Skip to content

Online Master’s in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Programs

Nurse administrators, nurse executives, and nurse leaders are registered nurses who occupy management positions in healthcare organizations. Nurses who hold these leadership roles are responsible for orchestrating the activities of other nursing and health professionals engaged in the day-to-day care of patients, and for overseeing the operations of nursing departments. In addition, they must rely on knowledge in the areas of healthcare economics, emerging healthcare technologies, human resources management, and the laws and regulations pertaining to patient care. Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership are designed to help registered nurses (RNs) gain the knowledge and experience to advance into leadership positions. These programs also help to prepare aspiring nurse leaders for the various Nurse Executive, Nurse Manager, and Nurse Leader certifications offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE).

What are Nurse Administrators and Nurse Executives?

Nurse administrators and nurse executives are RNs whose primary responsibilities are managerial rather than clinical. The nursing profession, like much of the healthcare system, is hierarchical and depends on clear lines of accountability for the safety and welfare of patients and their families. It is a system in which treatment outcomes depend on rigorous record keeping, formal communications protocols, and proper deployment of human, material, and financial resources. Nurse administrators and executives are responsible for managing these aspects of healthcare at every level of the profession, from working as shift supervisors and running small nursing units to overseeing larger nursing departments and directing the nursing operations of entire medical centers.

The array of titles in the nurse management hierarchy reflects the range of leadership roles occupied by nurse administrators and executives. They include Chief Nursing Officer, Director of Nursing Operations, and Director of Patient Care Services at the top; House Supervisor, Nurse Manager, and Unit Manager at the mid-level; and Head Nurse, Charge Nurse, and Shift Manager further down the line. Depending on the type of organization, these titles may vary and may align with different responsibilities, including personnel management, budgeting and fiscal management, safety and training protocols, and regulatory compliance. Nurses in administrative positions are also typically concerned with building morale, fostering teamwork, and motivating staff members.

Online Master of Science in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Programs

Training for nurse administrators and nurse executives is offered in MSN programs that focus on knowledge and skills in the areas of personnel management, fiscal management, organizational leadership, and healthcare law and policy. These programs may include some training in advanced practice nursing proficiencies, as well as in subjects like bioinformatics, healthcare research methods, and nursing education. But the primary goal of master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs is to prepare nurses for management positions. While it is possible for RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to be tapped for nurse administrator jobs, a master’s in nursing administration is generally required for advancement in the profession and for most mid- and top-level nurse administrator and nurse executive positions.

Online master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs offer all or most of their coursework through distance learning platforms. It is, however, important to note that most online MSN programs incorporate a supervised clinical component that must be completed at a site approved by the program. Students in online MSN programs are typically given the opportunity to find convenient sites for supervised clinical hours, however, some programs do match students to clinical placement sites. Therefore, some students may have to travel to an approved location if a local site cannot be found.

Supervised clinical hours and/or practicums are not always required in a master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership program. However, most programs do include a practicum, and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) does state that, “All graduates of a master’s nursing program must have supervised clinical experiences.” Ultimately, it is up to each state to approve master’s in nursing programs, and to set standards for curricula and supervised clinical hours. As a result, it is common for master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs to require some number of supervised clinical hours.

Identifying Master’s in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Programs

There is no standard naming convention for master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs. These programs may be designated as nursing administration, nursing leadership, and/or nursing management programs. Some of the more common titles for these programs include the following:

  • MSN Executive Nurse Leader
  • MSN in Healthcare Leadership
  • MSN in Health Systems Management
  • MSN in Nursing Leadership
  • MSN in Nursing Administration
  • MSN in Nursing Administration Management
  • MSN in Nursing Administration and Leadership

How Categorizes Online Master’s in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Programs examines curricula, instructional methods, and other facets of online MSN programs, and through this independent research classifies and categorizes each program. Online master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs must include foundational MSN coursework in subjects like theories of nursing, the ethical practice of nursing, and evidence-based research methods. They must also target subject areas integral to healthcare administration: leadership theories and organizational science; public health policy; quality control and risk reduction in nursing; and healthcare economics. In addition, takes into account any campus visits that are required as part of an online MSN program. These campus-based sessions may be referred to as immersions or intensives, and they are part of the instructional curriculum. Currently, programs that require more than three campus visits per year are not included on the site.

What Students Learn in Online Master’s in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Programs

There are two key areas of curricular focus in an online master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership program. One encompasses the application of general theories and principles of organizational management to the nursing profession. The other centers on knowledge specific to how the healthcare industry functions, including how medical ethics, state and federal laws, and information technologies impact the practice of nursing. Because nurse administrators and executives may also be involved in evaluating research and coordinating training programs, the curriculum often includes some coursework in healthcare research and/or nursing education. Some programs may also include additional training in general clinical practice areas like advanced pharmacology and/or pathophysiology.

