Types of Master’s Degrees in Nursing

Ayana Dunn, BSN, RN
Updated April 26, 2024
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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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After earning your bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, pursuing a master’s in nursing (MSN) may offer an ideal next step in your nursing education. The nursing profession offers many opportunities for specialization and education. This guide covers available options for MSNs and explores specialties you can pursue in these advanced nursing programs. Discover the pathway that fits your personal and professional needs.

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MSN Degree Options

Traditional and bridge programs require experience before admission, while direct-entry programs are for students with non-nursing backgrounds. Dual-degree programs allow each enrollee to earn an MSN and a master’s degree in subjects like public health (MPH) or business administration (MBA) at the same time.

Carefully assess your eligibility, experience level, resources, and goals during your decision process. Learn about your options with the following overview.

Baccalaureate to Master’s Degree

  • Who It Is For: RNs with BSNs
  • Program Length: 2-3 years

Most master’s in nursing programs require each applicant to hold a BSN and at least a year of independent clinical nursing experience. BSN-to-MSN programs usually last 2-3 years, depending on the curriculum and the student’s enrollment status.

Master’s in nursing programs are often available through online, in-person, or hybrid delivery. Many graduate programs in nursing offer at least some courses online, but you may have to visit campus for tests or labs.

Distance learners enrolled in fully online programs usually fulfill nursing practicums at local facilities, but some programs require you to complete your practicums at their partner sites.

MSN Bridge Program

  • Who It Is For: RNs with associate degrees in nursing (ADNs) who want to pursue master’s degrees, including advanced practice programs, NP programs, or general MSN degrees, like nursing educator or nursing administrator programs
  • Program Length: 3-4 years

MSN bridge programs are a great option for ADN-level RNs seeking master’s degrees without first taking four years in a bachelor’s program. These bridge programs combine the equivalent of the last two years of a BSN program with the master’s in nursing curriculum. Most programs last 3-4 years.

Direct-Entry Master’s Degree

  • Who It Is For: Learners with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees
  • Program Length: 18-36 months

Direct-entry graduate programs serve learners without BSNs. This type of nursing master’s is intended for candidates with bachelor’s or graduate degrees in non-nursing fields. Each student must first take a condensed year of the BSN curriculum, pass the NCLEX-RN, and earn an RN license before advancing to the MSN portion of the program.

These programs leverage existing college credits, especially in STEM courses, toward an MSN. This way, you can focus on fundamental and advanced nursing abilities by honing your skills in labs and clinical settings.

Depending on the existing degree, a direct-entry master’s program can last 18-36 months. This type of master’s degree in nursing is available in online, hybrid, and on-campus formats.

Dual Master’s Degree

  • Who It Is For: RNs pursuing advanced leadership roles like nursing administrator or manager of clinical informatics
  • Program Length: 3-4 years

Dual master’s degree programs combine two related programs, such as an MSN and a master of business administration (MBA). A dual master’s prepares candidates to pursue advanced leadership roles that require a deep understanding of nursing practice, the business of healthcare, and administration.

In addition to the MSN/MBA option, common dual master’s specialties for MSN students include public health (MSN/MPH) and health administration (MSN/MHA) programs. These pathways usually take BSN degree-holders 3-4 years to complete virtually and/or on campus.

Types of Master’s Degree in Nursing Specializations

Schooling and post-graduation job outlooks vary. Set realistic expectations by researching your specialty.

Some specialties, like nurse practitioner and nurse midwife, require students to pass their boards to practice. You need a master’s in nursing to earn a terminal degree, such as a Ph.D. or doctor of nursing practice (DNP), in any specialty. Explore the specialties you can pursue with an MSN below.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioner programs prepare learners for advanced nursing careers. Graduates can sit for the national NP board certification exam in their specialties. NPs can choose to specialize in many practice areas, such as adult-gerontology, family practice, women’s health, and mental health.

A nurse practitioner’s clinical responsibilities include health promotion and disease prevention. Depending on the practice authority in their state, NPs can perform many of the same duties as medical doctors, such as ordering lab tests and creating care plans. An NP makes an average annual salary of $128,490, according to April 2024 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Clinical Nurse Specialist

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) program prepares graduates for APRN careers in nursing training, research, mentorship, and education. They educate nursing staff on improving outcomes, educating patients, and employing evidence-based nursing care.

Like other APRN programs, many online clinical nurse specialist programs are available. They take around two years to complete. According to Payscale, as of April 2024, the average CNS salary is $100,390 annually.

Like NPs, they specialize in the patient populations they work with. A CNS receives advanced training in a specific clinical area, such as pediatrics, family care, or mental health. However, rather than emphasizing direct patient care, they focus on mentorship and education while remaining up to date on the latest clinical research studies.

Certified Nurse-Midwife

The certified nurse-midwifery program focuses on individualized care and wellness during pregnancy, labor, and after delivery. Certified nurse-midwives (CNM) can perform all of the duties of an OB-GYN, except for performing C-sections. They perform prenatal and postnatal exams, deliver babies, write prescriptions, and help parents create birth plans.

