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At the graduate level, nursing students engage in the advanced study of a health-related area, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, surgery, and healthcare policy. Graduate prepared nurses, also known as advanced practice nurses, typically return to the field as Nurse Practitioners (NP) or Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS), although some also work as administrators, teachers, or consultants. Master degree programs in nursing prepare students for advanced practice in a variety of health care agencies, hospitals, and programs.

For the most part, graduate students in nursing are practicing, licensed nurses looking to gain managerial skills, focus their careers, or increase their scope of practice. A few graduate schools also offer a Master's Entry Program in Nursing, a three-year master's program for students who already hold an undergraduate degree in another subject and who would like to pursue an advanced degree in clinical nursing.

Most nursing programs require students to select a field of specialization upon entry into the program. After graduation, nurses will be trained to practice in that specialty as a primary care provider. Typically, specialties are offered in one of the following general categories: Family Health Care Nursing, Community Health Systems, Adult and Elderly Nursing, Psychological Nursing, and Health Care Systems Administration. Within these specialties nurses focus more specifically on a field such as pediatrics or nurse/midwife.

Ph.D. programs in nursing are more scholarly. Ph.D. students are generally researchers who, through their studies and after graduation, contribute to the science of nursing through research.

Degree Information

Most students will earn a Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.). Joint-degree programs are possible. One of the more common joint degrees is a Master of Science in Nursing and Master of Public Health (M.S.N./M.P.H.). Doctoral students earn a Ph.D.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • What types of nursing specialties are offered?
  • What hospitals and clinical facilities are affiliated with the school?
  • Is the hospital urban, suburban, or rural?
  • How does the school/hospital setting influence the types of patient populations you will be exposed to?
  • Can students work while they are completing the degree? Does the school offer part time programs for practicing nurses?
  • How many hours of clinical experience does the program require?

Career Overview

Graduate prepared nurses (advanced practice nurses) typically practice as Clinical Nurse Specialists or Nurse Practitioners. Nurse Practitioners have a scope of practice similar to a primary care physician in that they can perform physical exams, diagnose disease, perform and interpret laboratory and other diagnostic tests, and, in most states, prescribe medication. Nurse Practitioners generally work in health clinics, community health centers, schools, and nursing homes, as well as business and industry though there are even nurse practitioners in private practice. Clinical Nurse Specialists concentrate on a single area of study, such as oncology, and go on to work as clinicians and/or consultants. Most Clinical Nurse Specialists work in hospital, ambulatory care, and home care settings. Some schools also offer training programs for Certified Nurse Midwife (C.N.M.) or for School Nurses.

Due to the changes in the health care system, nurse practitioners are taking on an increasingly vital role in community health. The field is relatively new and growing rapidly. In that, there is a great deal of room for career growth and opportunity in nursing as nurses fill increasingly important roles in the health care industry.

Most graduates of a Nursing Ph.D. program use their degrees as clinical researchers or as teachers in a school of nursing or public health.

Career/Licensing Requirements

To practice as a Nurse Practitioner or Clinical Nurse Specialist, you must be licensed as an R.N. from the state in which you live and meet education requirements, i.e. graduation from an accredited M.S.N. program.

Salary Information

Graduates of M.S.N. programs can expect to earn between $50,000 and $60,000 to start with some variation based on specialty, demand, and geographic location.

Related Links

National League for Nursing
The National League for Nursing provides a support and information network for nurses to get the latest news and accreditation information.

American Association of Colleges of Nursing
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing is an association of baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs.

Nursing Center
The Nursing Center is a resource for professional nurses. Its website offers articles, job listings, CE activities, and message boards.

American College of Nurse Practitioners
The American College of Nurse Practitioners is a national nonprofit professional association of nurse practitioners.

American Academy of Nurse Practitioners
The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners is an advocacy and policy oriented organization of nurse practitioners.

National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners is a professional organization for advanced practice nurses working in the field of pediatrics.

National League for Nursing
The National League for Nursing is the accrediting body for nurse education programs.