A master’s degree in nursing (MSN) provides nurses an opportunity to go into advanced practices. Because of the variety of career options available after graduation, it is critical for prospective students to identify their goals before enrolling. Find out more about available MSN degrees, who may be a good fit for an MSN program and get expert advice on what to consider when applying to schools.
Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN, is the author of “How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School)” and a continuing education writer for ADVANCE for Nurses. He also lectures on career decisions and corporate wellness and works full-time as a nurse anesthetist.
Selecting the right master’s in nursing program depends on one’s previous experience as much as it does on their goals and time available to dedicate to their degree. Whether coming in with a baccalaureate nursing background or transferring into the field from another discipline, students can find a program that fits by assessing their individual needs and future goals.
Students who have already completed undergraduate degrees outside of nursing typically choose this degree, which reviews foundational concepts before moving into advanced topics. Also known as an accelerated degree path, this program brings non-nursing students up to speed quickly. Students take the NCLEX-RN exam after the first year and spend the remainder of the program covering graduate-level topics.
Students with an associate-level nursing degree frequently opt for this program, which uses the first year to review coursework absent from a two-year program. It’s a great choice for working nurses, as many degrees are available online in addition to traditional classroom-based programs.
Nurses with a baccalaureate degree follow this path, which uses undergraduate coursework as a foundation for advanced learning. Most students graduate with an MSN, although some universities offer them as Master of Nursing (MN) or Master of Science (MS) in Nursing degrees.
Nurses seeking to advance their educations while concentrating on a specific area frequently complete a dual MSN program, allowing them to pair nursing coursework with another related topic, such as public health, business, health administration, or public administration.
“Many universities offer a generic MSN, but unlike an MBA, there are few benefits to gaining an MSN unless one has a specific goal in mind. ADN, BSN and MSN nurses still have to do menial tasks if they work on the floor or unit, even if a hospital provides salary differential.” – Nick Angelis, author of “How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School)”
The decision to get a master’s degree in nursing is not always clear-cut, especially when considering finances and time commitments. The majority of programs take between 18 months and three years of full-time study. Students who want to complete their degree while working will need more time. Deciding to continue education is a big step, and prospective students should be absolutely sure about their choice before enrolling in a program. Here are some ways an MSN degree benefits nurses:Ability to Specialize
MSN students take their learning to the next level by concentrating on specific topics, such as oncology, mental health, pediatrics, gerontology, or orthopedics. The ability to specialize affords graduates flexibility with their work environments, type of work, and hours.Autonomy in Care
MSN graduates reap the rewards of their education status. Some states allow nurse practitioners to practice outside the supervision of a physician and prescribe medication.Ability to Teach
For nurses who aspire to be in the classroom, acquiring a graduate-level nursing degree is the golden ticket. As the demand for nurses continues to grow, so does the need for qualified nursing faculty. The data supports this statement: in the 2014-15 academic year, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported that 68,938 qualified nursing applicants were turned down due to a shortage of faculty and resources.Career Advancement
Nurses with an MSN have access to myriad opportunities to grow their career, including managerial and leadership positions in a variety of healthcare settings. Registered nurses hit a ceiling within their careers after a few years on the job, while MSNs can continue climbing the professional ladder.More Flexibility
A postgraduate degree may help nurses normalize their schedules. Depending on the employer, seniority and education level may both factor in when nurses make their shift requests. Because nurses with advanced degrees generally earn more money, they may also find they are able to afford to work fewer shifts, allowing more time for friends, family and outside activities.
Even after completing a master’s degree in nursing, some individuals may wish to concentrate further, building advanced clinical or managerial skills. Post-graduate certificates are popular options because they allow nurses to specialize in areas not covered in an MSN. The majority of these nursing certificates can be completed in a year or less, and are often online, allowing nursing professionals to keep working. Some of the specialized careers available for certified MSNs include:
With a focus on data collection and analysis, these professionals supply healthcare information to doctors and nurses to help them make informed decisions about patient care. They may also provide training for professional development initiatives to ensure nurses know about the latest new research or updated applications.
To become a nurse anesthetist, individuals must have two years of nursing experience before completing an MSN degree concentrated in nurse anesthesia studies. Once they have successfully completed their MSN, they must pass the certification to be able to practice. Practitioners administer anesthesia to patients undergoing invasive surgeries and often provide care in the operating room. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nurse anesthetists earn an average of $160,250.
Nurses who want to focus on treating patients with diabetes have two options for certification: Board Certified-Advanced Diabetes Management (BC-ADM) and/or Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE). The BC-ADM is for those wishing to help patients manage their disease, including administering and monitoring medication, addressing psychosocial issues and counseling patients on their lifestyle choices. CDEs also focus on the care of patients but may do so in an indirect capacity. The average annual pay for legal nurse consultants is $73,000.
Whether working with individual doctors or facilities, nurse consultants provide expert knowledge on a variety of common nursing topics. This includes managerial practices, legal issues, specific health conditions, or community health initiatives.
