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BSN vs. MSN Degree: Which is Best?

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated September 20, 2023
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    Whether to pursue your bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or master of science in nursing (MSN) calls for an examination of multiple factors. Read on for help!
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    Black female nurse standing in a hospital hallway smiling at the camera.Credit: Terry Vine / DigitalVision / Getty Images

    Difference Between BSN and MSN

    Multiple educational pathways lead to careers in the nursing profession, including those culminating with a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) or a master’s degree in nursing (MSN). Nurses must get their registered nurse (RN) licenses before entering an MSN program, and one option for aspiring RNs includes pursuing a BSN.

    While students can streamline their journey to RN licensing with a nursing diploma or associate degree in nursing (ADN), the BSN curriculum provides the most effective preparation for graduate nursing programs.

    Choosing the best option requires considering several factors, such as job opportunities, desired salary, the time and money students can dedicate to their education, and specialization interests. This page offers information and guidance to help with decision-making.

    Essential Things to Consider When Choosing a Nursing Program

    Considering the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s nursing degree can help you select the best path to achieve your goals. Your particular circumstances, such as whether you already work as a nurse, hold an RN degree, or haven’t started your nursing education yet, provide a starting place.

    The time commitments and costs of earning a traditional BSN or MSN can range from four to seven years. Accelerated or bridge programs can shorten the timeframe for qualified students and reduce tuition and fees.

    Salary differences can be pretty significant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for registered nurses totals $75,330 per year, while master’s degree-prepared advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) earn a median annual salary of $117,760.

    Career longevity should also be considered. Certain specialty areas may contribute to nurse burnout, such as critical care and emergency room work. The amount of patient interaction is also something to take into consideration. RN positions involve extensive patient care, while master’s-level nursing degrees may open more doors to administrative, leadership, or research jobs.

    The BLS publishes projected job outlook statistics, which can also provide insight into your likelihood of getting hired. Nurses with master’s degrees can expect a 45% projected employment increase from 2020 to 2030, while BSN-holders should see a projected 9% in job growth during the same period. An MSN may increase your marketability, particularly if you aspire to hold leadership positions.

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    BSN and MSN Anatomy

    The table below lists side-by-side details of traditional BSN and MSN degree programs, so you can compare and contrast credit requirements, program traits and length, and potential earnings.

    Comparison Between BSN and MSN Degree Programs
    Credits Required12036-60
    Program TraitsGeneral education, nursing prerequisites and trainingSpecialty-driven curriculum, advanced nursing core courses and clinicals
    Average Program LengthFour years1-3 years
    Average Earning Potential$75,330$117,760

    Features of a BSN

    Time commitments for nursing degree completion vary by program and depend on factors that include full- or -part-time enrollment, in-person or online study, specialization area, prior educational experience, and job experience or licensure. Accelerated BSNs and RN-to-BSN bridge programs can shave 2-3 years off educational timelines for qualifying students. Applicants should check their options for the programs that interest them.

    While programs may impose different criteria, typical admission requirements include academic transcripts, 2.5-3.0 GPAs, SAT or ACT scores, and a resume.

    BSN programs prepare graduates to take and pass their National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), a requirement to obtain an RN license. BSNs also provide the most comprehensive preparation for RN practice and further education.

    Features of an MSN

    MSN programs include the following:

    • BSN-to-MSN: These programs usually take 2-3 years to complete and require a BSN and clinical nursing experience. MSNs can be earned online or in-person, with onsite clinical rotations.
    • RN-to-MSN bridge programs: RNs who hold an ADN or nursing diploma may qualify for these 3- to 4-year programs that include BSN coursework. Online and hybrid study is commonly offered.
    • Direct-entry MSN: These accelerated programs admit applicants with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees and apply those credits toward an MSN. Direct-entry MSNs can take 18 months to three years to finish and feature online, on-campus, or mixed format options. These students will need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam at some point before they can practice.

