Nurses hoping to expand their role and practice can further their education by earning a Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. From there, they have many career options available. They can choose to work in a broader scope as a nurse practitioner, work in anesthesia as a CRNA, become a Clinical Nurse Specialist, and even work in leadership, management, and education.

As the healthcare field continues to evolve at a rapid pace, many nurses are recognizing the benefits of advancing their education. More and more employers are encouraging their nurses to obtain a minimum of a Bachelor's degree. This push has led many nurses to consider advancing their career even further, into an MSN or DNP program.

In addition to these current trends, the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) projects a "shortage of up to nearly 122,000 physicians by 2032." This shortage is persuading more nurses to pursue MSN and DNP degrees, offering an opportunity to help fill this void we are seeing in quality healthcare professionals. Learn more about the US nursing shortage.

With the demand for APRNs (Advanced Practice Registered Nurses) rising and more nurses considering graduate school, a common challenge is deciding which education pathway to follow. While RN to MSN programs had previously grown in popularity, the RN to BSN to MSN path offers a comprehensive option with plenty of benefits.

How to get from an RN to an MSN varies; there are different paths to an MSN based on the nurse's starting point. Below is a brief description of the paths to earning an MSN as well as benefits/drawbacks of each.

RN to BSN to MSN

This three-step pathway is one of the most common ways an RN can earn an MSN. The nurse, if starting out with an associate's degree or diploma, may enroll in a BSN program either on campus or online (or a hybrid program) to earn the BSN. Luckily, students would only need to complete about 30 credits (which takes about one to two years) of upper-level BSN courses, as the prerequisites were completed during the ADN or diploma program. Additionally, many RN to BSN programs are offered online, which allows for more flexibility and self-paced learning.

After earning a BSN, the nurse is prepared to enroll in an MSN program. Many schools offer a BSN-MSN program both online and on-campus. These programs usually take around two to three years to complete, depending on full or part-time status. Additionally, clinical hours may be required.

Curriculum

The curriculum of a BSN includes courses in:

  • Statistics
  • Nursing leadership and management
  • Community Health nursing
  • Informatics
  • Evidenced based practice

As stated earlier, some courses (such as nutrition, English, and chemistry) are not required in this type of program, as they usually are completed in an ADN program.

Once a BSN is completed, the student can apply to an MSN program. The curriculum in an MSN program varies greatly depending on the chosen specialty (i.e., nurse practitioner, CRNA, nurse midwife, etc.). However, core courses are required such as:

  • Advanced pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Health assessment
  • Research
  • The role of the advanced-practice nurse

After the core courses are completed, the student begins courses in their chosen specialty, such as:

Additionally, supervised clinical hours are required to graduate.

Benefits of an RN to BSN to MSN Pathway

One of the benefits of this path to a master's degree is that it is a systematic, step-wise approach. It allows students to learn and practice in one role before advancing to another. It is also more flexible in that students can choose to take a break between the BSN and MSN if needed. Additionally, gaining experience as a BSN-prepared nurse may even lead to a higher success rate in an MSN program.

Drawbacks to an RN to BSN to MSN Pathway

One drawback in this pathway is time. More time is needed to complete each step, which can delay the nurse in starting the career they hope to have with an MSN. Cost may even be a little higher if students opt for a more step-wise approach. Instead of paying for one RN to MSN bridge program, they pay for two-degree programs. Of course, every school is different, so students are encouraged to research and compare costs with the schools they are interested in.

RN to MSN

An RN to MSN bridge program is another way that nurses can earn an MSN. Each school that offers this pathway may have it set up a little differently, but usually, nurses are required to complete the BSN portion first, followed immediately by the MSN portion. In some cases, nurses may enroll in the MSN portion of the program while still completing their BSN. It's typically around 30 units to complete the BSN, and 30 for the MSN.

The length of time it takes to complete the program can vary depending on the student's chosen specialty as well as if they attend full or part-time; it typically takes around 3 years. Many of the RN to MSN programs are also offered online; however, depending on the specialty, clinical hours are required as well.

Curriculum

The curriculum for an RN to MSN program is similar to the RN to BSN to MSN pathway listed above. However, there are some foundation courses that prepare nurses for graduate study. For example, Walden University requires nurses to complete a 3-credit course called "Foundations for Graduate Study" before starting the MSN core courses. For example, the curriculum at this school for an adult-gerontology track is as follows:

  • Foundation Courses (29 credits)
    • Issues and Trends in Nursing
    • Foundations of Nursing Research
    • Topics in Clinical Nursing
    • Role of the Nurse Leader in Population Health
    • Leadership Competencies in Nursing and Healthcare
    • Foundations for Graduate Study
  • Core Courses (20 credits)
    • Policy and Advocacy for Improving Population Health
    • Transforming Nursing and Healthcare Through Technology
    • Essentials of Evidenced-Based Practice
    • Interprofessional Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Specialization Courses (35 credits)
    • Advanced Pathophysiology
    • Advanced Pharmacology
    • Advanced Health Assessment and Diagnostic Reasoning
    • Advanced Practice Care of Adults Across the Lifespan
    • Advanced Practice Care of Frail Elders
    • Primary Care of Women
    • Synthesis in Advanced Nursing Practice Care of Patients in Primary Care Settings

Benefits of an RN to MSN Program

One of the benefits of an RN to MSN program is that everything is done in one shot. In other words, one application, one school, one program. It makes for greater ease in earning a BSN and MSN. Additionally, some schools offer a flat rate for the entire program rather than by each credit. Also, in some cases, the length of time it takes to complete the program may be shorter than the traditional RN to BSN to MSN pathway.

More Institutions are Eliminating RN to MSN Programs

Experience is not the only reason to consider the RN to BSN to MSN approach. Many schools are eliminating RN to MSN programs, preferring that students earn a BSN before completing an MSN degree. DNP programs are also gaining popularity as an increased number of employers are encouraging the APRNs to obtain a doctoral-level degree or DNP. Dr. Garner, Associate Professor at Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing (LHSON), was asked to share her expert opinion on this new education trend.

"Increasingly, undergraduate nursing students have a long-term goal of advancing their education to the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) level. Even upon entry to nursing school, many students recognize the value DNP nurses make in translating research and advancing evidence-based practice to improve patient outcomes. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing endorses the DNP as the single entry degree for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses.

Dr. Garner went on to discuss the program that Baylor University's LHSON offers. "BSN to DNP programs allow for comprehensive yet streamlined pathways, reducing the demand for MSN programs. Recognizing this trend, the Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing was one of the earliest to offer a BSN to DNP graduate program in Texas. Baylor University's LHSON now offers an online BSN to DNP program which includes programs in executive nurse leadership, family nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner, nurse-midwifery, and pediatric nurse practitioner."

Deciding the Best Path for You

When it comes to planning an education that fits your unique goals, the options can seem overwhelming. It's important to understand your priorities and be confident in your specific goals. Nurses that first complete an ADN degree benefit from the ability to begin working as a nurse relatively quickly. Many programs have simplified the transition from RN to BSN, enabling you to begin gaining experience in a clinical setting while continuing to work toward your BSN degree.

Upon completing a BSN degree, you can then choose to explore work in your fields of interest to gain increased confidence in your future career goals. After taking the time to experience the various nursing specialties and roles, choosing between a BSN to MSN or BSN to DNP program will likely become an easier decision. A BSN to DNP program is a great option for nurses who are certain in their decision to obtain a DNP.

Amanda Bucceri Androus, RN, BSN
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