Is a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) the right degree for you?

BY Jack LongAugust 04, 2022, 12:56 PM
A mannequin dressed in a nurse uniform holds hand sanitizer inside a store on the Upper West Side, as seen in August 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Despite its challenges, a career in nursing can be rewarding, especially given the field’s ongoing opportunities for growth and advancement. The first step, though, will most likely be obtaining a graduate-level degree in nursing, such as a master of science in nursing (MSN). Grads with an MSN degree hold leadership positions in hospital administrations, work as nurse educators or health policy consultants, or expand nursing practices through research. 

While registered nursing jobs are expected to grow by 9% through 2030, nursing roles requiring an MSN, such as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners, are expected to grow by 45%, while also seeing a greater earning potential, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“The largest health care workforce are nurses, and we probably have the greatest potential to impact health care,” says Shannon Idzik, president-elect of the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties. Along with nurses who are at the bedside, there’s a greater need for nurses who have knowledge of advanced treatments, system-level thinking, and leadership skills. Some of these skills—while not necessarily directly tied to patient care—are necessary to being a leader in health care, Idzik adds. 

Here’s what you need to know if you’re contemplating an MSN.

What is a master of science in nursing degree?

A master of science in nursing is typically a two- or three-year degree and prepares students for a variety of roles and responsibilities. And there are generally four ways to enter an MSN program, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing

  • BSN-to-MSN: This program is the most common and is offered to students with a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing who have become a registered nurse (RN). These programs build on undergraduate-level nurse education and allow for a student to specialize in a specific area of health care, such as nurse education, nurse informatics, or public health nursing.
  • Entry-level master’s program: This type of program is aimed at individuals with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctorate in a field other than nursing. Often referred to as accelerated programs, an entry-level master’s program covers material taught during a bachelor’s program in two or three years with students usually obtaining their RN within the first year. 
  • ADN-to-MSN: Similar to the entry-level master’s, this program type allows RNs who have obtained only an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) to work during their first year through baccalaureate content not covered in their associate’s degree program. The ADN-to-MSN program then moves to more advanced topics and specializations.
  • Dual-degree programs: Dual-degree programs allow nurses to obtain additional specialization in fields outside of nursing. Common pairings with an MSN include a master’s degree in public health, a master’s of health administration, an MBA, or a master’s degree in public administration.

Why should I get an MSN?

Put simply, an MSN provides additional opportunities in the nursing and health care fields that a BSN or RN won’t, says Bimbola F. Akintade, associate dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing

In a field that’s constantly adapting to offer new specializations, MSN programs allow nurses to continue to build their skill sets. A master’s degree in nursing also opens doors to leadership positions, managerial positions at a hospital, or a director position, Akintade says. However, the type of jobs that become available to an MSN graduate does depend on the degree specialty track, he adds.

For example, an MSN focused on informatics could lead to a job as a nurse informaticist, working to combine data and health care to result in better patient outcomes, creating greater efficiency in a health care setting, and providing better information to assist hospital leaders in their decision making. 

Students of a nurse educator MSN program will learn both advanced nursing practices and nurse pedagogy to prepare graduates as instructors at universities and community colleges. 

MSN programs focused on public health can assist graduates working at a local or state health department to promote greater community health, help curb the spread of diseases, and provide public health information. 

MSN degrees also tend to lead to higher earnings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a registered nurse in 2021 was $77,600. Meanwhile, a nurse informaticist with an MSN can earn up to $115,000 base salary, according to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. And nurse educators, a profession currently experiencing a shortage, earn around $80,000 at universities and colleges, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

An advanced degree in nursing means nurses can increase their knowledge and have a greater ability to impact patient lives, according to Idzik. “There’s also a level of autonomy as you increase your education that you don’t have as a registered nurse.”

How to choose a master’s degree program in nursing

Even after deciding they want to pursue an MSN, students still must consider which program is the best fit. 

“Our student body is changing,” Akintade says. “What students want and how they envision the workspace, how they envision what they bring to the workplace or academic space is changing.” 

Here’s what he and Idzik say to look for in a program:

  • Look at accreditation. Is the school accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education? Has the school ever lost its accreditation? Any signs of trouble mean potential graduates may have difficulty continuing their education in a doctorate program or when job hunting.
  • Look at the plan of study. Akintade says some schools don’t account for work-life balance, so look for programs with opportunities for flexibility, such as an online program. “Technology is now part of everything we do. It’s part of how we live,” he says. “I recommend online programs to individuals because it will provide a significant sense of flexibility. But there’s also a tremendous sense of responsibility that comes with that.” 
  • Look at student life and services. “Some of the things we’re recognizing that significantly impact the success of students is not just curriculum or how the school is set up but what kind of student services are available,” Akintade says. Look to see how many resources are dedicated to the student experience and how diverse the student body is. “We not only want to work in diverse areas but also go to school with a diverse population or body of students,” he says. 
  • Look for clinical site placements. Idzik says students should look closely at schools that help place students at clinical sites, so that students aren’t solely responsible for placements. “It’s very burdensome and it decreases their ability to spend time learning; instead they’re spending their time cold-calling to find a clinical placement.”

Who makes for a quality applicant in an MSN program?

Because graduate-level nursing school can be difficult, Akintade says many schools look not only at students’ academic metrics but also their attitudes toward continuing education, their ability to adapt, and what they are trying to accomplish by earning a master’s degree in nursing.

Most graduate-level students have some prior work or volunteer experience, in addition to a previous degree. He also says recommendation letters should show tangible leadership and teamwork examples. 

“If [an applicant] worked in a hospital, were they part of any hospital-based committees? Have they ever been a charge nurse—have they ever taken on some leadership roles in the hospital? Have they presented at any conference, even if it’s on their unit? Have they published a manuscript?” Akintade says. “Those are things that would truly, truly set [an applicant] apart.”

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