Today a career in nursing has grown in complexity. What was once a degree in nursing has branched into multiple types of degrees and specialities. And that’s particularly true with a Master of Science in Nursing. With a master’s degree in nursing, you will be qualified to start a career in variety of clinical roles, as well as in nursing administration and nursing education. Having a master’s will expand your career development opportunities and increase your earnings.

To be eligible for admission to a master’s program, you will need to possess a bachelor of nursing degree and be a registered nurse. Most graduate programs will also require that you pass the Graduate Record Examination or Miller Analogies Test.

Most nurses who attend a master’s program are practicing nurses so have a clear idea of the area in which they wish to specialize. Nurses who seek to develop their careers within such clinical specialties as oncology nursing, pediatric nursing, or nurse anesthetist may need to take some requisite undergraduate preparatory course before they may apply for graduate study.

A master’s program will take about two years to complete if you study on a full-time basis and between three and four years if you attend part-time.

Guide to choosing a graduate program

• The most effective method to start your search for a graduate program is to take an inventory of your career strengths and interests and then identify a program that offers coursework in the area you wish to specialize.

• You also need to decide on the type of college setting you prefer to study. Are you looking for an urban campus or would you enjoy attending a school within a small community? There is also the option to participate in online study, although you will need to possess a great deal of self-discipline as these programs rely on independent initiative to complete the programs.

• Research the strength of the faculty in your area of interest. What are their professional and academic backgrounds? How long have they been teaching? Have they been published in the field? Many graduate programs focus on only one or two specialties and, as a result, often have the strongest faculty in these areas. For example, a school may be rated “average” overall but have an outstanding faculty and learning resources within the oncology area. If this is your chosen specialty, you would do well to choose this program.

Ensure that the program is accredited: Attending an accredited school will make you more competitive in the job market upon graduation; employers greatly prefer to hire nurse clinicians who have graduated from accredited schools since they have been trained under nationally established standards for nursing education with regard to quality of coursework, facilities, and faculty.

There are two national organizations that accredit nursing programs: 1) The National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) which accredits all levels of nursing education programs, including associates, bachelor’s and master’s degree; 2) The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) that accredits bachelor and masters programs.

Cost Considerations: Research what the costs are to attend the school. Factor in not only direct tuition costs but the cost of books and commuting. You may want to inquire about financial aid such as loans, scholarships, fellowships, or teaching opportunities. Watch out for high interest student credit cards, as a graduate student, you should be able to qualify for “standard” credit cards.

If you are a practicing nurse, you also want to inquire about tuition reimbursement programs offered by your employer. Keep in mind that there will likely be a stipulation that you remain with your employer for a certain period of time upon graduation.

Research the clinical requirements. Does the clinical component include real-world skills and knowledge that will directly apply to your career goals? You want to amass sufficient clinical experience through externships to ensure that you have a solid foundation on which to build a career in that specialty.

Scheduling Flexibility: If you wish to continue working while pursing your graduate degree, does the school offer an option for part-time study, or may some of the coursework be completed online?

Contact the school of interest: Once you have narrowed your search to between four and six schools, telephone the admissions office of each to schedule a visit (if an online program, schedule a telephone consultation). The admission office will generally welcome your inquiry about their school and be happy to explain its programs in detail. Ask for a tour of the campus and, if possible, to sit in on a class in your area of interest (this can also be done virtually). Speak with current students to obtain their viewpoints. Study the school culture to determine whether this is a setting where you will feel comfortable. If an online program, try to gage the quality of the school via its Web site, note the style of writing and content included: is it professional, easy to navigate, does it provide all needed information (e.g. tuition costs) or will you need to track it down.

An important point to keep in mind is that the better schools value transparency and will be only too glad to discuss all aspects of their school in terms of its programs, culture, and costs.