Question: What Can You Do With a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree?

Answer: Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs provide Registered Nurses (RNs) with opportunities for career advancement in various nursing specializations through advanced training in clinical, administrative, and educational areas of nursing. Eligible RNs can choose from MSN degree programs in four Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations: Nurse Practitioner (NP), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), and Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM). There are also MSN programs in nursing administration and education, and MSN programs that prepare students to become Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNLs).

What Is an MSN Degree?

MSN is short for Master of Science in Nursing, the formal designation for practice-based, graduate-level nursing degree programs that provide specialized advanced clinical and administrative training and instruction to eligible Registered Nurses (RNs). In many areas of nursing practice, an MSN degree is required for professional certification, state licensure, and job placements. In other areas of the nursing profession – nursing administration, for example – an MSN degree may not be an absolute requirement, but RNs who hold an MSN degree typically have more opportunities for professional advancement than RNs who do not.

There are MSN programs available in a range of specializations, including the four Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations:

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

There are also MSN programs for specific areas of NP practice, which include:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care NP
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care NP
  • Emergency NP
  • Family NP
  • Neonatal NP
  • Oncology NP
  • Orthopedic NP
  • Pediatric Acute Care NP
  • Pediatric Primary Care NP
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health NP
  • Women’s Health Care NP

And there are MSN programs that offer training in indirect care specializations, which include:

  • Nurse Administrator/Nurse Executive Leadership
  • Nurse Educator
  • Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)
  • Informatics
  • Health Systems Management (HSM)
  • Patient Safety and Healthcare Quality

The MSN Curriculum

While MSN program requirements vary by specialization, there is a core MSN curriculum that covers master’s-level coursework and training in areas outlined by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing. These areas include organization and systems leadership; healthcare informatics; quality improvement and safety; healthcare research; and evidence-based practice. The core curriculum also includes clinical training in advanced physiology, pharmacology, and patient assessment. Most accredited MSN programs integrate a certain number of professional training hours in the program’s area of specialization. In is not uncommon for MSN programs to require a minimum of 400-500 hours of clinical hours training.

MSN Pathways

There are pathways to earning an MSN degree for RNs with an associates degree in nursing (ADN) or a hospital based nursing diploma; RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN); and RNs who have bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. There are also direct-entry MSN programs that accept applicants who are not licensed RNs, but who do hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. The time to completion for these programs varies by specialization and by pathway, but licensed RNs who have taken all of their BSN requirements and who enroll full-time in an MSN program can graduate in two years.

Post-MSN Certification and Licensure

Graduates from MSN programs are generally eligible for professional certification and/or state licensure in their area of specialization, which is a requirement for APRNs, depending on the state and the area of specialization. For example, NPs must gain certification prior to state licensure in most states. Nurse administrators and nurse educators may opt for one of several professional certifications that are required by many employers for mid- and upper-level positions, but there are no state licensure requirements. Similarly, CNLs are not licensed by states, but working as a CNL is contingent upon completing an MSN in CNL degree program and passing the CNL certification exam administered by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Careers for Nurses with an MSN Degree

Nurses who hold an MSN degree and who meet the professional certification and licensure requirements in their field of practice are well positioned to advance in their careers. The career paths and opportunities open to graduates are dependent upon the program’s area of specialization. Graduates from an MSN program with a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) concentration can become practicing FNPs. The same is true for graduates from other NP specialization programs.

Graduates from an MSN in Nurse Executive Leadership program may be eligible for managerial and administrative positions in hospitals, clinics, residential care units, and other healthcare facilities. Graduates from an MSN program for nurse educators are generally considered qualified for clinical teaching and training roles in hospitals, nursing schools, and continuing education programs. And, graduates from CNL programs can apply for certification and begin work as CNLs after passing the CNL certification exam.

Some of the common career options available to graduates from various MSN degree programs are detailed in the table below:

MSN Degree Specialization
Nurse Practitioner (NP)Working in hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, private practices, nursing homes, schools, and public health departments as an NP in an area of specialization, such as family practice, adult acute care, neonatal care, or women’s health.
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)Working in hospitals, clinics, and emergency rooms providing acute care as a CNS.
Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)Working in what the AACN terms clinical microsystems, providing direct patient care while helping to direct and coordinate the delivery of health services by small teams of nurses and other healthcare professionals.
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)Working directly with women during and after pregnancy to avoid complications and address various health-related issues, and also working with women throughout their lifespan to provide wellness care.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)Working at hospitals and clinics and other medical facilities as part of surgical teams, administering anesthesia to patients, and providing post-operative care.
Certified Nurse EducatorProviding clinical training and instruction to nursing students and to practicing nurses in need of continuing education at schools of nursing, in hospital-based nursing programs, and in other clinical settings where nursing education takes place, and designing and assessing nurse training program curricula.
Nurse AdministratorManaging, coordinating, and overseeing nursing staff and resource allocation for nursing units, nursing departments, or entire hospitals, clinics, residential care facilities, or medical organizations.

Graduates from MSN programs are eligible to pursue a terminal degree in nursing through a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program. A DNP degree can provide additional career advancement opportunities for nurses in all areas of the profession.

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