Earning a Master’s in Nursing Online

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Due to shifting healthcare policies, changes in health technology, and the needs of an aging baby boomer population, registered nurses (RNs) remain in high demand across the United States. The Institute of Medicine projects that the number of nurses with graduate degrees needs to double to meet these growing needs. Unfortunately, the current workforce does not satisfy this requirement — only 55% of nurses hold baccalaureate credentials or higher.

To court distance learners, colleges and universities provide accessible online MSN programs. This guide contains the necessary academic information for prospective students to find programs that best suit their schedules and goals. Learners can also gain insight regarding different career options and professional resources.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Nursing?

Like other graduate tracks, online nursing master's programs build on prior knowledge and practical training. Consequently, students in these programs usually hold a bachelor's degree in nursing and actively work in the field. Individuals pursue advanced academics to bolster their salary potential and cultivate career longevity in an ever-changing industry. Career changers represent another common group who join MSN online programs. These students usually lack core training and may complete prerequisite classes before starting on graduate-level coursework.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Nursing?

Pursuing Specialization

On top of advanced nursing topics and research training, graduate programs give degree candidates the opportunity to pursue specializations in high-need subfields. Options include nursing anesthesiology, nurse midwifery, and case management. Students may also specialize in the type of patient they work with, focusing their skills on neonatal nursing, gerontology, or women's health. Furthermore, leadership training reflects a cornerstone of graduate nursing programs. Students gain the business knowledge required to lead healthcare teams in diverse settings, such as government agencies, community services organizations, health facilities, and universities.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Online MSN students invest a substantial amount of time and money in the hopes that advanced credentials will lead to more job opportunities and higher pay. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, on average, master's degree holders earn $12,000 more per year than professionals with only undergraduate degrees. Graduate-trained nurses also benefit from a lower unemployment rate: 2.2% compared to 2.5% for bachelor's degree holders and 3.4% for associate degree holders. In addition to leadership training, graduate programs can prepare students for roles as nurse educators.

Online Learning Technology

Digital communication fuels online master's in nursing programs. Through platforms like Blackboard and Canvas, distance learners engage with learning materials, collaborate with peers, and gain the support of instructors. Due to the integrative nature of their education, students gain the ability to clearly present information orally and in written/multimedia forms. Graduate degree candidates also train in data analysis, learning to aggregate, evaluate, and organize vast amounts of digital information. Additionally, master's programs familiarize students with the latest health technologies, further building their skill sets to meet the expectations of employers.

Prerequisites for Online Nursing Programs

To enroll in accredited MSN programs, online students submit many standard materials, including academic transcripts, recommendation letters, resumes/CVs, and personal statements. Admission criteria vary by institution, so applicants should consult their schools' counselors about specifics.

    • Work Experience: Students who want to enroll in accelerated or degree completionist tracks usually need at least two years of relevant, paid career experience. Candidates display their work history and professional accomplishments through resumes and CVs. Even if relevant work does not represent an admission requirement, students can sometimes transform their experience into transfer credits through prior learning assessments.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Colleges and universities increasingly eschew standardized testing, viewing it as an incomplete/inaccurate portrayal of an individual's academic potential at the graduate level. However, many online MSN programs still ask for GRE scores, especially if a student's GPA does not meet minimum requirements. Test results also factor into many scholarship and fellowship considerations. Standards differ by school; however, according to the Princeton Review, the average life sciences student earns a combined 302 on the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections and a 3.8 on the analytical writing portion.
    • Coursework: In general, minimum GPA requirements for graduate programs range from 2.0-3.0, with higher standards set for more competitive schools and candidates applying for paid fellowships and research assistant positions. Some institutions operate scaling GPA requirements connected to GRE results, meaning the higher a candidate's test score, the lower their GPA requirements. Universities may also expect applicants to complete prerequisite coursework in areas like applied statistics and general chemistry as part of their undergraduate training.
    • Recommendations: Graduate programs typically ask applicants for two or three recommendations. These testimonials often come from professors, employers, and professional mentors. Some schools specify who may furnish letters of recommendation. While recommendations usually come in the form of sealed letters, some programs prefer to contact recommenders directly. In either instance, students should give their recommenders notice well in advance of any deadlines.
    • Essays: Sometimes referred to as personal statements, these one to two-page essays allow online MSN applicants to set themselves apart from the candidate pool. Students should use their essays to detail the academic and professional accomplishments found in their college transcripts and resumes/CVs. They should also ensure that their personal statements display how their personal values and career goals align with a school's philosophy.
    • Interviews: While less common than other admission components, schools may ask students to undergo in-person, online, or phone interviews. Like their personal essays, candidates should use interviews as a way to individualize their applications. Interviews may be especially important for students seeking research funding and graduate assistantships.
    • International Students For applicants who reside outside the U.S., obtaining an F1 Student Visa represents an integral part of the college admission process. A candidate must complete a formal application and interview after gaining acceptance into a graduate program. International students who reside in a country where English is not the native language need to demonstrate language proficiency by submitting IELTS or TOEFL scores.

