An In-Depth Look at Online RN to MSN Programs

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Demand is growing for nurses who can lead and also provide critically needed primary care, a role that many advanced practice nurses can fill. An online RN to MSN program is one of several graduate-level educational paths for registered nurses who wish to advance their career. The RN to MSN program offers prospective students a continuous transition from basic nursing practice to an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) position. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of online RN to MSN programs, including a review of curricula, specializations, and degree expectations to help aspiring APRNs find the right school and program.

Online RN to MSN Programs Degree Search Tool

After working as a nurse for a few years, RNs may decide they want to open themselves up to advanced positions and higher earning potential. Online RN to MSN programs are a great option for this goal. Like other online degrees, these programs allow students to balance personal and professional commitments with a flexible academic schedule. The search tool below highlights programs with these features while also taking into account other important considerations such as specializations, program success, clinical rotations, and faculty experience.

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Understanding the RN to MSN Online Program

The overarching goal of RN to MSN programs is to equip registered nurses with the knowledge and skills to positively impact and improve health outcomes. These roles may be in both direct care practice roles (e.g., Family Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Educator, Clinical Nurse Leader) and indirect healthcare roles (e.g., Health Informatics, Community Health, Clinical Research, Program Management). To that end, graduate nursing education in RN to MSN programs is founded upon three core educational areas: nursing core coursework, direct patient care instruction, and specialized area content.

Meet the Expert: Keith Carlson

Keith Carlson is a Board Certified Nurse Coach who works under the auspices of Nurse Keith Coaching, where he helps nurses create satisfying, healthy, and enriching careers. A nurse since 1996, Carlson also writes the award-winning nursing blog, “Digital Doorway”, and is the co-founder and co-host of RNFM Radio.

  • Nursing Core

    The nursing core includes curricula in broad, foundational areas of nursing that are essential for nurses, regardless of their area of practice.

  • Direct Patient Care

    Direct patient care includes coursework and hands-on instruction required to equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to provide advanced levels of direct patient services.

  • Specialized Area

    These are clinical and educational experiences defined by an area of practice for specific nursing functions (e.g., Family Health, Pediatrics, etc.).

The sections below provide a deeper dive into the core components mentioned above, including program expectations, curricula, and specialized learning tracks.

The RN to MSN Student Profile

The RN to MSN opens the door to professional opportunities in nursing for the non-traditional learner. These programs are designed to be flexible and customizable, meeting the needs of students from nearly every background and area of practice. For example, consider the stories of the following three RN to MSN students:

Student profile #1
Nancy P

Nancy is a pediatric nurse with an associate degree and nine years of experience as a nurse at her local hospital. Building upon her professional knowledge, Nancy can enroll in an online RN to MSN program to facilitate the development of an advanced skill set that translates to her ultimate career goal of becoming a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP) and opening her own private practice.

Student profile #1
John A

John holds a bachelor’s degree in education, but wants to pivot his career and move into nurse education. Using his background in teaching and curriculum development, John can pursue a Nurse Educator specialty track in an online RN to MSN program to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to transition into a nursing education role in his local community.

Student profile #1
Marsha W

A registered nurse with an associate degree and 15 years of experience in a home health agency, Marsha can enroll in an online RN to MSN program for professional development in administration, finance, management, and leadership, and thus gain entry into administrative and managerial roles in the home health industry.

RN to MSN Tools

Graduates of master’s degree programs in nursing build upon their entry-level nursing practice education, skills, and expertise. This level of training provides students with a greater understanding of the nursing discipline, positioning them to engage in advanced patient care practice, leadership, and nursing management. To that end, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has defined nine essentials of learning that students in master’s nursing programs acquire. This knowledge and skills set can be considered the core fundamentals of what RN to MSN programs provide to students.

