Master of Nursing (MSN) Degree Types, Tracks and Specializations

While a master of science in nursing (MSN) can be a solid step forward for your career, there are several specializations, bridge programs, and even dual degrees for you to consider. This guide is designed to help you identify what type of MSN programs is the best fit for your goals and current status as a nurse and to help you learn more about MSN programs in general. Follow the links below to quickly access information you may be after:

Nursing is a rapidly changing field largely due to growing demands in health care from a population that is getting older in average age. At the pinnacle of a nursing career are nurse practitioners who often hold an MSN or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. While this position requires the most education in order to be qualified, it is the highest paying and fastest growing career in nursing with a job outlook projected at 36% – much higher than the projection for all occupations averaged together.

Nursing Position Median Salary Job Outlook
Nursing Assistants $24,400 21%
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses $41,540 25%
Registered Nurses $65,470 19%
Nurse Practitioners $103,880 36%

Source: BLS.gov – Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

An Overview of MSN Specializations

At the master’s degree level, the nursing field becomes greatly compartmentalized. Students can choose to specialize in a specific area of health care like mental health or infection prevention. You can also earn an MSN degree to prepare for administrative and education roles, like working as a nurse educator, administrator, or in the field of informatics.

Acute Care Nursing

Acute care is short-term medical care to treat severe but brief illness. Acute care nurse practitioners (ACNPs) may work in a hospital and be responsible for providing immediate treatment to restore health to individuals who have become medically unstable. Settings for work may include a hospital’s departments for cardiology, coronary care, emergencies (ER), intensive care (ICU), or neonatal intensive care, just to name a few. Most acute care nurses are registered nurses (RNs) and may also hold Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (ACNPC). Along with family practice, adult practice, women’s health, and geriatrics, acute care nursing is one of the most popular specialty areas for nurse practitioners.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Median Salary of Nurse Practitioners: $107,480 with job prospects very good to excellent. Job settings include: Private practices, outpatient care centers, nursing homes, hospitals (intensive care unit), neonatal unit, internal medicine clinics, ambulatory care, family practice offices.

An ACNP is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Examine patients with acute, chronic, and critical health conditions and develop specific care plans based on assessment
  • Assess the impact of a chronic , critical, and/or acute illness on a patient’s health and functional status, growth and development, and quality of life
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests and their implications for patient therapy and rehabilitative services
  • Develop a plan of care that address patients’ unique conditions and prescribe proper medication (prescriptive authority varies by state)
  • Provide educational and therapeutic support to patients and families on how best to manage symptoms

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice nurse who holds a master’s degree or doctorate in nursing. A CNS is an expert in a specialized area of nursing, providing direct patient care and expert consultations within his/her specialty. A few examples of areas within which clinical nurses may specialize include adult health, diabetes, geriatrics, home health, pediatrics, psychiatric and mental health, and public health. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) now offers a CNS-BC credential to individuals who successfully complete exams in their areas of specialization. In addition to clinical nurse specialists, the other types of advanced practice nurses are nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses earn an average of $70,000 per year. A CNS will, on average, make more than this due to the extra certification. Job prospects are very good to excellent. Job settings include: Private practices, nursing homes, hospitals, public health organizations, boards of health and education, educational institutions, home health care agencies, insurance companies

A CNS is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Examine patients to evaluate their medical and physical conditions and develop specific care plans based on health assessment
  • Work closely with doctors and other medical professionals to aid in patient diagnosis
  • Review patient files to ensure proper data reporting
  • Develop a plan of care that address patients’ unique conditions and prescribe proper medication (prescriptive authority varies by state)
  • Provide educational and therapeutic support to patients on how best to manage symptoms
  • Collaborate with staff on research and professional practice projects

Infection Prevention & Control

Closely related to public health, infection prevention and control is a sub-discipline of epidemiology concerned with preventing healthcare-associated infection. Nurses with this specialization will have the expertise necessary to develop programs to monitor critical infection prevention and control indicators in healthcare delivery systems in settings such as doctors’ offices, hospitals, clinics, on-site care, and more. Having expertise in epidemiology and data analysis are necessary strengths for any IC nurse. Often times, becoming an infection control nurse can be a first step toward becoming an expert healthcare epidemiology practitioner and obtaining certification by the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC).

Job settings include: Job Setting: Nursing homes, hospitals, acute care facilities, public health organizations, dialysis centers

An infection control nurse is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Create infection prevention and control guidelines
  • Oversee public health programs and evaluate health safety standards
  • Collect data and investigate human or animal diseases and preventative care
  • Work closely with physicians, researchers, and government health officials to track and identify dieases
  • Collaborate with staff on research and professional practice projects that address disease prevention and health promotion

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

For registered nurses who wish to become innovators in advanced practice nursing, an MSN degree with a specialization in innovation and entrepreneurship or a dual MBA/MSN degree may be worthwhile. Nurse innovators may develop new innovations and inventions for the nursing profession in a variety of roles, including nurse administrator, clinical nurse, nurse educator, health care administrator or entrepreneur.

Job prospects are very good to excellent and Job settings include: Hospitals, medical and healthcare businesses, educational settings

Nurse innovators are typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Develop innovative methods of improving patient services and practice management
  • Establish recruitment and retention efforts to attract to new nurses and other medical care providers
  • Research and implement new technologies to identify the most effective means of patient record keeping

Sponsored schools offering a MSN in Innovation and Entrepreneurship:

Nurse Administration

MSN degrees that concentrate in nursing administration prepare nurses to serve in a variety of executive, management and leadership positions within the healthcare industry. As healthcare and nursing becomes increasingly complex, more training in the areas of communication, leadership, and management is being implemented in BSN and MSN programs. Nurse administrators with an Master of Science in nursing (MSN) degree may advance from a former unit-type management position to a more senior role of assistant director, director, VP, or Chief of Nursing.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers earned an average of $98,350 per year as of 2017. Job prospects are very good to excellent and Job settings include: Private practices, nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, public health organizations, educational institutions, home healthcare agencies.

A nurse administrator is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Establish patient care delivery systems and practice environments based on facility’s specific requirements
  • Function as a leader of the nursing team and other medical care providers
  • Work closely with doctors and other medical professionals to ensure high-quality standards are met
  • Develop, maintain, and evaluate patient and staff data collection systems
  • Collaborate with staff on research and professional practice projects

Sponsored schools offering a MSN in Nursing Administration:

Nurse Education

Nurse educators plan, develop, implement, and evaluate nursing educational programs, preparing the next generation of student nurses and RNs. Specifically, a nurse educator will typically train licensed practical nurses (LPNs), licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), and registered nurses (RNs) for entry into advanced practice nursing (APN) careers. Occasionally, healthcare organizations will employ nurse educators to provide continuing education to their nursing staff. While requirements vary from state to state, typically a nurse educator will need at least a master’s in nursing and possibly some clinical experience.

Job prospects are very good to excellent and Job settings include Academic and Hospital settings.

A nurse educator is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Prepare licensed practice nurses (LPNs) and registered nurses to enter the medical profession
  • Develop and revise curriculum and other training materials to enhance workforce development
  • Assure the quality of patient care by assessing, coaching, and mentoring nursing staff
  • Conduct medical research, write for medical publications, and participate in professional organizations

Sponsored schools offering a MSN in Nursing Education:

Nurse Leadership

As the nursing profession becomes more complex, it has become common for bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in nursing to spend more time training students in areas such as communication, critical thinking, and leadership. Each of these becomes important should an individual wish to advance their nursing career into an administrative or managerial position. While a nurse leader may not necessarily have a formal management role, he/she is looked upon as someone who has good interpersonal and risk management skills. Closely related subjects include nurse administration and nurse management, for which nurse leaders may often times be ready to advance into quickly.

The Job prospects of a Nurse Leader, sometimes referred to as a Nurse Manager are very good to excellent. Job settings include: Private practices, nursing homes, hospitals, home health care agencies.