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 private birthing centers.

According to the BLS, the average annual salary for a certified nurse midwife is $131,570 as of May 2023.

After completing an accredited MSN program, a prospective CNM must pass the certification exam administered by the American Midwifery Certification Board. Approved accredited online nurse-midwife programs are limited.

Public Health Nurse

Public health MSN programs prepare graduates for careers educating people about how to stay healthy and manage health problems. They focus on long-term wellness and improving access to community healthcare. They often work with low-income and underserved populations. These healthcare professionals conduct disease surveillance, watch for possible outbreaks, assist with public health crises, and work in vaccine clinics.

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

According to April 2024 Payscale data, a public health nurse makes an average hourly rate of $32.61 per hour. Average annual pay for public health nurses ranges from $52,000-$99,000 per year. However, you only need an ADN to become a public health nurse, so master’s-level nurses may earn at the higher end of that salary range.

A public health nursing MSN program covers areas like evaluation of health outcomes, research methods and biostatistics, and advanced nursing practice in population health.

Nurse Educator

Nursing education MSN programs prepare graduates to pursue careers in nursing education as classroom professors who teach lecture and lab classes or clinical preceptors who oversee nursing students at clinical sites. This specialty also qualifies you to educate nurses and provide professional development in healthcare settings.

Nurse educators help other nurses employ nursing best practices. They combine their clinical backgrounds and evidence-based practice knowledge to teach new and experienced nurses. They use their teaching skills in various settings, including healthcare organizations and higher education.

According to BLS, as of May 2023, the average annual salary for nurse educators is $86,530. Nurse educator programs are offered in face-to-face, hybrid, and online formats.

Nursing Administrator

Graduates of MSN in nursing administration programs can pursue roles in nursing leadership or work in human resources in healthcare settings.

Their duties include implementing nursing policies in healthcare settings, ensuring their nurses maintain up-to-date licenses and certifications, and maintaining patient safety and quality care standards. They also manage financial matters, such as providing their units or organizations while remaining within budget.

Some online dual degree programs combine an MSN in nursing administration with a master of health administration degree. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for nursing and other healthcare administrators is $134,440 as of May 2023.

Nursing Informaticist

Nursing informatics employs technology to improve the quality of nursing care. Using statistics and nursing knowledge, professionals with MSNs in nursing informatics 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 may focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data visualization.

Practicums help students employ real-world informatics scenarios. Nurse informaticists can collaborate with nursing units, along with information technology and healthcare administration departments. A 2022 survey by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society found that 51% of nursing informaticist respondents reported an annual salary between $76,000-$125,000.

Diabetes Nurse

Diabetes MSN programs prepare nurses to work in multidisciplinary teams to help diagnose, treat, and educate patients with diabetes. Diabetes nurses spend a lot of their time teaching 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 April 2024, diabetes nurses make an average annual salary of $72,200 or $33.89 an hour. However, MSN-prepared nurses may earn more than average because they have more than the required minimum education.

In a subspecialty called pediatric endocrinology nursing, these nurses collaborate on testing, treatment, and medications for children and adolescents with Type 1 diabetes. Pediatric endocrinology nurses educate kids and parents or guardians about healthy lifestyle choices and ways to effectively manage the complexities of diabetes at home.

Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical nurse leader (CNL) programs include data analysis, research, and effective communication. Graduates can become CNLs to manage nursing teams and monitor patient outcomes.

These professionals support nurses through mentoring, training, and advocacy. They implement policies to ensure facilities follow evidence-based practices and make adjustments based on quality assessments.

They can work in any healthcare setting, and their practice is unique to their work environment. According to Payscale data from April 2024, CNLs make an average hourly rate of $38.35.

Community Health Nurse

Community and public health nurses educate the public and stakeholders on health and disease prevention. However, community health nurses are more likely to provide nursing and healthcare to members of the public and educate them on communicable and non-communicable diseases.

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

Nursing Researcher

Nurse researchers typically work in academic medical centers or companies that conduct medical research, such as pharmaceutical or medical equipment companies.

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

In Summary

Nurses seeking master’s degrees in nursing can select from several types of MSN programs based on their current level of education. These include:

  • Baccalaureate to master’s degree programs
  • MSN bridge programs
  • Direct-entry master’s degree programs
  • Dual master’s degree programs

Once you select the type of MSN that suits your needs, you can choose a specialization based on your desired role and nursing field. If you are overwhelmed by the number of choices, narrow your list of possible MSN programs and talk to advisors at each school to help you find your ideal nursing path.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Master’s Degree in Nursing

There are specialty options that meet each student’s unique interests. The most common type of MSN degree prepares students to become nurse practitioners and specialize as family nurse practitioners, psychiatric nurse practitioners, or adult-gerontology nurse practitioners. However, nurses can pursue MSNs in other specialties, like nursing informatics, nursing leadership, nursing education, and nurse-midwifery.

Page last reviewed on April 12, 2024

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