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Types of Master’s Degrees in Nursing

NurseJournal Staff
Updated July 21, 2023
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An MSN can open doors to financial security and competitive nursing job options. Discover the many pathways available to complete an MSN.
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A master’s degree in nursing can lead to a lucrative, in-demand career with a salary approximately three times the national average. Different types of nursing master’s degrees can open a variety of professional doors, with graduates finding jobs as nurse practitioners (NPs), nurse researchers, nurse administrators, and even nurse educators.

This guide explores different master’s degree options for registered nurses (RNs), which degree is best suited to which career, and how to apply to master’s programs.

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MSN Degree Options

A master’s degree in nursing can lead to an in-demand career with a salary about three times the national average. Different types of nursing master’s degrees can open a variety of professional doors, with graduates finding jobs as nurse practitioners (NPs), nurse researchers, nurse administrators, and even nurse educators.

Explores different master’s degree options for registered nurses (RNs), which degree is best suited to which career, and how to apply to master’s programs.

Baccalaureate to Master’s Degree

  • Who it is for: RNs with a BSN
  • Program length: 2-3 years

Most students pursuing a master’s degree in nursing hold a traditional BSN degree and at least some clinical nursing experience. BSN-to-MSN programs usually last 2-3 years, depending on the curriculum and the student’s enrollment status. Many graduate programs in nursing offer at least some courses online, while others are completely web based.

Distance learners enrolled in fully online programs usually fulfill nursing clinical requirements at facilities in their own communities.

MSN Bridge Program

  • Who it is for: RNs with an ADN who want to pursue a master’s, including advanced practice programs (such as various NP specializations) or general MSN degrees (like nursing educator or nursing administration degrees)
  • Program length: 3-4 years

MSN bridge programs are a great option for RNs with an ADN who want to earn a master’s degree without completing a BSN first. These bridge programs combine the equivalent of the last two years of a BSN program with a master’s in nursing curriculum. Most last 3-4 years.

Master’s nursing programs are often available online, in person, or in a hybrid format with on-campus components.

Direct-Entry Master’s Degree

  • Who it is for: Learners with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree
  • Program length: 18 months to three years

Like MSN bridge programs, direct-entry graduate programs serve learners without a BSN. This type of nursing master’s is intended for students with a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a non-nursing field. These programs leverage existing college credits toward an MSN.

Depending on the existing degree, a direct-entry master’s program can last from 18 months to three years. This type of master’s degree in nursing is available in online, mixed, or classroom formats.

Dual Master’s Degree

  • Who it is for: RNs pursuing advanced roles like chief nursing officer or manager of clinical informatics
  • Program length: 3-4 years

Dual master’s degree programs combine two related programs, such as a master’s in nursing with a master of business administration (MBA). A dual master’s prepares candidates for advanced leadership roles that require a deep understanding of both nursing practice and healthcare administration.

In addition to the MSN/MBA option, other common dual master’s specialties include public health (MSN/MPH) or health administration (MSN/MHA). These programs usually take BSN-holders 3-4 years to complete virtually, on campus, or a combination of the two.

Types of Master’s Degree in Nursing Specializations

There are many options available for nurses aspiring to become MSNs. Master of science in nursing programs can be divided into two major categories, including general MSN programs and specialized MSN programs.

General MSN programs prepare graduates to take on roles such as nurse educators, nurse researchers, nurse administrators, and more. Specialty advanced practice RN (APRN) programs include four areas: certified nurse practitioner, certified registered nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist (CNS), and certified nurse midwife (CNM).

Nurse practitioner specialties can be further divided into areas of practice, such as pediatric primary care nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, women’s health nurse practitioner, and several other areas of focus.

You must select which career path you’ll pursue before enrolling in a specialized MSN program because each MSN degree has various time commitments and graduation requirements. The completion time depends on many factors, like the type of program (e.g., accelerated programs), the student’s time commitment (part time versus full time), and whether you decide to get a general MSN degree or an advanced practice certification.

