If you’re a registered nurse seeking higher education, two popular options are the RN to BSN or RN to MSN programs. Let’s explore the differences and benefits of these two pathways so you can make an informed choice for your career.

Should You Pursue a Nursing Degree Online?

When pursuing a nursing degree online, you’ll find that there is no need to go to campus, as the program is designed to be completed remotely. Online nursing programs typically arrange clinical practice sessions in healthcare facilities within your local communities so you don’t need to travel far to complete the hands-on portion of the program. 

Instructors evaluate your nursing skills through a combination of methods, including video assessments, virtual demonstrations, and written assignments. They provide guidance, feedback, and assessments based on your performance, ensuring that you meet the necessary competencies for nursing practice.

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree gives you the credential that employers increasingly seek in their RNs, while the MSN degree lets you take on advanced clinical responsibilities, lead healthcare teams, and contribute to policy-making in healthcare organizations.

If you have completed your Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a diploma in nursing and are working as a registered nurse (RN), you have three options to pursue higher education in nursing:

  • Pursue traditional BSN degree program (4 years)
  • Pursue accelerated BSN program (12 to 16 months)
  • Pursue specialized-accelerated nursing degree programs for working RNs like RN to BSN (1 to 2 years) or RN to MSN (2 to 3 years)

Or if you have completed a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field, you can still pursue an MSN by enrolling yourself in a direct-entry MSN degree program (2 years) and fast-forward your career in no time. More on this later in the article, but before that, let’s understand BSN and MSN degrees along with their prerequisites and curriculum offered.

What is a BSN degree?

A BSN is a four-year undergraduate degree program that prepares you for a career in nursing with more advanced training. Employers prefer to hire those with the BSN degree and offer potentially higher salaries.

You can even choose to study further—Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree—and specialize in pediatric (care for children, adolescents), geriatric (care for elderly), psychiatric (care for individuals with mental health challenges), oncology (care for cancer patients), women’s health, surgical (care during surgical procedures), and many others. 


  • High School Diploma or GED: To be eligible for a BSN program, you need to have a high school diploma or equivalent qualification like a General Education Development (GED) certificate.
  • Prerequisite Courses: BSN programs often have specific prerequisite courses that must be completed before admission. Common prerequisite courses may include:
    • Chemistry (with lab)
    • Anatomy and Physiology (with lab)
    • Microbiology (with lab)
    • Psychology
    • Sociology
    • Statistics
  • Nursing Entrance Exam: Some BSN programs require you to take a nursing entrance exam, such as the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) or the Health Education Systems (HESI) exam. These exams assess academic readiness and basic knowledge in subjects like math, science, reading, and other areas of academia.
  • Background Checks and Health Clearances (Not Mandatory): Nursing programs may require you to undergo a background check and provide documentation of immunizations and health clearances, such as a physical examination and proof of certain vaccinations. It’s not required before coursework, but may be required before the practicum.


  • General Education Courses: BSN programs cover foundational subjects, including english composition, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics.
  • Core Nursing Courses: The core nursing courses cover essential concepts and skills related to nursing practice. These courses may include:
    • Introduction to Nursing: An introductory course that provides an overview of the nursing profession, its history, roles, and ethical considerations.
    • Health Assessment: This course focuses on developing skills in conducting comprehensive health assessments, including physical examinations and health history interviews.
    • Pharmacology: Study of medications, their classifications, mechanisms of action, and safe administration.
    • Pathophysiology: An in-depth exploration of the alterations in physiological functioning that underlie various diseases and conditions.
    • Nursing Ethics and Professionalism: Examination of ethical principles, legal considerations, and professional standards in nursing practice.
    • Nursing Leadership and Management: Concepts related to management and healthcare systems, with a focus on nursing leadership roles.
    • Community Health Nursing: Exploration of nursing practice within the context of communities, population health, and health promotion.
    • Adult Health Nursing: Focus on nursing care for adult patients, including assessment, interventions, and management of common health conditions.
    • Maternal and Child Health Nursing: Study of nursing care for women during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, as well as care for infants and children.
  • Clinical Practicum: You engage in hands-on patient care, develop clinical judgment, and practice nursing skills under the supervision of experienced nurses.
  • Elective Courses: BSN programs may offer elective courses that allow you to explore specific areas of interest or further specialize in a particular aspect of nursing practice.