Essential Knowledge/Skill What is Learned
Evidence-Based Nursing Practice Ability to integrate multidisciplinary knowledge–nursing, public health, social and biological science, organizational theory–to improvement of patient care across healthcare settings.
Quality Improvement & Safety Understanding of quality improvement, organizational and performance management, quality standards, tools, and methods.
Organizational & Systems Leadership Organizational and leadership skills in relationship to providing advanced patient care, especially from a decision-making, ethical, and health systems perspective.
Integrating Scholarship into Practice Research-based skills that can be applied in a variety of healthcare practice settings.
Informatics & Healthcare Technology Knowledge of contemporary technology and communication technologies that are used to coordinate, deliver, and measure patient care.
Health Policy & Advocacy Understanding of modern healthcare trends and policy issues, including advocacy, patient intervention, policy creation, and implementation.
Clinical Prevention and Intervention Broad knowledge of the concepts of clinical prevention and delivery, including organizational- and client-centered care through strategic planning, management, and evaluation, to varying patient populations.
Master’s Level Nursing Practice Advanced understanding of nursing science and practice, aligned with the ability to translate that knowledge into direct patient care and indirect care factors.
Collaboration for Health Outcome Improvement Leadership, communication, and collaboration skills to coordinate, implement, and manage patient care within varied health care settings.

Coursework

Exact course titles will vary greatly between schools and programs, but in general, the following are topics and areas that most online RN to MSN programs cover:

Nursing Research

An introduction to quantitative and qualitative research theories and methodologies specifically for nurses. The course emphasizes critical analysis of nursing and health care research so that students can effectively evaluate and apply principles. Strong focus will be placed on research design, sampling, data collection, and ethics.

Human Anatomy and Physiology

An integrative approach to the study of physiology and human anatomy. This course reviews the fundamentals of body systems, including research into cell biology, nervous and muscular systems, and biochemistry.

Principles of Professional Nursing

An introduction into the role of the professional nurse and the provision of direct patient care. This class reviews the history of nursing, as well as its overall organization and structure within the U.S. healthcare system.

Nursing Ethics

A review of the ethical issues within both the nursing profession and the healthcare system. Students discuss ethical principles and study ethical dilemmas, values, and beliefs, thus gaining an understanding of how they apply to clinical experience and practice.

Clinical Practice Foundations

A course that introduces students to the nursing process, ranging from assessment to evaluation in patient care settings. Through a blend of classroom- and clinically-based instruction and practice, students develop knowledge of, and experience in, client-centered nursing.

Organizational Behavior

The study of the various theoretical organizational models of both healthcare systems and the delivery of care. Students gain an understanding of the underlying conceptual framework of nursing management, developing skills in leadership, communication, and decision-making.

Role of the Advanced Nurse Practitioner

A comprehensive overview of the nurse’s position within the U.S. healthcare system in relation to healthcare delivery and its stakeholders, such as patients, consumers, government agencies, insurance companies, etc. Students develop insight into health planning, healthcare economics, and resource management.

Outcome Measures and Quality Improvement

A multifaceted examination of both client outcomes and methods for quality improvement in various healthcare environments and settings, this course teaches students about varying measurement tools and research methods.

U.S. Healthcare Systems

In this course, students explore contemporary trends in healthcare, and the managerial implications facing healthcare leaders, focusing on areas such as communication, leadership, and team-building skills. Other subjects of study may include conflict resolution, ethics, financial operations, and outcomes management.

Health Assessment

This course offers students the opportunity to develop keen assessment skills in multiple health and patient care settings.

Specialties or Tracks

The master’s in nursing can expand the career potential of registered nurses, positioning them for a range of opportunities in advanced nursing care. Benefits include greater career flexibility, increased earning potential, and expanded autonomy. Whether the goal is to move into nursing administration and leadership, or provide primary care to patients, the master’s degree is the first step in achieving that goal.

Broadly, the curriculum of MSN programs is generalist in nature. However, prospective students can customize their course of study, concentrating their online RN to MSN program in specialty educational tracks. Below is a list of popular specializations that MSN students may consider.

Family Nurse Practitioner

One of the most common educational tracks at the master’s level, Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) programs examine foundations of nursing theory and research, providing students with a comprehensive understanding of evidence-based nursing practice. The curricula of these programs focus on enhancing the assessment and primary patient care skills of the advanced nurse practitioner.

Students develop proficiency in family-oriented care, working in preventative and direct patient treatment of individuals, ranging from infants to aging adults. A flexible course of study, FNPs graduate their programs able to work in a multitude of healthcare settings, including private practice, hospitals, correctional facilities, health departments, medical offices, and other settings.

