In this guide, we’ve taken a good, hard look at two popular credentials—the RN to BSN and the RN to MSN—and summed up the key differences between them. We’ve also included some important info on career & salary considerations and industry trends.
What is the Difference Between RN-BSN and RN-MSN Programs?
Starting With the ADN
This site is designed for working RNs, but we recognize that you may not be at the level yet. Becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) can take two years through an ADN or ASN program. An ADN is different than a nursing diploma, which is typically offered through a hospital-based school. (Such a diploma often leads to an entry-level position as a Licensed Practical Nurse, or LPN, not an RN.)
After completing an ADN, students need a license to work as an RN. But they also need a license to gain admission into an RN to BSN or RN to MSN program.
Option 1: RN to BSN
Like other bachelor’s degrees, BSN degrees are designed to take four years to complete—but that’s for those starting with no nursing experience.
- The standard RN to BSN program is 120 credits, but half of those (or more) are taken care of via associate-level coursework and/or clinical experience on the job.
- Roughly a third of the total credits come from general education—think math, science, history, psychology and English.
- The remaining credits come from some combination of required core courses and other core courses in the major.
- Electives may be sprinkled in.
Whereas nurses with an ADN typically have the same technical skills as nurses with a BSN, bachelor’s programs also offer courses on nursing research, theory, leadership, policy and informatics.
Clinicals are likely a major part of the degree program and may constitute 30 credits, but employed RNs often meet this requirement simply by continuing to work—making it one of the few degrees in which having a full-time job aids in program completion.
- Working from an ADN toward a BSN full time takes a maximum of two years, often fewer at schools with liberal transfer credit policies.
- And accelerated BSN programs do exist for students who hold bachelor’s degrees outside the field of nursing.
Option 2: RN to MSN
RN to MSN programs allow nurses to bypass the bachelor’s degree by, in essence, counting some coursework toward both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. (In fact, they may even earn their BSN at some point during the program.) This feature makes RN to MSN programs extremely attractive to nurses who know they want to get an advanced degree at some point.
A typical RN to MSN is 150 credits. Again, as with the RN to BSN, many of these are transferred in via the ADN.
- Expect the same coursework required from an RN to BSN program, along with an extra year of graduate-level work.
- Common classes cover advanced research, management, and informatics.
- Common master’s level specializations cater to nurse educators and nurse administrators, as well as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwifes, and nurse anesthetists. After all, the primary purpose of earning an MSN is gaining eligibility for advanced nursing occupations.
- Interested nurses can also move on to pursue Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees in these specializations.
Note: Some MSN programs require additional work experience, meaning students may have to take a brief break after an ADN before going to the school of their choice.
RN-BSN vs. RN-MSN: Career and Salary Considerations
BSN vs. MSN Salaries
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national median salary for an RN was $70,000 in 2017. However, that number doesn’t take into account education level.
It’s hard to get reliable data on the effect of a BSN or MSN on earning potential. An unscientific survey from ADVANCE Healthcare Network in 2018, however, shed some light on the salary situation:
- Respondents with an ADN earned $75,117 on average.
- BSN holders snagged $81,323 a year.
- MSN grads took home $105,664 annually.
- Unsurprisingly, those holding doctoral degrees did the best, at $113,347.
These numbers fluctuate widely due to state-by-state differences in demand. High salaries often follow high demand. In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2017 the top five states/territories in terms of demand and wages were California, Hawaii, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Oregon.
ADVANCE’s numbers seem to align with official BLS statistics for nursing specializations that require at least an MSN (i.e. APRN specialties). For example, according to 2017 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- The average certified nurse midwife made $100,000 a year.
- This figure was comparable to the typical nurse practitioner, who pulled in $103,000.
- The average nurse anesthetist (a profession that now requires a doctorate) made an impressive $165,000.
What Do Experts Recommend?
Arguments for the BSN
At minimum, a BSN should be the goal. The healthcare industry continues to give nurses greater responsibility, creating a need for highly educated nurses.
- According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, nearly 50% of nurses enter the field with a BSN. That’s good news, according to influential healthcare advocacy organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has pointed to official studies linking BSNs to a decrease in patient deaths. Hospitals are no doubt paying attention.
- In fact, the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing report recommends that 80% of nurses have baccalaureate degrees by 2020. This reinforces the need for associate level RNs to have degrees from nursing programs with national nursing accreditation (i.e. CCEN or ACEN)—so they can easily transfer credits to a BSN or MSN if their goals or salary needs change.
Arguments for the MSN
Generally speaking, an MSN degree is the way to go for nurses hoping to progress in the field. Salary should not be the only consideration. Personal interest and flexibility will go a long way in making a nurse’s decades-long career have staying power. If current industry trends continue, nurses with higher levels of education will only become more valuable.
Demand is especially high for nurse educators. The need for nurses is growing in most states, but schools are still turning away qualified students from programs due to faculty shortages. The National League of Nurses (NLN) reported that in the 2011-12 school year, 64% of applicants to nursing programs were denied admission.
What’s more, the majority of full-time nursing faculty have an MSN or are in the process of pursuing one.