Your Future in Nursing: RN vs. BSN vs. MSN

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Even for relatively minor injuries or illnesses, many people arrive at the emergency room, hospital, or clinic nervous and scared. Nurses are often the first people we interact with on our journey to wellness. In most situations, they’re on the front line of healthcare, not just assessing patients at intake but also calming and advising them. A nurse’s competent guidance in providing high-quality patient care can be unforgettable. Now more than ever, healthcare professionals, including nurses, are at the center of change in the healthcare system.

And more nurses are needed: 36% of facilities had more than 25 registered nurse (RN) job openings in 2021, while 21% reported they had more than 50 open RN roles, according to the 2021 Trends in Nurse Staffing Survey from Avant Healthcare Professionals. These statistics were a significant jump from 2020, when the percentage of facilities with more than 25 and 50 openings were 17% and 11%, respectively.

While these numbers reflect the issue of nurses leaving healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for qualified nurses means more opportunities are available for aspiring healthcare professionals. Nurses can choose from several career paths and continuing education options, including an RN role, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. The difference between RN versus BSN versus MSN work is the unique qualifications and requirements involved, as well as the career path opportunities.

Registered nurses pose in their white coats and scrubs.

Registered Nurse (RN) Role Overview

RNs typically have completed a BSN or another related degree program, such as an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). All RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure in their states. Then, they can pursue various nursing career paths, specializing in areas such as acute care, infectious diseases, gerontology, and perinatal care.

RN Median Salary Earnings

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual salary for RNs was $75,330 in 2020. Several factors affect salaries, including education level, years of experience, and career type. Location can also be a factor, with salaries reflecting regional cost of living.

What Do RNs Do?

The RN versus BSN versus MSN comparison comes down to direct care — from administering medicine and treatment to educating patients and their families on treatment plans and health conditions. This puts RNs in a position to connect with patients and families on a personal, rewarding level. In addition, RNs contribute their expertise to a team of physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare professionals. Their roles and responsibilities vary by specialization, place of work, and type of patients in their care. The BLS projects RN opportunities to grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030.

Types of Careers

  • Critical care nurses. A critical care nurse typically works in the intensive care unit, providing care to patients with very complex or serious illnesses that require detailed monitoring and treatment. Find out more about critical care nurses.
  • Oncology nurses. An oncology nurse primarily cares for patients diagnosed with cancer, using specialized knowledge to monitor vitals, assist with treatments like chemotherapy, and advise patients on how and when to take their medication, as well as directing them to other resources, like mental health counseling. However, these nurses can also specialize in their fields to provide care for patients with specific types of cancer or specific categories of patients with cancer. For example, a pediatric oncology nurse cares for children and teenagers with cancer.
  • Public health nurses. A public health nurse educates the public about signs and symptoms of common diseases like heart disease, as well as offering education to prevent incidents such as falls in the elderly, drug abuse, and sexually transmitted infections. They also help to provide resources and education on managing chronic health conditions. These nurses typically coordinate community outreach programs and events, such as health screenings and blood drives, helping identify issues that require their attention, as well as sharing expert information on the spot. Community outreach events have a ripple effect, creating healthier, more resilient communities. Find out more about public health nurses.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Role Overview

A BSN is a foundational degree that prepares students for a nursing career by focusing on the basic skills they need to pursue an RN career or continue their education and attain an MSN. While a BSN isn’t required to become an RN, it’s helpful because it provides a solid background in nursing theory, psychology, and biology.

BSN Median Salary Earnings

The median annual salary for nurses with a BSN degree was approximately $89,000 as of March 2022, according to the salary aggregate site Payscale. As is the case with RNs, various factors can influence this figure, including years of experience, career type, and job location.

What Do BSN Degree Graduates Do?

As mentioned, a BSN can prepare students for career advancement or a graduate nursing program, such as a master’s or doctoral degree. BSN coursework encompasses classroom and clinical practice. The typical BSN degree is a three- or four-year program, which includes general educational requirements.

However, students who have already received their RN certification can typically complete an RN to BSN program in two years, sometimes even in one year, as with the Maryville University RN to BSN program. A BSN curriculum includes anatomy, physiology, nutrition, emergency care, health assessment, and public health. A BSN can open the door to higher pay and more substantial opportunities in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, research facilities, nonprofit organizations, and community clinics.

The BLS doesn’t offer job projection data for specific degrees. However, RN positions are expected to increase by 9% between 2020 and 2030, and a BSN can make applicants more appealing to employers.

Types of Careers

  • Labor and delivery nurses. An L&D nurse cares for mothers throughout the birthing process, including monitoring vital signs, timing contractions, helping induce labor, and assisting in handling any complications.
  • Cardiovascular nurses. A cardiovascular nurse specializes in treating and caring for patients with heart disease or those who have had heart surgery, such as bypass, angioplasty, or pacemaker surgery. This includes providing postoperative care, monitoring cardiac and vascular readings, and supporting patients in lifestyle changes that can keep their hearts healthy.
  • Substance abuse nurses. A substance abuse nurse helps treat patients addicted to drugs, alcohol, or other substances. In addition to being trained in general medicine, these nurses study mental health. They provide patients with emotional and pain management support and counsel families whose loved ones are seeking treatment for addiction.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Role Overview

An MSN is different from an RN and a BSN in its emphasis on advanced education to work in healthcare leadership roles. Typically, nurses who seek an MSN are RNs who want to further advance their careers by gaining the skills and expertise necessary for management or nurse practitioner (NP) positions that can offer more autonomy.

MSN Median Salary Earnings

Payscale reports the median annual salary for nurses with MSN degrees was approximately $98,000 as of March 2022. Factors such as experience, the specific type of MSN, and location can all affect salaries.

