RN to MSN Programs: What You Need to Know

RN to MSN programs are designed for registered nurses currently working in the field that plan to seek a master’s degree. Candidates for traditional and online RN to MSN programs typically hold an ADN, or associate degree in nursing, which allows them to practice professionally but limits their advancement in the field. RN to MSN students are focused on moving directly to graduate study in the nursing field, and are able to earn both a BSN and MSN at the same time through this unique program.

ADN students often seek an accessible, affordable associate program that can be completed in two years or less at their local community college or online. While earning an ADN enables graduates to become practicing RNs, many are still looking for a timely solution to further advance their career. Graduates of MSN programs are not only eligible for nursing jobs involving greater independence and autonomy, but are also prepared for doctorate study in the field. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing notes that shifts in the industry over the last five years demand more highly qualified RNs, as well as those in specialized areas, for higher paying nursing jobs. The Institute of Medicine also recently issued a call to action for nurses with advanced education and qualifications to enter the field.

RN to MSN “bridge” programs were created to satisfy the national demand for highly qualified nursing professionals in the workforce. There are currently 214 RN to MSN programs in the U.S. today, more than double the number of programs available nationwide 15 years ago. For interested applicants, eligibility for RN to MSN online programs requires several key criteria, including a current, active nursing license and/or an ADN from a CNEA or ACEN accredited program or hospital, and a passing score on the NCLEX-RN exam. Though RN to MSN programs are sometimes seen as subversive, bridge program coursework incorporates basic BSN concepts as well as advanced master’s-level curriculum.

What Can I Do With an MSN Degree?

Career Available with a MSN Career Unavailable with a MSN

Nursing CareerADN +Registered Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; but a BSN is recommended because of higher salary and better job outlook

Required ADN Degree | Become a Registered Nurse

Nursing CareerMSNNurse Practitioner

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required MSN Degree | Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nursing CareerADN +Travel Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; certifications in specialty area recommended

Become a Travel Nurse

Nursing CareerBSNNurse Anesthetist

Minimum Degree Needed *

BSN, graduation from accredited graduate school of nurse anesthesia

Required BSN Degree | Become a Nurse Anesthetist

Nursing CareerADN +School Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; BSN recommended

Alternative BSN Route | Become a School Nurse

Nursing CareerADN +Psychiatric Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; more opportunity with BSN or MSN

Alternative BSN Route | Alternative MSN Route | Become a Psychiatric Nurse

Nursing CareerBSN +Nurse Educator

Minimum Degree Needed *

BSN; MSN or DNP to teach at BSN granting institutions

Required BSN Degree | Alternative MSN Route | Alternative DNP Route

Nursing CareerBSNFlight Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required BSN Degree

Nursing CareerMSNClinical Nurse Specialist

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required MSN Degree

Nursing CareerADN +Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; BSN recommended

Alternative BSN Route

*Key: ADN = Associate Degree in Nursing; BSN = Bachelor of Science in Nursing; MSN = Master of Science in Nursing; DNP = Doctorate of Nursing Practice

Should I Enroll in an RN to MSN Degree Program?

RN to MSN programs offer an option for students looking to earn a master’s degree in nursing without first earning a separate bachelor’s degree. Because the curriculum incorporates multi-level coursework, prospective RN to MSN students should be prepared for a moderate to high level of difficulty in completing their classes. Applicants may also be unaware of the diverse and demanding nature of the work required of the MSN degree, which includes comprehensive medical coursework and intensive specialization courses in a concentration of the student’s choice. Master’s-level nursing curriculum requires stamina and endurance, not least of all for the amount of clinical hours that are also required of the degree.

Pros to an RN to MSN Program

  • Higher salary potential
  • Advanced career options
  • More options than BSN to focus in a specialization area

Cons to an RN to MSN Program

  • Higher tuition costs than BSN
  • Higher volume of coursework than typical master’s degree
  • Time-consuming to complete

Need to Know: What is an RN to MSN Online Program?

RN to MSN programs are lesser known yet increasingly popular among professionals seeking an academic pathway to advanced nursing jobs. Availability of such programs has been on the rise since the Institute of Medicine released its Future of Nursing report, which calls for an increase of nurses with advanced qualifications for faculty and supervisory roles in the industry. RN to MSN online programs can be especially time- and cost-effective for students looking to gain graduate knowledge and expertise to apply to their practice.

