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MSN vs. RN: Taking the Next Step in Nursing Degrees


Nearly 4 million nurses in the country work in all kinds of facilities and environments — from hospitals and nursing homes to schools and universities — impacting the lives of others as educators, researchers, practitioners, and many other roles. These healthcare professionals work seamlessly with patients, doctors, and specialists alike to improve health outcomes.


If you’re intrigued by opportunities in the nursing field, you have plenty of options. Nurses perform brave, hands-on work in pediatrics, gerontology, palliative care, neonatal, and other categories. Contrary to popular belief, nurses don’t just assist doctors: They may run their own practices as well as lead healthcare teams.


Nurses wanting to further their careers typically take one of two routes. After becoming registered nurses (RNs), many nurses can use their work experience to advance in their careers. They can rise to leadership or educational positions, for example, by taking on more responsibility in specialty roles such as midwifery, anesthesia, or oncology. Another way for nurses to advance or even switch focuses is by attaining a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Whatever your chosen path, accredited universities like Maryville University offer a number of nursing degrees that can help you advance.


As you weigh the options, you’ll encounter quite a few considerations between MSN vs. RN. But one thing is clear: Both roles are vital to the healthcare community.

MSN Overview

An MSN enables practicing nurses to receive a graduate education that builds on prior RN and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) education. This prepares nurses to take on innovative roles in the healthcare industry, such as in the emerging field of remission nursing, and even to work as consultants on new technologies and the patient experience. An MSN is typically a two-year program with core courses designed to enhance students’ previous education. In addition, most MSN nursing online programs enable students to delve deep into a specific area they’re passionate about through a nurse practitioner (NP) concentration like pediatrics, leadership, or primary care.

What Do MSN Graduates Do?

Armed with the skills they need to provide exemplary, compassionate care, MSN nurses have various career options. For example, many MSN graduates continue in a clinical setting as NPs, while others go on to become administrators, leaders, or mentors in the nursing field.

Types of careers:

    • Nurse manager. Staffing, organizing, training, and overseeing the nursing staff of a given wing or unit.
    • Charge nurse. Performs many of the duties of a regular RN, though they have some managerial duties, such as preparing schedules and monitoring intake and discharge information.
    • Clinical nurse researcher. Creates, oversees, and evaluates research that leads to improved medication, treatment, and procedure.
    • Nurse educator. Creates, updates, and implements nursing curriculum in the classroom, advising fledgling nurses on best practices.

    RN Overview

    RN programs focus on preparing aspiring nurses to earn their certifications, which in turn enable them to practice in clinical settings. Coursework includes topics like anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, chemistry, and nutrition — all of which play important roles in healthcare. Aspiring RNs will first earn either a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Then, they’ll take a certification exam that enables them to practice in their state. Four-year students will typically immerse themselves in additional coursework in social sciences, communication, and leadership.


    If you’re seeking an RN path, you can expect to learn skills like organization, attention to detail, and how to communicate with empathy and compassion in a clinical setting. These are vital skills that contribute to success in nursing of any kind.

    What Do RN Graduates Do?

    Once aspiring RNs earn state licensure, they have several options, such as supporting patients at a hospital, community clinic, emergency clinic, or hospice center. Every day, RNs fill vital roles. They coordinate care; educate patients about health issues; and work directly with patients, families, and staff. RNs rely on their organization and communication skills as they work with their teams.


    RNs have various different career options to choose from.

    Types of careers:

    • Hospital nurse. Assists doctors in hospitals with treating illness and injury.
    • School nurse. Works with students in school environments to protect and promote health, facilitate normal development, and achieve academic success.
    • Case manager. Coordinates multiple elements of care for each patient. They use internal and external resources to promote overall health and healing.
    • Charge nurse. Manages nurses and support staff of specific wings or units.

    Similarities Between MSN and RN

    Both MSN and RN programs prepare students to provide the best-possible patient care. Further, the programs are geared to today’s job market, emphasizing how to thrive in a modern healthcare environment that sees constant change.


    In addition, RNs, as well as many roles that MSN graduates fulfill, must meet state licensure requirements to practice, as well as participate in continuing education. The nursing field constantly adapts to the changing needs of patients and society as well as technological innovations. MSN graduates and RNs must stay on the leading edge of these changes.

    Differences Between MSN and RN

    While both MSN nurses and RNs work with patients, assist physicians, and experience leadership opportunities, the roles differ significantly. When you look at the difference between RN vs. MSN, you’ll realize that different career options, autonomy levels, and specialties come into play.

    Education Level

    Though many RNs have a bachelor’s degree, some choose to pursue a two-year associate degree in nursing, after which graduates are ready to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination. All 50 states require aspiring nurses to pass this exam. Some RNs continue on to earn their BSN; although it’s not required, it can boost job prospects and earning potential.


    An MSN is a graduate degree. Because of this, the degree program allows for more specialization, as well as a focus on both practice and theory. Graduates have a comprehensive understanding of healthcare policy and specialized practice knowledge. As a result, they may have more autonomy at work.

    Career Opportunities

    As mentioned, RNs and MSNs can work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, private practices, and community health centers. RNs tend to have direct contact with patients and their families, and the majority of their time is spent in clinical settings. They may choose to specialize in a specific area that would provide options for additional career advancement.


    On the other hand, MSN graduates have wider opportunities outside of traditional clinical practices. They may choose to specialize, and their advanced degree enables them to pursue opportunities as NPs. Again, unlike RNs, they may find themselves taking their expertise beyond a clinical environment, choosing to work as nurse educators or administrators or to step into leadership roles and impact healthcare policy.

    Salary and Job Growth

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects both RNs and MSN graduates to see increased demand between 2016 and 2026. RNs are projected to see a 15% increase; by comparison, the projected national average growth rate is 7%. The BLS also reports that RNs earned an average annual salary of $71,730 in 2018, with the salary fluctuating based on location and experience, among other variables.


    Even more opportunities exist for MSN graduates. The BLS expects jobs for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and NPs, many of whom hold an MSN, to experience a massive 31% increase in the reported time period. In addition, the BLS reports that these nurses earned an average annual salary of $113,920 in 2018.

    MSN vs. RN: Which Is Right for You?

    Nurses are bold leaders in an ever-changing field that requires compassion and dedication. If you’re considering a nursing career, completing an RN degree program offers you a strong start in this rewarding profession. Once you’ve earned your certification and begun practicing, you may find you want even more autonomy and to create a more substantial impact. If you’re already a practicing nurse, and you’re ready to take a major step forward in the field, see how Maryville University MSN degree online program can help you become a leader in the nursing field.


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