What Can You Do with an MSN?

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A group of nurses standing and looking at the camera in lab coats with their arms crossed.Today, nurses are in high demand across the nation. While an associate or bachelor’s degree provides a solid foundation for a nursing career, those who obtain a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) may see more career opportunities in addition to higher earning potential. But what can you do with an MSN degree? Earning an MSN can help nurses further their studies, choose an area of specialization, and pursue higher-ranking jobs.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, it normally takes a full-time graduate student between 18 and 24 months to earn an MSN degree. For many, returning to school as a full-time student isn’t an option due to the scheduling, personal obligations, and financial burdens of returning to college. Because of this, these students opt to take part-time classes while continuing to work.

Part-time students usually take between three and five years to complete the program and still graduate with all the benefits of an advanced degree. Many working professionals also consider pursuing their MSN through an online program. These programs usually offer a combination of online coursework and a practicum, where the student continues to work or is in another local medical facility.

MSN Requirements

After deciding to pursue an MSN, there are several prerequisites that students should meet before studying. Candidates must be registered nurses (RNs) with current licenses and hold bachelor’s degrees, preferably a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Some RNs choose to continue their education directly after finishing their BSN, while others prefer to gain hands-on clinical experience by working in a doctor’s office or hospital before beginning the next level of their education. Many schools also require that prospective students take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT).

MSN requirements will differ slightly depending on the type of MSN program the student selects.

  • Entry-level MSN degree: This degree program is intended for those who already have a degree in a field other than nursing. The program takes approximately 2-3 years to complete and moves at an accelerated pace.
  • RN to MSN degree: This degree program is intended for those who already have an associate degree in nursing. The RN to MSN program takes approximately 2-3 years to complete.
  • BSN to MSN degree: This degree program is intended for those who have already completed their BSN degree and is considered the most traditional MSN program. It takes approximately 18-24 months to complete.
  • Dual MSN degree: This degree program is intended for those who wish to combine their MSN studies with another concentration. Examples include MSN/MBA (business administration), MSN/MPH (public health), MSN/MHA (health administration), and MSN/MPA (public administration). Requirements for these programs will vary by institution; however, a BSN is largely considered the standard to enroll. Additional MSN requirements may apply.

Degree Choices

There are several options for specialization within MSN programs. At most schools, graduate nursing students choose to pursue one or more of the following career paths.

  • Family Nurse Practitioner: Provides specialized and primary care to patients of all ages across their lifespan
  • Nurse Educator: Teaches future generations of nurses in a variety of classroom settings, develops and evaluates curriculum, performs research projects, writes and publishes reports
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner: Provides specialized and manages health issues of adult populations
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner: Assesses and treats individuals who are facing any variety of mental health and addiction issues.

What to Look For

After deciding to go back to school to earn an MSN, prospective students should consider a number of factors before selecting a school. Some of these include:

  • Accreditation and State Acceptance:
  • Prerequisites: Students should carefully investigate the prerequisite courses needed for their MSN program. Many programs require undergraduate coursework in management or statistics and research. Additionally, nurses who want to specialize in their MSN may need to take some undergraduate prerequisite classes before beginning the advanced degree program.
  • Flexibility in Scheduling: Before enrolling in a program, many nurses explore the scheduling flexibility of their courses. Some choose to work while taking classes, so class schedule, location of practicums, and availability of online courses are all important factors to consider.
  • Reputation and Staff: The overall reputation of the school in the marketplace is a key consideration. Before selecting a college or university, prospective students should learn about the teaching staff. To get the most out of an MSN, students should seek programs that have faculty with expertise in their desired specialty.

MSN Careers

Prior to enrolling, many students contemplate what they can do with an MSN degree once they graduate. This is a reasonable question, as an MSN program is a greater investment of time and money than a BSN program. Students with MSN degrees will likely have more career options open to them.

Here is a breakdown of five popular MSN careers.

1. Clinical Research Specialist

Nurses who enjoy clinical research, such as patient trials, should consider pursuing careers as clinical research specialists (aka medical scientists). These professionals conduct research to find ways to improve overall human health, using scientific investigation methods and clinical trials to form their conclusions. Those in leadership positions facilitate the research and track compliance to ensure research projects are ethical, medically relevant, and scientifically valid. Clinical research specialists also monitor and report on assigned studies to assess the data collection and reporting.

This career requires adherence to positive ethical and moral principles along with following the mission of the employing organization. Nurses who become clinical research specialists typically work in labs, in academia, or at medical care facilities, though there are other job options as well.

According to the compensation website PayScale, the median annual pay for a clinical research specialist was around $59,100 as of September 2021.

2. Nursing Supervisor

Nursing supervisors oversee the quality of nursing offered at a facility or organization. Their responsibilities include coordinating nursing and training programs, solving administrative and supervisory problems within a department or assigned area, and ensuring that the quality of nursing services for patients remains high.

Nursing supervisors often work in hospitals or medical clinics, but there are employment opportunities wherever there are nursing teams to manage. Candidates for this career must be able to exercise considerable judgment when applying professional knowledge to solve problems, and they need to be able to oversee and train a diverse staff.

Per PayScale, the median annual salary for a nursing supervisor was about $76,800 as of September 2021.

3. Nurse Educator

As the nursing field continues to grow, so does the need for nurse educators who can guide students to become nurses. They can also advise them on what to do with their MSNs or related degrees after obtaining them. Nurse educators work as faculty members at colleges, universities, vocational and technical schools, and hospital-based education programs. They create and design courses that comply with federal and state regulations, and they also analyze and report on the effectiveness of these programs so they can be updated and revised as necessary.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that nurse educators earned a median annual salary of $75,470, as of May 2020. However, prospective students should note that this figure can vary significantly based on the location or facility of employment.

4. Advanced Nurse Practitioner

Nurses looking to take on leadership roles could pursue careers as advanced nurse practitioners. They often specialize in fields such as adult-gerontology care, pediatric/family care, or pharmacotherapeutics, among others, and can work in hospital or lab settings in the public or private sector.

Advanced nurse practitioners’ responsibilities include performing physical exams; creating and administering patient care plans; ordering and performing diagnostic tests; analyzing changes in patient health while altering treatment plans as needed, and consulting with doctors and other health care professionals.

According to the BLS, nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of nearly $111,680 as of May 2020. The industry’s job outlook projects 52% growth from 2020 to 2030, which is much faster than average.

5. Nurse Executive

Nurses in executive roles focus on accountability for patient care. They are members of an organization’s senior leadership team who facilitate the design and implementation of patient care delivery, build relationships between staff members, and provide mentoring and coaching to their subordinates.

Their roles include influencing innovation, expanding the use of emerging technologies, leading professionals across the continuum of health care, and steering their organizations so they stay relevant in the future. They must possess superior communication skills, the ability to create and manage large budgets, and the ability to predict their organization’s long-term needs.

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a board-certified nurse executive was around $134,000 as of September 2021.

Those who are wondering what you can do with an MSN should know that this degree type is very compatible with other career fields. While the MSN degree does focus on advanced practice nursing, it also goes hand in hand with business and research. For those with aspirations to work on the business side of operating a hospital or a desire to work on clinical trials and other research studies, the MSN is the perfect springboard to opportunities in these career paths.

MSN Salary

Earning an MSN may help nurses and students increase their earning potential. According to PayScale, the median annual MSN salary was $97,000 as of September 2021. However, this figure varies based on specific career paths, geographic location, years of experience, and type of health care organization.

An MSN degree can widen the scope of career possibilities for nurses looking for leadership roles, advancement in the workplace, and increased job satisfaction. By putting in the time and effort to complete this advanced degree, MSN graduates take an important step toward advancing their nursing careers to the next level.

Pursue Your MSN

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a comprehensive program. It is designed for active registered nurses who have earned their Bachelor of Science in Nursing and want to advance their education through the flexibility and convenience of online courses.

This MSN program features a robust core curriculum that integrates advanced nursing theory and evidence-based nursing practice through case-driven studies. With 100% online coursework and five specializations to choose from, students can obtain an education that is both convenient and specific to their interests.

Take the first step toward pursuing your professional goals today with Ohio University.

Recommended Readings

Bedside Nursing: Key Roles and Responsibilities for Nurses

Choosing the Right Online Masters in Nursing Program

The Importance of Nursing Theory in Nursing Education


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Master’s Education

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, APRNs in the U.S

Payscale, Average Clinical Research Specialist Salary

PayScale, Average Nursing Supervisor Hourly Pay

PayScale, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree

PayScale, Salary for Certification: Nurse Executive – Board Certified (NE-BC)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary