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What is an MSN Degree?

A nurse smiles and explains to another nurse what is an MSN degree

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

MSN stands for Master of Science in Nursing. This is a graduate degree that provides nurses the opportunity to further specialize in their chosen area of healthcare. The degree can also lead to a new specialization for nurses who are interested in taking their careers in a different direction.

A graduate degree in nursing can lead to a higher salary, more career options and potential for leadership across all areas of specialty.

Dr. Esther Johnstone, clinical faculty of graduate nursing at SNHU, with the text Dr. Esther JohnstoneIt’s important to remember that “an MSN is an academic degree and not a role,” said Dr. Esther Johnstone, DNP, MSN, RN, CNOR, clinical faculty of graduate nursing at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Johnstone is part of SNHU's nursing leadership team and holds a certificate in perioperative nursing. She's an experienced nurse educator as well as a peer reviewer for multiple nursing journals. 

A registered nurse (RN) in any specialty who has already earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) may choose to further their career by earning an MSN. 

The advanced degree allows nurses to “prepare for practice in an advanced nursing practice specialty,” said Johnstone. “Examples of advanced nursing specialties include administration and practice leadership, direct patient care, nurse educator roles, health policy consultants and much more.” 

How Many Years is an MSN Degree?

Generally speaking, it takes about two years to earn an MSN degree. This can vary based on student and program. Most MSN students are already working as nurses in their chosen field when they start their graduate degrees. Taking on master’s level studies on top of an active nursing career can be a large time commitment, especially considering that working professionals likely have families and other personal commitments to juggle as well. 

Dr. Emily Bombard with the text Dr. Emily BombardBecause of the time commitment needed to earn the degree, having an online option to complete coursework can be a gift. By studying online, “students can adjust their academic time to accommodate their needs at home and work,” said Dr. Emily Bombard, DNP, RN, CNL, CNE, clinical faculty of graduate nursing at SNHU. Also part of SNHU's nursing leadership team, Bombard holds certifications as a Clinical Nurse Leader and Certified Nurse Educator. Her clinical background is in acute care lactation consulting, maternal newborn care and labor and delivery.

While the bulk of MSN coursework is conducted online, students will still gain clinical experience, according to Bombard. She said students can choose a clinical location near where they live to complete the degree's clinical requirements.

Is There Any Way to Speed That Up?

Licensed registered nurses who want to advance their knowledge and career opportunities can streamline their education through RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN pathway, said Bombard.

At SNHU, students engaged in the RN-to-MSN pathway could see their programs shortened by six to nine credits, allowing registered nurses to transition seamlessly from a BSN degree to an MSN degree. The HEaRT Challenge, a real world training for healthcare professionals, also offers students the ability to earn additional courses or badges toward this pathway.

An accelerated master’s is another way to speed up the process of becoming an MSN. These programs are for students with non-nursing bachelor's degrees. Through the program, they become eligible to sit for the NCLEX to become an RN and continue through the program to earn an MSN.

How Does Studying Nursing Online Work?

Online education is every bit as rigorous as studying in the traditional classroom. The programs are often accelerated and faster-paced. This may allow you to meet your goals faster. Of course, learning in any format requires strong time management skills coupled with motivation and organization. Luckily, nurses are pros at this. 

And yes, even programs with practical components such as nursing can be completed online. In fact, earning a nursing degree online makes the most sense, according to Johnstone. “For those who are working full time, have families or other responsibilities, or perhaps all of the above, online programs offer great flexibility," she said.

On top of that flexibility, SNHU's online nursing degrees utilize simulation technology for hands-on practice in the field.

In addition to coursework for online classes, some programs also include clinical practice experience with a mentor or preceptor in an area local to you. A capstone or research project on the healthcare setting of your choice may also enhance your course of study. These components provide experiential learning that combines hands-on learning with practical skills you will use in your career. 

If you're considering an MSN or any nursing degree, be sure to look for an accredited school. For example, all of SNHU's nursing programs are fully accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). SNHU's nursing programs are also aligned with the guidelines and competencies of the CCNE and American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

What Can You Do with an MSN Degree?

Perhaps one of the best parts of the nursing profession is that you can take your career in so many different directions. By earning an MSN, you may be able to move into a variety of leadership or specialty roles.

Those specialty roles are many. “A master’s prepared nurse can become a nurse practitioner, nurse educator, clinical leader, executive leader, informaticist, safety and quality specialist, population health professional or practice in a number of other specialties,” said Bombard. “That is the beauty of our profession. The options seem nearly endless.”

An MSN can also set you apart in the field. It is estimated that 70% of registered nurses in the U.S. hold a bachelor's degree or higher, according to a survey from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the National Nursing Workforce Centers. 

Find Your Program

What is the Career Outlook for Someone with an MSN?

Dr. Crissy Hunter with the text Dr. Crissy HunterYou may have heard that there is a national nursing shortage. A rapidly aging population, high turnover and lack of potential educators qualified to train new nurses are major factors contributing to the nursing shortfall, according to an article by Dr. Crissy Hunter, another member of SNHU's graduate nursing faculty.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) shows an anticipated growth of 6% for the nursing professions overall through 2032.* The median annual salary for registered nurses as of 2022 was $81,220, according to BLS.*

If you choose to further specialize, you might consider a nurse practitioner pathing. The employment outlook for nurse practitioners is set to grow by an astounding 38% over the next 10 years, according to BLS, and their median salary was $125,900 in 2022.*

Earning an MSN Nurse Practitioner degree or another type of MSN can make a real impact on lifetime earnings. Predicted job growth coupled with the tremendous need for nursing care in just about every aspect of health care leads to a career field with a multitude of possibilities, according to Johnstone. 

Just a few areas of specialization for nurses with an MSN degree include:

  • Mental health: In this role, you might plan or provide medical care to people who have a wide range of mental health issues. You may specialize in working with patients who suffer from personality or eating disorders as well as anxiety and depression. “Personally, I have seen an increased need for mental health nurse practitioners,” Johnstone said.

  • Nurse educator: As a nurse educator, your career could take you in a variety of different directions. You may work with nursing staff at a practice or hospital to provide training toward them maintaining competencies and advancing their own nursing practice. You might provide or facilitate continuing education opportunities for the nursing staff. You may also design, evaluate, and deliver new and ongoing nursing curriculum. If this career path interests you, discover how to become a nurse educator

  • Nurse midwife: In this role, you may provide care to women at all stages of pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum care. You may assist with family planning, wellness care, sexual health and reproduction issues. You may also deliver babies, which could include managing emergency situations during childbirth and assisting surgeons during cesarean births. And, you may serve as a primary care provider for women, offering wellness education on topics such as nutrition and disease prevention. 

  • Nurse practitioner: As a nurse practitioner, you may serve as a primary caregiver or specialty caregiver to patients with a variety of health concerns. Patient assessment and discussion with patients about their health and wellness may be part of this role. There are a number of sub-specialties within the field, so you may focus on adult and geriatric health, pediatric health or mental health, to name a few specialty options. If this career path interests you, discover how to become a nurse practitioner

Cheryl Marcotte with the text Cheryl MarcotteWhen Cheryl Marcotte '23G earned her MSN in Nursing Education from SNHU, she said she found her calling.

"I have been privileged to learn from amazing professors who really cared about me, encouraging and mentoring me," she said. "I learned that I could do more and be more."

Marcotte was offered a full-time academic position by the time she graduated and said her MSN degree changed her life. "I am blessed to be able to provide for my family and be a role model for my son," she said. "When your four-year-old tells you he is proud of you, nothing can compare to that."

Is Earning an MSN the Same as Becoming a Nurse Practitioner?

While “a nurse practitioner may have an MSN, not all nurses with MSNs are nurse practitioners,” said Bombard. A graduate degree is often required to work in an advanced specialty as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

Those specialties may include: 

  • Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Certified Nurse Mid-Wife (CNM)
  • Certified Nurse Practitioner (NP)

How Can You Be Successful in an MSN Program?

“Nursing is described as both an art and a science,” Bombard said. As such, nurses who are good at math and science coupled with a healthy dose of empathy are going to do very well in this field. “Successful nurses are excellent problem-solvers, critical thinkers and career-long learners,” said Bombard.

The ability to be patient-centered and willing to educate patients requires “the art of listening, as well as flexibility, communication and collaboration,” said Johnstone. 

What’s the Big Picture?

Above all, Johnstone said earning a nursing degree online just makes sense. “Nurses who earn an MSN have opportunities available to them that they wouldn’t have otherwise," she said.

A blue infographic piece with the text Some speciality nursing roles include: clinicial leader, executive leader, nurse educator, nurse practitioner, population health professional, safety and quality specialist

An MSN in any specialty leads to opportunities:

  • Conducting research
  • Implementing evidence-based practice to improve patient outcomes
  • Leading health care organizations
  • Providing direct patient care
  • Teaching in the classroom and online

Each of these opportunities allows nurses to combine their scientific knowledge and expertise with empathy and compassion. Throw in a lot of hard work and the ability to communicate with people who are often sick or in pain, and one might think nurses should receive superhero capes at graduation.

Such a strong set of skills and demand for nursing expertise across all specialties makes nursing essentially future-proof. At the end of the day, nursing is really all about the patient. Improving patient outcomes helps everyone, in so many different ways. An MSN in nursing is an added tool for nurses to advance their careers and help people everywhere.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online MSN program that can best help you meet your goals. 

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Marie Morganelli, PhD, is an educator, writer and editor.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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