RN to MSN Guide
Are you a Registered Nurse (RN) looking to advance your career with a Master of Science in Nursing degree? It’s easier than you think! There are programs available for RN’s with ADNs or BSNs, and even non-RNs with Bachelor's degrees in another field. Find out what your options are for earning your MSN, how long it will take, what it will cost, and more in this comprehensive guide for going from RN to MSN.
What is an RN to MSN Program?
First off, let's go over what an RN-MSN is. RN-to-MSN programs are bridge programs for registered nurses that do not have bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN) degrees but want to go straight into a master's of science in nursing (MNS) program or complete their MSN and BSN at the same time. These are accelerated programs so that RNs don't have to take the time to complete their BSN and MSN programs separately. This is especially good for RNs who know they want to become advanced practice registered nurses and want to get there as quickly as possible.
Career Options for Nurses Who go from RN to MSN
Earning your MSN opens a ton of doors for nurses. Some of the options for MSN nurses include:
- Nurse Practitioner (NP)
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (though, this is changing to a Doctorate requirement in 2025)
- Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
- Nurse Administrator
- Nurse Educator
Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Nurse Practitioners (NP) can serve as a primary or specialty care providers and typically focus their care on a specific population such as families, children, or the elderly. Nurse Practitioners have more authority than Registered Nurses and in certain states, even have full-practice authority. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average nurse practitioner salary was $107,030 as of May 2018.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
CRNAs are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who administer anesthesia and other medications. They're also the highest-paid nurses, earning a median annual salary of $167,950, according to the BLS. But as noted above, in 2025 they will be required to have their doctorate degree.
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
Certified Nurse-Midwives provide health care and wellness care to women, which may include family planning, gynecological checkups, prenatal care, and helping mothers give birth. Although their approach is somewhat different, CNMs in many ways offer similar care to that of an OB/GYN doctor. CNM's earn, on average, an annual salary of $108,810.
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Clinical nurse specialists are advanced practice registered nurses who've obtained advanced degrees (a master's degree at minimum) and training in a specialized area of nursing practice. They earn an average annual wage of $106,604, as of May 2020.
Nurse Administrators are typically advanced practice registered nurses who've earned at least a master's degree. They manage and oversee the nursing staff in a healthcare facility. They earn an average salary of $115,160.
Nurse Educators are masters prepared nurses (MSN) that generally work in academia. They develop coursework curriculum, teach courses, evaluate educational programs, oversee clinical rotations, and conduct research. According to the BLS, the median annual salary as of May 2017 was $77,360 for nurse educators in post-secondary universities.
How Much Can an RN With an MSN Make?
In addition to increased career opportunities, MSN-prepared nurses also can expect a significant pay bump. U.S. News & World Report found that 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. But the exact salary will vary based on:
- The specialty
- Employment setting
- Full-time or part-time employment
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.
How to Go From RN to MSN - 3 Ways
MSNs are not one size fits all. There are actually a lot of options for nurses, and the best option for you will depend on where you’re starting out. Below are 3 ways to earn your MSN depending on your starting point.
1. How to Get Your MSN if You Have a Bachelor’s Degree in a Different Field
Known as a direct-entry Master of Science in Nursing MSN, this type of program is designed for people who are interested in getting their MSN but have a Bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing.
Basic requirements: You'll need a Bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, and potentially your GRE.
2. How to Get Your MSN if You Have an ADN or Diploma RN
If you have your Associate’s Degree in Nursing, or if you have a diploma RN, you have a couple different options. Your first is the traditional route, earning your BSN and then applying to an MSN program. But as we mentioned, there are faster options available where RNs can earn both their BSN and MSN at the same time, known as RN-to-MSN bridge programs. These typically allow RNs to earn their MSN about a year sooner than the traditional route.
Basic requirements: You'll need an RN or nursing diploma and an active nursing license.
3. How to Get Your MSN If You’re Currently Working on Your BSN
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: You'll need to either have a BSN or be currently enrolled in a BSN program as a full-time student.
Online RN-to-MSN Programs: Should You Get Your MSN Degree Online?
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.
Most online programs for RN-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.
But online programs may not be right for every student. Online programs are a popular option for nurses who are trying to go to school while working, live in areas that are not near a school that carries an MSN degree program, or just need some more flexibility because of their family/life obligations.
What You Need to Get Into a Master's Program: 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
- 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.
What to Expect in the RN-to-MSN Program
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.
But, in general, a basic, non-specialty MSN program will have around 72 credit hours, with a course load of classes that may include topics such as:
- Foundational courses
- Health concerns across the lifespan
- Clinical management
- Pharmacology & pathophysiology
- Capstone project
Choosing an RN to MSN Program
There are a variety of things to consider when choosing an rn-to-msn program -- cost, location, online vs in-person, etc. -- but the most important is accreditation.
Why is it important to choose an accredited and credentialed program?
By choosing an accredited MSN program, you'll know that it meets the current highest-quality standards for the degree. Accreditation also means that the school may offer qualifications for federal financial aid for you as a student. And it assures future employers you've received the highest quality training possible.
If you know that you want to continue onto a DNP program after your MSN degree, you absolutely 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).
Should I Get my MSN as an RN?
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
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.
Earning your MSN may be your pathway to gain valuable knowledge in your field, increase your salary, and provide valuable opportunities for career advancement.
Do nurses need to have an RN license in the state they are applying to attend an MSN program?
- 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.
Is RN to MSN a good idea?
- Earning your MSN is a big investment of time and money, but for many nurses it's well worth the effort. With the increased career and salary opportunities, a master's degree in nursing can most definitely be a good idea.
How long does it take to go from RN to MSN?
Many of the direct RN-MSN programs can 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.
What can a nurse do with an MSN?
- Some of the popular options for MSN nurses are becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Nurse Administrator and Nurse Educator.
How much does a nurse with an MSN make?
- This will depend on a number of factors including your specialty and where you work, but U.S. News & World Report found that an RN with a Master’s degree can earn about $20,000/year more than an RN.
Can you go from RN to NP?
- Yes! Through and RN-to-MSN bridge program, RNs can get their master's degree in nursing and specialize as a nurse practitioner.
What is the best MSN degree to get?
- The best MSN degree will depend on what you specifically want to do. However, some MSN specialties pay more than others, for a list of the highest paying specialties for MSN-prepared nurses, check out this article.