Healthcare Leadership

This advanced area of practice prepares students for leadership roles in milieus across today’s 21st-century healthcare system. Healthcare leadership programs cover the foundational principles of healthcare management, specifically focused on the delivery of health services.

Curricula include the in-depth study of topics such as quality and outcomes measurement and improvement, human resources, health informatics, resource allocation, patient safety, evidence-based nursing practice, and other subjects. Students develop a breadth of professional knowledge and skills that translate to administrative and managerial positions in both clinical and health-based organizations, ranging from hospitals and outpatient care clinics, to corporate organizations and ambulatory care centers.

Nurse Educator

Continual training and skill development are vital to nurse career advancement, but they are also cornerstones of providing quality nursing care. In Nurse Educator graduate tracks, students gain the knowledge and skills required to facilitate that training and expertise in other nurses.

Curricula focus on two specific areas: the foundations of nursing education, and clinical education. First, students study the principles of education—student learning assessment and curriculum development—generating competencies in the creation, implementation, and evaluation of nursing education programs. Secondly, students specialize in a clinical area of practice, using direct care practicums as a method to gain an understanding of how to translate experience in the field into classroom-based learning.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

The fundamental role of the Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP) is to provide quality, evidence-based care to patients ranging from birth to 21 years of age.

In these educational tracks, the curricula include primary pediatric care and advanced clinical care skills through both hands-on training and didactic instruction. Students study topics such as advanced health assessment, clinical reasoning, issues in pediatric care, and more. Graduates from these programs can pursue multiple career avenues in settings such as private practice, K-12 schools, or community health agencies.

Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

The goal of Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) educational tracks is to prepare nurses to provide primary care to women of all ages and backgrounds.

Through a combined program of study–clinical and didactic–students explore topics specific to women, such as hormone therapy, family planning, well-woman care, breast health, and more. By developing advanced knowledge and skills in this area, graduates have the opportunity to serve patients in settings such as family planning clinics, prenatal clinics, private practice, women’s health clinics, home health agencies, and more.

In addition to the five common MSN tracks mentioned above, students may also consider specializations in areas including the following:

  • Gerontology
  • Nursing Informatics
  • Palliative Care
  • Mental Health
  • Midwifery
  • Neonatal Care
University of Florida
  • Enrollment: 20,747
  • Tuition: $12,642
  • College Type: Public
  • State: Florida
  • Master of Science in Nursing - Clinical Nurse Leader
Ohio State University
  • Enrollment: 15,412
  • Tuition: $12,425
  • College Type: Public
  • State: Ohio
  • Master of Science in Nursing
Western Governors University
  • Enrollment: 14,731
  • Tuition: $6,790
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Utah
  • Master of Science in Nursing Leadership And Management (RN to MSN Option)
  • Master of Science in Nursing Education (RN to MSN Option)

Online RN to MSN Timeline

Prospective students should exercise due diligence regarding their research of online RN to MSN programs prior to making a decision. While specializations and curricula are part of an in-depth review of each department, taking a step back to get a high-level, comprehensive overview of each particular program can assist students in gaining a clear understanding of the differences and potential benefits of each university’s nursing department and online program. The first step in this process is to develop a complete degree timeline, one that includes thorough research, application requirements, as well as the curriculum plan for the general RN to MSN and specialty requirements.

Program Research

Registered nurses considering online RN to MSN programs should begin the research process as early as possible, especially since they may need to spend time completing program requisites and gathering application materials.

Program research begins by developing a target list of online RN to MSN programs, and then collecting data to review for each potential program of study. The areas to review include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books, technology purchases, travel)
  • Total credits required for graduation
  • Faculty background and experience
  • Online learning format (hybrid, on-campus, synchronous, asynchronous)
  • Residency or campus visit requirements
  • Clinical practicum requirements
  • Site placement process for clinical practicums
  • Online learning technology requirements
  • Available degree concentrations and specializations

Additionally, students may wish to create a spreadsheet listing each university’s application process and requirements, covering areas such as the following:

  • Minimum GPA requirements
  • Standardized testing scores (MAT, GRE, etc.)
  • Application fees
  • Deadlines for application submission
Application Preparation

Each university has varying admission requirements for their online RN to MSN programs. However, there are some commonly shared requirements including:

