What’s an MSN & How Can It Help You Advance Your Career?

Nursing is a dynamic profession that offers a variety of career paths. However, continuing your education is essential to ensuring you can continue to make a lasting impact on patient care. 

“It’s a life commitment to maintain education,” says Professor Joanna Sikkema, Director of the Nurse Practitioner Online Suite at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences School of Nursing. “What you’ve learned through one degree is great, but it doesn’t stop at that point. It’s a continuous process because a nursing career commands life-long learning to stay current and contemporary in today’s healthcare systems.”

For example, earning an MSN degree can make you become a more proficient healthcare professional and enable you to explore new aspects of nursing practice. But what is an MSN, and how can this degree aid your career goals?

Here’s an overview of an MSN, as well as the benefits and outcomes you can expect from this degree program.

What Is an MSN Degree?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), is a graduate-level degree meant for registered nurses (RNs) to further their education and expand their professional roles in healthcare. To enroll, you’ll need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an National League for Nursing (NLN) or Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredited nursing program and an RN license, but, in many cases, these programs also require on-the-job experience to ensure you are ready to take on the rigor of an MSN program.

An MSN degree provides a deeper and more specialized education than RN training or even a BSN. This is because the curriculum covers advanced topics in nursing and healthcare, preparing nurses for more leadership and advocate roles for health policy formulation and revision.

“The BSN is the basic foundation for nursing,” says Professor Carol Patton, a nurse educator and Program Director for the Bouvé College of Health Sciences School of Nursing. “The master’s degree builds on the baccalaureate content, develops skill sets at a higher level, and refines areas of specialization—whereas the bachelor’s is a basic and general approach to nursing.”

The length of MSN programs varies, typically ranging from 18 months to three years—depending on the program’s structure and your prior education and experience. If you are worried about this timeline though, there are a variety of programs that offer an MSN in person, online, and hybrid to accommodate working professionals.

Another important aspect of an MSN degree you should think about is a specialization at the master’s level.

MSN Degree Specializations

Choosing a nursing specialization is critical to your MSN degree because it can significantly shape your career trajectory. Nursing specialization allows you to gain a deeper understanding of a niche aspect of healthcare that interests you. 

Many MSN programs won’t even let you enroll without choosing a specialization, so it’s important to explore your options:

  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP): Focuses on the primary healthcare of individuals and families.
  • Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP): Prepares nurses to care for patients aged 12 and older with acute, episodic, and complex chronic illnesses.
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP): Provides evidence-based, family-centered healthcare education to help nurses care for infants, children, adolescents, and their families.
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP): Helps nurses provide a range of mental health services for children, adolescents, adults, and families.
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP): Focuses on care for infants with complications from premature birth, such as heart abnormalities, infections, or other conditions.

Nearly all of these specializations lead to becoming a nurse practitioner in a particular specialty. The nurse practitioner role has increasingly become an in-demand healthcare position that provides important healthcare services for various communities. According to our analysis of job posting data, nurse practitioners are most needed in the following states: 

  • New York
  • Texas
  • Pennsylvania
  • Massachusetts
  • Illinois
  • California
  • Florida
  • Ohio
  • Missouri
Where Nurse Practitioners are Needed Most: New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Florida, Ohio, Missouri.
Where Nurse Practitioners are Needed Most: New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Florida, Ohio, Missouri.

How an MSN Degree Can Help You Advance Your Career

While continuing education is crucial for nurses to stay engaged with advancements in healthcare, it is also an important tool nurses use to advance their career. Here are a few ways an MSN degree can help you advance your nursing career.

1. Enhances Leadership Capabilities

Due to industry regulations, the majority of advanced nursing roles are only accessible to nurses with a postgraduate education. Therefore, earning a master’s degree is essential if you hope to work in a leadership position.