A nurse leader is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Provide leadership and direction to the nursing staff and other members of the patient care team
  • Delegate responsibilities to staff members and monitor performance
  • Implement medical management programs and ensure timely reporting
  • Assist with interviewing, evaluating, and counseling of nurse employees

Sponsored schools offering a MSN in Nursing Leadership:

Nursing Informatics

Health informatics concerns the confluence of computer science, information science, and healthcare. While this can be applied to areas of biomedical research, clinical care, dentistry, public health, and more, nursing informatics specifically focuses on how nurses can utilize this discipline in their professions. Nursing informaticists are typically advanced practice registered nurses with a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing, who have expertise in both nursing and information science/data management. An informatics professional may also be a member of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA).

Job prospects are very good to excellent and Job settings include: Private practices, nursing homes, hospitals, public health organizations, insurance companies, home health care agencies.

A nurse informaticist is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Write or modify computer programs for use by nurses and other medical care providers
  • Identify computer system needs or assist in the training and implementation of those systems
  • Consult with vendor representatives to find the most up-to-date technology for patient recording keeping

Sponsored schools offering a MSN in Nursing Informatics

Psychiatric & Mental Health

Psychiatric-mental health nurses (PMHNs) treat patients of all ages with mood and personality disorders, which can include bipolar disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia, to name a few examples. More so than most other types of nursing, psychiatric-mental health nursing requires the development of a therapeutic relationship between the caregiver and patient. Psychiatric and mental health nurses have expertise in being able to empathize, provide support, and demonstrate respect for the patient. While this type of nursing can be administered by an LPN/LVN or RN, obtaining a master’s degree in nursing and becoming an advanced practice registered nurse allows one to practice independently, offer direct care in a variety of settings, and prescribe medicine.

Job prospects are very good to excellent and Job settings include: Private practices, psychiatric and mental health treatment centers, hospitals, public health organizations, educational institutions, home health care agencies.

PMHN students are typically required to meet the following qualifications:

  • Hold a current and active RN license
  • Have a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in psychiatric mental health nursing
  • Obtain at least 30 hours of continuing education in psychiatric mental health nursing

A PMHN is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Perform a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation that includes evaluation of mental status, self-harm behavior, substance use, health behaviors, trauma, and developmental and social history
  • Conduct individual, family, or group psychotherapy sessions and participate in crisis intervention activities
  • Collect data from multiple sources using assessment techniques and order diagnostic tests that are clinically appropriate for the patient
  • Develop a plan of care to address patients’ unique conditions and prescribe proper medication (prescriptive authority varies by state)
  • Provide educational and therapeutic support to patients on how best to manage symptoms and potential adverse effects of treatment options

Sponsored schools offering a MSN Psychiatric and Mental Health

MSN Requirement for Nurse Practitioners

In the past, an MSN degree was almost universally accepted as the minimum education level required for becoming a nurse practitioner (along with the necessary certifications and licensure, of course). However, several states now require students hold a doctor of nursing practice if they are pursuing that career. Currently working nurse practitioners who only hold an MSN degree are typically grandfathered in.

It is important that you research your state’s requirements to find out what degree is required for your career goal. While a DNP may be needed in order to become a nurse practitioner, DNPs require an MSN degree for enrollment, making an MSN degree a worthwhile investment in either case. We have listed several popular nurse practitioner fields below along with both MSN and DNP options that are available in that field of study:

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A nurse practitioner (NP) is one of four types of advanced practice registered nurses, the others being clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives. A Master of Science degree in nursing (MSN) along with status as a registered nurse are required before becoming a nurse practitioner. NPs serve as primary and specialty care providers in a number of areas, including general practice, acute care, adult health, family health, psychiatric and mental health, and women’s health, palliative care, to name a few. For adult, gerontological, and family nurse practitioners, the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) offers a certification program.

Job prospects are very good to excellent and Job settings include: Private practices, nursing homes, hospitals, public health organizations, boards of health and education, educational institutions, home health care agencies.

Nurse Practitioner students are typically required to have experience and possibly additional certification in a specialty area including: neurology, oncology, rehabilitation, trauma nursing, adolescent health, neonatal, pediatric oncology, pediatric pulmonary, school health nursing, anesthesiology, community health, home health care, hospice nursing, occupational health, women’s health.

