RN to MSN Guide

Are you a Registered Nurse (RN) looking for information about getting your Master of Science in Nursing degree? Maybe you’re a new grad looking to continue your education, a nurse who has been in the workforce and is looking for career advancement, or maybe you’re just looking for a change. No matter what your reasons are for pursuing an MSN degree, you should know that there are many benefits to furthering your skills and knowledge with the addition of a Master's degree.

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The Benefits of Getting a Master’s Degree in Nursing

Some of the leading benefits of obtaining your MSN degree after your RN include:

  • Access to advancement opportunities. Getting your MSN is the only way to have access to certain advanced specialty careers in nursing, such as becoming a Nurse Practitioner, a Nurse Anesthetist, or a Nurse-Midwife. You’ll also gain deeper knowledge in your chosen field and serve as a mid-level practitioner for your patients. 
  • Salary increase. With advanced skills and education comes a significant increase in salary. The salary range for a nurse with an MSN degree varies from as low as $60K/year for a nurse manager up to $230K/year as a chief nurse anesthetist. For floor nurses, an MSN degree may not significantly increase your paycheck, but for more advanced positions, the degree will coincide with salary increases. 
  • Tuition reimbursement of an MSN. Depending on what field you choose and what policies your current workplace offers, you may be able to receive reimbursement for getting your MSN. 
  • A step towards a more advanced degree. If you would like to pursue further education beyond your MSN, such as your Doctorate in Nursing, you will need your Master’s as one step in the process. 
  • More career opportunities. Earning your MSN opens the door for further career opportunities, such as managing, teaching, or research positions. 

What is a Master’s Degree in Nursing?

An MSN degree is a Master’s degree in Nursing and unlike an RN degree, which is a technical degree, or a Bachelor’s, which is a four-year degree, an MSN represents an advanced graduate level of education. 

Nurses with a Master’s degree often either choose to specialize as a clinical practitioner, such as a Nurse Practitioner or a Nurse Anesthetist, accept managerial and leadership roles, or move into research or academic-based roles. 

Career Outlook

Although an RN degree will allow you to work in a specialty field, obtaining your MSN may allow you to make the next step in your career

  • Work in more specialty areas 
  • Advance to more senior positions in your field 
  • Move into more managerial and/or academic and research-oriented roles. 

Although technically, a nurse with a Master’s degree could work in the same position he/she had prior to obtaining an advanced degree, many nurses do advance their careers upon graduation.  The most popular positions for nurses with Master’s degree to obtain include specializing in one of four categories, in order of most popularity: 

  • Nurse Practitioners (NP)
  • Nurse Clinical Specialist
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

Depending on the organization, obtaining your MSN may also allow you to choose more of a research-based and academic role, or a managerial role. However, you might find that a MSN will help you to place into a mid-level managerial role, and more education may be expected. For academic and research-based settings, many nurses do make the decision to go all the way to the Doctorate level. 

Salary and Pay

As U.S. News & World Report notes, on average, an RN with a Master’s degree can expect to earn about $20,000/year more than an RN with a two-year, bachelor’s, or equivalent degree.  

The exact salary will vary based on: 

  • The specialty 
  • Employment setting
  • Full-time or part-time employment

The typical salary you can expect with an MSN degree will vary widely based on the type of MSN degree you obtain, the specialty you choose, and the area you ultimately work in. If you continue working as a floor nurse on a hospital with your MSN degree, you may not notice any type of significant increases in your salary. But if you use your MSN degree for an advanced practitioner role, you can expect a higher salary.

For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the common MSN roles of Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners as having an average salary of $110,930/year or $53.33/hour. In comparison, the BLS lists Registered Nurses with Bachelor’s degrees as making an average of $70,000/ year or $33.65/hour. 

Types of Programs 

There are three different programs that RNs can utilize to achieve their MSN degree:  

  • Direct entry MSN: Meant for those interested in getting their MSN with a Bachelor’s degree in a different field.
    • Basic requirements: Applicants must possess a Bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, and a GRE may be required.
  • RN-BSN-MSN:  If you have your Associate’s Degree in Nursing, or if you have a diploma RN, you could then enter into a Bachelors program to earn your BSN. After achieving your BSN, you would then apply for and enroll in an MSN program. 
    • Basic requirements: Applicants must possess an RN or nursing diploma and active nursing license. 
  • RN/BSN-MSN: If you earned or are earning a joint RN/BSN degree, you could continue on directly from your undergraduate degree into an MSN program, or choose to work with your undergraduate degree while pursuing your MSN. 
    • Basic requirements: Applicants must either possess a BSN currently, or are enrolled in the BSN as a full-time student. 

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Online MSN Programs 

Most online programs for MSN degrees work as hybrid programs, which means most of your courses will be in an online format while the clinical portions will take place in-person. Some programs have different sites for the clinical programs and some schools even allow students to customize their clinicals for even more convenience, such as finding a local office or clinic to work in. 

What type of students thrive in online Nurse Practitioner programs? 

Online programs are a popular option for nurses who 

  • Are working already
  • Live in areas that are not near a school that carries an MSN degree program
  • Have other family and personal life obligations that require some degree of flexibility while pursuing their education

How long will it take to complete the Nurse Practitioner program online?

The length of an MSN program is typically an additional two years after obtaining your Bachelor’s degree. 

However, there are some direct RN-to-MSN programs available that will let you go directly from working as an RN or achieving your RN into working towards your MSN degree. Many of the direct RN-MSN programs can still be completed in around two years, although they may take longer for some individuals depending on the type of program and if the program is part or full-time. 

Many MSN students work part-time or full-time hours while pursuing their degree, so the degree may take additional time if you are working full-time. 

Why is it important to choose an accredited and credentialed program? 

Accreditation ensures that the program you are choosing meets the current highest-quality standards for the degree and that the school is regularly assessing and meeting accreditation standards and guidelines as well. Aside from ensuring that the program you choose is a quality program that will prepare you correctly for your specialty field, accreditation also means that the school may offer qualification for federal financial aid for you as a student.  

In some cases, it may not matter if the school you get your MSN program from is not accredited, but in others, it could matter significantly. For instance, if you know that you want to continue onto a DNP program after your MSN degree, you must graduate from an accredited MSN program. Unaccredited schools may also not be eligible for federal student aid, so if you know you will need federal aid, you’ll need to choose an accredited school. 

The two main accreditations you should look for in an MSN program are by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).  

Online MSN Program Requirements & Key Differences 

The key difference you should be aware of when choosing an online program for your MSN degree is that with an online degree, you may never actually meet any of your classmates or instructors in person, depending on the specific path you decide to take with your MSN degree.

If you choose an MSN for managerial purposes, for instance, it’s entirely possible that the degree can be done entirely online. If you choose to specialize as a Nurse Practitioner however, there will be hands-on instruction and clinical hours required in addition to your online coursework.

MSN Program Requirements 

Although the specific program requirements will vary based on the school and the extra degree you choose, the general requirements to be accepted into an MSN program include: 

  • BSN degree or an Associate’s Degree in Nursing/Nursing Diploma 
  • Bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field
  • GPA of at least 3.0
  • Completion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
  • Recommendations from colleagues or professors 
  • Statement of Purpose 
  • CV/Resume 
  • Proof of nursing license 
  • Criminal background check upon acceptance
  • Some schools may also require a certain amount of time working as an RN, such as one to two years, while others with an RN-MSN track may allow you to proceed directly into the program without any RN work experience. Some schools, for instance, allow RN or BSN students to apply for the MSN program while they are still in school. 

Much like an RN or BSN degree, the MSN degree focuses on core foundational classes before moving on to practicum courses. The specifics of the MSN degree will depend on the specialty, but as one example, the Family Nurse Practitioner program from the University of Texas at Austin lists a total of 48 education credit hours and 645 clinical courses to complete the degree. 

Do nurses need to have an RN license in the state they are applying to attend school? 

Rules will vary by state and by school, but in general, although you do need to have an active and unencumbered nursing license, it does not have to be in same state as the school you will be attending. 

Classes and Clinical Hours 

The exact classes, curriculum, and clinical hours specifications of an MSN degree will vary based on the specific type of program. When enrolling into an MSN program, students will choose the type of pathway they are interested in, whether that be a Management Track, a Public Health Track, or an Advanced Nursing Position track. 

In general, a basic, non-specialty MSN program may have around 72 credit hours, with course of classes that may include topics such as: 

  • Foundational courses
  • Biostatistics
  • Health concerns across the lifespan
  • Clinical management
  • Pharmacology & pathophysiology
  • Leadership
  • Ethics
  • Capstone project

MSN Program Cost

U.S. News lists the average cost of a MSN program anywhere from $35,000 to $60,000, depending on the type of school, school location, and the type of MSN program. A Nurse Anesthetist program may cost more, for example, than an MSN-for-management track.