How Much Can I Make with a Master’s Degree in Nursing?

With an accredited master's in nursing, students can qualify for diverse and lucrative occupations in health services and management. The BLS reports that RNs earn a median annual salary of $70,000. However, deviations do exist within the field; the 10th percentile salary for RNs stands at $48,690, while the 90th percentile salary exceeds $104,000. In addition to hands-on training and additional hard skills, online MSN programs enable students to specialize in high-demand fields like anesthesiology. According to the BLS, certified nurse anesthetists earn more than $165,000 a year, which ranks among the top-10 highest-paid professionals in the United States.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Nursing Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Registered Nurse

Median Pay: $70,000

Job Growth: 15%

RNs coordinate and provide patient care, assessing health conditions and implementing appropriate care plans. These professionals may also offer emotional support to a patient's loved ones. Some RNs occupy roles external to health settings, working as community educators and field researchers. Multiple nursing specializations exist, including neonatology, public health, and critical care.

Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

Median Pay: $110,930

Job Growth: 31%

Also referred to as advanced practice registered nurses, these professionals offer primary and specialty care services. Nurse anesthetists oversee a patient's anesthesia for surgical and obstetrical procedures. Midwives help women manage pregnancy and childbirth, providing prenatal care and coordinating family services. Nurse practitioners often support a certain type of patient, including individuals from underserved communities.

Medical and Health Services Managers

Median Pay: $98,350

Job Growth: 20%

Also called healthcare executives, these organizational leaders oversee medical and health services. They develop program goals, train staff, and monitor budgets. These professionals also work with other department heads to improve efficiency, boost care quality, and ensure their facilities abide by government regulations. To access this career, candidates need graduate credentials and work experience in clinical and administrative settings.

Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses

Median Pay: $45,030

Job Growth: 12%

Working under doctors and RNs, LPNs and LVNs provide basic patient care, such as inserting catheters and retrieving blood. They also monitor a patient's overall condition. As entry-level positions, students can become LPNs and LVNs by completing a one-year training program. Like RNs, these nurses also need to pass the NCLEX and earn state licensure.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Non-Traditional Careers for Nursing Graduates

By completing online master's in nursing programs, students can pursue exciting careers in several adjacent areas. These opportunities enable professionals to develop new skills and apply existing competencies in innovative ways, thereby bolstering their skill sets and resumes. This section explores four non-nursing careers and how they suit MSN graduates.

Career Stats Description

Occupational Therapists

Median Pay: $83,200

Job Growth: 24%

Through daily therapeutic exercises, these professionals help patients recover, develop, and strengthen skills for work and daily life. Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, including in hospitals where they assist permanently disabled patients and in schools where they support students with developmental delays.

Skills Overlapped: diagnosis and assessment; care planning; therapeutic treatment; patient monitoring

Physician Assistants

Median Pay: $104,860

Job Growth: 37%

PAs work alongside surgeons, doctors, and nurses to diagnose and treat patients. Physician assistants' duties differ based on their setting and area of medical practice. In underserved communities, such as rural areas, PAs often act as primary health professionals if physicians can only be present one or two days a week.

Skills Overlapped: diagnosis and assessment; care planning; patient monitoring; health education

Social Workers

Median Pay: $47,980

Job Growth: 16%

Depending on a client's needs, social workers may resolve marital issues, facilitate employment, find affordable housing, or respond to crisis situations like child abuse and sexual assault. These professionals also help tackle mental health problems and addiction, connecting clients with relevant treatment and support services.

Skills Overlapped: diagnosis and assessment; care planning; therapeutic treatment; patient monitoring; health education; community services

Physical Therapists

Median Pay: $86,850

Job Growth: 28%

PTs occupy a crucial position in rehabilitation and preventative treatment. They help ill and injured persons manage pain and improve mobility through hands-on procedures, stretching exercises, and machine-aided techniques. PTs often specialize in a subfield, such as geriatrics or orthopedics.

