What are the different types of master’s degrees in nursing?

Many prospective nurses view attaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) as the ultimate goal to be achieved. Of course, nursing students must pass board exams and gain practical experience and a job offer before they can really practice as nurses, but the BSN is considered to be the first major hurdle.

What many new nurses realize is that after obtaining their BSN, passing their exams, and gaining practical experience in clinical settings, they want to take their education and career to another level. Nurses can develop their professional skills on the job through practical experience, shadowing and learning, but if you really want to learn about a topic in intense detail or get promoted, you may want to pursue a master’s degree in nursing.

Why pursue a master’s in nursing? 

There are a number of reasons why you may want to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. If you enjoyed the academic rigor and challenge of your BSN degree, you may find that you want even more of a challenge and to delve deeper into a particular aspect of the nursing profession.

A master’s degree is also beneficial for boosting your career prospects. If you are interested in a particular subset of the nursing profession, a master’s degree may be able to help you get there. On top of that, nurses who have master’s degrees are likely to find that their pay is increased, and their promotion opportunities are improved.

Master of Science in Nursing bridge programs 

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) bridge programs are ideal for registered nurses (RNs) who have an associate degree and who want to gain a master’s degree without first completing their BSN degrees. These bridge programs tend to make this possible by combining the last two years of a BSN program with master’s-level courses. These programs tend to take three to four years to complete and are often offered online.

Direct-entry master’s programs 

Direct-entry MSN programs are ideal for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than nursing. These programs use the student’s existing college credits to boost an MSN degree and help to jump start the individual’s career in nursing.

Dual master’s degree 

RNs who are interested in pursuing advanced roles in the nursing profession should consider a dual master’s degree. These degrees often combine two related programs such as nursing and business (MBA), public health (MPH), or health administration (MHA) to create a single master’s degree.

Dual master’s programs are incredibly difficult due to the diverse subject matter and are well suited to students who enjoy being challenged academically. Due to the diverse subject matter covered in these programs, they tend to take students around three to four years to finish and can also be taken online.

Nurse practitioner 

After becoming licensed, RNs can take the next step in their specialization by becoming nurse practitioners (NPs). Unlike RNs, NPs can diagnose conditions and prescribe medications either with a doctor or independently.

The NP’s role is more autonomous than an RN’s, and it is also more highly paid. The average salary of NPs in the US is more than $100,000.

Clinical nurse specialist 

Another specialization available to RNs is the clinical nurse specialist (CNS) role. CNSs specialize in diagnosis, treatment and managing patient health on an ongoing basis. These programs emphasize clinical learning, including identification of diagnoses, pharmacology and building treatment plans.

The CNS role is ideal for nurses who gain a lot of their job satisfaction from working directly with patients and who want to be involved in patient care at a higher level. The salary for CNSs is also higher than for RNs.

Certified nurse-midwife

RNs who are particularly drawn to the birthing process may want to consider specializing as a certified nurse-midwife (CNM). CNMs are trained to care for patients going through pregnancy and childbirth, and they are trained to oversee both hospital and home births.

CNMs are highly specialized and oversee RNs and nursing assistants during the birth process, while also providing education to new families who are looking to learn more about what is involved.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist 

Nurses who specialize as Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) are the highest-paid specialized nurses, and they earn an average salary of $189,190 in the US. The reason why they earn so much is that anesthesia is a very sensitive and crucial aspect of surgery and, if done incorrectly, can result in death or extreme anguish for the patient.

In addition to administering anesthesia during procedures, CRNAs can also prescribe medications in some states.

Further specializations 

Public health 

Nurses are able to undertake postgraduate education focused on public health, which can lead to a career in government, large hospitals or NGOs. Master’s programs that focus on public health tend to teach students about disease prevention, communicable diseases, how legislation is drafted and public communication.

Nurse administrators 

RNs who specialize in nursing administration tend to want to work for large hospitals, healthcare systems, insurance companies, governmental agencies or NGOs. They have communication and leadership skills and understand how to lead teams in an effective, organized way.

Nursing informatics

One of the newer specializations for the nursing field is in informatics. Nursing informatics involves using digital tech, information science and data analytics to find out where the gaps are in the healthcare system and how they can be filled.