Some nurses choose to take a general MSN degree course first, then go back to complete the portion of an MSN specialty program that will lead to an APRN certification.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioner MSN programs prepare learners for careers as APRNs. Graduates of these programs can sit for national board certification. NPs can choose to specialize in many areas of practice such as adult-gerontology, family practice, women’s health, mental health, and much more.

A nurse practitioner’s clinical responsibilities include health promotion and disease prevention. Depending on the state, they can perform many of the same duties as doctors, such as ordering lab tests and prescribing medication. An NP makes an average annual salary of $118,040, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Clinical Nurse Specialist

A clinical nurse specialist program will prepare graduates for a career as an APRN with advanced training in a specific clinical area of nursing practice, such as pediatrics, family care, and mental health. According to Payscale, as of October 2022, the average CNS salary is $94,390 per year.

Like NPs, they specialize in the patient populations they work with. The difference is that instead of having a strong emphasis on direct patient care, a CNS focuses on research and education and stays up to date on the latest clinical research studies.

They educate nursing staff on improving patient outcomes, performing patient teaching, and employing evidence-based practice in nursing care. Like other APRN programs, there are many online clinical nurse specialist programs available; they take around two years to complete.

Certified Nurse Midwife

The certified nurse midwifery program focuses on individualized care and wellness, prenatally and during and after the birthing process. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for a certified nurse midwife is $114,210.

After completing an accredited MSN program, a CNM must pass the nurse midwife certification exam by the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB). The number of approved accredited MSN programs is limited, including online nurse-midwife programs.

A CNM may work independently or under the supervision of a physician, depending on state regulations. Most CNMs work in hospitals, ambulatory care facilities, or in private birthing centers. Some of the job duties that a CNM performs include helping parents and pregnant individuals create a birth plan, performing prenatal and postnatal exams, and writing prescriptions.

Public Health

Public health MSN programs prepare graduates for a career educating people at high risk of health problems, focusing on long-term health and wellness and improving access to healthcare in the community. Often, they work with low-income, underprivileged, and underserved populations.

Public health nurses may provide health screenings at a community health center, or they may have a wider scope of practice. They might develop, for example, health education and disease prevention campaigns for other healthcare professionals to employ in their communities.

A public health nursing MSN degree program offers coursework such as overview of issues in global health, evaluation of health outcomes, research methods and biostatistics, and advanced nursing practice in population health. According to Payscale in October 2022, a public health nurse makes an average hourly rate of $29.40 per hour; average pay ranges from $48,000- $94,000 per year.

Nursing Education

Nursing education MSN programs prepare graduates for careers in nursing education as teachers, mentors, and guides.

They help other nurses employ best practices in nursing care. Nurse educators combine their clinical background and knowledge of evidence-based practice to teach both new and experienced nurses. They also provide professional development training.

Nurse educators employ their teaching skills in various settings, including healthcare organizations, universities and colleges, and health system organizations.

According to Payscale, as of October 2022, the average annual salary for nurse educators is $79,120. There are face-to-face, hybrid, and online nurse educator programs available.

Nursing Administration

Graduates of an MSN in nurse administration perform roles in management, working in human resources, or as clinical nurse managers, nursing supervisors, chief nursing officers, and more.

Their job duties include employing nursing policies in the healthcare setting and ensuring patient safety and quality care standards. They also manage financial matters, such as preparing budgets to ensure a unit or a facility has adequate financial resources.

There are online dual degree programs that combine an MSN with a master of health administration degree. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for nursing administrators is $119,840.

Nursing Informatics

Nursing informatics is a specialty MSN degree that employs technology to improve the quality of nursing care. Using statistics and nursing knowledge, professionals in this MSN specialty analyze data, design reports, and assist nurse administrators in improving nursing practices.

Nurse informatics programs include coursework in clinical health information systems, database management, data quality management, and statistics. Courses focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data visualization.

Practicums help students take an active role in employing real-world informatics scenarios. Nurse informaticists can collaborate with various nursing units, information technology, and healthcare administration departments. One survey conducted in May 2020 found that 63% of nursing informaticist respondents reported an annual salary between $61,000- $115,000.

