Advice for Prospective Online Graduate Nursing Students

Enrolling in a graduate nursing program can be daunting for any RN. There are many factors to consider when researching programs, and once courses start, the work may seem insurmountable. For RNs and APRNs interested in pursuing their degree online, navigating the transition from traditional, classroom-based instruction to self-directed, online learning can prove particularly challenging. On top of this, it is often difficult for online students to know where to start when it comes to finding clinical placements, or balancing their graduate studies with work and family obligations.

We asked alumni from a number of online graduate nursing programs what they thought students should know before pursuing their MSN or DNP online. Many stressed the importance of thoroughly researching and weighing all the available options before applying, as well as not being afraid to reach out to professors and academic advisors along the way. Others said that organization and motivation where the keys to their success, noting that, like any graduate course of study, online nursing programs involve a significant amount of work. Perhaps the most prevalent piece of advice involved the difficulty online students sometimes face when it comes to finding clinical placement sites in their area. For those considering an online program that does not arrange these placements, the graduates encouraged prospective students to start searching for local preceptors and clinical sites as early as possible.

Below is a breakdown of the best advice the alumni we interviewed had to offer, including suggestions on how to make the most of clinical placements, and other tips for succeeding in an online graduate nursing program.

Advice for Students of Online MSN and DNP Programs

#1: Do the Research

Nurses interested in pursuing their graduate degree online should expect to do considerable research before they start applying to schools. With so many options available to them, it is crucial that prospective students take into account a variety of factors when deciding on the right program. This includes not only how well the program ranks or is regarded nationwide, but also how its particular structure and requirements fit with the student’s individual needs and learning style. For instance, when looking at online graduate programs, nurses should decide earlier on if they intend on working while pursuing their degree, which may dictate whether they enroll on a full- or part-time basis. Similarly, if the program includes any campus-based events, such as mandatory intensives one or more times a year, it is important that students understand the time or cost these may require.

Karin Young, MSN, WHNP is a women’s health nurse practitioner who completed her MSN online through the University of Cincinnati. Her advice for prospective online nursing students is to find a program that offers good support services, and reach out as soon as possible. “When researching a program, do not be afraid to call and speak with an admissions counselor or staff member,” she says. “It is so important to choose a school that offers easily accessible support.” Along with this, Ms. Young suggests, “The required number of clinical hours in a program should also be considered. The more supervised experience that you can gain during your training, the smoother your transition as a new advanced practice provider will be.” Her final piece of advice for students considering an online program is to contact other nurses who earned their graduate degree online and learn from their experiences. “Ask around!” she says. “Hearing first-hand experience was valuable and made me more confident in choosing the right program.”

Many online MSN and DNP programs include one or more mandatory on-campus sessions, which require students to travel to campus for orientation events or hands-on training exercises. This is important for prospective students to consider when researching online programs, especially if travelling to campus will be difficult or expensive. Michaela Klose, MSN, APRN, FNP-BC, NP-C, a graduate of Gonzaga University’s online MSN program, found these campus-based sessions extremely valuable, and recommends that prospective online students look for programs that include them. “For students considering an online advance practice nurse program, I would highly suggest applying for a program where you can have immersions,” she says. “Although there is a cost associated with this, you will forever be changed both mentally, physically and emotionally.” While Ms. Klose felt this hands-on experience was a vital part of her graduate education, she suggests students plan for these campus sessions and the associated travel well in advance. “I would plan for immersion weekends immediately after finding out what dates you need to be there,” she notes. “Booking travel and hotels is advisable.” In order to get the most out of this in-person instruction, Ms. Klose says, “I would recommend coming in a day before the immersion weekend if possible so one can settle in, study for an extra day without any distractions. I found this very helpful.”

Another important piece of information to look for when researching APRN programs is how well graduates perform on their national certification exams. This can be a great indication of the quality of education the program offers, as well as how sufficiently students are prepared in their particular specialty upon graduation. Ms. Klose suggests, “I would also look at the school’s percentage of graduates that pass national boards on their first attempt.” She says she ultimately chose the online FNP program at Gonzaga because it “has had a 100 percent rate for years and is highly recognized.”

Much of the same advice was shared by Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP, a family nurse practitioner who earned her MSN online from Duke University. On researching potential programs, she says, “I would weigh the cost and feasibility of travelling to campus if required. Some schools it is never required to go to campus, however I found the experience invaluable.” Ms. Capes adds, “I would also look at the school’s percentage of graduates that pass national boards on their first attempt.” Above all else, Ms. Capes stresses the importance of reviewing how each school handles clinical placements for online students. “I would know before starting if the school will find clinical sites for students, because Duke is one of the only schools that actually does,” she notes. “I would compare total clinical hours as the more clinical hours throughout the program, the more experience students get.”

#2: Get Organized

One of the many advantages of online learning is that, in most cases, it allows students to complete coursework at their convenience. As opposed to a traditional, campus program, which has a set schedule of classes that must be attended on a regular basis, online degree programs typically let students view lectures and participate in class discussions at any time. While there are certain deadlines they must meet, it is primarily up to students to stay on top of their studies and not fall behind on coursework. Some online students may find this type of self-paced learning difficult, or at least a major adjustment from classroom-based instruction. For students just entering an online graduate nursing program, many of the alumni we spoke with emphasized the importance of staying organized and on track while working through the curriculum.

Ms. Capes found that setting her own strict schedule for completing coursework was extremely helpful when pursuing her MSN online through Duke. “For students entering online programs, I would emphasize the importance of being organized, knowing the syllabi and what is expected throughout the semester,” she says. “I would have a set schedule for tackling the course work and not cram or skip weeks.” Ms. Capes warns against neglecting your studies or waiting until the last minute to catch up on coursework, noting, “There is far too much information to cram information in Duke’s program, or any NP program I suspect.”

This particular advice was echoed by Michelle Lew, MSN, FNP, a graduate of Gonzaga University’s online family nurse practitioner program. “With any online program, you have to make sure that you are organized,” she explains. “Get a calendar and write down when assignments are due and when tests are scheduled.” While it is important for online students to stay on top of their studies and be mindful of upcoming deadlines, it is not uncommon to experience the occasional setback, perhaps due to work commitments or an unexpected life event. Ms. Lew offers this great advice for those who find themselves feeling overwhelmed during their program. “It can be very easy to fall behind with an online program, since you need to manage your own time of when to do what yourself,” she says. “If you’re feeling like you are falling behind or undergoing a hard circumstance, reach out to your professors. All of my professors were very understanding and accommodating.”

Ms. Young has similar advice for new online students, “Get organized! As soon as you get the syllabus for the course, sit down and map out the reading assignments, projects, and test dates.” She says it was helpful to allocate certain hours of the day for schoolwork, and utilized friends and family to keep her on task. “Make sure that you schedule dedicated, uninterrupted time for study into your week,” she stresses. “I set aside a minimum of 3-4 hours every day during the week. Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of family members and friends to accomplish this. The more help, the better! If you can help to prevent getting overwhelmed, it is far easier to stay focused.”

For Ms. Young, the key was making her online studies a priority, on par with her career or family obligations. “I thought of graduate school as my main occupation during my time at Cincinnati,” she says. “I was fortunate enough to only work two 12 hour shifts as an RN on the weekend, but even that was challenging at times.” As with any major endeavor, Ms. Young says, “You will likely need to make certain social and economic sacrifices during your program, and sometimes it will feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Nevertheless, if you remain disciplined and put in the required effort and hours, it is achievable. Completing your online degree is a huge undertaking, but I promise it will be worth it!”

#3: Utilize Support Services

Oftentimes, online students can feel isolated, progressing through their studies alone at odd hours, and cut off from their school and classmates by sheer distance. Most programs, however, have polices in place to counteract this, and promote regular communication between students and instructors. Online students might correspond with one another and their instructors in a number of different ways, including class discussion boards, email, Skype sessions, or phone calls. Along with this, many schools offer online students support services such as academic advising and career counseling, much like they would any campus-based student. A number of alumni we interviewed found these services indispensable, and suggested new students take full advantage of them.

Support services, such as those mentioned above, were a major factor in both Ms. Lew’s decision to enroll at Gonzaga, and her success as an online graduate student. “My advice for anyone that is considering an online MSN program is to make sure that the program offers student support,” she says. “Gonzaga University offered a variety of resources from advisors to mentors, which were primarily students further ahead in the program.” Ms. Lew urges new online students to reach out to an academic advisor as early as possible, and continue to check in with them as the program progresses. “I made sure to connect with my assigned advisor to go over my track in the program,” she notes. “My advisor discussed with me which classes he thought I should definitely take together, and which ones I should wait on depending on how many classes I elected to take that semester.”

“The support services at the University of Cincinnati were extremely helpful during my online program,” says Ms. Young, another alumnus who recommends utilizing campus-based academic and career support whenever possible. “I was in frequent contact with my program advisor and felt comfortable reaching out to her with any concerns or questions,” she notes. “Emails and phone calls were answered promptly by both my advisor and professors.” Schools may even offer online students help in their job search before or after graduation. “Job postings were made available to us through the school, which was helpful and encouraging,” adds Ms. Young. “Overall, I felt well supported during my time at Cincinnati.”

As a graduate of the online MSN program at Duke University, Rebecca Singh, MSN, FNP-BC recommends students reach out to school faculty on a regular basis, and immediately if unforeseen circumstances arise during the program. “Communicate with faculty and staff early, the sooner the better,” she says. “If you know you have a work conflict that may interfere with a deadline or if an emergency happens, take the time to communicate.” In many cases, professors and other program staff can help students navigate these issues, and perhaps let them take an extension on certain projects, or even a temporary break from schooling. Ms. Singh notes, “I found the Duke faculty reasonable and collaborative, but only with early and clear communication on my part.”

#4: Go Above and Beyond

A common piece of advice we heard from alumni of online graduate nursing programs was that it is essential for online students to be proactive in their studies. As with any academic program, the more students apply themselves, the more they stand to gain in return. While it would be easiest to simply go through the motions, meeting the minimum requirements for coursework and class participation, students will see they can learn more, and become better nurses in the end, by taking an enthusiastic approach to their studies. More so than campus-based students, online nursing students must take it upon themselves to make sure they are receiving the training they need, and in some cases, go above and beyond what is simply required of them by the program.

Peter Granderson, MSN, FNP is a graduate of the online family nurse practitioner program at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. While he highly recommends pursuing a graduate nursing degree online, he has a few suggestions for nurses just starting an online program. “First, use the online format to its full advantage,” he says. “The discussions and feedback in the online format can be excellent, but you will learn best from them if you go above-and-beyond the minimum requirements.”

As for class assignments, Mr. Granderson stresses, “Do your research for what you post and for the papers you write. Make it rich and pithy. Use good online references like Dynamed and Uptodate, but also go for the primary sources – Cochrane reviews and original studies.” Along with this, Mr. Granderson encourages students to ask questions and engage in healthy debate with classmates and professors when possible. “Don’t be afraid to challenge the guidelines and prevailing thought – after all, this field is about evidence, not expert opinion,” he adds. “Online programs, and UCCS’s particularly, can be an excellent means by which to get a taste for research, debate, and challenging the status quo – so read-up and then make your case!”

In order to get the most out an online APRN program, Mr. Granderson also suggests students take it upon themselves to make sure they are receiving a well-rounded education, and the training they need to be effective nurse practitioners upon graduation. “I would encourage you to look for potential holes in your online learning and then seek to fill those,” he says, “either with carefully chosen clinical experiences, or perhaps with an on-site class or lab.” There are a variety of ways online students can seek out additional training, if desired. “Is your primary-care clinical site lacking in orthopedics? Talk to your professor about a clinical rotation that includes this, or perhaps see if you can work-in a semester of onsite at your university to cover this,” suggests Mr. Granderson. “Little chance to suture at your geriatric clinical site? Attend a conference that includes suturing labs. All such lab-experiences can be had, but the online format will put more of the onus on you to make sure they occur.”

Ginny Moullet, ACNPC-AG, CCRN, CEN, an acute care nurse practitioner who earned her MSN online through the University of South Alabama, has this advice for prospective online nursing students: “Don’t listen to people who complain about online education. I discovered that many people complained about the lack of assistance and help, when I found that if you just ask professors, they do help you.” Ms. Moullet adds that many of the same qualities that helped her succeed in an online nursing program proved indispensable once she began practicing as an APRN. “Don’t expect answers and information to be handed to you, you will have to look up information for yourself. This is also true when you are out on your own,” she explains. “If I do not know the answer to a question, I am expected to look it up and then discuss it with my attending.”

Ultimately, Ms. Moullet says, “If you are a self-starter and independent student, you will do well in an online MSN program. Stay on top of assignments, get posts and papers done early, do not wait until the last minute.” For those considering an online nursing program, Ms. Moullet urges, “Education is what you make it. You have to study, participate, and dig in to your clinical environment to obtain the most from the program. You can pay upwards of $100,000 for your program, or you can pay $20,000 – the end result is that you have to put in the time and effort to obtain the most for yourself and your career.”

#5: Clinical Placements

Clinical practicums are a major component and requirement of any advanced practice nursing degree program. This is when students augment their course studies by training in an actual clinical setting, under the guidance of a preceptor. APRN students must fulfill a set number of clinical practice hours in order to graduate and earn their degree, as well as qualify for the national certification exam in their specialty. The process by which students find and obtain their clinical placements varies by school. While some help match students with approved sites and preceptors, others leave it entirely up to students to find these on their own. This can be a difficult process for any nurse pursuing a clinical practice graduate degree, but especially so for online students, who typically complete clinical hours in or around their community. For students who live in remote locations, or densely populated areas where there may be competition for preceptors, securing clinical placement sites can prove particularly challenging.

“Before starting or considering an online MSN program, look for preceptors and obtain relationships with physicians and nurse practitioners in your area,” advises Alex Lawrence, MSN, FNP-C, who completed her graduate degree online through Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). “Without contracted preceptors, you will not be able to complete the courses and you will be wasting your time.” Ms. Lawrence recommends prospective online students begin mapping out placement sites as soon as possible, in order to avoid the pressure of doing so during their program. “It is less stressful to go ahead and work on obtaining these relationships prior to and early on in a variety of specialties,” she notes, “as procrastination is not in your favor with these online programs.”

Christine Kloby, MSN, CRNP, a graduate of Drexel University’s online FNP program, also emphasizes how important it is for online nursing students to start looking for preceptors early. “My advice for students completing clinic practicums is to try to align your clinical sites up as soon as you can—even if it’s a year out,” she says. Additionally, Ms. Kloby suggests, “If you have the opportunity to have more than one clinical site or preceptor for each rotation, take it; this will allow you to learn the tricks of the trade from different providers and to visualize/establish a workflow process (or combination of processes) that works well for you.” Clinical hours are a vital part of APRN training, and in order to be best prepared for the transition to advanced practice, Ms. Kloby recommends online nursing students make the most of their placements. “This is your clinical experience and you’re only going to get out of it what you put into it,” she notes. “If you’re able to precept with a nurse practitioner, due so. Pick the nurse practitioner’s brain regarding starter guides/applications, organizations/memberships, and other resources.”

Many of the same points regarding clinical placements were brought up Judson Lawrence, MSN, FNP-C, another alumnus of the online nursing program at TTUHSC. “My advice would be to not just meet your clinical hours, but surpass them,” he urges. “Clinicals are the only opportunity you will have to make mistakes and not be reprimanded for them.” For Mr. Lawrence, this period of trial and error was a crucial step to becoming a nurse practitioner. “You will learn more than you can ever imagine during your clinical sites,” he says. “Take full advantage of your clinicals, your clinical sites, and obtain as many relationships as you can with providers.”