  • Associate of Science in Nursing or diploma from an accredited program
  • Undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0
  • Active, unencumbered registered nursing license

Aside from those three minimum requirements, prospective MSN students may also be asked to submit a variety of application documentation, including, but not limited to:

  • Official undergraduate transcripts
  • Curriculum Vitae or resume
  • Letters of Reference
  • GRE or Miller Analogies Test scores
  • Written professional statement of interest
  • Online nursing application
  • Application fees

The timeline below describes a hypothetical plan for a 65-credit, five-semester RN to MSN online program with a Family Nurse Practitioner specialty track of study. The timeline is for a student entering the program with an Associate of Science in Nursing degree. The curriculum is divided between 26 “bridge” or pre-specialty classes and three additional semesters of FNP coursework.

Year 1 RN-to-MSN Bridge Coursework

The first year of the online RN to MSN program involves the completion of a series of bridge classes. These classes are typically undergraduate prerequisites designed to prepare students for advanced graduate work during the final portion of their studies. Common topics of study include statistics, health assessment, nursing research, pharmacology, nursing ethics, and critical thinking.

Semester 1
  • Introduction to Health Assessment
  • Community Health Nursing
  • Critical Thinking and Evidence-Based Nursing
  • Introduction to Health Care Systems
Semester 2
  • Principles of Research
  • Introduction to Statistics
  • Pharmacology
  • Human Behavior
  • Nursing Ethics
Years 2 and Year 3 Family Nurse Practitioner Coursework

The final two years of the program are spent exclusively completing specialty training to become a Family Nurse Practitioner. This program of study includes both classroom-based instruction and hands-on clinical rotations.

Curricula broadly cover the foundational knowledge and responsibilities of advanced practice nursing, including topics such as clinical reasoning, advanced health assessment, healthcare improvement, pharmacology, pathophysiology, and primary care.

The first portion of the final two years concentrate on core Family Nurse Practitioner courses, transitioning to advanced, industry-specific training.

Throughout the final two semesters, students usually complete a series of clinical practicums in several different areas of practice, such as family healthcare, pediatrics, children and adolescents, and adult and geriatric care. The length of each practicum varies by specific program, but most typically range between 90 and 120 hours per clinical rotation.

Semester 3
  • Foundations of Healthcare Improvement
  • Contemporary Healthcare Issues
  • Clinical Reasoning and Assessment
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Principles of Pathophysiology
Semester 4
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Primary Care Competencies
  • Advanced Nursing Health Assessment
  • Practicum in Primary Family Care
  • Advanced Nursing Practice – Women’s Health
  • Advanced Nursing Practice – Adult & Geriatrics
Semester 5
  • Practicum in Primary Care – Children & Adolescents
  • Practicum in Primary Care – Adult & Geriatrics
  • Clinical Decision Making and Research
  • Practicum in Primary Family Care
  • Clinical Foundations for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety

One major factor not to be overlooked is program length. In short, students should remember that they may be required to complete between two to three additional semesters of RN to MSN coursework before enrolling in advanced specialty classes.

For example, some online RN to MSN programs allow students to enter the program with an associate or bachelor’s degree. Students with an associate degree may need to finish two semesters of bridge coursework—which is equivalent to a baccalaureate sequence of courses—subsequent to enrolling in MSN classes.

Depending on the program, students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field may be required to complete a pre-specialty program of study that may encompass approximately one year of coursework prior to enrolling in MSN classes

What Does a Great RN to MSN Online Program Offer?

The role of online RN to MSN programs is to offer educational paths for non-traditional students and learners to complete progressive educational studies in preparation to enter clinical, research, and academic-based nursing roles. Due to nursing’s broad scope, online master’s degrees in nursing allow students to craft customized programs of study that align with their future career goals. Indeed, students should pursue RN to MSN programs that offer a solid combination of generalist and specialized concentrations.

Online RN to MSN programs are typically designed to complement and mirror their on-campus counterparts. Typically, students can complete their didactic program of study through online learning, coupled with in-person clinical practicums completed in their local area. Depending on the institution, RN to MSN programs may be offered through asynchronous (self-paced) or synchronous (requires scheduled participation) online learning formats. Prospective students should ensure they are familiar and comfortable with online learning, as well as review the support services for distance learning that the department and university provide.

