Pros and cons of investing in an MSN

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An advanced nursing degree can help your career progress, but it’s not for everyone

One of the most common advanced nursing degrees is the Master of Science in Nursing, or MSN.

The benefits of obtaining an MSN are far-reaching, according to Peggy Trent, DNP, RN, CNE and clinical assistant professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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“Patients, families and communities all benefit from nurses with a more advanced scope of practice. Advanced practice nurses allow more patients to be seen, which is a benefit to families as well as to the whole community,” Trent stated, adding demand is high for nurses with MSN degrees specializing in nursing education and in leadership and management.

That said, an MSN is not right for everyone. Is an MSN the best career asset for you? The answer ultimately depends on your current situation and your career goals.

Pros

Broaden the variety of career opportunities

Advanced practice nursing jobs, as well as many leadership roles, require a graduate degree. Additionally, an MSN can help those nurses who want to transition from the bedside and into nonclinical, teaching or consulting roles.

“For me, getting my master’s degree gave me the impetus to leave the bedside full time,” said Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN and board certified nurse-midwife with PeriodJoy. “I work in education, medical writing, nurse consulting and medical editing. In the pandemic, the stress levels are through the roof. Having options to step away from the bedside has been crucial to my mental health.”

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Increase your earning potential

An increase in income is one key advantage to obtaining an MSN, according to Patrice Little, DNP, FNP-BC, adjunct faculty at Georgia Baptist College of Nursing of Mercer University, and founder of NP Student Magazine.

“Leadership and advanced clinical roles such as a chief nursing officer, nurse informatics, nurse educator, nurse practitioner, nurse midwife and nurse anesthetist have a greater responsibility requiring an in-depth foundation in theory, innovation and practice,” Little explained.

“Most nurses who want to contribute more to the profession opt for advanced degrees,” she added. However, while higher pay is often an advantage, careers in academia are an exception to that rule, she warned.

“Most nurse educators make roughly $20,000 less annually than they would as a practicing registered nurse, making the degree not as beneficial if income is the goal. In some cases, nurse educators continue to practice while teaching for supplemental income,” Little concluded.

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Better patient care

“Nurses are at the forefront of health care. (Among) all the members of the health care team, it is nurses who spend the most time with the patient,” said Michael Jones, Ph.D., leader of the graduate nursing program in the Mary Inez Grindle School of Nursing in Brenau University’s Ivester College of Health Science.

“Obtaining a master’s degree in nursing further equips us to function at various levels in the health care continuum. There are so many different roles within the nursing profession, such as educators, researchers, executives, practitioners and, of course, bedside nurses. As the need grows for more nurses to fill these roles, the need to have more master’s-prepared nurses will also increase,” Jones added.

“For me, getting my master’s degree in nursing and health care administration has been an absolute pro. I strongly believe that education is the launchpad to career and personal growth,” said Rachel West, MSN, MHA, RN, director of education at IntelyCare.

Beyond technical skills, education provides opportunities for development of essential skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, time management and communication, West explained. “Learning in a formalized environment forces learners to develop skills that might otherwise never come to fruition… and (helps) to learn how to navigate having one’s voice heard in a classroom, which is foundational to successful communication in all settings — personal and professional.”

“Early on in my life, I saw the clear and undeniable link between education and where I wanted to go — from the intensive care unit bedside to academia and then to workforce development,” West continued. “Because of my education, I can work in innovative environments while being the sole provider for my four young children. I have yet to stop learning and possess several certificates on topics like instructional design, leadership, economics, business development, and nursing education.”

“A master’s degree is advanced education that will provide the knowledge and skill set needed to accomplish your dreams and further learn how to transform health and improve lives, which is so needed across the world today,” said nurse leader Bernadette Melnyk, professor and dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State University, as well as the editor-in-chief of the Wiley-published journal Worldviews on Evidence Based Nursing.

Valuable networking and connection opportunities

Going back to school for an advanced degree not only introduces you to more skills and concepts, but it may also connect you to other like-minded nurses who are pursuing similar career and educational goals. These new connections could be valuable to your career development.

This was true for Alexa Nicholls Costa and Alexandra Rodgers, certified nurse practitioners who met through school and later became co-founders of LexRx.

For Rogers and Costa, getting a master’s at Regis College forged a connection that would lead to becoming business partners. Today, their entire practice is staffed by NPs.

Additionally, obtaining an MSN gave them a broad foundation on which they’re building a niche empire, specifically in skincare and aesthetic injectables. They are big believers in the importance of education — especially ongoing education — and they currently train other nurse practitioners and clinicians through their “Inject with Lex curriculum.

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Cons

There are many advantages to obtaining a master’s degree, but the potential drawbacks are substantial enough that they may be prohibitive for many.

Obtaining a MSN requires a significant investment of money and time. Many nurses may not have enough of either resource to successfully complete their advanced degree. Additionally, a master’s degree isn’t an absolute guarantee of career advancement or income growth.

“Some MSN degrees result in more education but don’t necessarily prepare nurses to operate in advanced roles or advanced practice roles, nor result in an increase in salary,” which means an advanced degree may be a waste of time and money for some nurses, said Alice Benjamin, APRN, MSN, ACNS-BC, FNP-B, CCRN, CEN, CV-BC, chief nursing officer and correspondent for Nurse.org.

“Make sure you have a plan on how you want to use your graduate degree. If it’s going to add to your salary, or if your (employer) is paying (your tuition), it may be worthwhile,” Goodwin added. “However, if you’re paying out of pocket and are (planning) to stay in the same role, the exorbitant cost of obtaining a master’s degree is too much debt.”

Additionally, nurses should consider the effect on their family before starting graduate school. The financial impact and the stress of putting one’s life on hold for 12-36 months can put a strain on immediate family members as well, Little explained.

The nursing profession has the highest divorce rate due to the stressors from their responsibilities” at work and at home, Little added. “Most nurses opt to pay for their master’s degree out of pocket, leading to the combined stress of completing the degree, working and caring for their families. The pandemic illuminated how these stressors lead to burnout, which ultimately, impacts patient care.”

As a potential alternative to an MSN for career advancement, Little recommended nurses explore “clinical ladder” opportunities at work, which allow employees to work their way up into leadership roles in a health care organization.

“Overall, advanced nursing experience is valuable anywhere, and a master’s degree in most cases is the ticket that qualifies a nurse for more influential roles in today’s market. Is it worth it? Simply put, it depends on a nurse’s individualized career goal,” Little concluded.

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