MSN holders with an education specialization are qualified to teach nursing in community colleges, universities and teaching hospitals. Larger healthcare centers may also employ nurse educators to train nursing interns or new employees. The median salary is $77,000.
Serving as a manager to nursing teams or specific facilities, nurse administrators handle organizational tasks such as hiring, training, scheduling, and professional development. This position, which offers an average pay of $90,000, typically allows those in the role to maintain a set schedule.
After completing an MSN degree, individuals hoping to work in this role must complete specialized training in clinical nursing via a certification process. Once completed, they work directly with patients in clinical or hospital settings to diagnose and treat serious health conditions. The average salary for this demanding role is $67,000 per year.
Nurses in these roles focus their talents in analysis, data collection and research to create reports on a variety of health issues and hospital services. They may work within a healthcare facility or as independent consultants, depending on career goals. Given the needed specialized knowledge, the average salary for research nurses is $90,00 per year. The BLS predicts the job will grow by up to 26 percent between 2012 and 2022.
Nurses who work in neonatal units must have advanced knowledge in pediatrics to provide care to premature infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). Neonatal nurses earn an average of $65,000 per year, with the field projected to grow by 16 percent in the coming years.
These nurses work with patients throughout their entire lifespan, handling common aches and illnesses at all stages of life. Located in a clinical setting, practitioners work directly with patients to provide examinations, diagnoses, and prescribe treatments. Annual pay averages $94,407.
A master’s degree in nursing is a great option for people passionate about their work and who want to provide a higher level of care to patients. This applies to both those working in the field and those who desire a career change. While all prospective MSN candidates have to consider costs and time commitments, those changing careers have to consider physical stamina and their desired work schedule. Some of the characteristics of a good candidate for an MSN include:
An MSN degree can advance individuals into leadership positions. The skills and knowledge gained during the time in school lends itself to management positions, whether it is managing staff or leading research projects.Excellent study skills
Similar to nursing school, MSN students take in massive amounts of information throughout their program. Upon completion, graduates are leaders in the nursing specialization they choose. This makes it imperative that they be organized and disciplined prior to enrolling in a program.Communication skills
MSN candidates must communicate with their professors and peers while in school before translating these skills to a healthcare setting. Whether interacting with doctors, patients, fellow nurses or other stakeholders, individuals in advanced nursing roles must be active listeners and excellent communicators.Inquisitive
The best students and professionals are those who never stop learning. This is especially true for nursing, where new research and findings are constantly emerging and redefining best practices for care. Students with a lifelong passion for taking in new information will thrive in an MSN program and in their future careers.Good time management skills
Managing time appropriately will serve individuals well, both as MSN students and in their career roles. Students must do significant amounts of reading, participate in discussions and complete clinical hours – sometimes while holding a job. Being able to prioritize responsibilities and manage time is a crucial component to success.Ethical
Because nurses are charged with caring for patients at their most vulnerable, nurses must have a high ethical calling and an understanding of human dignity. The best MSN candidates respect autonomy and show a great awareness of collaborative care.Healthy response to stress
More than 60 percent of nurses reported dealing with physical or mental health issues brought on by work-related stress in the last year. Because nurses are constantly put in stressful situations, developing a healthy response is imperative to avoiding burnout and staying well.Emotionally stable
Working with vulnerable individuals can be an emotional experience, and spending extended time caring for those in pain or struggling can be mentally exhausting. MSN candidates must be able to compartmentalize their work and remain emotionally healthy to provide the best care.
Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN author of "How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School)," gives prospective students some tips and things to think about when considering a master’s degree in nursing.
Research interesting specialties in the nursing field to discover which areas require additional education or pay substantially more with an MSN.
Don't follow the crowd: niche markets may be more profitable and less competitive. Avoid taking unnecessary classes and instead focus on concentrated topics.
Some employers offer a tuition reimbursement program, which is a great way to gain an advanced degree.
Because clinical MSN programs can resemble three years of boot camp, make life easy: programs in town will save money and provide more social support than moving away for "the best program ever."
If former graduates hesitate to encourage you to enroll, stay away.
CRNAs lack utility outside of surgeries and procedures but salaries are stagnating. NP salaries are increasing, but experiences vary widely and some salaried positions may not pay well considering the dictation and work hours required. CNS degrees are becoming less common and less useful clinically, although are better for research than a generic MSN (which is useful for management).
Acquiring an MSN but keeping the same BSN job is not worth the cost of education.
If your GPA is between 3.0-3.5 and you want an MSN, make sure to acquire excellent clinical experiences to increase your chances of acceptance.
Students who are able to secure funding in the form of scholarships or grants have the potential to offset their debt. While the average salary of and advanced nurse practitioner – set at $101,260 as of May 2015 according to the BLS – will help pay off any necessary loans, finding funding that doesn’t need to be paid back should always be the first step. The scholarships listed below pertain directly to MSN programs.
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