What type of experience do you need to enroll in an online master’s in nursing (MSN) program?

BY Nicole Gull McElroyAugust 09, 2022, 1:08 PM
Workers from NYU Langone Health in the Murray Hill section of New York City, September 2020. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

If you’re considering a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), you may be surprised to find that these online programs, like nursing careers more broadly, welcome people with a wide range of professional experience. Advanced practice nurses pop up in leadership roles across health care, business, and nonprofits. 

Just ask Alison Colbert, professor of nursing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Her background proves there’s not a straightforward answer to the question of what you’ll need to enter a master’s program in nursing. “That’s one of the great things about nursing,” she says. “There are a lot of different things you can do.”

Consider Colbert’s background: She has an undergraduate degree in journalism, a master’s degree in nursing and public health, and a Ph.D. in nursing. And her experience isn’t wholly unique. “It’s one of the great things, but also one of the confusing things for potential nursing students.” 

In fact, Colbert says, her journalism experience has helped her in writing papers for nursing journals and preparing grants, and has enhanced her work in academia. Clinical experience has infinite value, too, she says, but depending on what path you’re committed to in the field, being a registered nurse (RN) may not be a fixed requirement.

MSN degree programs help to stack the talent pool

The path to a career in nursing is changing. “The field of nursing is doing all it can to expedite the process,” says Beverly Malone, president and CEO of the National League for Nursing (NLN). “You don’t have to go the usual route. If you’ve already done some work in terms of educational preparation, it’s about answering, ‘How we can convert that into the liberal arts background you need and then move on to the advanced practice role?’” 

While the NLN doesn’t keep statistics on the educational background of MSN students, some 2020 statistics from the organization show that more than 60% of students enrolled in these programs were between the ages of 25 to 40, while a bit more than 15% fell in the 41- to 60-year-old range. This suggests that many students potentially have considerable prior work experience.

Academic credentials are the primary focus for admittance to Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing at Penn State University, according to Sheri Matter, director of online MSN programs. Admissions officials look for candidates who have a solid GPA (3.3 or higher and a B or better in science, nursing, and statistics coursework), though she adds that the school considers candidates holistically. 

“We believe that transcripts may not always necessarily reflect an applicant’s true academic potential,” says Matter. “If someone has a grade below a B in a science course but has glowing references and a strong personal statement, they may still be admitted.” Plus, the school doesn’t list work experience as a requirement for BSN-trained nurses, and builds clinical experience into the curriculum.

What’s more, being open-minded about who makes for a qualified potential nurse is important given dynamics in the industry. The MSN is a critical piece of the pie in addressing the nation’s nursing shortage, according to Malone. “If we’re going to deal with the shortage, we have to look at two issues—enough nurse educators and enough clinical placements,” she says. “The MSN is so critical to solving the issue of not enough nurses.” 

And the fact that a path to an MSN doesn’t necessarily require an RN’s résumé makes the career path incredibly versatile, offering so many ways to build a career and make a mark in the profession.

Find your focus in an MSN program

If you’re considering an MSN, schools will want to know you’re ready for the demands of graduate work and the commitment required to follow through, Malone says. An online master’s curriculum is incredibly high level and demands discipline and self-direction. 

Choosing the right program and the right time in your career path and educational journey is a personal endeavor. “I always joke—no one says, ‘Well, I wish I waited longer to get my graduate degree,’” Colbert adds. “But, an equal number of people say, ‘I needed the experience and the perspective.’”

It’s important to be laser-focused on the end goal and choose an MSN program that works for you, too. There are at least a dozen specialties that fall under the MSN umbrella: midwifery, nurse educator, nursing administration, clinical nurse leader, women’s health nurse practitioner, psychiatric nurse health practitioner, pediatric care primary care nurse practitioner, nurse researcher, public health, nursing informatics, and more. 

The spectrum is broad, and the specific requirements for each role vary, too. There’s no “one” way to approach a master’s degree in nursing, according to Jackie Murphy, an assistant clinical professor in the graduate nursing department at Drexel University, and chair of university’s advanced role MSN department. Because so many nurses are women—and often mothers or caregivers at home—their work history, educational background, and timing for returning to school differ. “We have structured the program so we can support those students at whatever level they’re in, in their careers,” she says.  

Consider broader opportunities

As the profession broadens in scope so, too, do the backgrounds of students pursuing nursing degrees, Colbert says, adding that means attracting people like history students, who are focused on policy and how to design care, for example. “We are dealing with the most complex issues in health care. We need people who come from all sorts of backgrounds,” she says. “We can convene and have a shared language on nursing, but the wider perspective we can offer to solve these things is really valuable.” 

The timing of how each student finds his or her way to an MSN is specific to each person, and there are so many ways to use your experience to inform how nursing fits into your career. “I’m not a person who says you have to have X number of years,” says Murphy. 

“Making the decision to go into a master’s program has a lot of different factors,” she adds. “If you have a true understanding of the role you want and your life circumstances are in a way that you can commit yourself to this, in addition to the history of who you are—all of those things are important.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in nursingcomputer sciencecybersecuritypsychology, public healthbusiness analytics, and data science, as well as the best doctorate in education programs and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.