Postgraduate courses that teach nursing informatics will typically include courses on artificial intelligence, managing analytics, collecting, organizing and presenting data, and predictive analytics.

Community health nurse

Many people are called to nursing because they want to directly impact their community in a positive way. Community health nurses are trained in how to work directly with the public and effectively communicate health issues, risks and practices to the people they work with.

The courses that focus on community health nursing will typically train nurses how to work with marginalized groups and provide basic levels of health education to community members.

Master of Science in Nursing Education 

Some nurses find the clinical aspects of nursing less compelling than working with their fellow nurses, training new nurses, and providing mentorship to students and prospective nursing students. For these people, a Master of Science in Nursing Education, otherwise known as an MSN-Nurse Educator degree, is a good postgraduate choice.

The Master of Science in Nursing Education helps nursing professionals hone their skills and develop best practices for teaching and training new nurses. The teachers of new nurses are essentially shaping the future of nursing and are able to have a massive impact on their students’ careers.

There are a number of different programs that offer the Master of Science in Nursing Education and that focus on how to train student nurses most effectively. One program is the online master’s in nursing education from Walsh University, which has both eight and 16-week courses for enrolled students in a 42-credit program. The online coursework of the program is paired with experiential learning in clinical or academic settings, which helps students to apply their newly learned skills and gain practical experience.

Taking your education further: the PhD in nursing 

Finally, the highest possible degree you can pursue in nursing is a PhD in nursing. PhDs are not practice degrees and are the highest level of education for practice-based learning.

You may want to consider pursuing a PhD if you have already completed a BSN and a master’s degree and you are interested in a career in research or academia. This is a great step for students who have finished their Master of Science in Nursing Education and realize that they want to teach nurses at the university level.

Individuals who pursue PhD degrees typically have a particular academic or research interest that they are incredibly passionate about and interested in. This deep interest in a particular area is necessary because PhD programs are extremely rigorous and can take between three and five years to complete. The purpose of a PhD in nursing is to help progress the scientific knowledge of nursing and midwifery through original research.

The rise of online learning in nursing

The public perception of online learning and degrees awarded via remote learning institutions has changed greatly in the course of the last few years. In the past, online learning was perceived as being less intense and of a lesser quality than learning that took place in a traditional classroom setting. This general disregard for online education in the public’s collective consciousness led many people to avoid distance education.

However, the societal perception of online education changed forever during the global COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, all education – from kindergarten through to post-doctoral placements – migrated from in person to digital education. This transition took place over the course of just a few weeks, and at the beginning no one was quite sure how long it would last for or how successful remote education would be.

After two years of the global pandemic, the world realized that online education was just as rigorous, comprehensive and informative as learning in a classroom setting. The migration to digital learning also showed that virtually every subject and course could be effectively taught remotely.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many fully online courses have launched, and many more students have considered attending distance education. There are now tens of thousands of people who will pursue their interests via online education who otherwise would not have.

What learning remotely can teach you

Aside from being accepted as a valuable form of education, digital learning can actually be used on a CV to highlight particular skills that can be taught by online learning. When a student learns remotely, they are fully responsible for their work and must maintain their learning schedules without the guidance of a formal course schedule.

The added measure of freedom that online education gives students means that those who are learning remotely quickly gain self-discipline, time management and organizational skills that their peers in traditional learning arrangements do not have. On top of that, students who take online courses need to hone their communication skills in order to convey their work and information to fellow classmates and professors online. Self-discipline, organization, time management and communication are all essential skills for nurses in today’s clinical environments.

Is online learning for you?

One of the major benefits of online learning is that it is much more accessible and flexible than more traditional learning styles. You can learn on your own time when it is most convenient for you, and you are not held to a tight schedule every week during term time. However, you may be wondering if online learning is going to be a good fit for you and your lifestyle – if you have never tried remote learning, then you may not be sure whether or not you would succeed as a remote learner.

Arguably the best way to find out whether online learning is for you is to give it a try. You can try out remote learning by taking one or two of the thousands of different courses that are currently offered online for very low fees or for free. Taking additional courses will also only make your resume and application stand out when applying to graduate programs.

Another step you can take is to reach out to the recruitment teams at the universities you are most interested in and ask for additional resources. These recruiters have experience working with students who are new to online learning, and they should be able to answer all of your questions and provide you with any resources you need.