How to Go from RN to MSN

Explore the journey from RN to MSN: understand the program structure, coursework, admission requirements, pros & cons, career outlook, and salary expectations. Education

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Once you've earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and secured your registered nurse (RN) license, there are numerous opportunities to expand your career.

One such option is to pursue a Master's Degree in Nursing (MSN), enhancing your earning capacity and providing greater opportunities for leadership roles and specialized knowledge in particular healthcare areas.

If you envision a long-term career in nursing and have aspirations to specialize and increase your income, then obtaining an MSN is a highly recommended route to accomplish these goals.

What Is an RN to MSN Program?

An RN to MSN program is a specialized educational pathway designed for RNs who wish to advance their careers.

There are two main types of RN to MSN programs:

  1. Programs for RNs with a BSN and who want to earn their MSN.
  2. Programs for RNs who do not have a BSN but want to go straight into an MSN program. These are often referred to as "bridge" programs and may include an accelerated path to earn both the BSN and MSN degrees.

MSN programs allow for RNs to specialize and enhance their nursing foundations by working towards advanced practice registered nursing (APRN), including: 

When taking an MSN, students can choose between any of the above or refine their focus even greater into NP specialties such as Family NP, Women's Health NP, and more.

RN to MSN Coursework

The coursework in an RN to MSN program varies depending on the specific program and the specialization chosen by the student. However, some common elements can be found in most RN to MSN programs:

  • Core Courses: These foundational courses provide a broad understanding of nursing theory and practice. They often include subjects like pathophysiology, health assessment, and nursing research.
  • Specialization Courses: Depending on the track chosen by the student, these courses delve deeper into specific areas of nursing such as family nurse practitioner, nursing education, or healthcare leadership.
  • Practicums: These are hands-on experiences that allow students to apply the knowledge and skills they've learned in a real-world healthcare setting.
  • Quality-Improvement Coursework: Some programs include courses focused on evidence-based quality improvement in healthcare.
  • BSN Electives: In some programs, certain master's level courses can substitute for BSN electives, allowing students to earn both their BSN and MSN more quickly.

The total number of credits required to complete an RN to MSN program can range from 42 to 60, depending on the program and the track chosen. The program typically takes 30-36 months to complete, but this can vary depending on whether the student is enrolled full-time or part-time. Some programs offer flexibility and allow students to complete coursework at their own pace.

Best Ways to Go from RN to MSN

MSN programs can be competitive, and those with foresight on pursuing a master's upon becoming an RN should ensure they have the following general admission requirements.

RN to MSN Admission Requirements

  • Hold current registration as an RN in good standing/no practice restrictions.
  • Programs often have admission requirements where they expect applicants to hold at least a B-grade (approximately 75% or 3.0 GPA equivalent), but preferences are often given to those with higher grades. It is important to note that many admission requirements pay great attention to the last two years of a BScN program.
  • Some programs require applicants to have at least 1 to 2 years of equivalent full-time clinical nursing experience as an RN.
  • For those applying to an MSN program, admission requirements may require language proficiency (with proof at the time of application).

In addition, specific applications may require applicants to have two to three references to attest to the applicant's good professional character and nursing practice conduct.

RNs may also need an updated resume and curriculum vitae (CV). There is a possibility that the applicant may be expected to write an essay to emphasize the intent and interest to apply to an MSN program as well.

Ensure Program Options Meet Your Needs

MSN programs take a great deal of investment to complete the objectives of courses. When considering pursuing an MSN, having part-time and full-time options could be a deciding factor. RNs should review the expectations to meet the standards of part-time status and full-time studies and ensure they fit their needs.

Related: How to Pay for Nursing School

Consider Costs of Education

RNs should also pay attention to the tuition, ancillary, and other costs related to application and program admission when anticipating how much they will invest each year.

MSN programs are quite costly and average up to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the university and location. It is advised to see if student financial aid options at the institution (e.g., scholarships, bursaries, or loans) can be offered to help ease the cost, or if possible, inquire if their workplace and/or professional associations have reimbursement options for pursuing continuing education.  

Check for Program Accreditation

RNs should pay careful attention and check whether the programs they are looking into are accredited, recognized, and have the potential for career advancement in the areas in which they hold interest.

Aside from speaking with the general registrar and program advisory departments of each university, it is recommended to speak with other people who have completed the program and potential employers to gauge which programs best suit the needs and interests of the individual.

Pros and Cons of an RN to MSN

Achieving an MSN will involve more schooling, so more discipline, diligence, and work will be involved. If one is motivated toward a specific career goal, completing an MSN program will allow for an impressive credential to boost chances of success for more favorable nursing jobs.  

RN to MSN Pros

  • Increased earning potential
  • Potential to practice in advance practice specialty
  • More opportunities for leadership roles and autonomy
  • May allow for career prospects with better working hours and roles
  • Earning an MSN may increase assistance in applying for terminal degrees in nursing (e.g., Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP))
  • Refined skills in research, critical thinking, nursing theory, and foundation

RN to MSN Cons

  • Time-consuming and costly financial investment
  • Reduced opportunity for work-life balance while pursuing the graduate degree

Salary Expectations & Career Outlook

As mentioned, acquiring an MSN may allow for more career opportunities that practice leadership roles. These roles may include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Education and academics
  • Policy
  • Management and leadership-type roles (e.g., director)
  • Advanced clinical practice leadership
  • Research
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Public health
  • Informatics nurse specialists

Depending on location, salary expectations for an MSN-prepared APRN will vary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists APRNs (e.g., those with a master's degree in their specialty role and are licensed in their respective state) to earn a median annual wage of $124,680 in their May 2022 survey.

The job prospects for APRNs are expected to increase by 2031, which is dictated by the need to replace those already in the profession who are set to retire and those expected to transfer to different roles.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an MSN worth it?

Whether or not an MSN degree is worth it can depend on various factors, including your career goals, financial situation, and personal interests. However, there are several potential benefits to earning an MSN that are often cited:

  • Higher Pay: One of the most significant benefits of an MSN degree is the potential for increased earnings. Nurses with an MSN often earn higher salaries than those with a Bachelor's degree in Nursing (BSN).
  • Career Advancement: An MSN can open up opportunities for advanced roles in nursing, including positions in leadership, administration, and specialized areas of healthcare.
  • Greater Autonomy: In some roles, such as nurse practitioners, an MSN can provide greater autonomy in patient care.
  • Job Satisfaction: Some nurses find greater job satisfaction in the advanced roles that an MSN can lead to, as these positions offer more challenging and varied work.
  • Specialization: An MSN program allows nurses to specialize in a specific area of healthcare, which can benefit those with a particular interest in a certain field.

However, there are also considerations to keep in mind. An MSN is a significant investment of time and money and may not be necessary for all nursing roles. Additionally, moving into administrative or specialized roles may not be the right fit for everyone. It's important to carefully consider your career goals and circumstances when deciding if an MSN is worth it.

How difficult are MSN programs?

MSN programs can be challenging due to several factors:

  • Advanced Coursework: MSN programs involve advanced and complex coursework beyond what Bachelor's degree programs cover. This can include in-depth studies in specialized areas of nursing, research methods, and healthcare policy.
  • Clinical Hours: MSN programs often require significant clinical hours, which can be demanding and time-consuming.
  • Balancing Responsibilities: Many students pursuing an MSN are also working professionals. Balancing the demands of work, school, and personal responsibilities can be challenging.
  • Financial Cost: MSN programs can be expensive, and managing the financial aspect can add to the difficulty.
  • Securing Clinical Placements: For online MSN programs, securing clinical placements can be a challenge, especially in highly populated areas.

Despite these challenges, many nurses find that the benefits of an MSN degree, such as increased earning potential and opportunities for career advancement, make the effort worthwhile. Prospective students need to be prepared for the demands of an MSN program and have strategies to manage these challenges.

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Kyle Oliver has 6 years experience as a BSN, RN.

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