Why Get an MSN Degree?

Nurses have many opportunities for lifelong learning and career advancement. More and more nurses are advancing their careers by pursuing a master’s degree in nursing, or MSN degree.

Nurses with the advanced degree benefit by having more career options and generally higher pay. But nurses aren’t the only ones who benefit. Studies show that a highly educated nursing workforce is better armed to meet today’s complex healthcare needs. So, patients and the U.S. healthcare system also benefit with a higher level of care.

What’s the MSN degree all about?

Achieving a BSN is an important step in a professional nurse’s career, but it’s only the beginning, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Advanced nursing degrees include the MSN degree, research-focused PhD or practice-focused Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Nurses with advanced degrees are in great demand to fill traditional and emerging roles in and out of healthcare.

“The extraordinary explosion of knowledge, expanding technologies, increasing diversity and global health challenges produce a dynamic environment for nursing and amplify nursing’s critical contributions to healthcare,” according to AACN’s Essentials of Masters Education in Nursing report. “Master’s education prepares nurses for flexible leadership and critical action within complex, changing systems, including health, educational and organizational systems.”

The MSN degree arms nurses with the skills needed to lead change, promote health and elevate care in many roles and settings. Some nurses get the MSN degree to specialize in chosen practice, while others use it to achieve a doctoral nursing degree.

More nurses are pursuing master’s degrees in nursing education. In 2018, 17.1% of the nation’s registered nurses held a master’s degree, according to AACN. In 2013, 13.8% of nurses working in the U.S. had MSN degrees, according to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Survey.

“The current demand for master’s- and doctorally-prepared nurses for advanced practice, clinical specialties, teaching and research roles far outstrips the supply,” according to AACN.

Specialties and average pay

Advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, include nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) and certified nurse-midwives (CNM). The master’s degree prepares nurses for all of these professions.

According to the American Nurses Association:

  • Nurse practitioners provide primary, acute and specialty healthcare across the lifespan through assessment, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and injuries. Most NPs work in the practice setting, followed by hospitals and outpatient centers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. NPs make on average $52.90 an hour or $110,030 annually, according to BLS data. Findings from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ 2019 National NP Sample Survey found NPs who worked full-time and were certified in psychiatric mental health had the highest median base salary at $125,000. Emergency NPs had the highest median hourly rate at $70.
  • Certified nurse-midwives provide primary, gynecological and reproductive healthcare. Most work in the practice setting, followed by hospitals and outpatient centers. CNMs average $51.40 hourly or $106,910 in annual earnings, according to BLS.
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists provide a full range of anesthesia and pain management services. Most work in practices, followed by hospitals and outpatient centers. CRNAs average $84.03 hourly and $174,790 annually.
  • Clinical nurse specialists diagnose, treat and manage patients, provide expertise and support to nurses caring for patients, help drive organizational practice changes and ensure use of best practices and evidence-based care for optimal patient outcomes. They earn an average of $76,333 a year, according to Nurse.com’s 2018 Nursing Salary Research Report.

NPs make up the highest percentage of APRNs among U.S. nurses, at 8.5%. That’s followed by CNSs at 2.1%, CRNAs at 1.5% and CNMs at 0.5%, according to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Survey.

Potential nursing careers

Nurses are increasingly in the driver’s seat of healthcare delivery. They’re leading new models of care. These include health/medical homes, nurse-managed health clinics, community health centers and other settings. As the population ages, nurses are among those leading the increasing demand for primary care and specialty care for the elderly.

Nurses have opportunities outside of direct patient care. Those opportunities include education, leadership roles in industry and much more.

Advanced degrees, including the MSN, help position nurses for all these roles and others.

As education increases, salaries follow suit. Nurses with master’s degrees can command six-figure salaries and often rise to the top of healthcare’s leadership ranks, according to AACN.

MSN programs prepare nurses for specific career options. Here are just a few of the options.

  • Clinical nurse leaders oversee patient care coordination, assess risks, develop quality improvement strategies, facilitate team communication and implement evidence-based solutions at the unit level, according to AACN.
  • Nurse administrators manage and lead all types of practice settings. They facilitate and deliver care while managing teams of nurses. A nurse administrator’s team can vary from a small group to nurses in an entire health system.
  • Nurse educators are instructors in practice settings, clinical preceptors and staff development officers. They’re also faculty in associate degree and allied nursing programs, according to AACN.
  • Public health nurses focus on population health, health promotion, disease prevention and control, and community education. They often work with others to achieve their goals, including community leaders and teachers.
  • Nurse informaticists use technology and data to improve patient care. As clinicians, they understand nursing processes. As informatic experts, they design systematic solutions that enhance quality and reduce costs.

This is by no means the end of the list of career options for master’s-prepared nurses. Other emerging practice areas include forensics, case management, military nursing, school nursing and genetics/genomics, according to AACN.

MSN degree options

AACN reports there are more than 500 nursing schools in the U.S. offering more than 2,000 graduate programs. There are programs to meet many different needs. For example, nurses with various levels of education embark on MSN programs. Other students are non-nurses who want to enter the profession at the master’s level.

Today’s master’s nursing programs offer these and other options.

  • Entry-level master’s degree — Students with a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a non-nursing discipline often choose the entry-level master’s degree, also known as generic or accelerated programs. People generally graduate from these programs in two to three years if they are full-time students. The program covers baccalaureate-level content and RN licensure in the first year, often preparing students as clinical nurse leaders. There were nearly 7,500 students enrolled in entry-level master’s nursing programs, according to a 2018 AACN survey.
  • RN-to-master’s degree — Nurses with associate degrees often pursue the RN-to-master’s degree These are popular, with more than 200 such programs available in the U.S. today, according to AACN. Nurses generally finish the RN-to-master’s degree in two to three years. RNs learn baccalaureate-level content, as well as master’s-level content. Nursing schools offer these programs in classroom, online and blended formats.
  • Baccalaureate in nursing to master’s in nursing degree — The most popular option among nurses is the baccalaureate in nursing to master’s in nursing degree. Students build undergraduate competency and concentrate on an area of practice focus. Nurses generally complete the baccalaureate-to-master’s in 18 months to two years of full-time study, according to AACN. Most schools award graduates the MSN degree, while some offer comparable degrees, the master of nursing (MN) or MS in nursing.
  • Dual master’s degree program, or dual MSN program — Students who want to combine the advanced study of nursing with a related field might choose the dual master’s degree program, or dual MSN program. Nursing schools that offer the option combine nursing coursework with business (MSN/MBA), public health (MSN/MPH), health administration (MSN/MHA), public administration (MSN/MPA) and more.

Sometimes, nurses pursue non-nursing master’s degrees. That, too, can be valuable to a nurse’s career, according to Nurse.com.

An MSN degree is required to teach in an academic nursing setting and may be important to employers if nurses stay in the clinical setting. But master’s degrees in non-nursing in business, education, psychology, public health, communication, healthcare informatics and other majors can benefit nursing careers too.

Supply and demand nationally and by state

On its website, BLS has extensive data on supply and demand for NPs, CNMs and CRNAs.

Nurse practitioners are and will be in high demand. BLS projects demand for NPs will jump 26% by 2028. States with the highest NP employment include New York, California, Texas, Florida and Ohio. California is the top-paying state for NPs, who make an average $64.32 hourly and $133,780 annually.

States most likely to employ CRNAs are Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee. Montana tops U.S. states for CRNA pay, at an average $118.45 hourly and $246,370 annually.

States with the highest CNM employment levels are California, New York, Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania. California is the top-paying state, at $67.30 hourly and $139,990 annually.

“About 16,900 openings for nurse practitioners, 3,200 openings for nurse anesthetists and 500 openings for nurse-midwives are projected each year, on average, over the decade,” according to BLS. “Overall, job opportunities for advanced practice registered nurses are likely to be excellent. APRNs will be in high demand, particularly in medically underserved areas such as inner cities and rural areas.”

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