How to time when to pursue your online master’s degree in nursing

BY Nicole Gull McElroyAugust 10, 2022, 1:18 PM
Illustration by Martin Laksman

Choosing when in your career is prime time for pursuing a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) is a delicate balance of professional objectives and personal obligations. You can continue with full- or part-time work while in school, and these programs can take up to three years to complete, depending on the mashup of work/school/life balance you choose.

Katarina Maric spent 10 years working as a registered nurse (RN) before enrolling in the online master’s degree program at Marymount University. She returned to school with the goal of working as a family nurse practitioner. It was something Maric had been considering for a while, and once she sustained an illness and had to navigate the health care system with some frustration, Maric formalized her decision to go back to school and committed to enrolling. 

Outside of her experience managing the system, timing her degree amid raising children after logging substantial time as an RN made sense. Doing so enabled Maric to leverage her clinical experience as a bedside nurse to get the most out of her education. “There is an art in talking to patients on sensitive subjects,” she says. “It helps to have that nursing background so you know how to approach patients. We are building on knowledge we already have.” 

What’s more, Maric, 34, lives with her husband and two young children about 40 minutes from campus and decided that completing the degree online made the most sense for her lifestyle. The idea of a daily commute to class, while managing life at home with her three- and five-year old sons seemed especially daunting, particularly in suburban Washington D.C. traffic. She needed a program that allowed her to get the degree she wanted, while maximizing her time at home with her children, but the online curriculum wasn’t her only requirement. 

“I wanted to be able to go to campus if I had to,” she says. “I wanted a support system.”

Maric’s story isn’t uncommon, and there are a myriad of reasons why working nurses and recent nursing school grads go on to pursue a master’s degree

The opportunity behind the degree

Drexel University offers multiple tracks within its online MSN program, including nurse practitioner, nursing leadership, and nursing education. “The profile of the student at Drexel in these programs varies drastically,” says Jackie Murphy, assistant professor of clinical nursing at the university, who earned her MSN through its online program.

The program attracts both newly graduated nursing students, who have been working a year or maybe getting experience while in school, along with more seasoned professionals, she notes. “Then we have people who have been nurses for 20-plus years and have decided they want to go back to school. It’s a diverse group of learners.”

Nursing has been called a recession-proof career and offers a lot of flexibility in terms of professional trajectory, with graduates going on to roles in administration, education, private practice, clinical work, and more. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for nurse practitioners and similar career paths will grow 45% in the 10-year period between 2020 and 2030. The median income for the role in 2021 was $123,781.

Personal timing

Timing when to pursue a master’s degree in nursing is a personal choice that rides on many factors, like finances, personal life, geography, career objectives, and more, Murphy says. 

For Nicole Barbour, the pandemic accelerated her decision to enroll in the online nurse practitioner track at Marymount. Barbour, 44, works as a school nurse, and because students in her suburban Virginia school district were attending class virtually from home, she had a lot of extra time on her hands to devote to her own education

“I felt like it was a natural progression to move into a more advanced role and move into more of a health care provider role,” says Barbour, who balances her schoolwork with raising two grade-school-age children and will graduate in December. Like Maric, she says that working for so long as an RN better prepared her for the curriculum at Marymount. Upon graduation, Barbour plans to find a new job in family practice. After five years working under an agreement with a physician (according to Virginia law), she’ll also have the option to start her own private practice.

Meanwhile, others come to these master’s degree programs straight from undergrad—like Harleen Singh, 25, who then went on to complete her doctorate in nursing practice online (DNP) at Johns Hopkins University. “I always had it as a goal,” says Singh, who graduated in May and completed the degree while working part-time as a nurse on a pediatric progress care unit at the University of Maryland. “It was a great intersection to carry my experience on as a bedside nurse, but also prescribe and be an educator if I [eventually] wanted.”

A few months after graduating, Singh is in the process of applying for jobs and studying for board exams. “I’m looking mainly at pediatric outpatient primary care jobs,” she adds. “My huge interest is pediatric hematology and oncology. It’s great to have a full comprehensive outpatient experience.”

Whether logging a decade or more in full-time work or jumping right into an advanced degree after nursing school, an online master’s degree in nursing can open countless doors and allows for immense flexibility. 

“Nursing is trending toward more advanced degrees, more responsibility, and more salary,” says Kimberly McIltrot, assistant professor, interim vice dean, and DNP program director at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. “It [offers] a lot of opportunities for a really flexible, rewarding career.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in nursingcomputer sciencecybersecuritypsychology, public healthbusiness analytics, and data science, as well as the best doctorate in education programs and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.