credits, and require approximately two years of full-time study.
- RN to MSN Programs (ADN and/or Diploma): These programs are for RNs who possess an Associate Degree in Nursing or nursing diploma, and want to pursue an MSN without first completing a separate BSN program. While some RN to MSN programs are open to students with either an ADN or diploma in nursing, others only accept an ADN for admission. In addition to the graduate core courses and specialization coursework found in a BSN to MSN program, RN to MSN students typically must complete BSN-level general education and nursing courses. Some programs award students a BSN after they have finished this portion of the curriculum, while others only culminate in the MSN degree. Generally, an ADN to MSN or Diploma to MSN program will entail around 120 to 150 credits, requiring roughly two and a half to three years of full-time study to complete.
- Non-Nursing Bachelor’s to MSN Programs: Some MSN programs accept or require both an ADN and a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. These may be called Bachelor’s to MSN, RN BA/BS to MSN, or Bridge RN to MSN programs, depending on the school. The primary difference between this type of program and a traditional RN to MSN program is the number of undergraduate courses included in the curriculum. Since bachelor’s-trained students will have already completed the undergraduate general education courses required in an RN to MSN program, they are typically allowed to waive this portion of the curriculum, and instead just take one to three BSN-level “bridge” courses before beginning their MSN studies.
In addition to the degree requirements listed above, all MSN programs require applicants to hold an active and unrestricted RN license in their state of residence. Other admission requirements may include meeting a certain GPA threshold, or having one or more years of professional nursing experience. The admission criteria for an MSN program will vary by school and degree path, so students should be sure to carefully review all requirements before applying.