What is MSN degree?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is a graduate-level program that lets you pursue advanced practice roles, leadership positions, research, education, and specialization in various areas of nursing.

MSN programs offer a wide range of specializations including family nurse practitioner, nurse educator, nurse administrator, nurse informaticist, clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife, psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner, pediatric nurse practitioner, and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, among others.

You can pursue an MSN degree to become an advanced practice registered nurse  (APRN). APRNs have an expanded scope of practice, allowing you to provide comprehensive healthcare services to patients. Depending on your chosen specialization as an APRN, you may assess and diagnose patients, prescribe medications, develop treatment plans, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and provide patient education.

Related: How to Choose a Nursing Specialty


  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree: Most MSN programs require you to have a BSN degree from an accredited institution. However, some programs offer bridge programs (RN to MSN) or direct entry options if you have pursued a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.
  • Current RN License: MSN programs require you to hold a current and unencumbered registered nurse (RN) license. This ensures that you have the necessary foundation in nursing practice before entering advanced-level studies.
  • Prerequisite Course Evaluation: The MSN program’s admissions office will review your official transcripts to assess whether you have completed the necessary prerequisite courses for the program. 
  • Letters of Recommendation: The college may ask you to submit letters of recommendation from academic or professional references. These letters should attest to your aptitude for graduate-level nursing studies and your potential for success in the program.
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae: College admission committee may request a current resume or curriculum vitae (CV) that highlights your educational background, work experience, clinical experience, certifications, and any other relevant qualifications.


  • Core Courses:
    • Advanced Health Assessment: This course focuses on advanced physical and psychosocial assessment skills for different populations across the lifespan.
    • Advanced Pathophysiology: An in-depth exploration of the physiological changes that occur in various diseases and conditions.
    • Nursing Research and Evidence-Based Practice: This course covers research methods, evidence synthesis, and critical appraisal of research literature to inform nursing practice.
    • Healthcare Policy and Advocacy: Examination of healthcare policy, ethics, legal considerations, and advocacy within the nursing profession.
    • Leadership and Management in Nursing: Concepts and skills related to nursing leadership, management, healthcare systems, quality improvement, and interprofessional collaboration.
  • Advanced Practice Courses:
    • Advanced Practice Role Development: This course focuses on the development of advanced nursing roles, such as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, clinical nurse specialist, or nurse anesthetist. 
    • Advanced Pharmacotherapeutics: In-depth study of pharmacological principles and advanced prescribing practices specific to the chosen advanced practice role.
    • Advanced Health Assessment and Diagnostic Reasoning: Advanced assessment techniques, diagnostic reasoning, and interpretation of diagnostic tests to inform clinical decision-making.
    • Advanced Clinical Practice: Courses specific to the chosen specialization, such as primary care, acute care, pediatrics, mental health, or women’s health. 
  • Health Promotion and Disease Prevention: Strategies for health promotion, disease prevention, and population-based interventions.

If you are already an RN, with either a diploma or an ADN, you have choices to pursue a more advanced degree and level up your career in nursing. Let’s understand the key differences between the two to make an informed decision that aligns with your professional goals.

AspectRN to BSNRN to MSN
Degree EarnedRN to BSN leads to a Bachelor of Science in NursingRN to MSN leads to a Master of Science in Nursing
Educational LevelUndergraduate-level programGraduate-level program
DurationRN to BSN programs typically take 1-2 years to completeRN to MSN programs typically last 2-3 years
FocusProvides a foundation in basic nursing knowledge and skillsFocus on advanced nursing practice or administrative roles
SpecializationsRN to BSN programs prepare nurses for generalist nursing practiceRN to MSN programs offer specialized tracks or concentrations for advanced practice roles or management
Entry RequirementsTo enroll in an RN to BSN program, you need an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Diploma in Nursing, along with an active RN licenseTo enroll in an RN to MSN program, you also need an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Diploma in Nursing, along with an active RN license
Salary PotentialHigher earnings than ADN or diploma-passed RNsHigher earning potential for nurses
Pursuing Higher EducationWith an RN to BSN, you can pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)With an RN to MSN, you can pursue higher degrees like a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD

Accelerated BSN vs Direct Entry MSN: Your First Nursing Degree

If you are looking to enter nursing, and do not yet have your RN license, you have two solid options. The choice between the two depends on your career goals, timeline, and interest in pursuing advanced practice nursing. Here is a deeper look into both degree options.

