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Advanced degrees open new doors
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The bachelor of science in nursing degree is an important step in a nurse’s career. But it’s only the beginning for nurses who want to pursue many of today’s career options in patient care, administration, education and research.
By Lisette Hilton
Nurses looking to impact healthcare delivery at a higher level and others who want to practice more autonomously should consider advanced degree options, such as a master’s degree in nursing, research-focused PhD or practice-focused doctorate of nursing practice. The U.S. needs nurses with graduate-level degrees to conduct research, teach, shape public policy, lead health systems, consult with corporations and implement evidence-based solutions that revolutionize healthcare, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing “These providers are in great demand to fill established and emerging roles that allow nurses to focus on a variety of practice areas, such as geriatrics, pediatrics, public health, informatics, systems improvement and genetics/genomics,” according to
. But registered nurses with advanced degrees make up a small percentage of the nursing workforce. AACN reported in 2018 17.1% of U.S. registered nurses had a master's degree and 1.9% had a doctoral degree.
Where a master's degree can take you
The MSN degree allows nurses to practice as nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse-midwives and more. Doctoral programs aim to prepare nurses for leadership roles in health administration, education, clinical research and advanced clinical practice. Master’s and doctoral degrees often lead to higher pay, and are in demand in the U.S. For Cynthia Thurlow, MSN, BC-ANP, a nurse practitioner for 20 years, getting the master’s degree was a career-changer. “I went from being an ER nurse to making autonomous decisions about plan of care, admissions, treatment, etc.," said Thurlow. "It allowed me to grow intellectually and professionally. It was absolutely the trajectory that my life was supposed to take.”
Cynthia Thurlow

Without this academic preparation I would not have the background for these roles or have had the impact I have on my patients or students.
— Nancy Brook, MSN, RN
Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, CFNP, a nurse practitioner, said the MSN opened the door for her career as an advanced practice nurse, educator and mentor for nurses. “Without this academic preparation I would not have the background for these roles or have had the impact I have on my patients or students,” Brook said.
Joyce Marth Knestrick, PhD, C-FNP, APRN, FAANP, FAAN, immediate past president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, said the master’s degree paved the way for her long career as a nurse practitioner. “I think it was very important to become a nurse practitioner and to become part of the healthcare delivery system,” Knestrick said. "For me, because I work with vulnerable populations, [it was important] to be that care provider and provide access to care for those patients.”
Joyce Marth Knestrick
The PhD degree allows Knestrick to do research related to her population. Knestrick conducts research on the health of low-income populations, with a focus on issues that impact those populations such as smoking, hope, spirituality and access to care. The doctoral degree also opened doors for Knestrick to become an educator who teaches others to become nurse practitioners. She has 20 years of experience as a distance educator and has been a pioneer in distance education for nurse practitioners.
"Having a doctorate in nursing allowed me to seamlessly move from a 25-year leadership career with the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers to a tenured graduate faculty position and program coordinator at Florida Atlantic University,” said Rose Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, CNL, FAAN, editor-in-chief of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership journal Nurse Leader. She also is professor emeritus of the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla. “A doctorate is required to teach at the graduate level in colleges of nursing and is also required to apply for tenure-track positions," she said.
Rose Sherman
Popular career choices among MSN nurses
Nursing careers that require at least a master’s degree include the following professions:
Certified registered nurse anesthetists
administer anesthesia for surgery or other medical procedures. They work in hospitals, outpatient surgery centers, private offices and pain management practices. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports CRNAs make an average annual income of $174,790 or an average hourly wage of $84.03. This is one of the top-paying nursing professions. By 2022, all CRNA programs will replace their MSN degree programs with either the doctor of nurse practice (DNP) or doctor of nurse anesthesia practice (DNAP), according to the American Nurses Association.
Nurse practitioners
provide primary, acute and specialty care to people of all ages. These advanced practice nurses are in demand. The BLS predicts the NP profession will grow 26% in the next decade, with an average 16,900 job openings for NPs each year until 2028. U.S. News & World Report
the NP profession No. 5 among the top 100 jobs in 2020.
Clinical nurse specialists
provide direct patient care, manage care, lead research and educate providers and patients, according to the
National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists
. CNSs work in specialties, like pediatrics, geriatrics or women’s health, as well as in hospital units, such as critical care or the emergency department. CNSs might also specialize in caring for people with diseases, such as diabetes.
Certified nurse-midwives
are licensed, independent providers and have prescriptive authority. Their scope of practice includes maternity care, caring for women and public healthcare. Midwives care for women from puberty to post-menopause. Nearly all nurse-midwives in the U.S. work in hospital systems and a small percentage do home births.
Popular careers among nurses with doctoral degrees
Nurse researchers
are scientists who design and implement studies looking at aspects of health, illness and healthcare. Nurse researchers, who make an average $95,000 annually in the U.S., often rely on grants to fund their work. Many teach in academic or clinical settings. Nurse researchers often author articles and research reports in journals and other publications, partnering with scientists in other areas, such as pharmacy or medicine, according to
Nurse faculty
teach in nursing schools and teaching hospitals. In some cases, nurse faculty positions require a minimum of a master’s degree, while in other cases, including for most tenure track and research positions, a doctoral degree is required.
Salaries vary by the type of institution and by faculty rank, typically ranging from about $80,000 at the assistant professor level to more than $115,000 at the professor level, according to AACN. DNP programs can take advanced practice registered nurses to reach new heights in their professions. The DNP degree helps to prepare nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse-midwives and certified registered nurse anesthetists for top leadership and organizational roles, according to AACN.

The degree also sets apart nurses who seek leadership roles, including the role of CNO.
About the Author
Lisette Hilton is a freelance writer.