As RNs already working full-time in the field, prospective candidates are encouraged by outlets including the American Association of Community Colleges to take advantage of the flexibility of online RN to MSN programs. While many students who have already earned their ADN are seeking advancement in their career through graduate education, they may find the time needed to commute to and from campus makes earning an advanced degree seem impossible, given their work schedule. In an online program, non-traditional students are accommodated with time-saving options that allow them to eliminate commuting and avoid interruptions to their current work hours. Outside of clinical requirements, which can be arranged near the student’s residence, online RN to MSN programs allow students to complete coursework in their own time with minimal disruptions to work and family life.

While both a surge in health industry demand and an increase in federal and state funding have allowed many states to expand their offerings of RN to MSN programs, some areas are still limited when it comes to selective training of health professionals. Online RN to MSN programs are restricted from state to state, and students are encouraged to review a schools’ qualifications to find out whether or not they will be granted a degree if they are studying out of state. Where programs are available, an online RN to MSN may be ideal for students looking to save time and money while gaining top-tier expertise in the field.

Advantages to an Online RN to MSN Program

  • May select two or more specialty areas of study
  • Eliminates commuting costs
  • Close-to-home clinical component can be arranged
  • Flexibility of coursework, completed at student’s own pace
  • Offers condensed BSN/MSN curriculum

Disadvantages of an Online RN to MSN Program

  • May not be offered in student’s state of residence
  • Some courses in select states require minimal on-campus attendance or blended format
  • Part-time online study may extend the time it takes to complete the degree

While emerging and for-profit institutions have long offered RN to MSN programs online, a growing number of schools with larger profiles are now adding this program to their repertoire. Accredited nonprofit online RN to MSNs are just as legitimate and reputable as their for profit counterparts, increasing accessibility and earning potential for students in all areas. A brief selection of notable not for profit schools and programs are listed below.

If you are an accredited, nonprofit institution that offers an online RNtoMSN program and that isn’t listed today, please contact us with details about your program, a link to your program page and proof of accreditation.

How Much Will I Make After I Finish My RN to MSN Program?


PayScale, accessed November 2016

How Do I Enroll in an RN to MSN Degree Program?

Enrolling in an RN to MSN program is a multi-step process that requires perseverance and preparation. While a traditional RN to MSN typically takes two to three years to complete, online RN to MSN programs can offer a quicker course to graduation by eliminating up to two semesters through an accelerated format. For example, many accelerated programs will waive remaining prerequisite BSN courses once the student has met core requirements in fundamental “bridge” competencies. Such RN to MSN programs online require dedication and commitment to meeting full-time course requirements, along with clinical hours, in order to graduate faster than in a campus program. Ideal candidates for an accelerated online RN to MSN are self-disciplined and self-motivated, with excellent time-management skills.

Though much of the RN to MSN can be studied online, the clinicals required to complete the degree must be performed on-site at a location near the student’s residence. While many states offer RN to MSN programs online for nursing students, options for arranging clinical hours at a facility in the area may be limited, especially if the student lives in a rural or remote location. Others may reside in a state that does not offer the program online. For students with access to a facility at which they can complete clinical hours near their residence, they will be expected to fulfill approximately 360 hours of clinical experience at the graduate level.

What Kind of Classes Will I Take in an RN to MSN Program?

Though course topics may vary according to nursing specializations and concentrations, foundation courses in core nursing competencies at the master’s level remain largely universal. A brief selection of typical courses found throughout national RN to MSN programs is listed below.

Foundational Concepts and Applications

Provides a forum for critical discourse and explores core-skill-building for nurses in advanced roles within professional settings.

Leadership and Nursing Practice: Role Development

Advocates leadership-skill-building and examines the role of advanced nursing professionals within their own organizations as well as the greater healthcare community.

Healthcare Policy

From local to international policy, explores political, historical, and ethical components of regulations affecting nursing and healthcare systems.

Nursing Informatics

Explores acquisition and dissemination of information, data-based computer applications, and nursing/cognitive sciences.