Diabetes Nursing

A diabetes MSN program prepares nurses to work with a multidisciplinary team to help diagnose, treat, and educate patients with diabetes. The teaching aspect of this profession is significant. Diabetes nurses teach patients the importance of diet and exercise, how to manage the disease at home, and how to manage their medication regime, which is often complex.

According to Payscale data as of October 2022, the average diabetes care specialist makes an average annual salary of $70,840 or $32.77 an hour.

There is a subspecialty called a pediatric endocrinology nurse; these nurses collaborate on testing, treatment, and medications for children and adolescents with Type I diabetes. Pediatric endocrinology nurses teach kids and parents or guardians about healthy lifestyle choices and how to effectively manage the complexities of diabetes at home.

Nursing Leadership

Clinical nurse leaders work in hospitals, ambulatory clinics, urgent care centers, and other organizations that provide nursing care. They have degrees in specific nursing specialties and lead teams or departments, employ nursing policy, and mentor other nurses on evidence-based practices. Staff training, team management, quality control, and strategic planning are part of their job description.

Clinical nurse managers develop treatment plans, monitor patient care, and hire, fire, and supervise nurses. Nurse leaders may work as head nurses in hospital nursing units, patient care directors, chief nursing officers, or chief executive officers of healthcare institutions.

Community Health Nursing

Community health nurses and public health nurses both educate the public and stakeholders on health and disease prevention. However, community health nurses are more likely to provide members of the public with healthcare and to emphasize both communicable and noncommunicable diseases.

These nurses often work in clinics and government agencies, where they focus on the community’s most vulnerable populations. A community health nurse curriculum addresses social causes of health, health promotion, working with marginalized populations, and providing health education for people with varying levels of health knowledge.

Nursing Research

Nurse researchers typically work at academic medical centers like research and teaching hospitals. They can also be employed by companies that conduct medical research, such as pharmaceutical or medical equipment companies.

Nurse researchers look after and monitor results for patients participating in medical research, or they might conduct original research on improving nursing quality. The curriculum for nurse researcher programs emphasizes the ethical treatment of human subjects, advanced data gathering and analysis, statistics, principles and practices of medical research, evidence-based practices, and risk management.

In Summary

Nurses seeking a graduate degree in nursing can select from several types of MSN programs based on their current level of education. These include a baccalaureate to master’s degree program, an MSN bridge program, a direct-entry master’s degree, and a dual master’s degree.

Once you select the type of MSN program best suited for you, you can choose from a wide range of specializations and tracks based on your desired job role, nursing field, and specialty. If you are overwhelmed by the number of choices available, narrow your list of possible MSN programs and talk to an advisor at each institution to help you choose the MSN path that is right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Master’s Degree in Nursing

What types of master’s degrees in nursing are there?

Master’s degrees in nursing are available in many different clinical specialty areas and formats, such as dual master’s degrees or bridge programs.

Some, like clinical nurse leadership or APRN programs, prepare candidates to work in traditional healthcare settings. Others, such as nursing research programs, focus on advancing evidence-based nursing practices.

What are the different types of nurses degrees?

The varioustypes of nursing degrees include a three-year RN diploma program, a two-year ADN program, and a four-year BSN degree. Graduate programs include a MSN or a doctor of nursing practice degree.

Which nursing master’s degree is best?

Pursuing a career in nursing simply because it pays the most or has the highest level of demand will not lead to long-term job happiness or fulfillment, unless other parameters are met.

There is no nursing master’s degree that is best for everyone; rather, the ideal MSN degree is the one that best suits your area of nursing practice, passion, professional strengths, and career goals.

What is the difference between a BSN and an MSN?

A BSN is a four-year degree, while the MSN generally requires an additional 2-3 years. APRN certifications require an MSN, although nurse anesthetists certified after 2025 must hold a doctorate. Many MSN programs expect applicants to have at least some clinical nursing experience, while BSN programs typically do not.

Page last reviewed October 3, 2022

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