In order to retain as much as possible from his clinical placements, Mr. Lawrence found it helpful to keep detailed notes during his rotations, summarizing specific diagnoses and patient encounters in a small book he stills refers to today. “I recommend you create an ‘external brain’ throughout your clinicals that will help you with the small things when you are a provider,” he says. “I use this term because mine contains all detailed information to make clinicals and work less arduous. I have it sectioned and marked out according to body systems.” Mr. Lawrence got the idea for this external brain from his father-in-law, who is also a family nurse practitioner, and uses his to “recall detailed points for things not encountered frequently, but too important to not know.” “He created his throughout medical school and is still using his, so I figured why not?” adds Mr. Lawrence. “Making your external brain will be too laborious to do once you’re a full-grown NP. I created mine throughout school and to this day will occasionally use it.”

When it comes to actually finding clinical sites and preceptors, the alumni we spoke with recommend online students utilize their professional network, reach out to local clinics, and check if their school offers any assistance. “My advice for anyone that has to find their own clinical sites is to ask your school for a list of organizations they currently have contracts with to do practicums,” says Gonzaga grad Ms. Lew. “The school must have a contract with the organization for liability purposes. Contracts can take 3-4 months to be approved, so having this list can save you time. Also, if you are emailing random providers to see if they will take you on as a student, it is likely easier to get in with someone that has already worked with your school.” Another approach is to contact local or state-level nursing organizations to see if they can help connect you with potential preceptors in your area. “You can also join a nurse practitioner association as a student to find perspective preceptors,” Ms. Lew notes. “These associations will usually have a directory of providers who are willing to precept students and will likely return your email or phone call.”

To learn more about clinical placements, including advice from actual preceptors, check out our Graduate Nursing Student’s Guide to Clinical Placements.

#6: Be Ready for Hard Work

Above all, a graduate nursing program requires an incredible amount of work, be it online or on-campus. Students must find a way to balance high levels of advanced coursework and extensive clinical practice hours, often all while maintaining their current career and family obligations. Despite offering increased flexibility and convenience, online nursing programs still demand a massive amount of dedication, diligence, and motivation. Due to the self-guided nature of online learning, these programs may even require more determination and better time management than their campus-based counterparts.

Although Ms. Singh hit rough patches working towards her MSN online at Duke, she remained resolute in her goal to finish the program. “My advice is to stick with it,” she says. “Though online programs are often more flexible, they also tend to require more self-motivation. Distractions and barriers will always come up in life. You have to decide to finish and work every day to ensure you do.” Even when life got in the way of her studies, Ms. Singh found a way to concentrate on school work. “During the sad times I tried to view school as a welcome distraction rather than something that was too overwhelming in an already difficult situation,” she explains. “During the happy times, I tried to view it as something to add to my happiness rather than something oppressive. Adopt an ‘I will finish’ mentality.”

Jamie Kulick, DNP, CNM is a certified nurse midwife who earned both her MSN and DNP online through Frontier Nursing University. Throughout these two programs, she experienced many trials and tribulations as an online student, all while maintaining a full-time job and raising four children. “I would advise anyone starting out at Frontier or any other program to get ready for a lot of hard work,” says Ms. Kulick. “You get out of it what you put into it, and if you are not ready to give it the time, attention, and dedication stop now because you will fail.” She adds, “You are preparing for a career where you are responsible for people’s lives and you need to understand that it will not be easy. Tears will come, there will be times where it feels like reading is never ending.” Ms. Kulick’s advice for prospective online students is to, “Get your learning space ready, you will need a place to have your books, quiet space, and a plain room for taking tests.” Above all else, she says, “Be proactive and prepared. Get your assignments and look at your calendar, set up times to complete things and STICK to it. The worst thing you can do is get behind, your work quality will suffer and likely your grades. Plus you yourself will suffer from the stress you will endure from getting behind.”

A graduate of the online psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program at the University of South Alabama, Tierria McGlothin, MSN, ARNP, PMHNP-BC emphasizes the importance of assessing your aptitude for online learning before jumping into a program. “The following is advice for those interested in pursuing an online graduate nursing program. First, evaluate your learning style and motivation level,” she says. “It takes a disciplined, self-motivated individual to be successful in an online program.” In order to set themselves up for success, Ms. McGlothin advises students to, “Consider a part-time job instead of full-time to allow time for studies, family, and self. Apply for the program with a friend or make friends with classmates.” Perhaps most importantly, she says, “Look for practicum sites as soon as you receive the acceptance letter into the program. Finally, stay as organized as possible by purchasing a calendar, make schedules, and stick to it!”