Common Courses in Online Master’s in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Programs

The following chart details some of the courses that are typically found in online master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs:

Course TitleCourse Description
Healthcare InformaticsAn overview of the information technology systems, including electronic health records, used in nursing to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare delivery.
Healthcare Economics and Policy for Nursing AdministrationAn examination of the financial and budgeting concerns in nursing, including, cost-benefit analyses, resource allocation, and policies related to healthcare administration.
Leadership and Management in HealthcareAn introduction to organizational leadership, employee management, and operational assessment strategies in the healthcare industry.
Healthcare Quality and Safety ManagementProgram planning and assessment for risk reduction and the improvement of patient outcomes in healthcare systems.
Healing Environments and the Practice of NursingEvidence-based approaches for integrating and allocating human and material resources in the delivery of patient care.
Communication and Self-Awareness for Leading and Managing in HealthcareThe application of organizational communication skills and management science in healthcare environments.
Strategic Management: Power, Politics, and Influence in Healthcare Systems An examination of the role and responsibilities nurse administrators and nurse executives have in shaping healthcare policy and improving healthcare systems.

Pathways to Earning a Master of Science in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership

Master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs have various pathways to earning an MSN degree, some or all of which may be offered by a particular program. Depending on an individual’s prior level educational attainment and educational needs, an MSN program may or may not offer a suitable pathway. This is an important consideration for anyone considering a master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership. The majority of programs require students to hold an active RN license in their state of residence. The various pathways are as follow:

  • BSN-to-MSN: Most MSN programs accept students who have earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited nursing school. This is generally the most direct pathway to earning a master’s degree in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership, as applicants who have completed a BSN program usually have fulfilled all of the introductory coursework and general education requirements necessary to begin an MSN program.
  • RN-to-MSN: Some programs have a pathway for RNs who earned an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a hospital-based nursing diploma. RN-to-MSN programs take longer than BSN-to-MSN programs as they often require the completion of general education and nursing concentration courses that are typically part of a BSN program.
  • BA/BS-to-MSN: RNs who have an undergraduate degree in a discipline other than nursing, and thus have not completed all BSN program requirements, may be eligible to apply to some MSN programs. RNs with a non-nursing bachelors often do not have to enroll in general education courses, however, some programs require the completion of undergraduate-level nursing courses – sometimes referred to as bridge courses – in addition to the master’s curriculum in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership.
  • Post-Master’s Certificate: Some master’s in nursing administration and nurse executive leadership programs offer a pathway for RNs who have already completed an MSN program in another area of specialization. These post-master’s certificate programs typically credit students for the general MSN coursework they have already completed and offer a curriculum that only includes courses specific to the nursing administration and nurse executive leadership specialization.

Admissions to Online Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Master’s Programs

In addition to the various pathways that determine whether or not a prospective applicant has the right educational background for a particular program, there are other admissions criteria that vary by school and are important to consider. All online MSN programs require applicants to hold a valid RN license. Some of the other factors MSN programs may take into account during the application process include the following:

  • An applicant’s undergraduate GPA
  • Completion of undergraduate prerequisites, including an introduction to healthcare and a statistics course
  • Letters of recommendation
  • GRE scores, or scores from another standardized test
  • Prior job experience as an RN

Online Master’s in Nursing Administration and Nurse Executive Leadership Program Format Options

Prospective applicants to MSN programs should also be aware of several key structural differences that may help determine whether a program is a good choice or not. Variations in online instructional methods can be an important consideration for students who have significant commitments outside of school. Whether or not the program is offered full-time, part-time, or offers students a choice between the two options can impact the time to completion and the number of courses required per semester or term. Prospective students should also take note of any mandatory campus visits that are part of a program, as these may add to the cost of an MSN program.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: Online MSN programs use distance-learning platforms to deliver course lectures and other materials. However, there are two different modes of online instruction. Synchronous instruction simulates the classroom experience by requiring students to be present at designated times for lectures and discussions, and typically requires students to have a webcam. Thus, synchronous instruction is generally considered to be more structured and less flexible than the alternative, which is asynchronous instruction. For students who would prefer to view lectures at their own convenience, asynchronous instruction is often preferable. With asynchronous instruction, recorded presentations and other course materials are accessible 24-7 through an online learning platform. However, asynchronous instruction does require a certain amount of self-motivation, as students must be able to properly pace themselves in order to complete assignments and other coursework on time.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Enrollment: Online MSN programs are typically designed to accommodate working professionals who are aiming to further their careers. Many of these programs offer the option of part-time enrollment. This allows students to enroll in fewer courses per term. These programs may put a limit on the number of years a student can take to complete the degree (often, five to seven years in the limit). Other online programs are offered full-time, which allows students to finish the program sooner, but requires them to typically take two to three courses per term. The chart below offers an overview of the time to completion for students in part-time and full-time MSN programs:

BSN-MSN20-24 months2-plus years
RN-MSN30-36 months3-plus years
BA/BS-MSN ~24 months2-plus years
Post-master’s certificate8-12 months1-plus years

Campus Visits and Supervised Clinical Hours: Many online MSN programs include a practicum or preceptorship that involves completing a certain number of supervised clinical hours. Students are typically able to choose a convenient site at which to complete these requirements, assuming that acceptable local site can be found. Some programs match students to sites. In either situation, if a local site cannot be found, students may have to travel outside their local area to complete these clinical hours. In additional, some program may require students to attend campus-based sessions. These on-campus immersions or intensives typically last for a week or less and include opportunities for networking, in-person instruction, and hands-on training. Students who cannot or would prefer not to attend on-campus programming should look for MSN programs that do not require any campus visits. does not include any MSN programs that require more than three campus visits per year.