How to Get a Master’s Degree in Nursing

A master’s degree in health in nursing is your ticket to specializing in areas that intrigue you, while allowing you to continue your passion of helping others. Your master’s degree in nursing puts you in an elite group of nurses who chose to step even higher up the career ladder and reach for a challenging specialty.

The master’s degree in nursing is the core educational requirement for several specializations. It offers a deeper understanding of nursing science concepts and applications, as well as better insight into health management issues and administrative challenges. Extensive clinical work is often required as well, and that hands-on approach can offer greater knowledge of the high-quality care required for both regular and intensive patient care.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the U.S. is currently experiencing a nursing shortage that’s expected to last for at least a decade. During that time, opportunities for employment could abound for those with a master’s degree in nursing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employers generally prefer registered nurses who have a degree and some related work experience. These candidates are projected to have better job prospects in the coming years than those without degrees.

A Guide to the Master’s Degree in Nursing

There are many degrees you can choose to pursue as a nursing student. Even within the master’s degree field, there are numerous directions you can take. Here are just a few of the degrees you could pursue:

Master’s Degrees in Nursing

  • MN: Master of Nursing
  • MAN: Master of Arts in Nursing
  • MSN: Master of Science in Nursing
  • RN to MSN: Registered Nurse to Master of Science in Nursing

In addition, you can choose to pursue dual degrees offering not only nursing, but also advanced education in management and business aspects of a nursing career.

Specialization with Your Master’s Degree

Those with a master’s degree in nursing can become Advanced Practice Nurses, or can opt for nursing administration and nursing education. These are the most common specialities:

  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse-Midwife
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Nurse Practitioner

How to Apply for the Master’s Degree in Nursing

Deciding to earn a master’s degree online proves you are serious about excelling in the profession of nursing, and that enthusiasm should look very good to potential employers. But the impressive path to a master’s degree in nursing begins with the master’s program application.

Step One: Find the Right Master’s in Nursing Program

There are numerous nursing degree programs out there to choose from, and the prospect of researching every single one can be rather daunting. Begin by judging potential schools on certain criteria to determine if you’ll look into their programs any further.

Focus on Accredited Master’s Degree Programs

Accreditation is of utmost importance when choosing a degree program. In order to earn accreditation, the school is reviewed by an independent accrediting body. The rigor of the curriculum, the quality of the faculty, and other factors are considered in determining whether a program receives approval. Whether you choose to pursue a traditional degree or earn a master’s degree online, the same rules of accreditation apply.

Keep in mind that if you choose to pursue a higher degree, your chosen PhD program might not accept transfer credits from a school that is not accredited. Many employers may only accept degrees from accredited programs, and often financial aid is only awarded to those colleges that have met the accreditation standards.


  • U.S. Department of Education. A current listing of accredited institutions and programs is available on the U.S. Department of Education Web site.
  • Accrediting Bodies. You can also find information on accreditation from the specific organizations that hand out the accreditation approval. The National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education are two good places to begin.
  • To learn more about the specific reasons accreditation is a good idea, visit and explore the Educational Resources section.

Choose Your Format: Online, Campus, or Both

Choosing how you learn is just as important as choosing where you learn. Many opt for a traditional classroom setting on a college campus, while others choose to earn a master’s degree online. Still others choose a hybrid educational approach, one that combines hands-on work with online learning.

  • Online Learning. Taking courses online is becoming very popular among adults, and for good reason! Online education allows you to fit classwork into your busy schedule, and you don’t have to compromise your work and family obligations while you earn your master’s degree.
  • Campus Setting. The campus setting is best for those who learn better in a traditional setting. The classroom instruction can be very valuable to someone who prefers hands-on teaching to the more virtual experience.
  • Hybrid Education. Many master’s degree programs in nursing take the hybrid approach. This means that while most classwork is done online, some classes or parts of classes, such as the tests, are taken at a satellite school. The combination of hands-on work and online education allows for greater flexibility while taking advantage of the best of both traditional and online worlds.


  • School Web sites. School Web sites should make it clear where their programs are located, and what you can expect from enrolling there. Since even some online courses might have the occasional “in person” requirement, be sure to study all the courses’ requirements before you make a decision.
  • You can find lists of both online learning and on-campus education opportunities at, including plenty of information on the pros and cons of each.

Study the Academic Programs

Now that you have decided whether you want to attend an online, traditional, or hybrid program, it’s time to look deeper at the programs themselves.

  • Faculty expertise. Look at a roster of faculty and staff at each nursing school. How many faculty names do you recognize? Consider the innovators in the field, and the research professionals whose names often pop up in the nursing journals.
  • Research opportunities. Will you have an opportunity to pursue research interests while you are attending a particular program? If it is a traditional or hybrid program, look at the facilities and opportunities for research offered on the campus. If it’s online, look at the virtual libraries and other platforms that could make research projects easier.
  • Specialization and Options. Of course a master’s in nursing program should offer the specialization you choose, but beyond that, what other courses are offered that could enhance your degree? For instance, if you need to learn a foreign language in order to land your dream job in nursing, does the school offer courses you could “add on” to your degree plans?
  • Curriculum requirements. Closely study the requirements of the curriculum to make certain you can meet all the expectations. If you have any questions about exactly what is required of you, ask an admissions representative.


  • can help you find the information you need. Simply fill out the short online form and you can find information on how to earn a master’s degree online delivered right to you.
  • School Web sites. A great deal of the information for this step can be found on college Web sites. Get information on your master’s degree program options and don’t forget to take notes about what you learn, in order to compare the schools later.
  • Academic journals. Journals of nursing can be a wealth of information on what to expect from certain master’s degree programs. Pay attention to program profiles, and make note of the locations of the instructors who wrote the most informative and engaging articles.

Evaluate the Quality of the Degree Program

The quality of the degree program matters a great deal when making your final decision. A program might be lacking in one area, but might make up for it in other areas. Work your way through the following criteria, and again, don’t forget to take notes!

  • History. Attending a well-established nursing program is always a good bet, but even newer programs can have a great deal to offer. Learn about the history of the program, including how many classes have graduated thus far, and whether the newer degree program is affiliated with a larger, more established brick-and-mortar institution.
  • Reputation. Remember that old saying about first impressions? They do matter, but reputation is what evolves over the long term. Check into the reputation of the schools you are considering by asking fellow nurses, administrators, and best of all, former students.
  • Graduation and placement rate. Out of all the students who started the master’s degree program, how many finished it? And of those who finished, how many quickly found a great nursing job? Take those statistics into account when you compare schools.
  • Career support. Career support is very important, so look into the programs in place to help students once they have that master’s in nursing in hand.


  • U.S News and World Report. This storied publication offers annual rankings of the best degree programs, including those in the nursing field. If you want to see how your potential schools stack up against each other, these annual rankings can give you a good idea.
  • Statistics. The numbers can say a great deal! Check with the admissions office to obtain statistics concerning your potential schools, including the graduation rate, placement rate, and more.
  • Online search. A simple online search, one that goes beyond clicking on the school’s Web site, can reveal quite a bit about the reputation of a degree program. Word really does get around–whether it’s good or bad.
  • Faculty and peers. Speak to those who have been in your position. Talk to those who have either completed the degree program in nursing or who have taught at the master’s degree level. The more you know about their experience, the more likely you may be to choose a good one for yourself.

Step Two: Apply to Master’s Degree Programs in Nursing

At this point, your long list of prospects should be much shorter. Rank your shortlist according to the criteria that is most important to you, and then look at what is required of you in order to apply to each.


  • Degree. Many master’s in nursing programs require that you are a registered nurse, or at least that you hold a bachelor’s degree in a related health field. In order to become an advanced practice nurse, there are additional requirements, such as the minimum number of supervised clinical hours. Ensure that you do have all the requirements up-to-date before you apply.
  • Testing. Many master’s in nursing programs require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Other testing requirements might be in place, depending upon the particular program you choose to pursue.

Application Must-Haves

  • Academic transcripts. Your performance in undergraduate school is often a determining factor in whether you are accepted into the master’s in nursing program.
  • Letters of recommendation. Ask a trusted colleague, co-worker, or former instructor to write your letters of recommendation. These letters give the decision-makers of the master’s program a nice insight into your character, work ethic, and desire to move forward in your career.
  • Personal essays. Answering the question of why you want the master’s degree, and what you plan to do with it when you have it, is an example of the typical personal essay you may be asked to provide with your application.
  • Work experience. The admissions committee may be very interested in your work experience, so if you don’t have as much as you would like under your belt, now is the time to step it up!

Financial Aid Matters

  • Federal financial aid. Look into financial aid programs that can help you through the master’s in nursing program. Remember that only accredited programs are typically eligible for Federal financial aid.
  • Scholarships. Many nursing master’s programs offer scholarships for those have who shown particular aptitude for the field. Look at the scholarship requirements and apply for as many as you can.
  • Grants. Federal grants are often available to help pay your way through nursing school, but don’t forget about specialized grants as well. Civic organizations, some states, and perhaps even your current employer might have grants available for your education.

Step Three: Prepare for the Master’s in Nursing Program

Start building your professional network long before you have your master’s degree in nursing. These ideas can get you started:

  • Join professional organizations. Obtain membership in the professional organization that fits your specialty. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, and the American College of Nurse-Midwives are all helpful organizations for those who are ready to pursue that master’s degree.
  • Attend conferences. Be seen and heard! Attending conferences puts you closer to the movers and shakers in the nursing field, and allows you to learn a great deal in a short period of time as well.
  • Subscribe to journals. Take advantage of the wealth of information in nursing journals to educate yourself on innovations and new technology. Start with The American Journal of Nursing and the Journal of Professional Nursing.
  • Build an excellent reputation. Your future begins right now! Earn a sterling reputation by doing the best work you can possibly do, make smart educational choices, and always treat colleagues with the utmost respect. When it is time to apply your master’s degree in nursing to a new job, your reputation can hold you in good stead.

Master’s Degree in Nursing: The Road Ahead

Earning your master’s degree in nursing opens up exciting career specialty paths. Take your time in choosing the best school for you, take great care with your application, and while you wait for the response, prepare yourself as well as you can for the next career adventure.


  • All Nursing Schools: Get Your Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)
  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners
  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing
  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists
  • American College of Nurse-Midwives
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education
  • Masters in Nursing: Guide to Degrees
  • National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists
  • Registered Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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