Types of Master’s Degrees in Nursing
| NurseJournal Staff
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.
MSN Degree Options
There are many ways to earn a master of science in nursing (MSN). These include bridge programs for RNs who do not hold a bachelor's in nursing and dual master's programs. Traditional programs are designed for nurses who already hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). This flexibility is one of the many benefits of nursing master's degrees: There is an educational path for every candidate, regardless of their academic background or interests. In addition, many nursing master's programs offer online or hybrid options that allow working professionals to earn an advanced degree without quitting their jobs or relocating.
Who it is for: RNs with a BSN
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 clinical requirements at facilities in their own communities.
Who it is for: RNs with an associate degree
MSN bridge programs are a great option for RNs with an associate degree in nursing (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. This kind of nursing master's degree is often available online or in a hybrid format with on-campus components.
Who it is for: Learners with a non-nursing bachelor's degree
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.
Who it is for: RNs pursuing advanced roles like chief nursing officer or manager of clinical informatics
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 types of specialized master's in nursing options, including advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) programs (nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse midwife, and certified registered nurse anesthetist) and specializations in areas like research and education. Please note that by 2025, nurse anesthetists must hold a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.
A good graduate program for nursing aligns with the student's career goals and helps them secure their desired salary in their preferred work setting. Degree specializations offer the advanced skills and knowledge needed to excel in the following roles.
Unlike RNs, NPs are permitted to diagnose conditions and prescribe medications. In some states, NPs must work under a physician's supervision, while in others they can practice independently. A master's curriculum for prospective NPs includes courses in advanced pharmacology, diagnosis, treatment, and nursing practice. The average annual salary for an NP is $114,510. While most NPs specialize in family practice, some are certified in gerontology, pediatric, neonatal, psychiatric, or women's health.
A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an APRN who specializes in diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing patient health management. CNS programs emphasize identifying and diagnosing health conditions, pharmacology, and other treatment options. Like NPs, nurse specialists may further focus in adult, gerontology, or pediatric practice. Depending on state regulations, a CNS may work independently or under physician supervision. While PayScale as of May 2021 identifies the average annual salary for a CNS as $91,680, salaries vary based on responsibilities, experience, and location.
Certified nurse midwives (CNMs) are APRNs who care for pregnancy and childbirth. They are permitted to oversee births, including home births, and often supervise RNs and nursing assistants. CNMs also help educate pregnant individuals and their families on healthy birth practices and infant care. The average annual salary for a CNM is $115,540.
Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) are the highest paid APRNs, earning an average annual salary of $189,190. They administer anesthesia during medical procedures and provide pain management afterward. Like all APRNs, they are eligible to prescribe medications, including controlled substances, although some states maintain additional requirements. As of 2025, newly certified CRNAs must hold a DNP.
Public health nurses specialize in disease prevention, especially communicable diseases. They often educate the public or stakeholders on health and disease, including proper hygiene and sanitation practices. Stakeholders might include legislators, workplaces, public transportation management, or public event administrators. These nurses can work in nonclinical settings, such as government agencies, community centers, or nonprofits, in addition to typical healthcare settings like hospitals, clinics, and physicians' offices. The COVID-19 pandemic brought public health nurses into the spotlight and may have made the role more prominent in the long term.
Nurse educators primarily teach in nursing schools and healthcare organizations like hospitals and health systems. Four-year colleges, universities, and academic medical centers require or strongly prefer nurse educators who hold either a DNP or doctor of philosophy (Ph.D) in a healthcare field. Other schools, especially ADN programs, typically prefer candidates with a master's degree in nursing and clinical and teaching experience.
Nurse administrators generally work in hospitals or health systems, although many work for insurance companies, government agencies, or clinics. They supervise nursing departments and represent nurses' needs in organizational planning. Nurse administrators may hold a dual master's degree in nursing and an administrative discipline, or they may hold a degree from a nursing master's program with an administrative track. Administrative tracks explore leadership, finance, organizational development, and technology. Many nurses transition from clinical roles to nursing administration because of the ability to lead teams. Nurse administrators can influence positive changes in policy, practice, and healthcare systems.
Nursing informatics is a growing field that uses information science, data analytics, and technology to improve nursing quality or efficiency. Nurse informatics programs examine topics in data science, business analytics, data quality management, and statistics. Other courses train nurse informaticists in predictive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and data visualization, along with concepts in nursing and healthcare administration. Nurse informaticists often work with different teams in the workplace including hospital and health system administration, IT departments, and nursing units.
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.
Diabetes is one of the most prevalent health conditions in the U.S. and can cause disability and even death if left untreated. According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes treatment costs Americans more than $300 billion each year. Diabetes nurses are clinically trained to treat diabetes in adults and children. They also educate patients on the importance of diet, exercise, and medication. Because the disease is prevalent among Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations, diabetes nurses are often trained in culturally competent care.
Clinical nurse leaders oversee nursing care in hospitals and other healthcare settings. They monitor overall patient outcomes, specifying changes as necessary. Courses survey clinical treatment, advanced outcome monitoring, and data analytics and research. Evidence-based practices, risk assessment and management, and leadership and administration are also part of the coursework. According to PayScale, the average annual salary for a clinical nurse leader is $83,870 as of May 2021.
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.
There is a nursing master's degree for every student, no matter their career goals or strengths. While nurses with a BSN might have a bit of an advantage for a master's degree in nursing or an advanced practice degree, RNs without a BSN or candidates with non-nursing bachelor's degrees can benefit from several bridge program options.
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.
Which nursing master's degree is best?
The right nursing master's degree depends on career and salary goals. APRNs generally earn the most, but fields such as nurse informatics or nursing administration offer opportunities to impact nursing practice and healthcare systems. Public health and community health nurses help build healthier communities and assist society's most vulnerable members.
What are the different types of nursing degrees?
An ADN typically lasts for two years and is the minimum education required to obtain nursing certification. A BSN is the most common preparation for a master's degree in nursing and takes four years to complete. An MSN requires 2-3 years of study, and most DNPs also last 2-3 years.
What is the difference between BSN and MSN?
A BSN is a four-year degree, while the MSN generally requires an additional two or three years. APRN certifications require an MSN, although nurse anesthetists certified after 2025 must hold a DPN. Many MSN programs expect applicants to have at least some clinical nursing experience, while BSN programs typically do not.
Related MSN Resources
Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, is a nursing professional with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.
Gleason is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners here.
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