BSN vs. MSN: How to Choose as an RN

NurseJournal Staff
Updated March 14, 2023
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For an RN with an ADN, further education can give you more options for promotion and higher pay. This guide can help you decide between a BSN vs. MSN so you can plan for your future.
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If you have an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and are working as a registered nurse (RN), you can further your career with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or a master of science in nursing (MSN). But which is the right choice? Deciding between the BSN vs. MSN can be difficult.

This guide breaks down MSN degree outcomes, outlines RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN program pros and cons, and gives you other valuable information to make your decision.

RN-to-BSN and RN-to-MSN Programs Compared

An MSN is a master’s degree that can prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), such as a nurse midwife or a nurse practitioner. A BSN is a bachelor’s degree that can lead to promotion or prepare you to earn an MSN, but does not give you a scope of practice beyond your RN license.

RN-to-BSN vs. RN-to-MSN
Who is it for?RNs who have not earned a BSNRNs who have not earned a BSN
Program Length1-2 years2-4 years
Degree ConferredBSN degreeMSN degree
Average Salary$91,000 according to Payscale, February 2023$100,000 according to Payscale, February 2023
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RN-to-BSN Overview

If you already have an ADN, you may wonder why you should consider enrolling in an RN-to-BSN or an RN-to-MSN program. Many employers prefer or require a BSN for higher-level positions, and applying for any position, a BSN candidate may have a strong advantage. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that all RNs hold a BSN, and some states are even considering, or are currently passing legislation, that requires RNs to have a BSN in the future.

A BSN also prepares you to enter a graduate program directly. Almost half (48.1%) of RNs have a BSN, and these numbers continue to rise. A nurse with an ADN only may face more competition from BSN-holders in the job market.

Time to Complete

RN-to-BSN programs typically take 1-2 years to complete, depending on the pace of the program, whether you plan to work while you study, and whether you attend as a full- or part-time student. The right pace for you depends on your responsibilities and preferred time frame.


Most RN-to-BSN programs require or prefer a 3.0 GPA, at least two references, and a current RN license for admission. Many require at least one year of nursing experience. If your ADN GPA does not reflect your abilities as a nurse, exceptional experience or other factors, such as being multilingual or experience with medically underserved populations, may outweigh a borderline GPA.

What can you do with a BSN?

A BSN gives you a competitive advantage for many nursing positions. Some employers, especially more prestigious employers, require a BSN for leadership positions. If you want an MSN later in your career, having a BSN will give you more program options.

There are many incentives for employers to hire BSN-educated nurses. For a hospital to achieve Magnet status, a certain percentage of staffed RNs must have their BSN. For this reason, some employers may include a clause in their hiring contract stating that RNs with their ADN must complete their BSN after a certain number of years.

Currently, New York requires RNs to complete a BSN program within 10 years of receiving their RN license.

RN-to-MSN Overview

An MSN degree means even more career opportunities, including a six-figure income. While most MSN students become APRNs, you can also become a nurse educator or nurse administrator with an MSN. In 2020, 14.9% of RNs reported having an MSN as their highest degree.

APRNs also enjoy more professional autonomy. In states with full practice authority, APRNs can work without physician supervision. Even in the states with limited authority, APRNs still have a much broader scope of practice and can exercise more independent judgment. Whether you want a higher salary, more independence, or a license that lets you assess, diagnose, and prescribe treatments, these are the most important BSN vs. MSN distinctions.

Time to Complete

As you would expect, an RN-to-MSN program takes more time, typically between two and four years to complete, depending on the pace and the number of credits required. Many programs meet the needs of working students, but earning an MSN takes a great deal of commitment and effort.

At the end of an APRN program, you must pass the relevant board exam for your specialty. Make sure you can take time to study and prepare before the examination. Just like you had in your ADN program, you need to participate in clinical experiences and arrange your schedule accordingly.


RN-to-MSN programs often have more rigorous admission requirements. Most require or strongly prefer a 3.0 GPA. You must also have at least two references and a current and unencumbered RN license, as well as a current resume or CV. Most applications also require a personal essay or statement that explains why you want to earn an MSN and what the MSN degree means to you. You should also have at least some nursing experience in the population you plan to specialize in, if you want to enter an APRN program.

What can you do with an MSN?

One of the BSN vs. MSN major distinctions is that a BSN is generalized, while an MSN is specialized. Each MSN program prepares students for a different type of career, such as a nurse midwife, nurse educator, acute pediatric care provider, or family nurse practitioner. If these careers sound more appealing than work as an RN, that may help you decide between the two degree options.

Some of the most common APRN specialties are:

You can also be a nurse administrator or a nurse educator with an MSN. You do not have to earn certification to practice in these areas, but certification gives you a distinct advantage in the job market.

Benefits and Drawbacks of RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN

Whether an RN-to-BSN or an RN-to-MSN program is right for you depends on your career goals and resources, such as time and finances. An RN-to-BSN program takes less time to complete and is also academically less demanding. If work and other responsibilities already have you pressed for time, an RN-to-BSN program will be less demanding.

MSN programs are usually more difficult to get into than BSN programs, and more prestigious MSN programs are especially competitive. Applying to an MSN program also requires nursing experience. If your GPA from your ADN degree doesn’t reflect your abilities, the RN-to-BSN program will give you a chance to earn a higher GPA to help you when you apply for an MSN.

Financially, an RN-to-MSN program offers considerably higher income opportunities. If you are early in your career, an RN-to-MSN program will give you more years earning a higher income.

There are many financial aid options for nurses for both types of bridge programs. Some employers help pay for a degree program in exchange for a commitment to work for them for a certain period. Still, higher education is expensive, and an MSN program generally costs more per credit hour than a BSN.

Many MSN programs require you to specialize, while BSN programs allow you to explore more possibilities. If you’re newer to nursing, this can be an advantage.

The choice between a BSN vs. MSN bridge program depends on your goals and how much time and money you have to spend on earning a degree.

How to Choose Between an RN-to-BSN and RN-to-MSN Program

To make the right choice between an RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN program, talk to a trusted mentor. You may be able to shadow an APRN or other MSN program graduate to see if the work interests you more than work as an RN.

A degree from an RN-to-BSN program can prepare you to enter an MSN program later. If you have serious doubts about whether an MSN is right for you, earning a BSN can help you decide. If you thrive in the higher-level classes, an MSN might be right for you, but if you do not find them engaging, a BSN may be the better option.

Once you decide on your degree, there are other decisions, such as specializations (in an MSN program), program format, a part- or full-time schedule, to name a few. A trusted advisor can help you make these options and help you decide which best suits your future.

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