Master’s Degrees in Nursing Programs (MSN)

Masters in nursing programs give a registered nurse an advanced level of education to be better positioned for evidence-based practice, administration, clinical management, and research.

The most popular nursing master’s degree is the MSN (Master of Science in Nursing). An MSN degree also enables a registered nurse to function as an autonomous health care provider; such that they can work independently.  Usually, MSN programs are designed for registered nurses who have already completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and wish to become Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN).

However, due to the increasing need for nurses, many nursing schools are adopting the MSN pathways for RN graduates of diploma and associate degree programs (RN to MSN).  This strategy enables such nurses to attain graduate-level nursing education within a short time without necessarily having to go through the BSN. RNs that succeed in this arrangement save time and resources and this pathway is becoming increasingly popular.

In addition, non-nurses with bachelor’s degrees can also enter the nursing profession by taking the postgraduates direct-entry MSN option. Highly ambitious students can also take dual/Joint degrees in nursing combined with another program. To the advantage of the student, two master’s degrees are awarded during commencement. Prospective postgraduate student nurses can choose from the following MSN pathways.

Types of MSN Programs

There are common and uncommon pathways to earning a masters’ degree in nursing. The pathway of choice usually goes in line with the previous education an individual has.

Master of Science in Nursing-Generic Option

This is the most popular MSN program available in most universities and colleges.  The traditional/generic pathway is meant for post- BSN students wishing to become APRNs. Usually, the program takes a maximum of 24 months for students studying on a full-time basis. This pathway is simple and students do not need to undergo some complex admission processes of advancement placement, bridging courses, course exemptions, etc. There is variation in completion times for students who choose the part-time MSN options.

Due to previous nursing and clinical experience for BSN graduates, most schools offer this program online. Candidates are not as new to the nursing arena and online and distance learning options usually work for many students. Online Masters of Science in nursing degrees are also a consideration for the family and busy RN.  This enables such RNs to balance work, family, and study.  Usually, degree tracks under this pathway are for those who wish to get into clinical practice through research and education in relevant clinical areas. Students in this line usually focus on any one of the four APRN areas below:

  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)

The NP and CNS options have several sub-specialty options based on the patient group/populations or clinical focus area. Examples include Family NP, Pediatric NP, Acute care NP, Geriatric Nursing, Community Health Nursing, and Cardiovascular Nursing among others.

Master of Arts in Nursing

Also known as the MA in nursing, these programs are relatively rare and are offered by only a few colleges and universities in the US. Unlike the Master of Science in nursing, the MA is designed for students wishing to get into non-clinical nursing areas such as administration, education, or research.

Direct Entry MSN

Direct entry MSN programs target candidates who wish to become registered nurses at the graduate level but have no prior nursing education. Candidates for direct entry nursing programs are required to have a baccalaureate degree in a non-nursing field from a nationally accredited college to be eligible to apply.  Lower-division courses particularly liberal arts and general education courses from the earlier programs are transferred. Students take selected BSN courses in addition to the graduate nursing courses.

At some point along the way or at the end of the program, students become eligible to sit for the National Council Licensure Exams to become registered nurses.  Towards the end of the program, students also choose a specialty area as their MSN focus area.  Most nursing schools adopt an accelerated mode of program completion to reduce the time taken in school. Owing to the intensive nature of the program accompanied by a lack of prior nursing experience, it would prove difficult to find online direct MSN programs. They are commonly found in a full-time on-campus format.

Licensure and Certification for Direct Entry Students

Upon completion, the direct entry degree enables students to become eligible to sit for the NCLEX exams to become registered nurses.  The specific courses in the specialty are chosen, the master’s degree, the RN licensure, and a record of supervised clinical hours are also used to apply for national certification in the respective APRN area. Special requirements for advanced practice certification of each APRN track can be sourced from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or other national certification bodies.

RN to MSN Degree Programs

RN to MSN can be taken to mean a number of progression pathways. As disambiguation, some nursing schools may use it to mean the Bachelor of Science in Nursing to MSN pathway. However, other colleges refer to this pathway as the Master of Science in Nursing as discussed earlier on this page or rarely the BSN to MSN. On the other hand, due to the emerging needs of nurses, many schools have started the RN to MSN programs. In most cases, the RN to MSN is used to refer to this pathway where the RN refers to a graduate of an associate or diploma nursing program.

RN to MSN Degree Plan

The plan is usually to take some MSN Bridging courses that allow students to be matriculated into the main masters of Science tracks. In another option, graduates of two-year programs take the upper-division nursing courses along with the graduate nursing courses. These 2 options vary from one school to the other.  Both are a good idea as the student avoids repeating courses applicable at both BSN and MSN levels. Students are able to become APRNs and earn a Master of Science in Nursing degree. In rare cases and depending on the school, students can receive both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in nursing.  However, double degrees are uncommon and are offered by only a few schools countrywide.

Dual degrees/Joint MSN Programs

Just like the name suggests, dual masters of science in nursing programs are offered along with other master’s programs. They target highly ambitious students who can take a heavy workload for two graduate programs.  During commencement, students graduate with the MSN degree along with their other specialty.

Unlike making a free choice of the combination you need, nursing schools dictate which other programs can be offered in a joint arrangement with nursing programs.  There is an observed tendency in the way schools combine programs for the dual programs. Such common combinations include but not limited to:

  • Master of Science in Nursing & Master of Business Administration (MSN/MBA)
  • Master of Science in Nursing & Master of Public Health (MSN/MPH)
  • Master of Science in Nursing & Master of Health Administration (MSN/MHA)
  • Master of Science in Nursing Education & any other MSN Nurse Practitioner tracks

Post-Masters Certificate Programs

Post-master’s certificate options are targeted for graduates of masters of nursing degree programs but would wish to become certified in another specialty area. It could also be an option for the master of nursing students who completed their graduate courses on a generalist basis; meaning they did not choose an area of specialty. In both cases, students are able to take a few courses; usually the “track of choice” specialty courses making it a shorter program than the MSN.  As an advantage, a registered nurse can become certified in as many areas as they would wish because the core nursing courses are not part of the certification process.

Prerequisites for Admission

Apart from the Direct-Entry MSN programs, all other variations of the MSN degree programs require candidates who have an active, valid, and unencumbered RN license. Some nursing schools may ask for State-specific licenses in the location of the school or for the State the student intends to take their clinical practical classes. This is especially so for online masters of nursing programs.

It is also very common for registered nurses to be required to show proof of relevant working experience as a prerequisite for admission. Such is often observed for programs that require a lot of clinical practice like the nurse’s anesthesia program and nurse practitioner programs.

GPA from previous programs is usually used for selection. MSN programs usually ask for a GPA of 2.5 to 3.0. Some schools at their own discretion may decide to use GPAs or other admission criteria like interviews, personal statements for selection purposes.

Emerging Post-BSN DNP versus MSN Advanced Practice Nursing

Soon, all the advanced practice nursing focus areas will no longer be offered as masters of Science in nursing options. This is according to a decision made by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing to convert all APRN from the Master to doctorate entry-level. This means that if you are interested in taking any of the four APRN options listed earlier, you may consider joining the program as a Post-BSN DNP.  Nursing schools are expected to emulate this plan to their programs by 2015 although full compliance is not required until 2025.

Other Nursing Specialties

In addition to the four advanced practice nursing tracks, there exist other nursing specialties that you can choose from. Part of the larger list would include:

  • Public health Nursing
  • Nursing Leadership
  • Nursing Education
  • Nursing Administration
  • Forensic Nursing
  • Nursing Informatics

Unlike the APRNs, the above tracks are still being offered at the master’s entry-level and students can continue taking them as MSN options.