Accelerated BSN

An accelerated BSN program is an intensive degree designed for individuals who hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree and wish to transition into nursing. The program is structured to provide a fast-track route to becoming a registered nurse (RN) by condensing the necessary nursing coursework into a shorter time frame compared to traditional BSN programs.

The duration of an accelerated BSN program typically ranges from 12 to 18 months, though it can vary depending on the institution and program format. The program is rigorous and demanding, requiring full-time commitment and dedication from you to complete the coursework efficiently.

Direct Entry MSN

Direct entry MSN programs are for you if you hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree and are interested in pursuing advanced practice roles in nursing. These programs offer an accelerated pathway to earn both a BSN and MSN degree, typically in a combined program format. 

Direct entry MSN programs provide comprehensive nursing education, including foundational nursing coursework, advanced practice specialization, and clinical training. They prepare you for advanced nursing roles such as nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife, or nurse anesthetist. 

Direct entry MSN programs are ideal for individuals seeking a career change into nursing and aiming to enter advanced practice roles.

AspectAccelerated BSNDirect Entry MSN
Program LengthTypically 12 to 18 monthsVaries, but usually 2 to 3 years
Academic FocusProvides foundational nursing educationComprehensive nursing education with advanced focus
Clinical TrainingEmphasizes clinical skills developmentExtensive clinical experiences in chosen specialization
Degree EarnedBachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
Advanced PracticeDoesn’t prepare you directly for advanced practicePrepares you for advanced practice roles (e.g., NP, CNS)
SpecializationsLimited or no specializations during programSpecializations available (e.g., NP, CNS, CRNA, CNM)
Career OpportunitiesEntry-level nursing roles (RN)Advanced practice, leadership, research, or academia
Further EducationCan pursue MSN or DNP after gaining RN licenseAlready in a master’s level program. Can pursue DNP
TimelineAllows for quicker entry into nursingRelatively longer program duration, but includes advanced training

Most RNs obtain their accelerated BSN degree to start earning as soon as possible. In addition, most people don’t know what specialization to pursue before they enter the workforce—this happens due to the overwhelming wide range of roles available in nursing.

Only after spending considerable time with mentors, peers, patients, and management, do they have some understanding of where they want to go ahead in their careers. Or if you have already charted a path for yourself on what you wish to pursue in nursing, you may very well be ready for a direct entry in MSN.

While both accelerated BSN and direct entry MSN programs are designed for individuals with non-nursing backgrounds, they differ in terms of the degrees earned, program length, and focus.

Accelerated BSN programs primarily focus on providing the necessary coursework and clinical training to become an RN, whereas direct entry MSN programs offer a more comprehensive education that prepares individuals for advanced practice roles in nursing.

When considering an RN to MSN or an RN to BSN program, it’s important to evaluate your long-term career goals, desired level of specialization, and previous academic achievements. An RN to BSN program is a great choice if you are seeking a broader understanding of nursing concepts and a shorter period to complete your degree. 

On the other hand, an RN to MSN program is ideal if you aspire to specialize in nursing practice, take on advanced practice or management roles, or engage in research or academia.

Should I get my MSN?

The average salary for a MSN graduate is $123,780. There is a steep demand for nursing professionals across a range of specialties. If you’re thinking about getting a higher degree, this is an excellent time to enroll yourself in MSN. You can choose to pursue it online or in-person—both offer excellent job prospects later in your career.

Can I pursue an MSN part-time while working as a registered nurse?

Yes, it is possible to pursue a MSN on a part-time basis while working as a registered nurse (RN). Many MSN programs are designed to accommodate the needs of working professionals, recognizing that you may need to balance your education with your current responsibilities on the job.

Do you need a BSN to get an MSN?

It’s not mandatory to have a BSN to pursue MSN degree. There are alternative bridge programs like direct-entry MSN program or RN to MSN program to directly get a MSN degree in a short period of time. Also, you’re eligible for some programs even if you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.