What career opportunities become available to someone with an online master’s degree in nursing?

BY Isabel Peña AlfaroAugust 23, 2022, 2:36 PM
A nurse dons personal protective equipment (PPE) as she prepares to enter the room of a coronavirus COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit (I.C.U.) at Regional Medical Center, as seen in May 2020 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Demand was high for the largest group of health care professionals in the country—nurses—before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic dramatically increased the need for their services. To add to that demand, more recently there’s been a decline in the number of nurses as a result of both retirements and people switching careers, which has put an even higher premium on the field.

Demand for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives is projected to grow 45% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than five times faster than the projected growth for all occupations. Along with strong demand, these types of nursing positions that require a master’s degree are also high-paying, with median 2021 salaries of more than $123,000 a year, which provides a basis for a successful career in nursing. 

Not all nursing positions require a master’s degree, however. So what advantage does pursuing an advanced degree offer?

A master’s degree in nursing (MSN) opens the door to more career opportunities, including leadership, research, academia, and specialty roles. Nurses with master’s degrees can seek Monday through Friday jobs, versus working every other weekend and having 12-hour shifts. In addition to better work-life balance, completing an MSN program can also increase your earning potential.

Here’s what you need to know.

What roles become available to someone with a master’s degree in nursing? 

Among the benefits of pursuing a master’s degree in nursing are expanding your role as a nurse, moving into an advanced practice nurse (APN) or advanced nursing practice function, or going into teaching, says Annette Jakubisin-Konicki, director of the family nurse practitioner program and a professor at the University of Connecticut. 

Although “advanced practice nursing” and “advanced nursing practice” sound similar, the roles vary significantly. Advanced nursing practice encompasses all nurses with a graduate degree, meaning nurse leaders, nurse educators, and advanced practice nurses (APNs). APNs are also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), and in many states, they are referred to as nurse practitioners.

A nurse leader can become a unit manager, a director of a larger unit, and a chief nursing officer. These leadership roles focus on improving the clinical practice, the work environment, and patient outcomes by implementing the latest research findings and creating new systems. These systems are meant to provide the highest quality and most cost-efficient patient care possible. A nurse manager keeps track of budgeting, hiring, retention, staffing, and professional development. 

Nurse educators are typically passionate about teaching, as they instruct clinical skills and patient care to nurses. A nurse educator can guide students through clinical rotations or instruct hospital research. They can also design and update nursing education curriculum in various health care settings. 

Some grad students have opted for nurse leader roles because they experienced the COVID-19 pandemic as nurses and they noticed that when protocols shift rapidly, often strong leadership is needed, says Denise Bourassa, assistant clinical professor and director of the nursing leader and nursing educator tracks at the University of Connecticut.

An advanced practice nurse assesses, diagnoses, treats, and creates a management plan for patients, which includes prescribing therapeutics or medications. An APN specializes in care, based on the age of the patient and the acuity of the illness the patient is experiencing. For example, an APN family nurse practitioner is the primary care provider for patients from infancy through old age. APN roles also include neonatal, pediatric, and psychiatric nurse practitioners.

APNs can also practice independently with full practice authority, meaning they can practice without the oversight of a physician, in more than half of the states.

Nurse roles can be found most everywhere—schools, clinics, inpatient care facilities, pharmaceutical settings, academia, and research labs, particularly labs with human subject protection in clinical trials—notes Nancy Lee, senior vice president, chief nursing officer, and chief clinical officer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Pursuing a master’s degree opens up opportunities, she adds. “Your career options just expand exponentially,” Lee says.

What are some benefits for grads with a master’s degree in nursing?

Nurses can progress within bedside care without a master’s degree, yet a graduate degree does set a nurse apart

“The biggest benefit of getting a master’s in nursing is broadening your horizons and expanding the role as a nurse. And depending on where you go—whether you’re a nurse educator, a nurse leader, a nurse practitioner, or in academia—the compensation, the benefits that come along with that, will vary depending on that role,” says Jakubisin-Konicki. “The bottom line is that you can’t get to any of the expanded practice roles as a nurse without having at least a master’s degree.”

Just how much can a master’s degree boost a nurse’s salary? The median salary for an advanced practice registered nurse, for example, is 36% higher than that of a registered nurse, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Having a master’s degree can make nurses a hot commodity in the job market, particularly if they have experience in high specialty areas, such as transplants or critical care.

With respect to the demand, Lee says: “The trouble comes when you want a nurse with a master’s degree and a clinical subspecialty of a certain type.” She adds that a perfect example is an advanced practice nurse for the neonatal intensive care unit.

Is a master’s degree in nursing necessary? 

Financial and time investments are a couple of factors to consider when deciding whether to pursue an MSN. Tuition typically ranges from $35,000 to $70,000. With a full course load, an MSN degree generally takes two years to complete. Online degrees allow for students to have more flexibility with their schedules, though they must still fulfill some in-person clinical requirements. 

“It depends on what you want to do. If you want to be in a leadership role clinically, or from a management perspective, or from an education perspective, you need a master’s degree,” says Lee.

If these advanced nursing practice roles sound like an exciting career path, then it may be worth pursuing a master’s degree.

“I do believe that a master’s-prepared nurse is a broader and more well-rounded clinician and professional,” she adds. “I could not do without them.” 

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