Skills Overlapped: diagnosis and assessment; care planning; therapeutic treatment; patient monitoring; health education; wellness development

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for an Online Master’s in Nursing

Due to the high demand for graduate-trained nurses, online students can find relatively affordable tuition rates that often disregard residency status. This allows MSN candidates to enroll in out-of-state programs that match their academic interests and career goals without worrying about heightened costs. Graduate students can access low-interest Direct Unsubsidized and PLUS Loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Additionally, MSN graduates can apply for loan forgiveness options through the Nurse Corps, National Health Service Corps, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Individual states may also offer similar programs.

Scholarships for Online Nursing Master's Students

On top of government funding, online MSN candidates may access private awards through individual schools, community organizations, and religious institutions. Professional organizations represent another major source of scholarships and grants. Criteria differ by program but usually include academic achievement, professional accomplishments, and/or personal traits like ethnicity and gender. This section contains five award opportunities available to graduate nursing students.

What to Expect from a Master’s-Level Online Nursing Program

To earn an accredited master's in nursing, online students complete at least 30 credits of coursework, which typically takes two years. Distance learners with relevant prerequisites and work experience may expedite graduation by enrolling in accelerated or completionist tracks; these intensive programs enable students to earn their credentials in as few as 12 months. Most postsecondary schools allow students to individually pace their degree plans, taking as few or as many classes as they want. However, some institutions use cohort-based learning, where students advance through the curriculum at the same rate as a group of their peers.

Major Milestones

  1. Clinical Experience

    Anytime during program

    While specific requirements depend on the school and state standards for licensure, graduate students complete at least 400 contact hours during their program. Students who pursue their master of science in nursing online can complete clinical experiences in their communities or with current employers.

  2. Capstone or Thesis Requirement

    Last year of program

    As one of their culminating experiences, students apply core skills to examine pertinent issues in the nursing field, such as service gaps in underserved communities and the anti-vaccination movement. In general, thesis papers introduce new ideas, while capstone projects evaluate existing theories and practices.

  3. Comprehensive Exam

    Final semester of program

    In addition to clinical and capstone requirements, students must pass a comprehensive exam to obtain their master's degree. These tests usually consist of written and multiple-choice questions but may also include oral components. Online students complete their exams independently through a university-approved proctor.

  4. Licensure/Certification

    Post-graduation

    If students do not already possess their state-sanctioned nursing license, they may sit for the NCLEX upon graduation.

  5. Continuing Education

    Post-graduation

    Active nurses must pursue continuing education to maintain their state licenses and professional certificates. Requirements fluctuate by state and conferring organization. For example, Georgia requires RNs to complete at least 20 continuing education hours every two years to renew their license.

Coursework

Curricula differ based on departmental focus, program concentration, and a student's goals. Coursework typically consists of a combination of core, advanced, elective, and practicum classes. The following five courses represent typical offerings of online MSN programs.

Biostatistics

This class introduces students to core concepts in health-based research and data analysis. Topics include basic probability models, hypothesis testing, descriptive statistics, and point and interval estimation. Students also gain the ability to present research findings using scientific language.

U.S. Health Policy

This course offers an overview of American healthcare delivery systems, including how they are organized and financed. Students examine the relationship between political trends and policymaking in relation to nursing practices and healthcare services.

Nursing Informatics

This class explores the ways technology and information influence the nursing profession, particularly in clinical, educational, and research settings. Students learn how to apply technological innovations in care delivery and patient support. They also examine the ethical implications of healthcare information technology.

Advanced Health Assessment

This clinical course trains students to perform assessment procedures. In addition to clinical decision-making and assessment frameworks, degree candidates pursue topics like health-seeking behaviors and stress and adaptation.

Population Health

In this advanced class, students develop cultural blueprints and ethical standards to better meet the health needs of diverse communities. Topics may include disease prevention, health promotion, and resource utilization. Participants also learn how to develop and implement health education programs.

Degree Timelines

Colleges and universities deliver online nursing master's programs for all types of students, including recent undergraduates and returning learners. This section examines three graduate degree structures.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

3-4 years

Part-time MSN programs boast increased flexibility that can benefit working nurses. Students take 1-2 classes at a time and graduate in as few as six semesters. By applying transfer credits, students may even be able to earn their degree in the standard two years. However, part-time students may not qualify for institutional scholarships or fellowships.

Full-Time

2 years

This conventional graduate format suits recent BSN graduates who possess prerequisite training and want to pursue advanced nursing positions in research, education, and management. Here, students take 3-4 classes each term. Unlike part-time students, full-time learners benefit from a full array of scholarship, grant, and paid assistantship opportunities.