Regarding program quality, students should review the curricula of not only their designed specialization, but also the entire RN to MSN program at their school of choice. They should seek universities that provide a solid blend of theoretical, classroom-based learning, and clinical practicums that offer extensive, profession-based skill development.

Below are four additional indicators of quality that students may consider prior to enrolling in a program.

  • Program Success

    Success is determined by three major criteria: 1) the graduation rate; 2) the job placement rate for graduates from the RN to MSN program; and, 3) student support. Quality RN to MSN programs should make these numbers available, offering insight into the types of jobs their nursing graduates secure following completion of the program. Finally, online programs should provide personal online learning support services, including advisors who guide students through their educational experience—from admission to graduation.

  • Clinical Rotations

    For students on a clinical educational track, clinical proficiency is a central focus of an online RN to MSN program. Designed to improve the nurse’s assessment, diagnosis, and intervention skills, clinical practicums allow students to translate their evidence-based instruction into practice across a variety of healthcare settings. It is important to note that not all online programs will be able to arrange clinical placements in all geographic locations. Students should confirm that their chosen practicum site can accommodate a clinical placement before enrolling.

  • Faculty Experience

    An experienced faculty is the driving force behind a successful RN to MSN degree program. The best programs boast a robust combination of faculty members across a variety of nursing specialties, roles, and areas of practice.

  • DNP Preparation

    For some RN to MSN students who wish to continue their studies at the doctoral level, the MSN is not a terminal degree. Such students must first ensure that the MSN and its associated educational tracks are recognized by the Doctor of Nursing Practice programs to which the student may wish to apply.

Interview with an Online RN to MSN Student

Stephanie R. graduated in 2008 with an associate degree in nursing, and has worked as a pediatric nurse for the past seven years. Recently, she realized that her greatest desire was to work in primary care as a Family Nurse Practitioner, so she enrolled in an online RN to MSN program. Currently in her second year, Stephanie shared her thoughts on her educational experience, the challenges of juggling multiple responsibilities, and why she is pursuing a career in family health.

Q&A with Stephanie R.

Why did you choose your program?

I chose my online MSN program for a variety of reasons: degrees offered, school reputation, location, and cost. Before beginning my master’s program, I knew I wanted to be a Family Nurse Practitioner, so it was important that my university offered this option. Also, I wanted to stay close to home for the support of my parents and family while attending school. Lastly, my local university offered a competitive program for an affordable price. My selection has turned out to be a great choice. I’ve been very happy with my education and clinical preparation, and the support from my faculty.

What has the MSN coursework been like?

As a fulltime student, I spend a minimum 40 hours per week on school-related work, including assignment completion, study time, and clinical rotations.

Could you describe your clinical rotations?

I have had wonderful experiences in my clinical rotations. In my program, rotations begin during the second term, and continue until graduation. The student is expected to contact and contract with individual nurse practitioners throughout the community each semester. The number of required hours per semester is 240, which equates to approximately two to three days per week. The program total is 780 hours. The first semester consisted mainly of “shadowing” the preceptor, but as I became more confident, I eventually assumed the role of nurse practitioner (e.g. I would complete the exam, assessment, plan, and documentation under my preceptor’s supervision).

What’s been the biggest challenge of the program to date?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced is finding balance in my life. In addition to being a wife and mother of two small children, I work part-time and go to school full-time. Each one of these factors is very demanding and deserving of my full attention. So, like many of my classmates in similar positions, I’ve had to create a schedule and routine that maximizes my time and energy, all the while reminding myself that graduation is not far out of reach.

What are your post-graduation career goals?

I plan to work as a primary care provider in a family practice setting, and I hope to care for patients of all ages and backgrounds.

What advice do you have for prospective online RN to MSN students?

If a student is interested in a more autonomous role than that of a registered nurse, I strongly recommend pursuing a graduate degree. Graduate-level education will increase the student’s clinical competence and confidence. If the student is committed to their education, their preparation will result in high-quality, effective healthcare delivery, fulfilling a great need within their community. Lastly, there are countless opportunities in primary care and specialty fields, and with recent healthcare changes and an ageing population, there’s a great need for more providers.