How to Pay for an MSN Degree 

Deciding how to finance an advanced degree as an MSN can seem like a daunting task, and that’s ok. Luckily, there are many options to help offset or lessen the burden of the cost. Program cost shouldn’t deter you from following your career goals, the benefits will outweigh the cost.  

To assist you in learning more about your options for financing your MSN, here are the most popular financial aid and other monetary options:

  • Grants. Grants are financial aid that is granted to you for your education that you do not have to pay back. They may be based on need, availability, and merit. There are three main ways you can receive grants for a graduate degree: 
    1. Through the school you will be attending: you will have to fill out the FAFSA, which will then automatically tell you what kind of federal grants you are eligible for
    2. Through the school’s financial aid office: you can ask for assistance in applying for any additional grants you can qualify for. 
    3. Through your field: for instance, there may be MSN-specific grants or grants specifically related to your specialty field. You could check governing associations related to your field or speak with your program director for guidance on available grants.   
  • Scholarships. Check with the school you will be attending or applying at for a full list of scholarships available through the school. Many have private scholarships that are funded with different qualifications, check with the school for eligibility requirements. Try searching locally and online for graduate nursing scholarships and programs, especially in your chosen field. Scholarships range in amount, from a monetary value all the way up to full-tuition. 
  • Loans. A student loan is aid you receive to pay for your education that you are required to pay back, with interest. 

There are two types of loans, 

  1. Federal student loans are provided through the government and usually carry much more generous terms and lower interest. 
  2. Private loans are funded through a financial institution such as a bank or credit union. Most federal loans require that you be enrolled at least half-time in your degree program and allow you to borrow up to $20,500 per school year. 

How to apply for student loans, 

  1. Fill out your FAFSA - the best course of action when pursuing loans is to first fill out your FAFSA and see which federal loan options you qualify. 
  2. Search for private student loans - once you’ve determined the amount of federal loans you are eligible for then search for private student loans as needed to finance the rest of your education. 

You will need to be careful when choosing private loans, all loans are not created equal. Here is a list of items to research when choosing a private loan, 

  • Loan terms
  • Interest rates
  • Additional fees, such as origination fees, early payoff fees, and late payment penalties. 

Your school’s financial aid office will help guide you through choosing private education loans as well. 

Deferring undergraduate student loans while in school for your MSN

You could also check if you are eligible for a loan forbearance or deferment to temporarily pause payments on your loans (however, interest will continue to accrue). 

There are also some special circumstances that could change your loan repayment terms, such as if you enroll immediately in school at least half-time or if you are called to active military duty. 

Other financing options and paths to consider include:

  • Savings. One option for pursuing an MSN is to save up money before enrolling into a program to offset some of the financial costs as well as ease your burden of continuing to work while you’re in the program. 
  • Cash Payment. Paying for an MSN degree directly is an option and it may be best to set up a meeting with the financial aid office to see what type of payment plans they offer. Some schools may also offer the availability of a semester deferment in times of financial duress, so check on the school’s policy. 
  • Tuition Reimbursement. Some employers will either front the cost of an MSN program for certain employees who are pursuing education that has been designated a high need for the company or organization, or offer full or partial tuition reimbursement upon completion of the degree. Check the employer’s policies on tuition coverage and/or reimbursement. 
  • Student loan Forgiveness. MSN nurses, just like other nurses, are eligible for student loan forgiveness in certain conditions. The chances of loan forgiveness increase by working for a governmental agency, working in a qualifying area of need, or work for a National Health Service Corp. site for at least two years

Check with the Department of Education to see the full summary of what type of conditions apply for the loan forgiveness program and for details on how to apply for loan forgiveness or cancellation. 

Is an MSN Degree Right for Me? 

As an RN considering an MSN degree, the truth is, only you can answer the question if an MSN degree is right for you and beneficial for your career

Earning your MSN may be the best path for you if you are a nurse who, 

  • Has the desire to gain more knowledge and additional skill sets in a specialty field 
  • Strives to further your career with an advanced degree
  • Plans to move into a clinical specialty role, such as an NP or CNM
  • Wishes to advance into a managerial or leadership role
  • Wants to move on to an academic or research-based setting
  • Simply has the desire to gain increased knowledge with more education

Earning your MSN may be your pathway to gain valuable knowledge in your field, increase your salary, and provide valuable opportunities for career advancement

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References:

Nurse.org

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