    Other common admission requirements include:

    • Transcripts
    • 2.5-3.5 GPAs
    • GRE or MAT scores
    • Personal essays
    • Letters of reference

    The MSN curriculum prepares students for advanced practice nursing careers as nurse practitioners caring for a specific patient population, certified nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists, along with administrators, nurse leaders, nurse educators, and researchers.

    Advantages to Earning BSN or MSN

    BLS statistics highlight the many nursing positions available to BSN-holders with high projected job growth and starting salaries but also show the added value of spending an extra couple of years earning an MSN. The table below outlines the advantages of each degree.

    Comparing Advantages Between BSN and MSN Degrees
    Strong projected job growth of 7%Much stronger employment growth projection of 45%
    Broad nursing preparation and knowledge baseOpportunities to specialize and focus on patient populations
    Intensive patient interactionOptions to care for patients or pursue leadership and administrative roles
    Preparation for graduate studyOpens doors to doctorate-level nursing education
    General education and nursing-specific didactic and clinical trainingCoursework in advanced nursing topics, management, leadership, research, and informatics
    Potentially high salariesSix-figure incomes for most positions

    Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing Degrees

    Do MSN educated nurses make more than BSN-holders?

    MSN-holders make thousands more per year than those with BSNs. Nurses with BSNs bring in less than $53,000 for the lowest 10% to more than $116,000 for the highest 10%. The lowest 10% of MSN-educated nurses earn less than $84,000, and the highest 10% make more than $190,000.

    What is the difference between a BSN and MSN?

    BSN-trained nurses hold an RN license, provide care to patients as part of a team of medical professionals, and can hold leadership and management positions. MSNs open doors to advanced nursing that includes specialties like anesthetics, midwifery, family nurse practice, and even higher nursing administration and leadership roles. MSNs also find careers in higher education and research.

    What can an MSN do that a BSN can’t?

    MSNs can get higher-level positions in clinical nursing and nursing practice, along with administrative roles, research, and management. MSNs can also complete their doctoral degrees in shorter timeframes and earn advanced certifications in specialty areas. MSN-holders, such as nurse practitioners, can practice more independently than RNs, but the degree to which they can do so depends on their state laws.

    Are BSN to MSN programs hard?

    Pursuing an MSN carries challenges, such as balancing a heavy course load of advanced topics with clinical rotations, although there are non-clinical degree options. Nursing students put in long hours, and some continue working or take care of other obligations while they earn their degrees, which adds to the burden.

    The Bottom Line: BSN vs. MSN

    BSN or MSN? The choice comes down to professional goals, salary needs, career advancement opportunities, and specialty interests. A thorough inventory of whether you want to work with patients, conduct research, supervise nursing staff, or manage a hospital department can point you in the right direction. However, if you choose to earn a BSN now, you also have the option to earn an MSN later on.

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    Portrait of Shrilekha Deshaies MSN, RN, CCRN

    Shrilekha Deshaies MSN, RN, CCRN

    Shri Deshaies is a nurse educator with over 20 years teaching in hospital, nursing school, and community settings. Most recently Deshaies taught in Syracuse, New York where she had the pleasure of teaching lab skills, tutoring students, writing scripts, and performing in the video demonstrations used for skills validations. Deshaies offers private tutoring to nurses preparing for school exams as well as the NCLEX exam and has worked with dozens of students with an excellent pass-rate.

    Her clinical area of expertise is critical care nursing and is a certified critical care nurse. She has worked in various surgical ICUs throughout her career, including cardiovascular, trauma, and neurosurgery.

    Deshaies’s passion for health equity and reducing hospitalization has led her to practicing nursing in the community as a home health nurse. This passion has also extended into the homeless community where she provides nurse advocacy, navigation, and education to homeless men through the non-profit organization, Nurses Serving our Neighbors (NSON), of which she is a founding member. Deshaies recently completed a course to become a faith community nurse.


    Featured Image: Terry Vine / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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