BSN vs. MSN: What Is the Difference (And Which Degree Should You Get)?
March 15, 2021
Getting a degree is one of the best ways to advance in nursing for both aspiring nurses and working RNs. The question is, which degree? The only way to answer that is to learn as much as you can about each of your options.
You can work in nursing with an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN) or after graduating from a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) degree program, but you'll be able to do more and make more money with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).
What's the difference between the two degrees? An MSN is more advanced, but that doesn't necessarily make it better. Choosing between a BSN and an MSN can be tough: both come with a salary increase, boost your hireability, and qualify you to work in specialty areas of nursing like acute care or pediatrics.
Bachelor's degree programs usually cost less than master's degree programs, but chances are you won't earn as much after graduation as you would with an MSN. Then again, there's no guarantee that you'll make a lot more with an MSN if you're already an experienced RN with years of experience.
The decision to get a BSN or an MSN is a personal one—and possibly a tough one. The best thing you can do is learn as much about these degrees as you can to compare and contrast the cost, commitment, and benefits of each. Only then can you make an informed decision about which educational path best fits your career goals.
In this guide to a BSN vs. MSN, we'll cover:
- BSN vs. MSN basics
- The educational commitment for BSN vs. MSN
- Licensing for BSN vs. MSN
- Certifications for BSN vs. MSN
- Career options for BSN vs. MSN
- Average salary for BSN vs. MSN
- Do I really need either degree?
- How to choose between a BSN and an MSN
BSN vs. MSN basics
The BSN and MSN are the standard bachelor's degree and master's degree in the nursing field. Both degrees provide the skills and knowledge you need to become a nurse, but the BSN curriculum tends to be broad while the MSN curriculum is more specialized. Because it is a graduate degree, the MSN also covers more advanced content than does the BSN.
Having a Bachelor of Science in Nursing qualifies you to work as a Registered Nurse in hospitals, doctors' offices, and other healthcare settings in a direct patient care capacity. An MSN, on the other hand, will open many more opportunities.
There are numerous kinds of BSN and MSN pathways in addition to traditional programs. RN-to-BSN programs enable working nurses who have associate's degrees to earn a bachelor's degree in less time. RN-to-MSN programs are similar, but take longer and confer a master's degree (and sometimes also a BSN). These programs are every bit as involved and rigorous as traditional programs.
The educational commitment for BSN vs. MSN
Full-time students can usually earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in four years and a Master of Science in Nursing in two years, though the reality is that different students operate on different timelines. Note that the vast majority of MSN programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree, so if you don't, the MSN will take closer to four years or more.
Because universities recognize that some students have to work or have other obligations, there are also online, part-time, and hybrid nursing programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels that usually take longer to complete. Very motivated students and students who have already earned non-nursing undergrad degrees, on the other hand, can sometimes earn a BSN or MSN in less time. All nursing degrees involve both classwork and clinical rotations.
In a BSN program, you'll take classes like English and math along with core nursing classes like:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Nursing assessment
- Nursing research
- Nursing theory
Some universities allow BSN students to choose a concentration in a specialty area of nursing. If you know you want to work in a particular specialty—like geriatric nursing or psychiatric nursing—look for programs that offer electives specific to those specialties.
In a Master of Science in Nursing program, you'll take courses that build on your nursing knowledge in classes like:
- Advanced nursing practice
- Evidence-based nursing
- Healthcare systems and policy
- Health education and promotion
- Public health
If you choose a concentration in nursing administration or nursing leadership, you may also take classes like:
- Healthcare administration
- Healthcare human resources management
- Healthcare quality and safety
- Leadership development in healthcare
- Economics in healthcare
- Translating research to practice
- Financial management
- Nursing informatics
Licensing for BSN vs. MSN
All RNs have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) to get licensed, regardless of which degree they hold. The exam covers basic technical competency for nurses, and pass rates are actually about the same for BSN and MSN holders.
Tip: You can usually check a university's NCLEX-RN pass rate on the nursing school website or by contacting the admissions office.
Certifications for BSN vs. MSN
All nurses, regardless of educational background, have to have specific general certifications because employers expect them. This is true whether you have a BSN or an MSN. It's especially worth pursuing specialty certifications if you have a BSN, however, because they can help you qualify for promotions and make more money.
There are more than 180 different nursing certifications—many of which are open to RNs—related to nearly every single nursing specialty and role.
Certifications for registered nurses include:
- the _Certified Critical Care Nurse (CCN)_ designation offered by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses
- the _HIV/AIDS Certified Registered Nurse (ACRN)_ Certification offered by the HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Boards
- the _Certified Pediatric Nursing (CPN)_ designation offered by the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board and the American Nurses Credentialing Center
- the _Oncology Certified Nurse (AOCN)_ designation offered by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation
Some certifications take just a few days to earn (you take a class and then sit for an exam), while others require you to complete months of classwork before you can take the certification test.
Advanced practice nurses who have a Master of Science in Nursing degrees can pursue role-specific certification. For example, NPs can apply for certification in the following areas from the American Nurses Credentialing Center:
- Pediatric Primary Care NP (PPCNP-BC)
- Psychiatric Mental Health NP (PMHNP-BC)
- Emergency Nurse Practitioner (ENP-BC)
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care NP (AGACNP-BC)
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care NP (AGPCNP-BC)
- Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP-BC)
Career options for BSN vs. MSN
With a BSN, most of the roles open to you involve direct patient care, though some RNs work in administrative, educational, and other non-clinical roles. Where you work will depend on your chosen specialty. RNs work in nursing specialties like:
- Family practice nursing
- Neonatal nursing
- Pediatric nursing
- Dialysis nursing
- Acute care nursing
- Infectious diseases
- Gerontology nursing
- Labor and delivery
- Psychiatric nursing
- Sports medicine
- Women's health
- School nursing
- Travel nursing
- Cruise ship nursing
If you don't want to provide direct patient care, forensic nursing and health education are two non-clinical specialties open to BSN holders.
With an MSN in hand,you will have even more opportunities. You could, for instance, become one of the four types of advanced practice registered nurses: certified nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, certified nurse midwife, or certified nurse anesthetist.
As a CNP, you do much of what doctors do—including creating treatment plans and prescribing medication—and can work in:
- Adult health
- Family health
- Gerontological health
- Pediatric health
- Women's health
- Psychiatric health
- Emergency medicine
Clinical nurse specialists can do everything a CNP can do, but are also qualified to take on high-level administrative tasks, teach, conduct research, and manage teams of healthcare providers.
Nearly all administrative roles in nursing require a master's degree, so a Master of Science in Nursing is a must-have degree for any nurse who wants to become:
- A nurse manager in a hospital, doctor's office, school system, urgent care clinic, or psychiatric institution
- A case manager
- A patient care coordinator
- A nurse administrator
- A nurse executive
- A healthcare manager or administrator
Average salary for BSN vs. MSN
Having an advanced degree will increase your earning potential in most fields. In nursing, the increase you'll see with an MSN over a BSN is pretty dramatic. You will shoulder a lot more responsibility in advanced practice and administrative roles, but you'll be compensated accordingly.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average registered nurse income is $71,730 per year for RNs with a bachelor's degree. That doesn't mean you'll make that much once you have your BSN. Income largely depends on experience and location. Entry-level nurses make less, as do nurses in states like South Dakota, Mississippi, and Alabama.
With an MSN, you can become an APRN and make a lot more. The typical nurse practitioner salary falls between $100,074 and $117,158. Nurse anesthetists earn between $110,526 and $137,520, certified nurse midwives earn between $100,079 and $123,334, and clinical nurse specialists make between $95,340 and $115,505.
The administrative roles you'll qualify with when you get an MSN also pay more. The average nursing manager salary is about $85,000, and if you advance through the ranks to become chief nursing officer, you'll probably make about $125,000 per year. If you work for a large hospital or healthcare system, you might make a lot more.
Do I really need either degree?
The quick answer is not yet. Right now, it's still possible to become an RN with nothing more than an associate's degree or a three-year diploma from one of the few remaining nursing colleges run by hospitals. It probably won't be long, however, before most or even all RNs are required to hold a bachelor's degree.
The idea that nurses should be required to hold a BSN is nothing new. More than 50 years ago, the American Nurses Association (ANA) published a position paper stating that the "minimum preparation for beginning professional nursing practice at the present time should be baccalaureate degree education in nursing." The care nurses provide today is much more complex than it was when the ANA shared their recommendations.
Groups like the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice, the Pew Health Professions Commission, the National Black Nurses Association, and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses all support requiring all RNs to hold a bachelor's degree. The current goal across the profession is for 80 percent of practicing RNs having a BSN or higher degree by 2020. It's common for job listings to include "BSN preferred." Some states are already drafting legislation to require registered nurses to have undergraduate degrees to get an RN license.
What this means is that while you don't need a BSN today, you might legally need one to work a year from today. It's possible that working RNs without BSNs will be grandfathered in and allowed to continue working. Still, from that point forward, you'll be competing for jobs against new nurses who all have undergraduate degrees.
How to choose between a BSN and an MSN
Consider your resources in the present (money and time) along with your long-term career aspirations. A BSN is all you need to work as a clinical RN in most specialties, and you can have a long, happy, and lucrative career without becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or a nursing administrator. On the other hand, if one of your career goals is to make as much money as possible and/or you don't want to spend your entire career providing clinical care, getting an MSN is a must.
You also need to think about the academic assets you already possess. If you haven't yet begun pursuing a degree, a BSN program is probably the best choice. If you're not an RN and you already have a bachelor's degree—in any discipline—you may be able to earn a BSN more quickly (because you'll only need to complete the undergraduate nursing courses). Or—better still—you could earn an MSN in about the time it takes to complete a traditional full-time BSN program. These "direct-entry" MSN programs typically cost less than earning a BSN plus an MSN back-to-back, and you'll graduate with the qualifications necessary to move directly into more advanced nursing positions.
The good news is that no matter what degree path you choose, you'll probably enjoy the career you build with it. According to the 2018 Medscape Nurse Career Satisfaction Report, the vast majority of nurses (both RNs and APRNs) are happy that they work in nursing. Unsurprisingly, job satisfaction in nursing is not about the money; most nurses report that helping people is the most rewarding part of nursing.
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