Master's Education

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Nursing is a dynamic profession that brings many rewards and career advancement opportunities to those committed to lifelong learning. Today’s nurses are expected to master an increasingly complex body of knowledge and attain clinical skills to effectively provide lifesaving and life-sustaining services. Though completing an entry-level registered nursing (RN) program and passing the NCLEX are important milestones in anyone’s career, these are only the first steps in your preparation as a nursing professional. Throughout your career you will continue to expand your knowledge base due to advances in technology and cutting-edge nursing research. For those wishing to play a part in developing new skills, research, and practice innovations, now is the time for you to consider graduate-level nursing education.

More education brings more opportunity, and many doors are open to nurses with master’s degrees. Nurses with graduate preparation provide direct patient care at an advanced level, conduct research, teach online and in the classroom, impact public policy, lead health systems, consult with corporations, and implement evidence-based solutions that revolutionize health care. These highly skilled providers are in great demand to fill established and emerging roles that allow nurses to focus on a variety of practice areas, such as geriatrics, pediatrics, public health, administration, informatics, forensics, systems improvement, and genetics/genomics.

The national movement toward healthcare reform is ushering in new models of care delivery that will place nurses in the driver’s seat. As leaders of health/medical homes, nurse-managed health clinics, community health centers, and other settings, nurses are moving to become full partners in driving change in the healthcare arena. As more patients enter the system and an aging population creates the demand for transformation in health care, many more nurses will be needed to serve in primary care and specialty roles, as well as to lead independent practices.

Beyond the professional opportunities nurses gain through graduate education, there are some very tangible benefits to one’s quality of life. Nurses with advanced preparation typically enjoy more opportunities to impact the overall design and implementation of care. 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. With new practice opportunities emerging, and the demand for highly specialized nursing skills rising, the time is right for you to begin your graduate-level nursing education. The earlier in your career you complete your formal education, the longer your professional life and the higher your lifetime earnings will be.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) encourages all nurses to strive for higher levels of education to advance their capacity to enhance the quality of care available to our nation’s diverse patient populations. Calls for more nurses with graduate level preparation are coming from both inside and outside of the profession from authorities as diverse as the Institute of Medicine, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Now is the time for you to invest in your future and begin your journey into graduate nursing education. 

Know Your Nursing Education Options

As you consider how best to continue your education, it’s important to keep your career trajectory in mind and know your options. Today’s health system needs nurses prepared at both the master’s and doctoral levels, yet you do not need to take a “stepped” approach to your education if your ultimate goal is the doctorate. Progressing seamlessly from baccalaureate to doctoral preparation is often more efficient, requiring less time in class and educational expenses. Of course, many students do choose to complete a master’s degree followed by a doctorate later in their career. This well-established educational pathway provides additional career options and may be necessary when family, work demands, and finances are considered.

Once you determine your degree of choice, you must select the program type that is right for you.  More than 500 nursing schools nationwide offer a menu of more than 2,000 graduate programs tailored to the needs of nurses with varying levels of education as well as non-nurses looking to enter the profession at an advanced level. 

Master's Nursing Programs

Master’s nursing programs prepare individuals for a variety of advanced roles in administration, teaching, research, informatics, and direct patient care. Nurses at this level are in high demand as Clinical Nurse Leaders, nurse managers, clinical educators, health policy consultants, research assistants, public health nurses, and in many other capacities. Individuals looking to earn a master’s degree may choose from these options: 

  • Entry-Level Master’s Degree: Developed for those with a bachelor's or graduate degree in a discipline other than nursing, entry-level master’s degrees are also referred to as generic or accelerated programs. These offerings generally take about 2 to 3 years to finish with baccalaureate-level content and initial RN licensure completed during the first year. These programs, many of which prepare Clinical Nurse Leaders, are paced for students who have proven their ability to succeed at a four-year college or university. More than 60 entry-level master’s programs are available at schools nationwide.
  • RN to Master’s Degree: Designed for nurses with associate degrees, RN to MSN programs take about 2 to 3 years to complete with specific requirements varying by institution and based on the student's previous course work. Though most programs are offered in classroom settings, many are delivered largely online or in a blended classroom/online format. The baccalaureate-level content missing from associate degree curricula is built into the front-end of these degree completion programs. The number of RN to MSN programs has more than doubled in the past 25 years with more than 200 programs available today.
  • Baccalaureate to Master’s Degree: The traditional post-baccalaureate master’s is the most prevalent option offered to those seeking graduate preparation. Course work builds on undergraduate competency and allows students to concentrate their learning on a focus area. Program requirements and credit load vary by institution, though most programs may be completed in 18-24 months of full-time study. Though the majority of schools grant the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, some offer the Master of Nursing (MN) or MS in Nursing in keeping with university policy. The MSN, MN, and MS in Nursing are comparable degrees and prepare students at the same level of competency.
  • Dual Master’s Degree Programs: Nurses seeking a graduate degree with an in-depth concentration in a related field of study often choose a dual MSN program. Nationwide, more than 120 dual master’s degrees are available that combine nursing course work with business (MSN/MBA), public health (MSN/MPH), health administration (MSN/MHA), public administration (MSN/MPA), and other content areas.
  • Post Master’s Certificate Programs: Certificate programs also are available to master’s program graduates looking to sharpen their clinical skills and nursing knowledge in a number of focus areas, including nursing education, leadership, informatics, and specialty practice among many others.

