MSN Degree Meaning and Overview

America is facing a shortage of qualified primary care providers. A report from the Association of American Medical Colleges says the U.S. health care system may experience a shortfall of up to 139,000 physicians and other primary care providers by 2033. This shortage can be attributed to a number of factors, including providers retiring due to fatigue stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and an aging population whose care needs continue to outstrip the current pool of providers.

The implications of this shortage are clear: There has never been a better time to pursue a direct patient care role.

Earning an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree can create opportunities for advanced practice registered nurses who are looking to provide quality care to a growing population. Nurses interested in helping to close the primary care workforce gap should consider exploring the MSN degree meaning, including what the degree entails and its potential impact on their careers.

An Overview of the MSN Degree Meaning

Most MSN programs require postsecondary education, a valid registered nurse (RN) license, and work experience. While the MSN degree itself 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:

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

MSN programs focus on the theoretical application of nursing skills and clinical experience. Depending on the nurse, the program can take 24 to 36 months to complete. While 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 program, and a nurse without a BSN degree may need more time to understand the ideas presented. Some MSN specialties also require additional time for clinical studies.

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 differences between the two.

NP Careers

NPs typically provide primary care for a patient’s overall health, while some may choose to specialize in acute care. NPs also can fulfill some of a physician’s duties, such as prescribing medication. MSN graduates can pursue various specialized NP roles, including the following:

CNS Careers

CNSes can also provide direct care to patients but focus on a specific age group, health care setting, or disease. A critical difference between an NP and a CNS is that a CNS may not be able to prescribe medication.

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 (CNM)
  • Clinical registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)

The Importance of MSN Degrees

A patient medical history form on a clipboard with a stethoscope and pen.

The nursing profession is facing shortages across the country, according to a study published in StatPearls. These shortages are likely to worsen as the gap between expected nurse job openings 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 apply to specific patient populations. Nurses who obtain this higher level of clinical training may be able to play important roles in delivering primary care, filling some of the gaps created by the ongoing nursing shortage and rising patient demand.

MSN Degree Advantages

Completing an MSN program can be challenging, especially for RNs who work full-time to help pay for their education. 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 APRNs is a significant increase in salary. APRNs earned a median salary of $123,780 in 2021, compared with $77,600 for RNs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While salary ranges may depend on the region and industry of employment, clinical nurse anesthetists can earn $195,610 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 are instrumental in shaping the curriculum for new nursing students, shaping the meaning of an MSN degree as the field progresses, and improving the quality of new nurses who are graduating from MSN programs.

Discover the Possibilities of an MSN Degree

Nurses who have a firm grasp of the meaning of an MSN degree understand the degree’s potential to lead to a demanding but rewarding career with an excellent employment outlook. MSN-educated nurses are in high demand and can help close gaps in primary care created by the ongoing shortage of providers.

Explore how the online Master of Science in Nursing curriculum at Regis College can help you pursue your career as an advanced practice registered nurse.

Recommended Reading:

Comparing Careers: Nursing vs. Physician Assistants

Exploring the Field of Pediatric Nursing (PNP)

Nursing Continuing Education: Importance, Options, and Resources for Getting Started


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

StatPearls, Nursing Shortage

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses