For RNs or APRNs looking to pursue a graduate degree, online nursing programs present a number of potential advantages over traditional campus-based learning. In most cases, these programs combine online courses with clinical rotations that students complete at a hospital or clinic in their area. This means nurses can typically maintain their current work schedule or family obligations while completing coursework at their convenience. Along with this increased flexibility, online programs give students access to a wider range of degree options, without the hassle of commuting to class every week or relocating closer to campus.
With more and more schools offering online nursing programs, or incorporating online elements into their current graduate programs, it is clear that students are finding significant benefits to this type of education. We asked alumni of several prominent online MSN and DNP programs what they found to be the biggest advantage of completing their degree online. For many, an online program was the only option, as they either lived too far from a school offering their desired degree path, or needed the flexibility to continue working full-time while pursuing their degree. Others simply found online learning more convenient, or enjoyed the autonomy of completing coursework at their own pace.
To hear about their particular experiences with online learning, and some of the major benefits of an online graduate nursing program, check out the sections below.
Advantages of Online MSN and DNP Programs
Pro: Increased Access to Graduate Nursing Programs
Traditionally, students could only pursue a degree if they lived within driving distance of a school that offered it, or relocated close to campus to attend. In an online nursing program, students complete the majority of their coursework over the web, and typically only travel to campus a handful of times for orientations or hands-on training sessions. This is important for several reasons. First, it means nurses in even the most remote locations now have access to graduate-level programs from schools throughout the country. Second, it provides students with greater access to different nursing specializations. Finally, it allows students to choose programs based on factors besides geographical location, such as prestige, ranking, or possible research opportunities.
“I honestly did not have any other option but to attend an online program. My other option would’ve been to move to a larger city or just sacrifice 90 percent of my sleep by driving an hour to an hour and a half to and from [the nearest campus] as required, in addition to continuing to work nights.”
Ginny Moullet, ACNPC-AG, CCRN, CEN earned her MSN through the online program at the University of South Alabama. Today, she works as an acute care nurse practitioner, specializing in cardiovascular medicine. In order to pursue a degree in this particular focus, an online program was her only option. “As I live in a rural area of the country, there weren’t many options for an MSN,” Ms. Moullet says. “Additionally, I wanted to work as a critical care nurse practitioner and the one program that might have been a local option for me was only for family nurse practitioners.” Along with these concerns, Ms. Moullet had a busy career and family life that would not allow her to commute far for campus-based classes each week. “I have two teenagers who are heavily involved in sports, so sitting in a classroom was not feasible,” she adds. “At the time I went back to school, I was also taking calls 24 days a month with a 20 minute response time to the hospital for the cardiac cath lab.”
Judson Lawrence, MSN, FNP-C, who graduated from the online family nurse practitioner program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has a similar story. Due to his location and work schedule, Mr. Lawrence saw no other way to complete his MSN besides doing so online. “I wanted to advance my education by becoming a nurse practitioner,” he says. “I honestly did not have any other option but to attend an online program. My other option would’ve been to move to a larger city or just sacrifice 90 percent of my sleep by driving an hour to an hour and a half to and from Tyler as required, in addition to continuing to work nights at work.”
For Mr. Lawrence, uprooting his family or quitting his job was simply not feasible. “Working was not optional for me,” he adds. “I had to continue working as my wife and I were both in school at the same time. Many of my classmates quit working their nursing job while their spouses picked up the slack, however we did not have this luxury.”
Online programs offer even students who live near a campus-based program more selection as to where they pursue their degree, including the opportunity to study at top-ranked institutions, without relocating to do so. Amanda Davis, MSN, ARNP, FNP-C experienced this firsthand while completing her master’s degree online through Duke University. She lists the major pros of her online nurse practitioner program as “working with professionals across the country, learning from the leading minds in the profession, and having the opportunity to attend an amazing university without uprooting my family and career across state lines.” Ms. Davis adds that the relationships she built with professors and classmates during her program “remain strong after graduation and have been utilized in my professional development as a FNP. Working alongside such a diverse population provided viewpoints that I may not have ever had the pleasure to hear, had I gone to a traditional program in my local area.”
Pro: The Ability to Complete Coursework from Anywhere
The ability to view lectures and complete coursework from anywhere with an internet connection is a major benefit to an online nursing program. This is particularly true for students who may need to move at some point during their studies, perhaps to start a new job or a family. In some cases, students might even have a spouse whose career requires frequent or sudden relocation, such as military service.
“I started the online program in Bend, Oregon, and completed my studies in Seattle, Washington. I spent five months abroad in New Zealand and Australia during my first year and effectively created my own study abroad experience as well. Having the freedom to relocate and travel was a big part of my decision to pursue my master’s degree online.”
This was exactly the case for Ashlee Quick, MSN, APRN, FNP-C, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s online MSN program, who has a husband in the military. “As a military spouse, you are often required to relocate on short notice,” she explains. “If I was going to further my education, I needed a program that would allow me to be mobile.” Thanks to the freedom offered by online learning, Ms. Quick was able to keep up with her studies despite moving multiple times during the program. “In the two years it took to complete my master’s degree, I held residence in three separate states,” she says. “I could complete the coursework whenever convenient for my schedule also allowing me to maintain a job.”
Brittany Blythe, MSN, FNP, another University of Cincinnati graduate, was in a similar position, faced with figuring out how to pursue her degree despite an uncertain future. “I chose to further my education online because my husband was coaching college football at the time and we did not know for sure where we would be living year to year,” she says. “I was skeptical of an ‘online program’ at first,” Ms. Blythe adds, “but it could not have worked out more perfectly.”
While enrolled in the online FNP program at Gonzaga University, Kate Zimmer, MSN, ARNP took full advantage of the ability to complete coursework from anywhere. “I started the online program in Bend, Oregon, and completed my studies in Seattle, Washington,” she says. “I spent five months abroad in New Zealand and Australia during my first year and effectively created my own study abroad experience as well.” For Ms. Zimmer, not being tied to one location for the duration of her degree program was a tremendous benefit. She adds, “Having the freedom to relocate and travel was a big part of my decision to pursue my master’s degree online.”
(Note: Students who think they may need to relocate during their program, or would like the opportunity to study abroad while pursuing their MSN or DNP, should check with their prospective programs of interest before applying to ensure these options are available to them. Some online programs have state restrictions that do not allow them to enroll students who live in certain states.)
Pro: Online Programs Provide Greater Flexibility and Autonomy
When detailing their experiences as online students, many of the alumni featured in this article praised “flexibility” as the biggest advantage of an online nursing program. The ability to complete coursework anywhere, at any time, outside the rigid structure of a classroom learning environment proved to be a major benefit for most nurses we interviewed. This type of self-directed learning often teaches students important time management skills as well, and is ideal for those who work best on their own.
Katie Caldwell, DNP, CNM is a certified nurse midwife who earned her MSN through the online program at the University of Cincinnati. She says, “The flexibility of taking classes online motivated me to pursue my MSN online. I had taken quite a few online classes in my undergraduate studies and they worked out well for me.” Ms. Caldwell found working at her own pace, and completing coursework at times that best suited her, to be extremely helpful. “One of the advantages of online education was the ability to work at somewhat of my own pace,” she explains. “Yes, there were deadlines I had to meet, but I could work one thing for hours in a day and then come back to it a couple days later.” In the end, Ms. Caldwell appreciated how “organized, well thought-out, and efficient” the online program turned out to be, adding “I enjoyed the autonomy, self-paced environment, and ability to work and learn at the same time.”
Flexibility was a major factor for Ms. Moullet, as well. “The best part of the online program is the flexibility,” she says, adding “I took exams in my office in my pajamas! Oftentimes I would complete classwork and assignments in my downtime (in between patients) at work.” Ms. Moullet also enjoyed the autonomy inherent in online learning. “As an online student, you are expected to be independent in your studies,” she notes. “I enjoyed that my hand was not held at every corner, and that I was expected to look up information for myself. This has proved invaluable as a practicing ACNP.” Furthermore, this freedom and flexibility forced Ms. Moullet to make the most of her allotted study time, which lead to her progressing through coursework faster. She adds, “With online education I found that I was able to get things done at a quicker pace on my own, freeing me up for more time with my family.”
Ms. Zimmer also found flexible scheduling to be advantageous when pursuing her MSN. “The online education I received through Gonzaga University was appealing because I could work through the coursework on my schedule,” she says. “The flexibility of the didactic work during the first year was especially appealing. However, once clinical rotations started it was necessary to set down some roots.” Despite having to keep a more set schedule once she began her required clinical practice hours, Ms. Zimmer notes “I was able to hold a job throughout graduate school and it was convenient that I could schedule work and clinical rotations without having to factor in days spent in the classroom.”
Marla Capes, MSN, ARNP, who graduated from Duke University, entered her MSN program with some significant life changes on the horizon. This made the flexibility of online learning all the more important. “When I was applying to FNP programs, I knew that within six months I was going to be moving to a new state, beginning a new full time job, and planning a wedding,” says Ms. Capes. “I needed an online program to allow for this flexibility. Attending an online program would also allow for fluctuations in work schedule and completing course work on my schedule.”
Pro: Advancing Education while Maintaining Career or Family Obligations
Nurses often have demanding work schedules, sometimes working 12-hour days with shifts that can change on a weekly basis. This can make a traditional, classroom-based degree program especially difficult, as travelling to campus at a set time each week might interfere with even a part-time nursing schedule. Many of the alumni we interviewed stated that the ability to study around their work schedule, and maintain their current career, was the biggest concern when researching graduate programs. For those who needed to continue working full-time while pursuing their degree, an online program was really the only option.
Bo Barton, MSN, FNP-C is a graduate of Troy University’s online FNP program, who needed the flexibility to continue working while he furthered his education. “I elected to pursue my MSN online as it initially afforded me the opportunity to continue working in a full-time position, while completing my coursework,” he says. “I was able to maintain my work schedule and complete the assignments around my daily responsibilities and call schedule.” Like many nurses, Mr. Barton had a work schedule that could change week to week, which made pursuing a degree the traditional way nearly impossible. “Each week, my work schedule would change,” he explains. “Therefore, having the flexibility of not having to attend a brick-and-mortar classroom, at a set time, provided the advantage of completing the assigned tasks and assignments around my given work schedule.”
“A major pro to pursuing my degree online was the flexibility it allowed me for work/life/school balance. I was able to balance part-time and full-time work, my degree program, and my family life: this enabled me to advance my career and skills set while still providing for my family.”
As mentioned earlier, Mr. Lawrence was in the same boat, and could only pursue his MSN if he was able to work full-time while doing so. “My wife and I both applied to Texas Tech’s online nurse practitioner program while working in the same ER as nurses,” he notes. “We wanted to be able to continue to work as much as we needed to maintain our lives financially, yet needed the flexibility with work that the online program provides.” Mr. Lawrence explains that, in his particular situation, with both he and his wife working and enrolled in graduate program, commuting to classes “would have either stretched [their] load too thin, or would have been impossible.” He adds, “The online program at Texas Tech allowed us to continue working full-time on the night shifts while doing our school work during downtime at work or during the days when we were off work. We had plenty of time to complete the necessary course load and did not feel like any aspect of our lives was sacrificed.”
Working is not the only responsibility many nursing students have to deal with outside of school. Starting or maintaining a family was also high on the list of issues the alumni we interviewed faced with while completing their degree. By studying online, many found they were able pursue their studies without sacrificing these other important aspects of their life. Mr. Lawrence, for one, says, “my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our first child the first month of school.” He adds, “I can honestly say that I am certain we could not have both continued school and working without the online program.”
The same was true for Alejandra Villegas, MSN, FNP, who graduated from Samuel Merritt University as part of their FNP program’s first fully online cohort. “I had a one year old child and I was working full time,” says Ms. Villegas. “I knew it was not feasible to go to a school that required me to be on campus.” She adds that Samuel Merritt “not only provided me with excellent education, they also were supportive every step of the way.” Thanks to this support, and the flexibility of online learning, Ms. Villegas was able complete her degree in 20 months, even after becoming pregnant in the middle of the program. “I did not have to take a leave of absence because my instructors were able to accommodate me,” she says. “I was able to complete assignments in the middle of the night with a newborn by my side, a toddler, a very supportive husband, and working as an RN.”