Preparation for Specific Nursing Roles

Nurses with graduate degrees serve in a variety of direct and indirect care roles in wide range of practice arenas. Below is a sampling of career options for master’s graduates based on data collected by AACN on the most common majors available at U.S. nursing schools. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there on no limits on where your graduate nursing education can take you. For a description of the four Advanced Practice Registered Nursing (APRN) roles – nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist and nurse midwife – see the Doctor of Nursing Practice.

  • Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNLs) are prepared in master’s degree programs to oversee the care coordination for patients, assess risks, develop quality improvement strategies, facilitate team communication, and implement evidence-based solutions at the unit level. Nurses looking to provide direct care services while exercising clinical judgment, systems improvement, patient advocacy, and communication skills often flourish in this role. CNLs by definition are leaders, but this leadership occurs at the point of care. This role is not focused on nursing administration or management. CNLs are typically found at the bedside or providing direct patient care in other settings where they collaborate with other members of the healthcare team to provide a safe environment for patients where needs are prioritized and individualized. Students graduating from CNL programs may complete their role preparation by pursuing certification though the Commission on Nurse Certification. CNL® certification is a mark of excellence that lets employers, patients, and colleagues know that the CNL possesses the requisite knowledge and skills to practice in this unique capacity.
  • Nurse Administrators serve in a variety of managerial and leadership capacities in all practice environments. These nursing professionals facilitate and deliver quality patient care while coordinating actions in the workplace and managing a team of nurses. A nurse administrator may run a small team of nurses, several nursing units, an entire department, or an entire health system. These nurses are well-versed in nursing practice as well as in administrative procedures. Nurses drawn to this specialty typically aspire to be leaders in health care and often seek executive and policy making roles. Certification programs are available for graduates of nursing administration programs from the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Organization of Nurse Executives.
  • Nurse Educators combine clinical expertise with a passion for teaching. Responsible for preparing new nurses and advancing the development of practicing clinicians, nurse educators possess a solid clinical background, strong communication skills, and a high level of cultural competence. Educators must be flexible enough to adapt curriculum and teaching methods in response to innovations in nursing science and ongoing changes in the practice environment. Within this role, these professionals enjoy opportunities to conduct research, publish articles in scholarly journals, speak at nursing conferences, serve as consultants to education and healthcare institutions, write grant proposals, shape public policy, and engage in community service. Given the growing shortage of nurse faculty, the job outlook for those seeking careers in nursing education is bright with a growing demand for individuals needed to teach in schools of nursing, hospitals, public health agencies, and other settings.

    Preparation for the nurse educator role varies by role and teaching site. Nurses with master’s preparation are needed to serve as instructors in the practice setting, clinical preceptors, staff development officers, and faculty in associate degree and allied nursing programs. Future faculty pursuing a master’s degree are advised to specialize in a clinical area within the discipline, not the process of teaching. Individuals pursuing full-time faculty roles should have additional preparation in the art and science of teaching (i.e., pedagogy, curriculum development, student assessment) to better convey their clinical mastery to nursing students. This additional preparation may occur in formal course work as part of a clinically-focused master’s program or completed separate from the graduate degree.
  • Public Health Nurses focus on preserving the health and well-being of the public. These specialists are licensed professional nurses who participate in activities related to population health, health promotion, disease prevention and control, and community education. Though their responsibilities vary by role and location, master’s- and doctorally-prepared public health nurses often manage clinics in various state and community settings (e.g.,  immunizations, well-child, health screenings), investigate communicable disease cases to determine sources and implement action necessary to curtail the spread of disease; analyze data to identify needs and service gaps for individuals, families, and communities; provide education regarding disease control and prevention as well as general preventive health care to individuals and groups; and implement programs that address environmental and population health risks. These nurses work collaboratively with community leaders, government officials, teachers, parents, and other providers in areas related to community and population health.
  • Nurse Informaticists seek to improve information management and communications in nursing to maximize efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance the quality of patient care. The American Nurses Association defines nursing informatics as “a specialty that integrates nursing science, computer science, and information science to manage and communicate data, information, and knowledge in nursing practice. Nursing informatics facilitates the integration of data, information and knowledge to support patients, nurses, and other providers in their decision-making in all roles and settings.” Informatics specialists must understand the nursing process, so they can design systems that will solve problems facing patient care. After completing a bachelor’s degree in nursing, many nurse informaticists obtain a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing depending upon their career aspirations. 

Nursing is an evolving profession that presents limitless career opportunities for nurses with graduate degrees. Beyond the roles mentioned above, nurses are breaking fresh ground as specialists in forensics, case management, military nursing, school nursing, genetics/genomics, and others emerging practice areas. For an extensive list of nursing specialties, including an overview of academic requirements, see