What Is an MSN Degree? Definition of a Master of Science in Nursing

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Cheerful nurse

Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an important milestone for professionals seeking advanced careers in nursing. One might generally define an MSN degree as a path for registered nurses who want to work in higher-level, more specialized roles with greater independence. The program teaches skills that can apply in a variety of different fields and health care settings.

Who Might Be Interested in an MSN Degree?

The advanced courses that nurses take to earn MSN degrees are useful to prepare for a variety of career opportunities. Roles such as nurse administrator, nurse practitioner (NP), health policy expert, and a variety of teaching positions all typically require a master’s degree.

Courses Included in MSN Degree Programs

In MSN programs, students often complete courses in conjunction with clinical practicums. The clinical element offers students experience in their chosen specializations, such as pediatrics, mental health, and geriatrics.

Coursework emphasizes best practices and skills for health care practitioners. These courses could include subjects such as:

  • Theoretical Basis of Practice. Students develop an understanding of health care issues and the nursing profession.
  • Analysis of Evidence-Based Practice. Students learn to use available research and relevant data to make informed decisions about patient care.
  • Advanced Pathophysiology in Nursing Practice. Students develop a conceptual understanding of human physiology in relation to practicing care on patients at various life stages.
  • Teaching Strategies in Nursing. Future educators learn to instruct students on a wide range of practical and theoretical topics, as well as to teach clinical skills and develop students’ capabilities.

Clinical NP Skills Learned by MSN Students

MSN programs teach students the skills they might need when they become practicing NPs. These skills drive the quality of patient care and give them a base of leadership knowledge to manage an independent health care practice, if they choose to pursue this route. They can include:

  • Evidence-based practice. According to Clinical Advisor, this skill moves beyond including the latest research into patient care. It also means that NPs need to take family and patient preferences into account when incorporating new practices and evaluating patient outcomes.
  • Management of other nurses. According to the Mayo Clinic, this includes the supervision, guidance, and coordination of staff activities and patient care.
  • Leadership. Leadership is the ability to guide people to implement changes and improvements.
  • Advanced clinical practice. This skill entails the provision of primary diagnoses, treatments, and care as independent health care providers, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

Earning an MSN could be an excellent way to build these advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) skills for nurses who hope to become nurse educators, managers, or NPs. For future nurse practitioners who may need additional certifications, an MSN degree may be the first of several steps toward pursuing further career advancement.

The MSN Can Be a Stepping Stone for Nursing Career Advancement

The MSN degree definition is flexible. The MSN can be considered a stepping stone to a career as an autonomous clinical practitioner, or it can serve as a nonclinical degree that leads to a career in nursing management or nurse education.

Nurse Education
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurse educators may become instructors or may divide their work among instruction, research, and publishing. As with most academic careers, this position can require extensive knowledge, training, and teaching ability. Nurse educators may work at colleges or universities, or they may even conduct classes online. In addition to teaching, they often supervise their students’ clinical placements at hospitals and other medical facilities.

The BLS categorizes a range of nursing-related positions as advanced practice registered nurses. Although APRNs of all kinds perform tasks similar to those of RNs, they can work as autonomous primary care providers, depending on their areas of specialization:

    • Nurse Practitioners (NPs)/Family Nurse Practitioners (FNPs)

Nurse practitioners may serve as general primary care providers and see patients in family practices. In most states, NPs can diagnose and treat patients and have prescriptive authority. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing recommends that NP candidates be registered nurses, hold an accredited clinical graduate degree, pass a national certification exam, and earn any specialized nurse practitioner licenses needed.

    • Nurse Midwives (NMs)/Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs)

Nurse midwives are NPs/APRNs who provide specialized care to individuals before, during, and after childbirth. In healthy pregnancies, they deliver babies; in high-risk pregnancies or in cases with complications, they collaborate with obstetricians to deliver the child and care for the mother. These providers can also provide ongoing gynecological health care services.

    • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)

CRNAs are NPs/APRNs who provide anesthetics-related care and monitor patients in a variety of medical contexts. They may administer localized or general anesthesia during medical procedures.

Nurse Managers
According to O*Net, nurse managers and other medical and health services managers supervise employees, but they’re also responsible for implementing new health care initiatives and ensuring that all staff members have been trained on new systems and compliance measures. Nurse managers communicate with unhappy patients and strive to increase their satisfaction. These professionals must create budgets, evaluate their direct reports, hire new employees, and ensure that the department or clinical practice runs smoothly.

MSN Grads Might Consider Post-Master’s Certificates

Many nonclinical MSN graduates consider returning to school to complete a post-master’s certificate to practice as clinicians. Practicing NPs can enroll in post-master’s certificate programs to either add an additional specialty to their current practice or to become nurse educators.

The MSN degree definition has changed. The MSN no longer only prepares graduates to be supportive caregivers; it now prepares graduates to be autonomous health care providers who can specialize in family practice, nurse midwifery, nursing education, and even mental health. These graduates can lead health care departments, organizations, and reforms. The career path starts with the MSN but can be augmented with post-master’s certificates. The definition of an MSN degree is whatever the graduate makes of it.

Learn More

For students who aspire to an advanced career in nursing, Ohio University’s online MSN program helps them gain the skills and experience necessary to take their nursing careers to the next level. Learn more about Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing.


Recommended Reading:

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Unlicensed Personnel Vs. Nurses: Education Is Critical

Fitness Trackers, EMR, and Actionable Data



American Association of Nurse Practitioners

AMN Healthcare

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Clinical Advisor

Mayo Clinic

Ohio University

O*Net, Medical and Health Services Managers

O*Net, Nurse Practitioners