A nurse practitioner is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Examine patients to evaluate their medical and physical conditions and develop specific care plans based on health assessment
  • Work closely with physicians and other medical professionals to aid in patient diagnosis
  • Act at point of contact for patients when physician is not on site or unable to unavailable for consultation
  • Develop a plan of care that address patients’ unique conditions and prescribe proper medication (prescriptive authority varies by state)
  • Provide educational and therapeutic support to patients on how best to manage symptoms
  • Consult with other nurses and medical professionals to improve patient outcomes

Sponsored schools offering a MSN Adult Gerontological Primary Care NP or Adult Gerontological Acute Care NP:

Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs

Some students choose to enroll in a Doctor of Nursing Practice program. These programs are designed to prepare advanced practice nurse to leaders improve access to quality of care and reduce health disparities. If you’re interested in earning a DNP, applicants typically need a graduate degree from an accredited program, an active license or multi-state privilege to practice as a registered nurse, and licensure as a Nurse Practitioner in the state in which you practice.

Currently there is an initiative by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) to require the DNP as the entry-level degree for all APRN roles, including the nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, and nurse midwife.

Sponsored schools offering a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP):

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

A family nurse practitioner (FNP) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) with a master’s degree or doctorate in nursing. In the United States, an FNP is also required to hold national board certification in family health as well as certification from the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AAPP) or American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). FNPs are experts in family health and help individuals and families cope with chronic disabilities as well as advise families on lifestyle and behavioral risk factors. Family health nurse practitioners provide primary care to individuals of all ages, while placing emphasis on health of the entire family. Along with acute care, adult practice, women’s health, and geriatrics, family nursing is one of the most popular specialty areas for nurse practitioners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job prospects are very good to excellent and job settings include: Private practices, urgent care clinics, health departments, nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, educational institutions, private homes. FNP Qualifications include Certification in an area of clinical specialty including family care, adult primary care, gerontology, mental health, and acute care.

An FNP is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Examine patients and their families to evaluate their medical and physical conditions and develop specific care plans based on health assessment
  • Focus on building strong relationships with families to provide ongoing support and patient education
  • Work closely with doctors and other medical professionals to aid in patient diagnosis
  • Provide prenatal care and assist with family planning and reproductive health
  • Develop a plan of care that address patients’ unique conditions and prescribe proper medication (prescriptive authority varies by state)
  • Collaborate with staff on research and professional practice projects

Sponsored schools offering a MSN Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

Nurse Midwifery & Women’s Health

Midwifery is the healthcare profession that provides care to childbearing women during pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding. Nurse midwives, or certified nurse midwives (CNMs), provide additional primary health care to women, including family planning advice, gynecological examinations, prenatal care, and neonatal care. Nurse-midwives, along with clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, and nurse practitioners, are one of the four types of advanced practice nurses. Being a registered nurse (RN) and holding at least a master’s degree in nursing are pre-requisites to becoming a nurse-midwife or women’s health nurse practitioner.

Job prospects are very good to excellent with job settings including: Private practices, hospitals, and women’s health clinics.

CNM Qualifications include:

A CNM is typically responsible for the following job duties:

  • Provide labor and delivery services in a setting of the patient’s choice
  • Educate patients about birth control and other family planning methods
  • Provide prenatal, intrapartum, and postnatal maternity care to expectant mothers
  • Conduct gynecologic examinations and prescribe medication (prescriptive authority varies by state)
  • Monitor the health and the progress of infants with frequent follow-ups and consulation

MSN Degree Bridge Programs

Some schools offer accelerated paths for students with an educational background or experience as a nurse already. The most common programs offered are RN to MSN and BSN to MSN bridge programs. However, other bridge programs do exist, like ADN to MSN and MSN to DNP. BSN to MSN bridge programs that are designed with administrative roles in mind may not require the student to be a registered nurse.

Learn more about bridge programs below, including how to apply and requirements:

BSN to MSN

The BSN to MSN bridge program is a graduate-level nursing degree for those who have already completed a four-year bachelor’s in nursing. It is typically suited for registered nurses (RNs) who currently hold a BSN and are looking to become advanced practice nurses. Holders of an MSN may also become nurse educators, managers, or administrators. The MSN degree may also be used as a stepping stone towards a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). For RNs who have not yet completed their bachelor’s degree in nursing, many schools also offer separate RN to MSN bridge programs.