Accelerated

1 year

These intensive graduate programs operate shorter classes — usually using eight-week terms — year round. Students must dedicate the bulk of their time and energy to coursework and clinical practice. Due to their intensive nature, accelerated tracks may not be suitable for active nurses. Professionals looking to enter the nursing field can also pursue dual-degree programs, earning their BSN and MSN in about five years.

Licenses and Certifications

This section covers the credentials nurses often pursue on top of their academic degrees. As previously mentioned, the U.S. requires all practicing nurses to hold initial and advanced state licensure. Beyond these perfunctory licenses, nurses can obtain optional certification for many occupational roles and nursing specializations. Areas include acute care, breast care, diabetes education, advanced oncology, healthcare management, occupational health, and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. By obtaining professional certificates, nurses demonstrate mastery of a particular topic and a dedication to improvement through continuing education.

    • Nurse Practitioner State Licensure: While both RNs and NPs provide primary and specialty patient care, the latter occupy advanced roles alongside physicians. To sit for an NP state licensure exam, candidates need RN work experience and a master's or doctoral degree in nursing. Individual states operate distinct requirements. For example, Iowa requires candidates to obtain external certification in an advanced area before pursuing an NP license.
    • Oncology Certified Nurse: This certification reflects a nurse's ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent tumors and other abnormal growths. Facilitated by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation, the OCN exam totals three hours and comprises 165 multiple-choice questions in six content areas, including early detection, advanced care planning, and survivorship.
    • Advanced HIV/AIDS Certified Registered Nurse Certification: The HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Board (ANAC) awards this certification at introductory and advanced levels. The latter track requires applicants to hold an unencumbered RN license, a master's degree, three years of work experience, and at least 2,000 hours of HIV/AIDS-related care and treatment. ANAC members pay a $350 registration fee, while nonmembers pay $450.

Professional Organizations & Resources

By earning a master of science in nursing, online students prepare for career entry and advancement in a dynamic industry. Learners can further bolster educational and career opportunities by engaging with professional organizations. Membership usually requires an annual fee but comes with many benefits, including access to financial resources like scholarships, achievement awards, research grants, and travel funding.

Professional organizations also facilitate collaboration between members through online forums, regional special interest gatherings, and national and international conferences. Furthermore, these organizations deliver skill development resources, such as the online courses provided by the nursing honors organization Sigma Theta Tau.

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners: Boasting over 95,000 members, AANP advocates for practitioner and patient rights through legislative change at every government level. Members benefit from certification guidance, continuing education opportunities, and scholarships and grants. The association also provides student-specific resources.
  • American Nurses Association: ANA Enterprise members can take advantage of professional and skill development webinars, many of which satisfy contact hour requirements. The association also provides certification programs, college planning tools, and a comprehensive career center.
  • National League for Nursing: Founded in 1893, NLN supports more than 40,000 nurses and healthcare professionals. Membership perks include access to networking opportunities and testing services. The league also awards certifications for nurse educators. Members can take advantage of professional development resources, including leadership training, continuing education opportunities, and scholarly writing retreats.
  • National Student Nurses Association: NSNA members benefit from discounts on research texts, professional liability insurance, medical supplies, and accommodations. The association facilitates leadership training programs, mid-year meetings, and annual conventions. Additional resources include career planning tools and NCLEX-RN review materials.
  • Sigma Theta Tau: With over 135,000 members, Sigma represents the second-largest nursing organization in the world. On top of online courses in areas like regional evidence-based practice and nurse entrepreneurship, the society offers career advice, research guidance, and leadership training.
  • Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses: AMSN represents one of the largest nursing professions and supports its members through online modules and courses, grants and scholarships, and a career center. The academy also offers practice resources in areas like quality improvement, patient nutrition, transition management, and healthy work environments.
  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists: AANA connects nurses through leadership summits, annual conventions, and a mobile meeting application. Member benefits include access to research publications, discounted malpractice insurance, job postings, and volunteer opportunities. The association also provides state-specific resources.
  • American College of Nurse-Midwives: Formally established in 1955, ACNM operates global outreach initiatives aimed at improving women's health and reducing pregnancy-related deaths. Through the college, students can find accredited midwifery programs, apply for financial aid, search for jobs, and obtain professional certification.
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center: ANCC members collaborate through annual conferences and the center's Pathway to Excellence Program, which facilitates advanced nursing certification in 19 areas, including family practice, adult-gerontology, national healthcare disaster, pediatric nursing, and psychiatric mental health.
  • National Black Nurses Association: Established in 1971, NBNA represents over 150,000 African-American nurses and healthcare practitioners. The association facilitates webinars, global health initiatives, mentorship programs, and a diversity institute. NBNA also operates a vast career center with resume support and searchable job listings.