Monika Duitch, DNP, APRN, AGNP-C earned both her MSN and DNP through Duke University’s online nursing program. She says, “A major pro to pursuing my degree online was the flexibility it allowed me for work/life/school balance. I was able to balance part-time and full-time work, my degree program, and my family life: this enabled me to advance my career and skills set while still providing for my family.” For Dr. Duitch, working, studying, and maintaining a family all at the same time was more than just a benefit of online learning, it was training for her future career as an APRN. “I didn’t have to pause my life to complete my degree,” she notes. “In reality this is a perfect illustration of healthcare today. The important aspects of delivering in the moment care will always exist at the same time as initiatives to improve care. Learning the balance of completing necessary work for the ‘now’, while building a framework for future care delivery is what separates academic NPs from the fold.”
Summary of the Advantages of Online Nursing Programs
As discussed above, nurses considering a graduate degree may find several significant benefits in doing so through an online program. This is particularly true for those that want to continue their education without sacrificing their current career, or need to fit their studies in around an otherwise hectic daily schedule. Online nursing programs have also made obtaining a specialized graduate degree possible for more nurses throughout the country, even if they live in remote locations or multiple places during their course of study. The flexibility, convenience, and autonomy inherent in online learning seems to be a natural fit for nursing instruction, and exactly what many nurses are looking for in their graduate education.
Michelle Tanner, MSN, FNP-C graduated from the online family nurse practitioner program at the University of South Alabama, and perfectly summed up all of these benefits when asked why she chose to pursue her degree online. “I have always been the primary source of income for my family,” she explains. “The online program was very appealing to me in the fact that it allowed me to continue to work full time as an RN while continuing my education.” Ms. Tanner also appreciated the flexibility of online coursework. “I loved that I could work on assignments on my own time schedule, even at 2am, or oftentimes if I was slow at work,” she adds. “Attending a traditional on-site graduate program would not have been realistic for my needs of full-time employment. Being able to continue my work experience went hand-in-hand with the material I was learning in my graduate program.”
Many of these same benefits are what drive students to pursue their DNP online, as well. Leigh Montejo, DNP, FNP-BC is a graduate of Duke University’s online DNP program. She says, “Online instruction provided me with autonomy to direct my education and develop a schedule to engage in course work at times that were convenient for me. Additionally, this design allowed me to continue to provide clinical care to patients while pursuing an advanced degree.” Dr. Montejo explains she was motivated to pursue her DNP online largely because she wanted to learn at “one of America’s top graduate schools,” adding that Duke’s online DNP program far exceeded all her expectations, “not only by offering an online format,” she says, “but also utilizing approaches to make students feel as if they are truly part of the Duke University School of Nursing (DUSON) family, separated only by distance and nothing else. They value the technological advances that allow for online programs and strive to utilize them to their greatest capacity.”
The Challenges of Online Graduate Nursing Programs
While there are numerous advantages to an online nursing program, like any graduate course of study, they are not without their challenges. Online degree programs are not for everyone. For some students, it is hard to stay focused and motivated studying on their own, without a set schedule of classes. Others benefit from more direct interaction with professors and peers, and dislike the isolation of online learning. Whether or not an online program is right for a student typically depends on their particular learning style, and ability to effectively manage their study time outside the confines of a traditional classroom environment.
For Ms. Capes, completing her MSN online through Duke was sometimes difficult due to the lack of in-person interaction with classmates. “A con of online schooling I experienced was a feeling of isolation at times,” she says. “Not being around my peers and only interacting via discussion boards was a bit lonesome.” Ms. Capes also found that “being surrounded by people in my daily life that were not also pursuing advanced degrees was challenging at times to stay focused and disciplined.” Along with this, making the transition from the classroom-based learning of her on-campus BSN program to online study proved to be somewhat difficult. She adds, “It was also challenging to not be able to raise my hand in class to ask questions, but rather I needed to write down my questions and send an email after I finished watching the lecture.”
While the transition to online student was harder than she expected, Ms. Capes eventually adapted to this new style of learning. “Online learning was an adjustment and I learned how to group my questions into emails,” she notes. “Also, through the on-campus sessions and discussion posts over the five semesters, I made a few friends in the program and it was easier to stay focused knowing I wasn’t the only full time working nurse pursuing their goal of becoming an NP.”
Another nurse we spoke with who experienced some challenges in his online program was Mr. Barton. Right off the bat, he told us, “Unfortunately, the major con of pursuing online education would probably be time management for ensuring you are learning the material and, in a way, being able to self-teach.” This was not the only issue Mr. Barton ran into during his online MSN program. “One specific challenge I experienced throughout the program was difficulty during the group projects,” he says. “Having various students, with multiple individual schedules, allowed for difficulty in receiving feedback from others in the group, as well as receiving their portions of the assignments in a timely manner.” Sometimes, it can be hard to coordinate with classmates in an online program, as students may have conflicting schedules or even live in different time zones, making group projects difficult. However, Mr. Barton found a way to remedy this issue: “As a group leader of an assignment, I tried to rectify this problem by creating multiple deadline points throughout the assignment so that the project could be completed ahead of schedule, which allowed for a thorough review prior to final submission.
Finding Clinical Placements and Preceptors
One of the hurdles of any APRN degree program, whether it is online or campus-based, is securing clinical placement sites. While some schools help match students with approved sites and preceptors, others leave it up to students to find their own placements. For online students in programs that do not offer placement services, it can sometimes be difficult to find approved clinical sites, particularly if the online program has not had a student before in their area. It can also be difficult for students who live in densely populated areas where campus-based programs are also offered, as competition for local sites may be greater.
Christine Kloby, MSN, CRNP is a nurse practitioner based in Baltimore, who found it particularly difficult to secure the clinical rotations she needed to graduate from Drexel University’s online MSN program. “The only con from the online MSN program was that I could not do my clinicals in Maryland,” she says. “This was not due to the university, rather it was the Maryland Board of Nursing’s fault.” Ms. Kloby adds, “It was a full-time job to find a clinical site, on top of my part-time job as a nurse and the part-time school work. It was really overwhelming and because I couldn’t do my clinicals in my home state, I had to search outside my network. I felt like I was harassing clinics and practices begging them to precept me.”
This seemed to be the case for several of the alumni we interviewed, including Julie Jean, MSN, FNP, who graduated from the online program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. “By far, the biggest challenge to being in an online program was that students were responsible for arranging our own clinical placements,” she says. “I had to network vigorously in order to obtain relevant clinical hours to be able to satisfy clinical course requirements.” Ms. Jean adds, “The clinical site and preceptor approval process can be lengthy, so we were encouraged to request placements well ahead of time…and there were times when my clinical arrangements almost fell through.”
While many online students must track down preceptors on their own, schools will often help out by providing lists of potential sites or nurses who have previously taken on students from the program (who are sometimes alumni of the program themselves). This was the case for Ms. Caldwell during her online MSN program at the University of Cincinnati. “For clinical placements, it was the responsibility of the student to find appropriate preceptors,” she explains. “The clinical coordinator does have a running list of previous preceptors from around the country, but it is not a guarantee that there will be someone willing on that list where you live.” In addition to that, she says the school “gave us tips on how to approach and find preceptors.” Though initially trying, Ms. Caldwell notes, “Luckily, once I got my first preceptor, the rest kind of fell into place for the rest of the clinical courses.”
As a piece of advice for nursing students considering an online program, many of the alumni we interviewed recommended beginning the hunt for clinical practice sites as soon as possible. “It is easier and helpful if you have personal or work connections to find a preceptor,” adds Ms. Caldwell. “Start looking early but also understand that sometimes it is too early for a preceptor to commit and that circumstances change. You should have some backups in mind.”
For more advice on earning your MSN or DNP online from actual alumni of online graduate nursing programs, check out our featured article Advice for Prospective Online Graduate Nursing Students.