Registered Nurse (RN) to Master of Science in nursing (MSN) programs are designed for RNs who want to advance their careers by pursuing a master's degree, without completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program first. Graduates of RN-MSN programs can explore a wider range of responsibilities, including advanced practice roles in administering primary or specialized care, managing hospital departments or teaching postsecondary nursing courses. For more information, see our nurse administrator, nurse practitioner and nurse educator career pages.
RN-MSN Program Overview
MSN schools may offer their programs online or on-campus, or through a hybrid format that combines in-person and virtual instruction. Programs at MSN schools could include time in hospital departments, such as pediatrics, psychiatry, maternity and surgery, as well as in long-term care facilities, public health departments, home health agencies or walk-in clinics. In addition to gaining experience in diverse healthcare settings, students could also learn about physical and social sciences, communication, leadership and critical thinking. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) notes that RN to MSN programs can take about three years of full-time study to complete, depending on a student's schedule and background -- however, accelerated programs also exist. Some programs may award a BSN, along with the MSN, upon completion, but this varies from school to school.
RN-MSN Program Types
RNs seeking master's degrees in nursing have a choice of programs, depending on their prior education and experience. Offerings at different RN-MSN schools may vary, but here are some examples of available programs:
- RN to MSN Programs: Designed for registered nurses with a nursing diploma or associate degree.
- RN to MSN Bridge Programs: Targeted at RNs who have a bachelor's degree in a field other than nursing. Students typically take several bachelor's level nursing courses before enrolling directly in their MSN studies.
Some non-bridge programs may require students to have an associate degree in nursing (ADN) while others may only require a nursing diploma. Other requirements could include specific nursing experience, background coursework, computer proficiency or immunizations. Programs may also prepare students to take a variety of national certification exams after graduation. It's important to discuss program prerequisites and potential degree outcomes with a school admissions counselor.
RN-MSN Course Descriptions
Teaching practices may vary, but the core curriculum tends to include similar courses such as the following:
- Advanced Health Assessment: Introduces knowledge and skills to assess patient health and prevent disease.
- Physiology/Pathophysiology: Explains the functioning of the body, the progression of diseases and the development of care plans.
- Advanced Concepts of Pharmacology: Teaches principles applicable to the use of medicines.
- Research Methods for Healthcare Providers: Discusses healthcare research methods, biostatistics and data analysis.
- Health Policy: Outlines the structure and guidelines of the U.S. healthcare system and the role of nursing practice.
- Healthcare Ethics: Explores the complex challenges of modern medicine to encourage excellence in the delivery of health services.
RN-MSN programs may offer a series of specialties, and students should determine their areas of interest early on as these may require specific core courses. Qualifications, certifications and salaries can vary for specializations such as these:
- Critical Care Nurses: Work in intensive-care units.
- Rehabilitation Nurses: Care for patients with disabilities.
- Clinical Nurse Specialists: Develop expertise in a certain area such as psychiatric-mental health.
- Nurse Anesthetists: Assist in the administration of medication to manage surgery pain.
- Nurse-Midwives: Monitor pregnant women and newborns.
- Nurse Practitioners: Provide primary care to patients and families.
RNs need additional certification to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) such as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners. A master's degree in nursing has been the minimum requirement for APRNs, but the AACN reports on a proposed change to make the qualification for APRNs a Doctorate of Nursing Practice by 2015.
Related Career Options
Earning a master's of science in nursing could help open different career options outside of traditional nursing positions, although some of these paths may require additional education or experience. Examples of careers include:
- Physician Assistants: Assist doctors and surgeons by examining patients, as well as diagnosing and treating injuries and illnesses. PAs usually possess a master's degree from a training program focused on physician assisting.
- Healthcare Administrators: Coordinate the provision of services in a healthcare facility, department or medical practice. These leadership roles generally require experience and often a master's degree as well.
- Postsecondary Nursing Instructors: Teach nursing courses in schools, colleges or universities. Qualifications include a master's or doctoral degree in the field.
Links to Sources and Associations
The following websites offer more information about RN-MSN programs and nursing studies:
American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, aanp.org
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, aacn.nche.edu
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Doctor of Nursing Practice FAQs, 2012, aacn.nche.edu/dnp/faqs
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Degree Completion Programs for Registered Nurses, 2012, aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets/degree-completion-programs
American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, aana.com
American College of Nurse-Midwives, midwife.org
American Nurses Association, nursingworld.org
Registered Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012, bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Registered-nurses.htm
National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, nacns.org
National Council of State Boards of Nursing, ncsbn.org
National League for Nursing, nln.org