The MSN Degree Definition

Hospitals and health care employers are looking for well-educated and qualified nurse professionals to care for patients. The health care industry is quickly changing, and the supply of qualified health care workers is struggling to meet demand: The Association of American Medical Colleges projects a shortage of 42,600 to 121,300 primary care physicians by 2030.

Earning an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree may be a solution for advanced practice registered nurses looking to provide quality care for an aging population. Registered nurses interested in striving to close the primary care workforce gap can explore the MSN degree definition.

Defining the MSN Degree

Postsecondary education, a valid registered nurse (RN) license, and work experience are requirements of most MSN programs. While the MSN degree definition is broad, nurses entering an MSN program narrow their field of study by selecting a specialization. After working for a few years, most RNs likely know their preferred area of practice.

The three points of entry into the MSN program are as follows:

  • RN with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN to MSN)
  • RN with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree (BS to MSN)
  • RN with an associate degree (RN to MSN)

MSN programs focus on theoretical application and clinical experience. Depending on the nurse, the program can take between 24 and 36 months to complete. While having a BSN degree is not a requirement for all nurses, the concepts covered in the MSN program’s initial coursework are similar to those covered in a BSN, and a nurse without a BSN degree may need more time to understand the ideas presented. Whether additional time for clinical studies is required depends on the specialty.

MSN Degree Careers

By definition, MSN degree-holding nurses are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). APRNs can typically choose one of two broader career paths: nurse practitioner (NP) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS).

Nurses should consider the subtle differences between an NP and a CNS. An NP typically provides primary care for a patient’s overall health while some NPs may choose to specialize in acute care. An NP also can fulfill some of a doctor’s duties, such as prescribing medications. MSN graduates may want to pursue the following specialized NP roles:

A CNS can provide direct care to a patient but focuses on a specific age group, health care site, or disease. A critical difference between an NP and a CNS is that a CNS may not be able to prescribe medications. A CNS can work not only in many of the same areas as an NP but can also pursue the following specialized careers:

  • Adult-gerontology clinical nurse specialist (AGCNS)
  • Certified nurse-midwife
  • Clinical registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)

The Importance of MSN Degrees

The nursing profession is facing shortages across the U.S., according to a study published in StatPearls. These shortages are likely to worsen as the gap between expected job openings in the nursing profession and qualified nursing graduates widens. As a result, nurses with advanced nursing degrees such as an MSN are particularly valuable. MSN programs allow nursing professionals to gain specialized knowledge and advanced skills they can then apply to specific patient populations.

MSN Degree Advantages

Completing an MSN program can be challenging, especially for RNs who work full time to get additional experience while paying for the program. However, many nurses are rewarded for their hard work with increases in salary, job security, and careers filled with personal satisfaction.

An immediate advantage for an APRN is a significant increase in salary. APRNs earn a median salary of $115,800, compared with $73,300 for RNs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While salary ranges may depend on the geographical region and industry, clinical nurse anesthetists can earn upward of $174,790 as one of the most sought-after nurse specialties in the U.S.

APRNs often receive opportunities to lead units and teach new students as nurse educators. Nurse educators can take part in shaping the curriculum for new nursing students, redefining the MSN degree as the field progresses and improving the quality of new nurses coming out of MSN programs.

Learn more

Nurses with a firm grasp of the MSN degree definition understand the degree’s potential to lead to a demanding but rewarding career with a great employment outlook. Explore how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing curriculum can help you pursue your career as an advanced practice registered nurse.

Recommended Readings

Comparing Careers: Nursing vs. Physician Assistants

Exploring the Field of Pediatric Nursing (PNP)

FNP vs. PNP Careers: What’s the Difference?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “Master’s Education”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “NP Fact Sheet”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?”

Association of American Medical Colleges, “New AAMC Report Confirms Growing Physician Shortage”

Deloitte, “2020 US and Global Health Care Outlook”

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, “What Is a CNS?”

StatPearls, “Nursing Shortage”

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses 

U.S. News and World Report, “What Can Be Done About the Coming Shortage of Specialist Doctors?”