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: According to the 2019 Trends in Nurse Staffing survey, 50% of hospitals reported having between 10 and 74 open nursing jobs to fill.

Registered nurses pose in their white coats and scrubs.

The demand for qualified nurses means more opportunities for aspiring healthcare professionals. Nurses can choose from several different career paths and continuing education options, including a registered nurse (RN) role, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. The difference between RN vs. BSN vs. MSN work is the unique qualifications and requirements involved, as well as the career path opportunities.

Registered Nurse (RN) Role Overview

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

What Do Registered Nurses Do?

The comparison between RN vs. BSN or MSN 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 doctors, physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare professionals. Their roles and responsibilities vary by specialization, place of work, and type of patient in their care. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects RN opportunities to grow by 15% from 2016 to 2026.

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.
  • 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 of falls in the elderly, drug abuse, and sexually transmitted infections, among others. 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.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree 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 to 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.

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 both classroom and clinical practice. The typical BSN degree is a three- or four-year program, which includes general education 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-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.

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 are trained in mental health. They provide patients emotional and pain management support and counsel families whose loved ones are seeking treatment for addiction.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree 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 would like to further advance their careers by gaining the skills and expertise necessary for management positions.

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 classes in designing health studies, evidence-based practice strategies, and advanced courses on ethics and leadership. Career paths for MSN graduates include adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), and family nurse practitioner (FNP).

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, which creates many career opportunities.
  • 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 in which they practice, PNPs may not require physician oversight.
  • 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. 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.

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 as a whole is changing.

Further, 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 must continually learn about advances in treatment, technology, and community needs to serve effectively.

Differences Between RN, BSN, and MSN

There are several key differences 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 BSN or MSN, and a nursing role, such as an RN.

Educational Requirements

RNs can pursue one of three educational paths: a BSN, an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Regardless of the path, RNs must 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 education 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 University, 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 students with a bachelor’s degree in a different field.

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 family nurse practitioner, pediatric nurse practitioner, and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner — in the healthcare industry. An MSN can open the door to becoming a mentor, educator, researcher, or administrator. Students select an advanced nurse practitioner concentration for their master’s degree to shape their future role as nurse practitioners.

Degree Versus 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. It’s important for aspiring and current nurses to 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 instead take on roles as educators or even primary healthcare providers. These positions have real impact and the power to change people’s lives. Maryville’s RN to BSN online program helps RNs advance their expertise to provide increasingly needed skills that don’t just 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. With an emphasis on leadership, in this program professionals build upon 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.

Association of American Medical Colleges, Research Shows Shortage of More than 100,000 Doctors by 2030

Forbes, “Where the Jobs Are: Nursing”

HealthLeaders, “Trends in Nurse Staffing”

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

Maryville University, Online RN to BSN

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses