For Registered Nurses (RNs) looking for more career opportunities, entering a specialized healthcare field, or focusing on a higher earning potential, earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can be the way forward.
If you’re a nurse with an associate nursing degree (AND) who does not yet have a four-year bachelor’s degree (BSN), then you might consider an RN to MSN program to potentially save time and money. RN to MSN programs are bridge programs that allow you to complete your master’s without having to go back and get your bachelor’s degree separately.
However, like any master’s program, pursuing an MSN is a big investment with a significant financial and time commitment, so you want to know what to expect before taking the leap.
Let’s take an in-depth look at what a RN to MSN program involves, the challenges it presents, and career opportunities it can unlock.
An RN to MSN program lets RNs who do not have their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) complete their MSN. They’re great options for RNs who want to take the advanced practice route and get their degree quickly.
Programs come with full-time and part-time options, as well as distance and in-person learning (though in-person clinical hours are still required). RN to MSN programs vary in length, but most full-time programs last about two to three years, and part-time options will take longer.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) nurses with post-graduate training and education, will continue to grow. Along with a higher demand for healthcare services for older adults and an increasing interest in preventative care, the need for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners is expected to increase by 45% from 2020 to 2030.
To put this in perspective, demand for healthcare professions as a whole is expected to grow by 12% from 2020 to 2030 and demand across all occupations is expected to grow by 8%. The need for RNs is expected to grow by 9%.
If you’re wondering about specific nursing career trajectories, the demand for nurse midwives is expected to grow by 11% and nurse anesthetists by 13%. With their key role in primary care, the number of jobs for Nurse Practitioners is expected to grow by 52%.
There are several career paths available to nurses who complete an RN to MSN program. Here are some other popular career trajectories:
Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are primary care providers who are qualified to take care of most primary care needs. In many states, NPs can write prescriptions. They can also diagnose illnesses and interpret lab results and X-rays.
Nurse practitioners can specialize in different populations, such as pediatric, neonatal, gerontology, and family care.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for nurse practitioners for 2021 was $118,040.
Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) provide gynecological and pregnancy-related healthcare throughout the lifespan. They carry out prenatal and postpartum care, assist during birth, and give neonatal care.
Many CNMs also spend time educating new parents about things like infant care, breastfeeding, and what to expect during childbirth.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, CNMs’ median salary for 2021 was $114,210.
Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs) are advanced clinicians who have chosen to specialize in an area of nursing. They work in a range of settings, and may specialize in working with specific populations, like pediatrics or geriatrics, or specialized settings, such as emergency room, or even a type of care, such as psychiatric or oncology.
Becoming a nurse administrator means taking on a leadership role. Nurse administrators (who take on other titles, like director, manager, or chief nursing officer) manage other nurses and health care providers and handle other administrative tasks like hiring, scheduling, and training.
While fully trained nurses, administrators usually do not work directly with patients or provide patient care. Their day-to-day involves business, administration, and people management.
MSNs can become nurse educators on the postsecondary level. They will often develop curriculums, design coursework, teach, and help train new nurses. Nurse educators are also qualified to conduct research.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for nurse educators for 2021 was $82,040.
In the past, an MSN was the highest degree you needed to become a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA), the highest-paying nurse specialty with a median salary of $202,470 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, this career path will require a doctorate starting with graduates in 2025. So if you’re planning on becoming a CRNA in 2022 and beyond, an MSN will be part of your path to becoming a CRNA, but you’ll also need to earn a doctorate (DNS). Nurses who are already CRNAs will be grandfathered in and will not have to obtain a doctorate degree.
As with all big decisions, pursuing a graduate degree in nursing comes with major benefits and challenges.
An MSN opens up a number of career paths. Nurses who earn an MSN have the potential to earn a higher salary and move into advanced positions. It also allows you to go into depth in an area of nursing that you’re passionate about.
With an MSN, you can choose a specialty and population. Whether you want to work with oncology patients, provide primary care to older adults, or educate expectant parents, a master’s degree can put you on that path.
On the other hand, pursuing an RN to MSN program is time-consuming, with most full-time programs taking two to three years. The coursework and clinical hours are challenging, can be difficult to complete while still working, and may require going back to school for prerequisites first.
RN to MSN programs are also likely costly, with tuition likely adding up to tens of thousands of dollars.
If you’ve made the decision to pursue an RN to MSN, finding the right program is key. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating whether a program is a good fit:
Admission requirements vary somewhat across institutions. Some schools may require you to have a certain GPA or to have completed prerequisites—either specific courses or a set number of hours.
You will have to have an active RN license and may also have to have a certain number of years of experience as an RN.
When looking into programs, decide whether you want in-person or distance learning, or a combination of the two. You will also have to choose whether you want the flexibility to go part-time versus getting everything done full-time.Certain programs take longer to complete, and some have summers off while others have summer sessions. The length of the program may also indicate what kind of course load you are expected to handle.
Accrediting bodies for RN to MSN programs include The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Accreditation ensures that programs are held to a high set of standards and that patients receive the best care.
When applying to an RN to MSN program, make sure the program is accredited. If you complete a program that isn’t accredited, it may affect your ability to get a job afterwards.
Finding affordable tuition and manageable payment plans are a priority. Keep in mind that costs can vary between programs, as can the institution’s ability to provide financial aid.
This may also be a good time to consider which loan servicer you’d like to go with. If you end up with private student loans, it may make sense to consider refinancing them eventually, particularly if you’re earning a higher salary down the road. Laurel Road offers student loan refinancing for nurses which could help you save with a lower rate or shorter term.1 And if you open a Laurel Road Linked Checking account during refinancing, you can also qualify for an additional rate discount with qualifying direct deposits.2
Not every program will have the specialization you want to pursue. It’s important to go into your RN to MSN program with a clear understanding of your career goals and areas of interest. Salary expectations vary considerably between different nursing specialties, and demand for different nursing specialties varies significantly across the U.S. depending on the state and metro area.
Research what each RN to MSN program you’re considering offers and what each program is known for. If you’re interested in a more niche specialization, like public health, your options may be more limited.
A lot of thought goes into whether an RN to MSN program is the right move. Getting a master’s can be both demanding and rewarding, opening up new career paths and allowing you to specialize in the area you’re most passionate about.
If you’re ready to move forward, take the time, look at the facts, and decide which program and learning options are right for you.
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