Advanced Degrees in Nursing: More Than Stepping Stones

Depending on the type of nursing a person wishes to practice there are several graduate level degrees that may be earned. First of all, at least in most cases, a bachelor’s degree in nursing is required to begin work on a master’s level degree. There are exceptions to this rule, depending largely on the institution. In these cases, entering a nursing graduate program without an undergraduate degree in nursing requires the completion of a prerequisite program. There are programs that offer a combined bachelor’s/master’s degree, but this is the only exception.


Nurses who desire to have more authority and autonomy within a clinical environment usually opt to earn a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSMN) degree. With an MSN degree, nurses become what is known as an advanced practice nurse (APN or APRN), which are not formal degrees, but is an umbrella term given to an RN who has met advanced educational and clinical practice requirements. These degrees allow them to earn considerably more than “regular” registered nurses. Some MSN programs provide for a certain focus or “track” in certain specialties in nursing such as forensic nursing, clinical nurse specialist, or many others.

Further Specialization

There are other areas of nursing specialization that are required if a person desires to become what is called a mid-level provider. These designations include such specialties as a nurse practitioner (NP), a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), certified nurse-midwife (CNM), and clinical nurse specialist (CNS). These specialties normally require an additional 1-2 years of coursework that can be earned while employed as a nurse.

The specialties discussed above allow those who earn them to work in a variety of environments and with different types of patients with varying problems and needs. Other nursing roles that are filled by nurses with master’s degrees include nursing administration, nursing education, patient and staff education. Another quickly growing specialty for nurses that is being introduced into educational programs is the Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) role. Those working in a CNL role work as facilitators for the delivery of nursing care in a hospital or other healthcare environment.

Doctorate in Nursing

The highest degree one can earn in nursing is the doctorate in nursing, which leads those who earn it the title of “Doctor Nurse.” These programs require that those who earn this level of degree complete both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree prior to beginning study for a doctorate level degree.

There are two types of doctorates in nursing: a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) which focuses on the clinical practice of nursing, and the Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc, DSN, or DNS). The DNP degree is normally pursued when the recipient wishes to focus on the clinical aspects of nursing. The later is normally pursued by nurses who want to teach or become researchers.

There are many different ways to break into the nursing profession. Some people earn diplomas and with experience they have long and fulfilling careers, but for those who want to advance, degrees and licenses are almost always a requirement. These are the primary method that employers have to ensure that not only do practitioners have the educational backgrounds needed, but are competent when interacting with patients and rendering care to them.