MSN Program Curriculum & Goals - What You'll Learn

The goal of the MSN program is to prepare a registered nurse for more advanced work in a specific field. Becoming an APRN allows a nurse to take on a variety of leadership roles in clinical, educational, and research settings. Graduates of an MSN program have the ability to become clinical researchers, nursing instructors, nursing administrators, clinical nurse leaders, and nurse practitioners, and more. The objective of the MSN program is to transition a registered nurse, who primarily provides support to physicians and their respective healthcare teams, to a role that requires more responsibility. Nurses with an MSN degree can work independently of physicians and in some states, may even be able to practice in a clinical setting and prescribe medication without being under the supervision of a physician.

Types of MSN Programs

Traditional Campus-Based Programs

Traditional campus-based MSN programs are completed on-site at a school of the nurse's choosing. All courses will be in a classroom, lab, or clinic setting, and this is often considered to be the most traditional way to complete a master's degree in nursing. Nurses who learn best through face-to-face or hands-on instruction are encouraged to complete their MSN on campus.

100% Online MSN Programs

With the advancement of technology, some MSN degrees can be obtained solely online. This is particularly true if the nurse already holds their BSN. Online programs are the most flexible and can be completed on the nurse's own time. This can be an excellent solution for nurses who are already working full or part-time who may not be able to attend on-campus classes.

Hybrid Programs

Hybrid programs are a blend of both online and on-campus classes, however, they do require more on-campus classroom work than the above. Some hybrid programs may include some classes that are online and some classes that are on campus, while others include classes that divide the coursework between online and on-campus. Before enrolling in a hybrid program, students should determine how the classes are divided and scheduled.

Clinical practicum hours for online MSN programs are typically completed at a medical facility near the nurse's home. However, the student will need to check with their school and determine what medical facilities will be accepted for practicum. Students in very rural areas seeking a specialized degree may still need to travel some to complete their clinical requirements at a facility that offers instruction within their chosen specialty.

Paths to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

There are multiple different paths for registered nurses to seek their master's degree. How long it takes to complete an MSN program varies from student to student, depending largely on their educational background, their desired specialty, and whether or not they will be engaging in full time or part time coursework. While most coursework can be done part-time to accommodate students who are working full-time in a nursing field, accelerated master's degrees are typically always full time.


Full-time 15-25 month || Part-time 24-40 months

The BSN to MSN program is the most common way for nurses to obtain their master's degrees. A nurse that already holds their Bachelor of Science degree from a CCNE or ACEN accredited program can apply for an MSN. The coursework for a BSN to MSN focuses on general advanced nursing. BSN students will learn evidence-based practice, advanced health assessment, and be prepared for leadership positions within the nursing field. In addition to basic course requirements, BSN to MSN students will attend classes for their chosen nursing specialty.


Full-time 30-36 months || Part-time 36-48 months

Registered nurses who are already licensed to practice, who have also held a nursing job and have accumulated experience in the field, may pursue their MSN degree through an RN to MSN program. The nurse does not need to have their BSN prior to applying for this type of program since the program allows nurses to obtain both degrees during the course of their education. Earning both an undergraduate and graduate degree in a single program can save time and money, which can be a significant benefit for nurses looking to advance their career quickly. However, it's important to understand that some RN to MSN programs only accept nursing applications who already hold an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN). Additionally, some programs allow a nurse to pull out of the program once they receive their BSN, while other programs do not.

Bachelor's to MSN

Full-time 20-25 months || Part-time 25-40 months

Registered nurses who are licensed to practice in their state but who do not hold a nursing related Bachelor's Degree may still apply to an MSN program. Some Bachelor's to MSN programs require nurses to take additional courses to help bridge the gap between their non-nursing education and their new nursing curriculum. Some Bachelor's to MSN programs require nurses to meet other prerequisites, so it's important to know ahead of time what kind of courses will need to be completed in preparation for the MSN program.

Post-MSN Certificate

Full-time 12-16 months || Part-time 16-24 months

Post-MSN certificate programs are available for APRNs or RNs who have already obtained their MSN from an ACEN or CCNE accredited school. Typically, post-MSN certificate programs are used to extend or add to professional qualifications or to switch specializations. Given that post-MSN certificate students have already built a strong foundation of clinical work, few basic nursing courses are required. Typically, nurses in this program are able to take classes that deal specifically with the nurse's desired specialty. However, some prerequisites may be necessary if a student's transcript reveals any gaps in their educational foundation.

Accelerated MSN

Full-time 15-36 months

Individuals with no nursing experience who wish to get their BSN and MSN as quickly as possible may apply for an accelerated MSN program. Accelerated MSN programs are almost ever available fully online because typically students have no clinical foundation to build off of. A bachelor's degree from an accredited school in any field is required for entry into the program, and more often than not, the program insists that students have a competitive GPA. Applicants are usually required to submit a written essay to demonstrate why they desire entry into the program and may be required to take a number of basic prerequisite courses before formally beginning the program. Many accelerated MSN students will sit for the NCLEX exam after completing the BSN portion of the program so they can obtain employment as a registered nurse as they complete the MSN portion of the program.

The Benefits of Earning an MSN Degree

There are numerous benefits to earning a Master's degree in nursing. With an advanced degree comes increased autonomy and independence, increased salary, and better job satisfaction. MSN degree holders have a wealth of opportunities available to them, especially when considering going into more specialized nursing fields.

Become a State-Licensed Certified APRN

One of the most common reasons RN's pursue an MSN is to be able to sit for the APRN certification exam and become a state licensed Advanced Practice Registered Nurse. An MSN degree is a base requirement to take the APRN certification exam. Although recently there has been some discussion to raise the entry-level requirement to a DNP degree (Doctor of Nursing Practice), this movement has not yet been successful. Should this change become finalized, current MSN graduates will not be required to obtain a DNP to continue practicing as an APRN. Generally speaking, the fastest way for an RN to become an APRN is to complete the MSN program and sit for the APRN certification.

Career Advancement

Another benefit to obtaining an MSN degree is career advancement. Registered nurses who desire more independence and autonomy in their clinical practice can complete the MSN program and transition into a higher paying, more satisfying career.

MSN degree specializations include but are not limited to:

  • Women's Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides primary gynecological care to adolescent and adult women through reproduction and menopause, generally in a clinic or private practice setting.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) -- a registered nurse midwife who provides routine medical care for pregnant women throughout gestation and manages the delivery of the child. Certified nurse midwives may see patients in a clinic setting, at their homes, or at a hospital.
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides acute medical care to premature neonates or neonates who may be critically ill in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) setting.
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides routine medical care for patients from infancy through adolescence, typically in a private practice or clinic setting.
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PACNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides acute medical care to infants, children, and adolescents who may be moderately to critically ill, usually in a hospital or trauma setting.
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides routine medical care for patients of all ages, typically in a primary care or family clinic setting.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNP) -- a registered nurse specialist who provide necessary medical care to patients in a variety of environments, including acute care and primary care settings.
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides routine medical care to both adult and elderly patients, often in private practice settings or community health centers.
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides acute medical care to both adult and elderly patients, usually in emergency rooms, trauma departments, and surgical or intensive care units.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) -- a registered nurse practitioner who provides psychiatric care to patients of all ages, including behavioral health assessments and medication management, in a private practice or psychiatric hospital setting.

Advanced practice registered nurses can also go into more administrative or educational roles should they desire to have limited involvement in clinic settings. Some examples of administrative roles for APRNs include Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNL), Nursing Administrator, Nurse Educator, Nursing Informatics, and Public Health Nursing. APRNs may also have the opportunity to become involved in innovative and groundbreaking research at clinical trial facilities.

Career Outlook and Salaries for MSN Graduates

The growing need for quality healthcare professionals, especially in advanced specialties, offers holders of an MSN degree a great deal of job security. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the employment rate of APRNs will increase by as much as 31% from 2016 to 2026. Other occupations average about 7% job growth in the same time frame, meaning that the rate of growth for advanced nursing professions is quadruple that of other professions. This substantial growth rate does not apply to all nursing professions, however. The BLS reports that RNs will only experience a job growth of 15%. While this is still double the rate of other occupations, it is half that of advanced nursing professions.

Salary is an important consideration for anyone, particularly individuals who have invested time and money into continuing education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that APRNs can earn very high salaries, as much as physicians in many cases. The average wage for registered nurses in 2016 was just over $68,000, while the average wage for APRN's like nurse practitioners or nurse anesthetists earned an average wage of just under $108,000. Although salary depends greatly on where a nurse is located and the job experience they bring to the table, there's little question that APRN's have an extremely high earning potential -- much more than the average job and even more than traditional registered nursing.

Although transitioning to an MSN degree and potentially an APRN certification takes a significant amount of effort and investment, there are many benefits to be gained. Advanced nursing practice can be highly satisfying for individuals who desire to practice independently in a specialized field of their choice while earning competitive pay and benefits.