According to our analysis of job posting data, the top career paths for graduates of an MSN program are: 

  • Nurse practitioners
  • Adjunct nursing faculty
  • Registered nurses
  • Clinical supervisors
  • Medical surgical registered nurses
Top Career Paths for Master's of Science in Nursing Graduates: Nurse Practitioners, Adjunct Nursing Faculty, Registered Nurses, Clinical Supervisors, Medical Surgical Registered Nurses.
Top Career Paths for Master’s of Science in Nursing Graduates: Nurse Practitioners, Adjunct Nursing Faculty, Registered Nurses, Clinical Supervisors, Medical Surgical Registered Nurses.

These advanced practice specialty roles involve greater responsibility, including diagnosing and managing patient care, and in some cases, prescribing medications. In addition, an MSN degree is an important stepping stone to other high-level roles in nursing education, healthcare administration, and policy-making. 

2. Develops Clinical Skills

While NPs have always worked more independently than RNs, there has been a noticeable shift in the level of independence—making an MSN education even more crucial.

“I think we have seen a significant evolution of the MSN and the nurse practitioner role as well,” Sikkema says. “With the greatest evolution being the transition to independent practice versus collaborative and supervised practice.”

To ensure nurses are prepared for this shift, MSN programs focus on developing advanced clinical skills and theoretical knowledge to enable NPs to manage patient care more autonomously. According to our analysis of job posting data, the most in-demand nursing skills are: 

  • Nursing care
  • Social work
  • Case management
  • Care coordination
  • Clinical experience
In-Demand Nursing Skills: Nursing Care, Social Work, Case Management, Care Coordination, Clinical Experience.
In-Demand Nursing Skills: Nursing Care, Social Work, Case Management, Care Coordination, Clinical Experience.

As a result, this degree has been pivotal in broadening the scope of NP practice, empowering them to provide comprehensive healthcare services in underserved areas where physician availability is limited, and in some cases, non-existent.

“You have to be very empathetic and caring,” Patton says. “So you really have to understand how to connect with the patient through a therapeutic alliance. You’re going to be working with very diverse populations as an advanced practice nurse.”

3. Diversifies Your Career Options

Earning an MSN can diversify your career options in several ways.

For one, an MSN degree can open up new opportunities in industries that may not have been available to you with a BSN. According to our analysis of job posting data, the top industries hiring MSN graduates are: 

  • General medical and surgical hospitals
  • Physician offices in colleges, universities, and professional schools
  • Ambulatory healthcare services
  • Pharmacies and drug retailers
Top Industries for Nurse Practitioners: General Medicine and Surgical Hospitals, Physician Offices, Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools, Ambulatory Health Care Services, Pharmacies and Drug Retailers.
Top Industries for Nurse Practitioners: General Medicine and Surgical Hospitals, Physician Offices, Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools, Ambulatory Health Care Services, Pharmacies and Drug Retailers.

When considering the return on investment, it’s important to factor in where you plan to work, your desired practice area, and the availability or shortage of similar professionals. Although a graduate degree increases your long-term earnings potential, the overall differences between an MSN vs. BSN salary vary depending on the regional demand, specialization, and type of employer. 

Specializations also play an important role in diversifying your career options. Through these programs, nurses can gain specialized skills in subject areas such as:

  • Pediatrics
  • Gerontology
  • Family health
  • Mental health

Take the First Step in Advancing Your Nursing Career

An MSN degree is not the only option for advancement in this field, but it is one of the most versatile degrees if you are interested in both clinical specialization and nursing leadership. In MSN programs, you can draw on your clinical experiences to think critically about how to improve communication, outreach, advocacy, and care delivery. 

By learning from seasoned nurses and diverse peers in an MSN program, you will be able to observe different components of nursing practice and patient outcomes—making you a more effective leader in healthcare.

The School of Nursing at Bouvé College of Health and Sciences offers online MSN programs for working professionals who want to pursue advanced education in a flexible, personalized format. If you’re interested in earning an MSN degree at Northeastern University, contact an admissions counselor to explore program options.