BSN to MSN program requirements vary according to the degree program, but students must typically complete the following:

  • Complete all graduate coursework in a specialty area which may include:
    • Clinical Specialties: Acute Care, Adult Nurse Practitioner, Clinical Nurse, Family Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Mid-Wifery, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
    • Administrative Specialties: Nurse Administrator, Nurse Educator, Nurse Informaticist, Nurse Manager
  • Earn certification in area of practice and fulfill other assessment criteria determined by degree program

Sponsored schools offering a BSN to MSN:

RN to MSN

The RN to MSN bridge program is designed for the registered nurse who has not completed his/her bachelor’s degree. Because the completion of the Master of Science in nursing is the entry-level pre-requisite to becoming an advanced practice nurse, many RNs will take advantage of an RN to MSN bridge in order to become nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, or nurse-midwives. MSN holders may also become nurse educators, nurse managers, or nurse administrators. For RNs who do already hold a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing (BSN), many schools also offer BSN to MSN bridge programs.

Sponsored schools offering a RN to MSN:

MSN Dual Degrees

Dual degrees focused around MSN programs can lead to interesting careers for students because these programs allow you to work in other fields or even industries as they relate to nursing. Typically, an MSN dual degree is best suited for positions that require a strong grasp and knowledge of the nursing profession but other skills as well like advanced communication and management.

Holders of this degree can expect a variety of careers in fields related to:

  • Policy making
  • Leadership and management
  • Business organization
  • Community health
  • Administration

The links below cover each type of MSN dual degree in greater detail:

MSN and MBA: MS in Nursing with a Master of Business Administration

For RNs interested in business administration, a few schools offer some unique dual degrees that combine nursing expertise with business acumen. The dual degree Master of Science in nursing (MSN) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) allows a registered nurse to become an advanced practice nurse, nurse educator, or nurse administrator with advanced business education. Obtainable positions may include Director of Nursing, VP of Nursing, Chief Nursing Officer, or Chief Nurse Executive. Any of these positions would require extensive expertise in both nursing as well as business. For those specifically interested in combining nursing with health administration, there also exist MSN and MHA dual degrees.

Students enrolled in an MSN and MBA dual degree program benefit from the combined curriculum of both management and advanced nursing courses and clinical work. An MSN and MBA dual degree prepares students to work in a variety of settings including hospitals, physician practice management, community health centers, health departments, consulting firms, insurance companies, associations, home health agencies, and health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Nurses with advanced management skills and specialized training can expect an excellent job outlook and salary potential.

Sponsored schools offering a Dual Degree MSN/MBA:

MSN and MHA: MS in Nursing with a Master of Health Administration

For RNs interested in healthcare administration, there are some options for earning a dual degree that combines nursing and health administration expertise. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Master of Health Administration (MHA) dual degree enables an RN to become an advanced practice nurse, nurse educator, or nurse administrator, while also receiving graduate-level education in healthcare administration. It would be typical for an advanced practice nurse with both the MSN and MHA degree to excel in a senior administrative position within a healthcare organization. Positions such as Director of Nursing, VP of Nursing, Chief Nursing Officer, or Chief Nurse Executive would likely be obtainable. For those interested in combining general business administration with nursing, there also exist an MSN and MBA dual degrees.

An MSN and MHA dual degree program focuses on health management and policy that offers students the chance to hone both their nursing and administrative skills. As such, students must complete advanced study in administration, education, and healthcare information technology as well as graduate-level nursing courses.

MSN and MPH: MS in Nursing with a Master of Public Health

For RNs interested in public health, earning a graduate-level dual degree that combines nursing education with public health is an option. The Master of Science in nursing (MSN) and Master of Public Health (MPH) dual degree gives the RN the entry-level degree to become an advance practice nurse, nurse educator, or nurse administrator, while at the same time learning about public health practice. An RN who holds the MSN and MPH dual degree can work as a public health nurse or senior-level administrator or manager of a community health or public health organization.

MSN and MPH dual degree programs prepare students to assume leadership positions in public health agencies, community-based programs, research initiatives, global health programs, and academic institutions.

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