Is a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) worth it?

BY Sam BeckerAugust 04, 2022, 12:56 PM
Photo of a scrub cap with lettering that reads, “Nurses call the shots.”
Travel nurse Tiquella Russell of Texas displays her scrub cap shortly after administering a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles, as seen in February 2021 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

For generations, a career in nursing has offered many people a path to the middle class—and potentially even higher. Nurses are traditionally paid well, and their jobs have remained more or less secure as there’s always demand for health care workers. Advancements in medical science have opened up a myriad of potential specialties and advanced practice opportunities for nurses.

In turn, those dynamics have created the potential for nurses to pursue even higher earnings, promotions, and career accolades. But for nurses who have higher aims—be it working in administrative roles, or even running their own practices—earning an advanced degree was practically a requirement. While there are several advanced, graduate-level degrees that nurses can pursue, a master of science in nursing (MSN) may be the most versatile—and students can pursue this degree while studying remotely or even while working full-time. 

Is earning an MSN degree worth the time and monetary investment? While there’s no simple answer to that question, nurses who have an MSN degree often achieve higher earnings, the potential for additional career paths, and, perhaps most importantly, the chance to make a significant contribution to their communities.

An MSN can significantly boost your earnings

Prospective MSN students are probably most curious about their earnings potential after graduation—and an advanced degree in nursing can provide a significant boost to a nurse’s salary. In fact, nurses in various advanced practices earn median salaries of nearly $124,000 per year in 2021, almost 60% higher than the $77,600 median salary for registered nurses who generally don’t have advanced degrees.

And nurses may see the potential for even higher earnings in the coming years, as the U.S. health care system grapples with a shortage of skilled workers. That has led to a chaotic scene in many hospitals and clinics around the country that “has not calmed down,” even though the flood of patients during the peak of the pandemic has eased up, says Tiffany McDowell, principal of people advisory services at Ernst & Young, who works with health care providers to improve efficiency at hospitals.

“We don’t anticipate it calming down in the near future, either,” she says, adding, “For the next decade, we see a continued gap between supply and demand.”

Other experts concur, saying that nurses will likely benefit in the form of higher wages because of the lack of equilibrium in the labor market—and that creates long-term career opportunities in this field.

“Regulators mandate and physicians demand that hospitals hire nurses to care for patients; thus, demand is relatively fixed or may be increasing,” says Jason Shafrin, a senior managing director at FTI Consulting in the Center for Healthcare Economics and Policy, and the founder and editor of Healthcare Economist. “Many nurses are exiting the labor market due to COVID-19-related risk and increased burnout due to additional work demands and stress. Basic economics teaches us that if demand rises and supply falls, prices [wages] increase.

“Never be bored”: An MSN opens up career opportunities

Like any advanced or graduate-level degree, an MSN can open more doors within the broad career track of nursing career, allowing students to specialize in a number of areas. Among the most common MSN degree specializations are nurse researcher, nurse administrator, informatics, and public health. 

And in a fast-changing field like nursing, an advanced degree can be a relatively quick and easy way to give a nurse a leg up over their peers. “Nursing has really changed in terms of technology and the aspect of patient care; it’s changed what you need to know with drugs and treatments; and it takes someone quite intelligent to do the work,” says Mary Ellen Glasgow, dean and professor at Duquesne University’s School of Nursing. The school ranked No. 5 on Fortune’s ranking of the best online MSN programs.

Earning an advanced nursing degree can give nurses many more choices in what they want to do in a clinical setting. “There are so many choices—it’s a career within a career—there are just so many specialties,” Glasgow says. “You can do so many things in your career and never be bored, and you’re always doing something meaningful.”

Make a difference in your community

Doing something meaningful, as Glasgow mentions, is an aspect of the career that’s particularly important to many nurses. For some people, it’s their primary motivation for getting into the field. And experts advise that you consider whether you’re motivated by some of the altruistic aspects of nursing before going to school.

“Are you passionate about making a change? Look at the health care challenges we’re up against,” says Susan Stone, president of Kentucky-based Frontier Nursing University, a digital nursing school offering programs to students around the country. “We’re here to provide health care to the nation,” she says, adding that a lot of Frontier’s students study from their own communities with an intention of staying there to help improve health outcomes. “We recruit them from their community and keep them there, and use their community as a classroom. Our goal is to improve the care in rural and underserved populations in the U.S.”

While rural areas are in need of nurses, so, too, are big cities like Pittsburgh (where Duquesne is located), Glasgow adds. The nursing shortage is a national problem, and as a result, even one person who enters the field can make a huge difference, no matter where they’re located.

Frontier’s curriculum focuses on preparing nurses for starting their own practices, which not only gives them leeway to start treating patients in areas where there may not be hospital access, but effectively turns them into entrepreneurs, Stone says. Preparing students to potentially “run their own clinics and make their own decisions” regarding what needs to be done in their communities can also attract more people to graduate degree programs, she adds. 

Combined, the ability to potentially have an outsize, positive effect on their community, along with the potential for earning bigger salaries and opening up more career options, makes pursuing an MSN worthwhile for many students. 

But Glasgow warns that the potential rewards are hard-earned, because pursuing a master’s degree in nursing is no cakewalk. “COVID has made nurses viewed as heroes,” she says. “But I don’t think people understand how rigorous the academic preparation is.”

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.