RN to MSN Programs

Specialized RN to MSN programs are uniquely designed to provide the most efficient route to advanced practice licensure, or to allow nurses to meet qualifications for nonclinical roles in education, informatics, public health, research and administration. Learn more about how you can earn your master's in nursing through an RN-to-MSN program.

RN to Master of Science in Nursing

What is an RN to MSN? – An RN-to-Master of Science in Nursing is a degree that combines bachelor’s and master’s level nursing curriculum for students who already hold a registered nursing license. It offers a two-to-three year path to an MSN that does not duplicate previous coursework for RNs, and includes specialist tracks to advance careers in fields ranging from advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) to nursing leadership.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there are currently 166 RN to MSN programs nationwide and an additional 29 currently in the planning stages (that’s an increase from just 70 programs in 1994).

The Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing report encourages the development of academic progression pathways, such as RN to MSN programs, as a way to encourage RNs to achieve higher levels of education and training that would allow them to work as skilled clinicians in advanced practice and leadership roles, as well as in vital nonclinical roles related to education, informatics, research and administration.

The AACN reported that as of 2011, more than 24,000 post-licensure master’s degrees were awarded in the U.S. The number of master’s and doctoral graduates increased by 67 percent between 2007 and 2011.

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Generalist RN to MSN bridge programs are available for staff RNs ready to take on clinical leadership positions, while specialized RN to MSN programs are designed to prepare RNs to qualify for licensure in advanced practice roles, as well as for other positions requiring graduate-level preparation:


What is an RN to MSN Program?

RN to MSN programs are designed specifically for RNs who received their initial nursing preparation through a nursing diploma, Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). RN to MSN programs build upon an RN’s previous learning and experience, preparing nurses for a higher level of nursing practice.

According to the AACN, distinguishing hallmarks of RN to MSN programs include:

  • RN to MSN programs require students to possess a valid and unencumbered RN license in the U.S.
  • Most RN to MSN programs offer both part-time and full-time study.
  • An average of 60 graduate-level credit hours is required to achieve the MSN.
  • Many RN to MSN programs require students to possess some clinical experience as an RN, while others require specific GPA requirements, both for transferred coursework and for coursework within the program.
  • RN to MSN programs do not repeat previously completed coursework for licensed RNs. This means most programs take between 2 to 3 years to complete, depending on specific requirements of the institution and on the student’s previously completed coursework.
  • The majority of RN to MSN programs are offered online or in a blended classroom/online format.
  • The baccalaureate-level content is built into the front end of RN to MSN programs. Students must achieve mastery of the undergraduate coursework before they can achieve eligibility to move on to the graduate-level coursework.
  • The majority of RN to MSN programs award both a BSN and an MSN upon completion of the program, while others confer the BSN upon completion of all undergraduate coursework.
  • Most RN to MSN programs include specialty areas, or tracks that include:
    • Clinical nurse leader
    • Ambulatory care
    • Nurse practitioner (tracks for patient population focus)
    • Nursing administrator
    • Nurse educator
    • Nurse midwife
    • Nurse anesthetist
    • Community health nurse


RN to MSN Program Structure and Design

After the completion of all undergraduate coursework, the components of an RN to MSN program are distinctly similar to a traditional MSN program. The AACN, through a series of publications, has outlined the necessary elements of MSN programs.

Essentials of a Master’s Education in Nursing

The ACCN’s 2011 publication, the Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing, is designed to ensure that the curricular elements and framework of all MSN programs is the same, regardless of focus or intended practice setting.

Graduates of programs that follow the AACN’s guidelines are prepared to satisfy current and emerging roles in healthcare delivery and design.

MSN programs, which build on baccalaureate or entry-level nursing practice, provide graduates with a more comprehensive understanding of the nursing discipline allowing them to engage in higher-level practice and leadership in a variety of settings. MSN programs are also designed to allow for a seamless transition into a research or practice-focused doctoral program.

The MSN curriculum, according to the AACN, should include three components:

  • Graduating Nursing Core: Essential for all students who pursue an MSN, regardless of the functional focus
  • Direct Care Core: Essential for providing direct patient services at an advanced level
  • Functional Areas Content: Clinical and didactic learning experiences identified by professional nursing organizations and certification bodies; differs depending on specific nursing roles or functions

The AACN defines nine essentials for an MSN program:

  • Background for practice from science and humanities (genetics, public health, quality improvement, biopsychosocial fields, etc.)
  • Organizational and systems leadership
  • Quality improvement and safety
  • Translating and integrating scholarship into practice
  • Informatics and healthcare technologies
  • Health policy and advocacy
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving health
  • Master’s level nursing practice (includes both direct and indirect care components)

Essentials of a Master’s Education in Nursing for Advanced Practice Nursing

The AACN outlines the essential elements of a master’s education for advanced practice nursing as a way to ensure that nurses prepared at the master’s level are able to serve as expert clinicians. The AACN recognizes three components of the MSN that is focus on advanced practice nursing:

  • Graduate Nursing Core: The graduate nursing core serves as the foundational curriculum content for all students pursuing a master’s degree, regardless of the specialty or functional focus.
  • Advanced Practice Nursing Core: The advanced practice nursing core is essential for students to provide direct patient/client services at an advanced level.
  • Specialty Curriculum Content: Clinical and didactic learning experiences are generally defined by specialty nursing organizations.

The AACN’s Outline of Essential Curriculum Elements in an MSN program with an APRN focus includes:

    • Research
    • Policy, organization, and financing of healthcare
      • Healthcare policy
      • Organization of the healthcare delivery system
      • Healthcare financing


  • Ethics
  • Professional role development
  • Theoretical foundations of nursing practice
  • Human diversity and social issues
  • Health promotion and disease prevention

The AACN’s Advanced Practice Nursing Core Curriculum includes:

  • Advanced health/physical assessment
  • Advanced physiology and pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacology

Graduates of an MSN education with an APRN focus must possess:

  • Strong critical thinking and decision making skills
  • The ability to critically and accurately intervene, assess, plan, and evaluate the health and illness experiences of clients so as to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes of patient care
  • The ability to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing
  • The ability to analyze, synthesize, and utilize knowledge

The AACN strongly recommends that these programs include a culminating or capstone experience.

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