What Do MSN Degree Graduates Do?

MSN programs are designed for experienced nurses who want to develop leadership skills to approach nursing with a focus on compassion, preventive care, and evidence-based decision-making. For example, MSN students take courses in health study design and evidence-based practice strategies, as well as advanced courses in ethics and leadership. Career paths for MSN graduates include adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), and family nurse practitioner (FNP).

While the BLS doesn’t specify job projections by degree, it does provide job data for NPs. NP positions, which many MSN graduates pursue, are expected to grow by a significant 52% between 2020 and 2030.

Types of Careers

  • Adult-gerontology nurse practitioners. AGNPs are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who typically work in private practice to provide care for adolescents, adults, and seniors. AGNPs work across a wide variety of patient populations, affording them many career opportunities. Find out more about AGNPs.
  • Pediatric nurse practitioners. PNPs work with children from birth to young adult, focusing on patient education and holistic care. PNPs provide primary care and preventive health measures. They can also help manage acute and chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes. Depending on the state where they practice, PNPs may not require physician oversight. Find out more about PNPs.
  • Family nurse practitioners. FNPs are seeing growing job opportunities, fueled partly by the projected shortage of potentially more than 100,000 family medical doctors by 2030, according to research from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). These APRNs focus on family care and may work independently or with other healthcare professionals. With their advanced education and rigorous training, they provide various healthcare services, including diagnosis and treatment of complex health conditions. Their training also qualifies them to work in leadership roles as clinic administrators or policymakers, among other roles. Find out more about FNPs.

Similarities Between RN, BSN, and MSN

The training and education of RN, BSN, and MSN programs offer students the skills and expertise they need to pursue a nursing career. All three avenues provide students with an in-depth understanding of the nursing field and healthcare in general, including how nurses impact healthcare institutions, public health, and how the healthcare industry is changing.

Each avenue requires several years of study, familiarizing nurses with the foundational skills that keep hospitals running smoothly. In the fast-changing healthcare world, nurses need to continually learn about advances in treatment, technology, and community needs to serve effectively.

Differences Between RN, BSN, and MSN

Several key differences exist between the degrees and typical future career paths for graduates of each program. In addition, students should be aware of the differences between a nursing degree, such as a BSN or an MSN, and a nursing role, such as an RN.

Educational Requirements

RNs can pursue one of three educational paths: a BSN, an ADN, or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Regardless of the path, RNs need to be licensed in every state where they intend to practice.

A BSN program can take from two to four years to complete, depending on the student’s previous educational level. For example, an RN may pursue a BSN and earn a degree in two years, while a student with no prior experience would typically complete a BSN in three to four years. Some schools, like Maryville, offer an RN to BSN degree, designed with RNs in mind who want to continue their education by earning a bachelor’s degree in the field.

A BSN isn’t required to attain an MSN; however, most students pursuing an MSN are RNs or have completed a BSN. An MSN typically takes two years to complete and can be completed both by those with a nursing background and by those with a bachelor’s degree in a different field. Students need to thoroughly understand an institution’s program requirements prior to enrollment.

Career Paths

RNs and BSN graduates can pursue similar career paths, such as providing oncology, public health, L&D, cardiovascular, and substance abuse care. However, some of these roles may require specific skills, certifications, or licensing in addition to the BSN educational requirements.

MSN nurses often pursue leadership or management roles — including FNP, PNP, and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) — in the healthcare industry. An MSN can open the door to becoming a mentor, an educator, a researcher, or an administrator. Students select an advanced nurse practitioner concentration for their master’s degree to shape their future role as NPs.

Degree vs. Role

The BSN curriculum prepares students for an RN career by providing the necessary technical and interpersonal skills. However, RN is a role, not a degree program. Becoming an RN doesn’t necessarily require a BSN.

RN vs. BSN vs. MSN: Which Is Right for You?

A nursing career is much like the healthcare industry itself — dynamic and evolving. New treatment methods are constantly being developed for all sorts of ailments, and new technologies are being introduced into the workplace. Nurses must learn how to apply these innovations, integrate them into standard procedures, and educate others on how they work. Healthcare professionals pursuing a nursing career can continue their education, specialize, and work toward leadership roles. Aspiring and current nurses should choose the educational path most aligned with their career goals and individual interests.

Learn More About Nursing Leadership

Nurses have the adaptability and skills needed to take on important roles. Often, they go beyond the basics of caregiving and take on roles as educators or even primary healthcare providers. These positions have real impact and the power to change lives. Maryville’s RN to BSN online program helps RNs advance their expertise to provide increasingly needed skills that not only benefit patients but also expand professional horizons.

Maryville’s online MSN is for experienced nurses who want to transform the healthcare system — starting with their roles in it. In the program, which emphasizes leadership, professionals build on their experience to provide expansive care based on evidence and compassion. Check out Maryville today and begin your journey beyond the basics of caregiving into the future of healthcare.

Recommended Reading

BSN vs. MSN Degree: Career Outcome Differences

How Nurses Impact Quality of Care

Regional vs. National Accreditation for Nursing

Sources

Association of Public Health Nurses, What Is a PHN?

Avant Healthcare Professionals, 2021 Trends in Nurse Staffing

Houston Chronicle, “The Role of a Nurse in Drug Rehabilitation”

Incredible Health, How to Become a Cardiac Nurse

Johnson & Johnson Nursing, Labor and Delivery (L&D) Nurse at a Glance

Johnson & Johnson Nursing, Oncology Nurse at a Glance

Kaiser Family Foundation, “Nursing Facility Staffing Shortages During the COVID-19 Pandemic”

Payscale, Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree

Payscale, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses