Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Overview

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated April 11, 2024
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Explore how to earn a master of science in nursing and the opportunities available to nurses who pursue an advanced degree, including more professional autonomy, increased demand, and higher earning potential.
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Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree at a Glance

  • Average Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Average Credits Required: 36 to 60
  • Average Annual Salary: $103,000 (Payscale, February 2024)
  • Offered Online? Partially
  • Clinical Hours Required? Yes
  • Program Traits: Advanced clinical skills, leadership and management, research, health policy, and ethical, legal, and communication skills

A master of science in nursing (MSN) is an advanced degree for registered nurses wanting to specialize in management, education, or clinical practice.

An MSN enhances your clinical skills, leadership capabilities, and research proficiency, helping you pursue higher-level positions and increased salaries.

Popular Online MSN Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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What Can I Do With an MSN Degree?

With an MSN degree, you can work with various patient populations in different settings. An MSN degree opens the door to advanced roles and increased salary potential.

Graduates can pursue various careers specializing in family care, psychiatry, pediatrics, gerontology, policy, and research:

  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse Educator
  • Nurse Administrator
  • Health Policy Expert
  • Nurse Consultant
  • Clinical Research Nurse

MSN graduates are prepared to lead, educate, and innovate within the healthcare sector. They can have a significant impact on patient outcomes and the nursing profession.

Specialized MSN Tracks

Specialized MSN programs enable candidates to focus on specific areas of care. These specializations prepare graduates for advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles addressing various patient needs and advancing healthcare delivery using specialized expertise and skills.

Certified Nurse Midwife

These APRNs specialize in childbirth, reproductive health, and gynecological care. They provide holistic and supportive care throughout pregnancy, labor, and postpartum.

Family Nurse Practitioner

Family nurse practitioners offer comprehensive healthcare across the lifespan. They diagnose and treat a variety of acute and chronic health conditions while emphasizing disease prevention and health management.

Nurse Anesthetist

Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) provide care before, during, and after the administration of anesthesia and surgical procedures. They protect patient safety and comfort in a variety of healthcare settings. Note that a doctor of nursing practice is required to become a CRNA.

Nurse Educator

Nurse educators help shape the future of nursing by teaching and mentoring students. They collaborate with colleagues to develop curricula and promote evidence-based practice in academic and clinical settings.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

These APRNs specialize in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. They provide therapy, prescribe medications, and implement behavioral health therapies across the lifespan.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

A CNS focuses on improving patient outcomes and health delivery within a specialized area of practice, such as pediatrics, oncology, geriatrics, and women’s health.

How Much Will I Make With a Master’s Degree in Nursing?




Source: Payscale

How to Get an MSN

  • Step 1: Decide on the Type of MSN Program
  • Step 2: Find an MSN Program
  • Step 3: Apply to MSN Programs
  • Step 4: Secure Funding for MSN Programs
  • Step 5: Attend MSN Classes
  • Step 6: Graduate with an MSN

Admission Requirements for a Master in Nursing Program

The length of an MSN varies depending on whether you attend full-time or part-time and the specialization you choose. Admission requirements to a program can vary by institution. However, there are several general requirements, including:

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    Undergraduate Credits

    Most programs require a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited institution. However, some allow nurses with an ADN to obtain their BSN and MSN in the same program; others allow those with a bachelor’s degree in another field who meet specific coursework prerequisites.

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    Official transcripts from all undergraduate and postgraduate coursework.

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    Application Materials

    These can include a completed application form, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and resume.

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    Minimum GPA

    Most programs require a minimum GPA, but some will compromise when applicants meet other criteria.

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    Test Scores

    Most programs no longer require test scores, but some require GRE or GMAT scores.

Core Concepts in a Master in Nursing Program

An MSN program covers the skills and competencies needed for advanced nursing practice, leadership, and specialized care. Graduates can pursue roles that demonstrate a deep understanding of the complexities of healthcare and the ability to improve patient and system outcomes. Core concepts of an MSN program often emphasize advanced clinical skills, patient care, healthcare policies, ethics, and evidence-based practice.

  • Advanced Pharmacology: Understanding the use and effect of drugs in advanced practice.
  • Pathophysiology: The study of physical and biological abnormalities in disease.
  • Health Assessment: Advanced skills in assessment, including physical and psychological aspects.
  • Nursing Ethics: Ethical issues and decision-making.
  • Healthcare Policy: Analysis and implications of healthcare policy on practice and patient outcomes.
  • Leadership: Strategies for leading teams and improving healthcare delivery systems.
  • Research Methods: Techniques for conducting and applying research to improve patient care.

Clinical & Lab Components in an MSN Program

MSN programs require students to complete a certain amount of clinical hours to graduate. Online MSN programs have similar requirements. Clinical Hour practicum requirements vary greatly from specialty to specialty.

  • Nurse Practitioner: 500-600 hours
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist: 600+ hours
  • Nurse Midwife: 1,000 hours
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist Programs: 2,500 hours + administering of 800 anesthetics

What to Expect From an Online MSN Program

Traditional and online MSN programs often offer flexibility and accessibility for working professionals. However, students can expect more flexible scheduling in an online MSN format. The didactic component is typically all online and asynchronous, allowing candidates to absorb theoretical and knowledge-based content in self-paced study.

Most online MSN programs use a hybrid approach, including online learning and in-person labs and clinical rotations. Online MSN programs typically use an interactive learning platform to support discussion forums, video lectures, and virtual simulations.

Earning a BSN vs. an MSN

Earning a BSN

  • The BSN is designed to educate aspiring nurses. Students must commit to four years of rigorous study, and many find it difficult to work full time while in school.
  • Coursework is designed to develop critical thinking. The study of natural and social sciences, public health, research techniques, and communication teaches nurses how to make informed decisions about patient care.
  • Undergraduate programs focus on preparing nurses to work in a variety of clinical settings. Most practicums are designed to expose students to direct patient care, emphasizing general technique and nursing best practices.

Pros to Accelerated BSN

  • checkShorter program length and quicker entry into the field, typically 18 months
  • checkNursing is a high-demand field with competitive salaries and opportunities to work in a variety of settings.
  • checkFast-paced, intensive learning experience with efficient use of your past education and academic achievements
  • checkOpens doors to career advancement and further educational opportunities
  • checkComprehensive clinical training to achieve real-world skills

Cons to Accelerated BSN

  • xIntensive learning experiences lead to high stress and a concentrated workload that doesn’t allow for much downtime.
  • xA condensed schedule has limited breaks between semesters that can lead to burnout.
  • xAccelerated programs can be more expensive.
  • xCompetitive admission with more stringent admission requirements
  • xLess flexibility with a fast-paced and demanding schedule
  • xClinical rotations require more hours per week to meet requirements, which can be challenging with demanding coursework

Earning an MSN

  • Many working nurses complete the master’s degree in nursing in two years without leaving their full-time jobs.
  • Master’s degree in nursing candidates can choose study tracks focusing on specialized nursing topics like gerontology, anesthesia, or sports medicine. Nurses interested in nonclinical roles can focus on management, informatics, or nursing education.
  • In a master’s degree in nursing program, candidates are exposed to a workplace environment that correlates with their chosen specialization. Hands-on experience allows candidates to put their knowledge of advanced theory into practice.

Pros to Accelerated MSN

  • checkFaster progression to an advanced practice role, leadership, or nursing education including competitive salaries, greater autonomy, and a variety of work environments
  • checkImmersive, focused learning environment that can strengthen professional competence and confidence
  • checkEfficient use of your time and energy, to minimize time away from work, which is ideal for highly energetic and motivated individuals

Cons to Accelerated MSN

  • xHigh pressure environment that can lead to high-stress, with rigorous academic and clinical demands
  • xHigher burnout risk in a program that can lead to poor work-life balance challenges from an intensive program that limits time for personal commitments, work, and relaxation
  • xCosts are typically higher in a more condensed format that requires increased resources required for advanced education
  • xStringent admission criteria making entry competitive

Page last reviewed March 12, 2024

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