More Advice from Alumni of Online MSN and DNP Programs

Pursuing a graduate nursing degree is a major endeavor, and the decision to do so should not be taken lightly. Whether on-campus or online, these programs require a considerable amount of work and significant time commitment, which may necessitate sacrifices in other areas of one’s life. While an online program offers busy nurses the flexibility to complete coursework on a more convenient schedule, distance learning is not for everyone. Prospective online students have much to consider before enrolling in a program. Here are a few more tips for navigating graduate nursing study, and getting the most out of an online program, from the alumni we interviewed.

Jessica Klassen, MSN, ARNP, FNP, an alumnus of the online graduate nursing program at Gonzaga University, has this advice to offer prospective online students: “If you have the opportunity to decrease your work hours during graduate school do it! With any program or educational experience, you get out of it what you invest into it. Organize your weeks to plan ahead for big assignments and research projects.” She suggests, “If you have an area of interest or experience, focus research papers and in-depth study on that area.” For Ms. Klassen, connecting with other nurses in her area proved to be extremely helpful. “Plan ahead for clinical preceptors, it is never too early to start networking,” she says. “Join a local nurse practitioner association and show up to meetings. This is a great way to learn about local educational offerings and to get to know potential preceptors.”

Ms. Young from the University of Cincinnati also extols the benefits of reaching out to local nurses for support. “The best advice that I can give for future and current students is to network!” she notes. “Building rapport with potential preceptors and carefully choosing mentors that will aid you in your journey are crucially important tasks.” Along with helping her when it came time to find clinical placements, meeting practicing NPs also better prepared Ms. Young for life after graduation. “Transitioning from an RN to a health care provider requires a shift in your practice theory. Instead of following orders, you will now be required to understand, assess, diagnose, and treat disease and normal health processes,” she explains. “Having skilled and supportive professionals to back you during this change is paramount.”

Moving into advanced practice was difficult for Ms. Kloby as well, but she urges students to stick with it, and accrue as much knowledge as possible in their NP program. “When you get out of school, it will take you several months to feel comfortable practicing as a nurse practitioner; the practice is very different from bedside nursing,” she says. “Learning the logistics of billing, insurances, and referrals would be helpful ahead of time; the same goes for which licenses you need and how to apply for them.” Ms. Kloby adds that students should be sure to pick an NP position after graduation that allows them room to continue learning. “When you graduate, look for your first nurse practitioner position within a practice willing to mentor you and give you resources to grow.”

“My advice would be to continue working [while in school] as a nurse in an area that is applicable to your desired degree or area where you plan to work as a nurse practitioner,” says TTUHSC graduate Ms. Lawrence. “I worked in the ER since I planned to continue working in the ER as an NP. Not only did I work in the ER, but I worked nearly solely as a triage nurse. This allowed me to learn how to make quick assessments, obtain H&P’s, and forced me to have constant interaction with patients as we saw 100+ patients daily.” Ms. Lawrence found that working in her specialty area as an RN while pursuing her MSN helped her stay sharp and hone new skills at the same time. “It is true that what you don’t use, you lose,” she notes. “Without continuing to work, I fear that I may have lost a lot of what I learned as a nurse that is the foundation of a nurse practitioner.”

Ms. Moullet cautions against enrolling in a graduate nursing program without first acquiring extensive experience as an RN. “I would advise against newly licensed registered nurses going straight into a nurse practitioner program” she warns. “I found that these nurses truly struggled and did not have any clinical experience or critical thinking to draw from. Many of these nurses dropped out from the program.” Many APRN programs, both online and on-campus, have minimum work experience requirements to combat this, typically requiring at least one year of clinical nursing experience for enrollment.

For more information on transitioning from RN to APRN, check out our guide: Navigating the Transition from RN to APRN: A Guide for Graduate Nursing Students, which contains insights from interviews with practicing APRNs.