MSN vs. RN: Preparing for a Career in Nursing

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There are many career pathways in nursing. The primary objective for many people starting out in this field is to become a registered nurse (RN). An online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is often the next step that can help RNs advance their careers even further.

Both RNs and MSN-credentialed nurses work closely with patients, helping treat illnesses and monitoring health. However, there are differences to consider when exploring MSN vs. RN careers. Those differences relate to the educational requirements, level of responsibility, and earning potential of the two career paths.

Educational Requirements to Help Advance Your RN Career

To become an RN, students must have at least an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). This is a two-year degree earned at an accredited community college or nursing school. However, many employers require RNs to have a bachelor’s degree. A typical Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a four-year degree from an accredited university or college nursing program. Many institutions offer an RN to BSN program, which usually requires a further two years of study after completion of an ADN.

RNs who already hold a bachelor’s degree can pursue an MSN degree. Many educational institutions offer the MSN program online, which is ideal for working nurses who are looking to study part time.

What Is an MSN Degree?

MSN programs help prepare students for advanced roles in nursing, including patient care, teaching, and research. The programs typically take 28 to 36 months to complete, depending on the specialization a student chooses and how many classes a student takes at once. They include a focus on general advanced nursing topics, as well as subjects in the student’s chosen area of specialty, such as a nurse practitioner for pediatrics or family health.

General topics covered in an MSN program can include the following:

  • Health assessment
  • Professional practice
  • Nursing theory
  • Disease prevention
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Health policy
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology

The following are some of the degree paths for those who wish to earn their master’s in nursing degree.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing to MSN

This traditional and most common version of the MSN program builds on the undergraduate nursing education. It allows students to focus on specific nurse practitioner concentrations and patient populations.

Non-Nursing Bachelor’s to MSN

This program is designed for individuals who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a discipline other than nursing. Entry-level master’s programs generally start with registered nurse (RN) licensure material, followed by baccalaureate-level material.

Associate Degree in Nursing to MSN

This degree program is suited for RNs whose highest level of education is an associate degree in nursing. It aims to provide the bachelor’s degree material not covered in an associate-level program.

RN vs. MSN-Prepared Nurses: Duties and Responsibilities

While RNs and MSN-prepared nurses are both registered nurses, their duties do differ. Nurses with MSNs often have more leadership responsibilities and autonomy.

RN Duties and Responsibilities

RNs must be able to empathize with patients and keep calm under pressure. They also need to communicate well with patients, families, and other health professionals, including other nurses, physicians, and health care administrative personnel. The typical duties of an RN include:

  • Monitoring patients
  • Recording information and maintaining patient records
  • Supervising other nursing staff
  • Consulting other members of a health care team
  • Assisting physicians and more senior nurses with patient examination and treatment
  • Communicating with families of patients on health-related matters

MSN-Prepared Nurse Duties and Responsibilities

The level of responsibility that a nurse with an MSN is permitted to exercise varies from state to state. Some states grant advanced practice nurses full practice authority, allowing them to prescribe, diagnose, and treat patients without physician oversight. With full practice authority, APRNs can also open and operate their own independent practices. In states with reduced practice authority, APRNs can diagnose and treat patients independently, but require physician oversight to prescribe medication. APRNs working in states that restrict their ability to practice must have physician oversight to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications to patients.

MSN-prepared nurses are often tasked with managing other nurses, which requires sound communication and organizational skills. A nurse practitioner with an MSN degree may have the following responsibilities:

  • Prescribing medications
  • Monitoring drug interactions and side effects
  • Analyzing patient data and health histories
  • Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic illnesses
  • Creating patient treatment plans

One of the fundamental differences between an RN and an MSN graduate is that MSN-prepared nurses   independently in states that grant them full practice authority, whereas RNs may not.

Salary Differences Between RNs vs. MSN-Prepared Nurses

Both RNs and MSN-prepared nurses earn well above the median salary for all occupations as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median salary for all occupations in May 2020 was $41,950.
There are differences between average MSN vs. RN salaries, however, with median salaries for MSN-prepared nurses typically outpacing those of RNs.

Median Salary for RNs

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for RNs in May 2020 was $75,330. The lowest 10% of earners had salaries of less than $53,410, while the highest 10% earned more than $116,230.

Median Salary for MSN-Prepared Nurses

The compensation website PayScale provides salaries for individual advanced nursing professions that typically require an MSN. For nurse practitioners (NPs), for example, the median annual salary in July 2021 was approximately $98,700. The lowest 10% of median annual salaries among NPs were less than $80,000, while the highest 10% of salaries topped $124,000.

A nurse practitioner speaks with another nurse in a busy hospital hallway.

Career Opportunities for RNs and MSN-Prepared Nurses

Whether working directly with patients or in other roles supporting nursing care, RNs and MSN-prepared nurses have a myriad of opportunities for making an impact on the health of their community. Following is a closer look at professional options for RNs vs. MSN-prepared nurses.

Career Opportunities for RNs

In 2019, the U.S. had 3.1 million RNs according to the BLS. Most (60%) worked in hospitals, and 18% worked in ambulatory health care services, which include physicians’ offices, home health care, and outpatient centers. The remainder of RNs held jobs in nursing and residential care facilities, for the government, and in the education sector.

Apart from general patient care, RNs can gain further certifications to specialize in a number of fields of health care. These include working in cardiac medicine, intensive care, pediatrics, neonatal care, orthopedics, and surgical or operating rooms. Generally, RNs with a BSN degree are given more responsibility than those with an ADN and have greater earning potential.

Career Opportunities for MSN-Prepared Nurses

A graduate of an MSN program generally has more opportunities to provide high-level nursing care. Once they complete the necessary prerequisites, these nurses can pursue several career options as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Those careers include the following.

  • Nurse Practitioner: In some states, an NP may work independently of a physician in providing primary, acute, and specialty care. This provides patients with an alternative for medical care in the event their regular physician is not available, or if a less expensive level of health care is required. NPs may specialize in an area of nursing, such as family care, pediatrics, geriatric care, women’s health, and psychiatric mental health.   The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) reports that there are over 325,000 NPs in the U.S. as of 2021.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): These nurses are part of the surgical team. They either work with, or in place of, anesthesiologists to deliver anesthesia during operations.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): Nurses with this designation specialize in a certain medical field such as oncology or cardiac health. They may also specialize in a particular medical setting like an emergency room or critical care unit. Alternatively, they may elect to focus on providing health care to a certain section of the population, such as pediatrics, women’s health, or geriatric care.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM): This career option requires further training in midwifery to provide prenatal care, deliver infants, and provide postpartum and newborn care. These nurses may also provide some gynecological care in the course of their duties.

Why RNs Choose to Earn Their MSN

The opportunity to pursue advanced nursing roles that can potentially offer greater responsibility and pay is among the many reasons why RNs choose to earn MSN degrees. Following are some potential benefits that come with an MSN.

Career Advancement

An MSN is often a requirement for most advanced nursing roles. The degree can set the stage for progressing to positions that allow greater autonomy and authority — including being able to prescribe medications. Advanced nursing roles may offer more stable working hours than many RN positions.

Preparation for Certification

MSN degree programs can prepare students for national certification and state licensing, common requirements for advanced practice nursing. These designations typically have educational and testing requirements.

Potential for Increased Earnings

With additional autonomy and responsibility comes the potential for greater pay. The median annual pay and top-level pay for NPs is significantly greater than those of RNs.

Pursuit of a Doctoral Degree

An MSN can be a prerequisite for a PhD or Doctor of Nursing. These degrees can qualify nursing professionals for high-level careers in nursing practice, education, and research.

Explore a Career in Advanced Nursing

If you wish to take your nursing career to the next level and decide whether an RN or an MSN is right for you, a sound first step is to learn more about the Regis College online Master of Science in Nursing program.

The program offers advanced nursing education taught by practicing professionals who are experts in the latest clinical practices. The program also offers this high-quality training with the convenience and flexibility of online learning.

Discover how a graduate degree in nursing can lead to a career that offers greater clinical autonomy and advancement opportunities.


Recommended Readings

7 Career Specializations for Nurse Practitioners

5 Areas of Study for the Master of Science in Nursing Student

The Online Family Nurse Practitioner Program: Preparing for a Higher Level of Service



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)?

The Balance Careers, “Nursing Major Career Paths”

Health eCareers, “5 Benefits of Having a Master’s Degree in Nursing”

PayScale, Average Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses

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