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Could you add to your nurse education online?

Dr. Cherie Rebar is reflected in a computer monitor as she teaches a nursing class at Wittenberg University Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Bill Lackey/Staff

It seems extra-convenient and cost-effective, but is attaining an online master's degree in nursing a viable option for you personally? Along with considering the advantages, going back to school online requires a hard look at your personality as well as work and study habits. You also must consider your current work-life balance, just like you would with any other major commitment in light of your nursing job and family commitments.

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But know this coming out of the gate: There is enormous demand for nurses with advanced degrees. And if online school puts that within reach for you, it could be a great thing.

The nurse-midwife and nurse practitioner professions, for example, had a median pay of $113,930 per year in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS also anticipated those two jobs would grow 26% between 2018-2028, much faster than average. And the typical entry-level education for each is a Master of Science in Nursing.

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There's such a huge need for nurses with a master's degree that schools are offering accelerated and compressed programs designed to draw more nurses in and get them into the workforce quickly. There's even an online bridge program opportunity that allows registered nurses who don't hold a bachelor's degree in nursing to pursue an MSN without getting a bachelor's degree first. Other programs offer credit for experience and professional certifications.

You don't have to absorb that whole big employment picture to decide to pursue an MSN online. But to succeed, you'll need to take a close look at what you could be getting into when you earn an education online instead of at a campus.

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According to Nurse Journal, here are five areas to look at:

Accessibility: "With any online program, lectures and course materials are available wherever there is an internet connection. Many online programs cater to working professionals and offer asynchronous courses, meaning coursework is available at any time during the week," it said. But you'll need a good setup, both in terms of organizational skills and a home computer, to tap this advantage.

Flexibility: "Some nursing master's programs are cohort based, in which students go through courses at the same speed. Other programs allow students to complete courses at their own pace. Some also offer credit for experience and professional certifications." Having so many options is great, but some of them could leave you feeling like you're all alone during the times you don't have clinical hours onsite at a hospital.

And having more flexible opportunities doesn't give you any shortcuts: You still must complete the same numbers of credit and clinical hours as any other Master of Science in Nursing candidates. "For this reason, even full-time students often require two to three years to earn their degree," Nurse Journal noted.

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The impact of technology: To study online, you'll have to be comfortable with course management technology that aims to duplicate the learning environment of campus-based classes. "Most systems allow students to have in-depth discussions with classmates and teachers, take online tests from home, and access university resources, such as the library," Nurse Journal said.

You'll need to evaluate whether you can handle the restraints of a particular program's technology, too. Some places offer students the ability to go online and engage with course material at any time, while others have online students all logging in concurrently for a "class." The "any time" option can leave procrastinators without enough time to complete assignments. It can also give perfectionists far too much time to obsessively overwork. The online programs that require specific class times may not work with the hours at your current job, however.

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School options: "Location is not an issue with online nursing master's programs, which allows MSN students to choose the best program for them in terms of available specializations, schedules, and price," Nurse Journal explained. But you'll still need to determine on-campus course requirements so you'll have enough time and energy to complete them all.

MSN program specializations: When you're looking at possibly needing two or three years to complete an online MSN, you absolutely need an idea of your future career path. That way, you can choose which specialization you'd like to pursue, whether that's adult-gerontology NP, informatics or the dozens of other specialties possible with an MSN. If you don't have a clear picture of where you'd like to work when you graduate, the savings of online education can evaporate quickly.

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Strategies for success with online nursing classes

If you do decide to pursue an online degree, several strategies will help you succeed, according to Northeastern:

Map out a plan. "Look at the syllabus at the start of the semester and make note of major assignments," it recommended. "Mark them on a calendar you check regularly so you know what workload is coming in the weeks ahead. Don't forget to factor in prior commitments that may interfere with your regular study schedule, such as weddings or vacations, so you can give yourself enough extra time to complete assignments."

Create a weekly schedule and revisit how well it's working every month. Designate "certain hours each week to reading, watching lectures, completing assignments, studying, and participating in forums."

Eliminate distractions. When you are learning in a classroom, there's no temptation to take naps, stream Netflix or text your bestie at all hours. When you are going to nursing school online, you'll need a plan for coping with those distractions. Without any external checks on what you're doing, it's more important than ever to make sure you stay on a schedule instead of veering into late nights and haphazard meals. An online Master's of Science in Nursing can allow you to slip into some bad habits if you let it.

Build your own study group. You won't have fellow students in the traditional sense, but online nursing programs have designed a workaround into their programs. "Most online courses are built around the concept of collaboration, with professors and instructors actively encouraging that students work together to complete assignments and discuss lessons," Northeastern noted. Of course, that can also be a negative. If you entered an online program thinking you could be completely independent, it can be a burden to complete joint projects on other people's timetables. Just make sure to find out the program's attitude towards collaboration before you sign on.

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If you're worried you won't have enough interaction with others, Northeastern recommended engaging in online discussion boards. "Your peers can be a valuable resource when preparing for exams or asking for feedback on assignments. Don't be afraid to turn to them to create a virtual study group," it added.

Play to your strengths. "If you're a morning person, make time to study first thing," recommended Northeastern. "More of a night owl? Set aside an hour or two after dinner to cozy up to your computer. If the kids require your morning and evening attention, try to carve out a study session mid-day while they're at school. Brew your usual cup of coffee, put on your go-to playlist, and do whatever you need to get into the zone and down to business."

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