BSN vs. MSN Degree: What Is the Difference?

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master's in Nursing | View all blog posts under RN to BSN

The nursing profession is rapidly growing, creating a demand for qualified and educated professionals who can meet the needs of a changing healthcare system and aging population. A report from the Institute of Medicine published in American Nurse Today encourages nurses to achieve higher levels of education and urges the healthcare industry to work toward 80% of practicing registered nurses (RNs) having a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or higher degree (such as a Master of Science in Nursing) by 2020 to respond to a nationwide shortage of doctors and other highly trained healthcare providers.

Clinical nurse with BSN talks with older couple.

Healthcare professionals considering a BSN vs. an MSN would do well to understand the different career paths, educational requirements, qualifications, and opportunities associated with each of these degrees before deciding which best fits with their professional goals.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Overview

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree offers students an introduction to nursing practices, pathophysiology, anatomy, health assessment, health promotion, public health, physiology, nursing research, and healthcare policy. This degree can provide aspiring nurses with the skills and expertise necessary to pursue a career as a registered nurse (RN) or to continue their education with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree.

BSN degree coursework includes both classroom and clinical practice, as well as general education requirements such as English. A typical BSN program takes three or four years to complete. Although a BSN degree is not a requirement to become an RN, it does give students an in-depth foundation in nursing theory, psychology, and biology that can be beneficial on the job.

What Do BSN Graduates Do?

BSN program graduates typically apply their skills to a career as a registered nurse (RN). Earning a BSN degree can lead to higher pay and more leadership opportunities in a variety of medical settings, such as hospitals, nonprofit organizations, community clinics, and research facilities. Completing a BSN degree also prepares students to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree. While many with a BSN degree go on to work as RNs, there are other possibilities open to nurses with a degree.

Types of careers for those with a BSN include the following:

  • Nurse Educator. These postsecondary educators help to shape the future nursing workforce by providing nursing training through classroom and clinical experience. These RNs work in colleges, universities, technical schools, or hospital nursing programs to prepare students for a career in nursing.
  • Public Health Nurse. These nurses work in communities to help promote the population’s health through the prevention of disease, violence, and accidents. PHNs educate the public on health and safety using their knowledge and expertise in nursing, social science, and public health sciences.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Overview

A big difference between BSN and MSN degrees comes down to the specific concentrations available in a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. This advanced degree prepares students to work in leadership roles in healthcare by emphasizing high-level medical and management skills. Most nurses who pursue an MSN degree are RNs looking to earn a leadership position.

An MSN degree provides advanced coursework in nursing theory, evidence-based practice, healthcare policy, professional role development, disease prevention, pathophysiology, and health assessment. It can also offer opportunities to specialize in certain areas of healthcare. MSN programs such as Maryville University’s offer a holistic approach to nursing and give healthcare professionals opportunities to advance their careers in a way that aligns with their individual passions. The master’s-level nursing curriculum at Maryville includes classes in theory, policy, and leadership as well as in advanced nursing. In this program, students are also able to choose a specialty that interests them, such as pediatrics, family medicine, or adult gerontology.

What Do MSN Graduates Do?

Graduates of MSN degree programs typically have a wealth of nursing experience, aspire to leadership in their profession, and aim to lead with compassion and evidence-based decision-making. For example, at this level, nurses take many things into consideration when developing a care plan; they strive to make the best possible care choices based on all available research, as well as the individual experience and desires of the patient.

MSN program graduates typically pursue a career path as a nurse practitioner (often with a specialty such as neonatal, psychiatric, or emergency care), nurse administrator, or researcher.

Types of careers available to those with an MSN include the following:

  • Nurse Practitioner. These advanced practice nurses typically have at least a master’s degree, qualify to coordinate patient care, and (depending on the state they work in) may provide primary and specialty healthcare as well. Most nurse practitioners can prescribe medications, order medical tests, and diagnose health problems.
  • Nurse Administrator. Also known as nurse managers, these nurses create employee schedules, provide performance reviews, and help design efficient policies in their organization to improve patient outcomes. These RNs typically have an MSN degree, paired with extensive experience in clinical nursing.
  • Nurse Researcher. These nurses conduct research in hospitals, medical clinics, and research laboratories. They typically have an MSN degree as well as additional training in research methodology and tools. Their studies and reports seek to improve patient outcomes, save lives, and improve efficiencies in the healthcare field. Their work may include research into how to deliver care more effectively, improve the quality of life for sufferers of chronic illness, or implement lifestyle changes among patients.

Similarities Between a BSN and an MSN

When it comes to a BSN vs. an MSN, individuals should be aware of the similarities in education each training program offers. These similarities involve the specifics of direct patient care as well as the coursework on assessment and leadership. Naturally, both degree programs also include labs or practica that put skills to use outside of the classroom. In both a BSN and MSN path, students have opportunities to tailor the curriculum to their interests, choosing electives such as end-of-life care at the BSN level, or choosing a specialization such as psychiatric nursing when studying at the master’s level. Each degree can help nurses to advance their careers, whether through an RN to BSN program or by continuing their education following the completion of an MSN degree. Across the board, education can boost job prospects and earning potential.

Differences Between a BSN and an MSN

There are several key differences between BSN and MSN degrees, such as the concentrations they offer and the typical career paths for graduates of each program. It’s important to consider these differences and how each nurse’s unique talents and interests might align with each educational path.

Education

A typical BSN program takes four years to complete and includes liberal arts courses that fulfill general education requirements in addition to nursing-specific classes and coursework.

An MSN degree offers more advanced training for nursing positions in a specialized role, for example, as a nurse practitioner. This degree program typically takes two years to complete. However, MSN programs require an undergraduate degree to apply, so the MSN will take longer than four years to earn if the student has not yet earned a bachelor’s degree.

Concentrations

The coursework in a BSN degree provides nurses with a broad education in healthcare and liberal arts. Many RNs who pursue a BSN degree may already work in a specialized role, for example, in an ICU or cardiology center, but pursue a BSN degree to earn the skills they need to advance.

In contrast, defining the focus of an MSN degree is one of the first steps students take upon entering the program. Most MSN degree programs emphasize selecting an advanced nurse practitioner concentration. Typically, an MSN student will focus on one of four advanced practice areas:

  • Nurse Practitioner. A nurse practitioner assesses and diagnoses patients, outlines a care plan, orders and interprets lab and diagnostic tests, as well as prescribes medications.
  • Nurse Anesthetist. Nurse anesthetists are advanced practice care providers who administer anesthesia and monitor patients under anesthesia during medical procedures.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist. Clinical nurse specialists are advanced nurses who have chosen a specialty. They provide care and advice in their area of expertise, such as in acute health, women’s health, or pediatrics.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife. Certified nurse midwives provide care and advice for women during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as during regular gynecological checkups and family planning processes.

Career Paths

A BSN degree prepares students for a job as an RN or other types of nursing roles. Additional career paths BSN program graduates may pursue include clinical practice nurse, nurse educator, and public health nurse.

Due to their advanced education, MSN degree holders can deliver many of the same health care services that physicians provide. MSN program graduates can pursue various career paths in the nursing industry as a nurse practitioner (in various specialities), nurse administration, or nurse researcher.

BSN vs. MSN: Which Is Right for You?

Nurses have an immeasurable impact on patients’ well being, experience, and health outcomes. The care, leadership, and education nurses provide to patients can influence the health of entire communities. If you want to be an RN, or if you are already an RN and want to expand your career path and pursue a leadership role, consider the different opportunities offered by a BSN or MSN degree and how each might serve your professional goals and personal passions.

Learn More About Transforming Healthcare

Nurses have the power to transform the healthcare system — starting with their role in it. If you’re an RN looking to advance your career, Maryville University’s RN to BSN online program can provide the in-demand skills necessary to assume a meaningful role in healthcare delivery. Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Nursing is for experienced nurses who want to develop the leadership perspective needed to create change and improve the process of patient care, contributing to an industry built upon compassion and competent care.

Sources
American Nurses Association (ANA), Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

American Nurse Today, Can Nursing Meet the 80/2020 Goal?”

Maryville University, 5 MSN NP Specialties: Which One Speaks to You?

Maryville University, Master of Science in Nursing Online

Maryville University, Online Nursing Degrees

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

Very Well Health, “Differences Between BSN and MSN Degrees”