Advanced Practice Nursing

Are RN to MSN Programs Worth It?

Are RN to MSN Programs Worth It?
Are RN to MSN programs worth it? If you're willing to put in the time and money it will take to complete this degree, your investment will pay off. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 6, 2019

If you're an RN with an ADN, you may be thinking about upgrading to a BSN. Why not go all out and aim straight for the MSN? An RN to MSN program can get you to this higher-value degree faster than it would take to earn your BSN and MSN separately.

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The nursing world offers plenty of opportunities to registered nurses (RNs) holding an associate’s degree, but top positions in the field require more. Would you like to become a nurse manager someday? You’ll need a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to be considered for the job. Likewise, there’s no way you’ll become a chief nursing officer without an MSN. Advanced specializations, like nurse anesthetist or clinical nurse specialist, also require graduate degrees.

An Associate’s Degree in Nursing qualifies you to become a floor nurse, but your career advancement will be curtailed until you earn another degree. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is one option. But you’re going to need an MSN if you want to:

  • Get off the floor and into a managerial role
  • Provide advanced treatment (e.g., diagnoses, prescriptions) to patients

Having an MSN can help you land better positions, earn more money, work in exclusive specialty areas, and make the transition to academia. If you’re already a registered nurse, you may qualify for an RN to MSN program, an expedited pathway to that valuable graduate degree. In this guide to whether RN to MSN programs are worth it, we’ll cover:

  • What is an RN to MSN program?
  • Prerequisites for nurses applying to RN to MSN programs
  • How long does it take to complete an RN to MSN program?
  • Curriculum in RN to MSN programs
  • RN to MSN concentrations
  • Post-graduation licensure requirements
  • What kind of schools offer RN to MSN programs
  • How does this degree improve career prospects and earning potential?
  • Are RN to MSN programs worth it?

What is an RN to MSN program?

RN to MSN programs typically attract working nurses who have previously earned ADNs and now seek the qualifications necessary to become a nurse practitioner or advance to educational or leadership roles in the nursing field.

Some RN to MSN programs enable registered nurses to earn both a BSN and MSN. Others allow students to bypass the BSN and simply earn an MSN. In either case, students reach the final goal—a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)—in less time than it would take them to earn a BSN and MSN separately.

There are two primary types of RN to MSN programs. They differ in both admission requirements and curriculum:

  • Bridge RN to MSN programs are for working registered nurses who have bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing subjects in addition to ADNs. Because students in these programs have already taken undergraduate general education courses, the curriculum consists mainly of bachelor’s- and master’s-level nursing courses.
  • Traditional RN to MSN programs accept working registered nurses with associate’s degrees. The curriculum includes undergraduate general education classes plus bachelor’s- and master’s-level coursework in nursing.

Be aware that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of an RN to MSN degree program. You’ll need to look closely at the curriculum and admissions requirements for each school you consider because they can vary considerably. Some schools, for example, offer an RN to MSN program that requires applicants to have earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing—they are, in fact, actually BSN to MSN programs, even though that’s not how they are branded.

Prerequisites for nurses applying to RN to MSN programs

Most master’s degree level programs require applicants to have earned a bachelor’s degree—in some cases, a subject-specific bachelor’s degree—but RN to MSN programs typically accept nurses with associate’s degrees from schools accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, provided they have an unencumbered RN license and at least one year of relevant clinical experience. Nursing students who plan to study in a specialty area like pediatrics, gerontology, cardiology, or anesthesia may need to show recent work experience in those areas.

Additionally, you may have to submit up-to-date college transcripts, proof that you’ve taken certain prerequisite classes (often chemistry, biology, English composition, human anatomy, and science labs), a detailed résumé, a personal statement or essay, and letters of recommendation from former professors or managers.

How long does it take to complete an RN to MSN program?

This depends on what type of program you choose, what concentration you choose (e.g., the University of Arizona offers a 24-month online MSN in Clinical Systems Leadership), whether you study full-time or part-time, and whether you are able to transfer any credits from an ADN, a nursing diploma program, or a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. In general, most nursing students can complete an RN to MSN program in three years of full-time study or four years of part-time study. Bridge programs can sometimes be completed more quickly because students in them have already completed core undergraduate courses.

Like master’s degree programs in many fields, MSN programs are frequently designed for working professionals. There are many hybrid and online RN to MSN programs (like those at Western Governors University and Franklin University) that are flexible enough for nurses who can’t take time off to pursue an advanced degree full-time. The downside of online and hybrid RN to MSN programs is that they provide fewer professional networking opportunities.

Curriculum in RN to MSN programs

RN to MSN programs vary in curriculum and specialization options (more on those below), though most include both BSN-level courses and MSN-level courses. Depending on what credits you can transfer over, you may take bachelor’s degree-level classes like:

  • Foundations of Nursing Practice
  • Clinical Diagnosis and Decision-Making
  • Human Physiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Health Assessment
  • Community Health
  • Applied Nursing Research
  • Nursing Informatics

You will also take core MSN-level classes like:

  • Pharmacology
  • Healthcare Systems and Policy
  • Health Education and Promotion
  • Evidence-Based Nursing
  • Epidemiology
  • Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Biostatistics
  • Public Health

Your studies will also include concentration coursework and, unless you’ve chosen a non-clinical specialization like administrative leadership, one or more hands-on clinical internships in work environments related to your chosen specialty. If you select an online RN to MSN program, you may be able to complete your required clinical practicum hours at your workplace.

RN to MSN concentrations

In RN to MSN programs, students can choose among clinical concentrations (e.g., pediatrics) and administrative concentrations (e.g., nurse leadership). Not every university offers every concentration. If you have your heart set on pursuing a particular career path, make sure the schools you consider offer your chosen specialty as a master’s degree concentration.

Concentrations offered to RN to MSN students include:

  • Gerontology Nursing
  • Acute Care Nursing
  • Family Nursing
  • Women’s Health Nursing
  • Neonatal Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Oncology Nursing
  • Obstetric Acute Care Nursing
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing
  • Nurse Anesthesia
  • Midwifery Nursing
  • Nursing and Health Care Leadership
  • Nursing Education
  • Nursing Informatics

Post-graduation licensure requirements

To be accepted into an RN to MSN program, you must already have your registered nurse (RN) license. Nurse practitioner requirements for licensure are set at the state level, though the National Council of State Boards of Nursing is pushing for states to adopt identical regulatory requirements for the licensure, accreditation, certification, and education of advanced practice RNs. The best way to find out what post-MSN licensure you’ll need to practice is to reach out to your state’s Board of Nursing.

Depending on your specialty, you may need to be certified to find employment. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offer nationally-recognized certifications in nursing; your specialization will determine which one you go to for your certifications. You can apply to take some AANPCP certification exams six months before you graduate with your MSN as long as you have a current RN license and the specified number of faculty-supervised clinical hours.

What kind of schools offer RN to MSN programs?

Many schools offer master’s-level nursing programs. The best RN to MSN program won’t necessarily be the most expensive one or the one at the most prestigious university. What you should look for in programs is accreditation and curriculum you find interesting. When a program is accredited either by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), you can be sure you will get a great nursing education that includes the most up-to-date best practices and most thorough information related to your chosen specialty area.

The following universities have RN to MSN programs:

How does this degree improve career prospects and earning potential?

Many specialty areas in nursing require nurses to have an MSN, so this degree can definitely improve your career prospects. Advanced practice and specialty nurses take on more responsibility than RNs, and they’re compensated accordingly. According to US News & World Report, an RN with a master’s degree can earn $20,000 more per year than one with a bachelor’s degree or ADN.

While salaries of nurses with MSNs vary by specialty and role, it’s worth noting that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports annual earnings for nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists—all positions that require an MSN—at about $113,930 per year. Compare that to the $71,730 per year registered nurses with BSN degrees earn and it’s pretty clear that completing an RN to MSN program can lead to a significant increase in earnings.

So, are RN to MSN programs worth it?

That will depend on your professional goals. The job outlook for registered nurses across the board is better than average, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jobs are expected to grow at a rate of 12 percent. Today, it’s relatively easy to find work with an ADN. However, you should be aware that employers are increasingly hiring nurses with BSNs over those with ADNs, thanks to professional associations and regulatory groups pushing to make the bachelor’s degree the standard nursing degree. There are RN to BSN programs, but there are some compelling reasons to go straight into an MSN program.

First, if you think you might want to become a manager or advanced practice RN someday, you will need an MSN. Many RN to MSN programs cost about the same as RN to BSN programs—and take about as long. There’s no reason to pay for a BSN and an MSN separately when you could complete them at the same time. And you’ll need an MSN if you want to work in the best-paying specialty areas or transition into an academic role.

On top of all that, more people are applying to nursing programs, and chances are that employers are going to be increasingly selective when hiring. Once the BSN becomes the standard degree for RNs, having an MSN will be what sets you apart from the competition when you’re job hunting.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to have an MSN to practice nursing, but this degree can open a lot of doors—including doors that lead to some of the best paying positions in the nursing world. Are RN to MSN programs worth it? If you’re willing to put in the time and money it will take to complete this degree, your investment will pay off.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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