The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) remains the educational standard for RNs interested in entering advanced clinical practice as certified nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners are prepared in advanced health assessment, pathophysiology and pharmacology through master’s programs that emphasize one of a number of different patient population groups. Working as independent practitioners, NPs serve as primary and/or specialty care clinicians in ambulatory, acute, and long-term care settings, where they work with patients within their area of patient population focus: adult-gerontology primary or acute care; family-individual across the lifespan; women’s health/gender specific; neonatology; pediatrics; or psychiatric/mental health.
An MSN program for nurse practitioners provides students with theoretical and evidence-based clinical knowledge and learning experiences, with an emphasis on developing the clinical and professional expertise necessary to provide comprehensive primary care and specialty care practice in their chosen patient population focus and settings.
Although nurse practitioner roles and duties will vary somewhat depending on their population focus and work setting, what remains constant is that all NPs must have an MSN or higher degree to begin advanced clinical practice, in addition to a commitment to lifelong learning and professional self-development.
Choosing an MSN Nurse Practitioner Program
The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is the accrediting agency for MSN Nurse Practitioner programs in the United States. CCNE-accredited MSN Nurse Practitioner programs are located in colleges or departments of nursing in traditional, four-year colleges or universities, or in dedicated nursing schools.
MSN-Nurse Practitioner programs consist of two components: a didactic (classwork) component and a clinical component, both of which tend to occur simultaneously. Clinical experiences must total at least 500 hours, although the clinical portion of some MSN programs total up to 1,000 hours.
Students would enroll in an MSN-Nurse Practitioner program that includes an emphasis in their population focus of choice, which would then serve as the educational basis for national certification specific to that same patient population focus:
- Family/Individual Across the Lifespan
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care
- Pediatrics Primary Care
- Pediatrics Acute Care
- Women’s Health/Gender-Related
- Psychiatric Mental Health
MSN programs for nurse practitioners are specifically designed to align with national certification options.
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners
- Adult Nurse Practitioner (ANP)
- Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
- American Nurses Credentialing Center
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (ACNP-BC)
- Adult Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (ANP-BC)
- Family Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (FNP-BC)
- Gerontological Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (GNP-BC)
- Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PPCNP-BC)
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (AGACNP-BC)
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (AGPCNP-BC)
- Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC)
- Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (PMHNP-BC)
- School Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (SNP-BC)
- AACN Certification Corporation
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Adult-Gerontology (ACNPC-AG)
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Adult (ACNPC) – not aligned with APRN Consensus Model
- Pediatric Nursing Certification Board
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Primary Care (CPNP-PC)
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Acute Care (CPNPAC)
- Pediatric Primary Care Mental Health Specialist (PMHS)
- National Certification Corporation
- Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (WHNP-BC)
- Neonatal Nurse Practitioner-Board Certified (NNP-BC)
MSN Admission Requirements
An MSN for nurse practitioners is a two-year, full-time program specifically designed to transition BSN-prepared RNs into advanced clinical practice. To qualify for a traditional MSN-Nurse Practitioner program, candidates must possess a BSN and a current and unencumbered RN license.
Because these programs tend to be fairly competitive, many nursing schools require candidates with solid undergraduate GPAs. Many others require the following as a condition for admission:
- Minimum GRE scores
- Admissions essay
- Letters of recommendation
- Experience working as an RN
Types of MSN Programs
Nursing schools often offer non-traditional MSN programs for students with different educational backgrounds, whether in nursing or in a field other than nursing. For example:
- RN-to-MSN Programs for ADN-Prepared Nurses: Because not all nurses possess a BSN, RN-to-MSN bridge programs allow ADN-prepared RNs to complete both their BSN and MSN in one, accelerated program. These programs tend to take about three years to complete.
- Entry-Level/Direct-Entry MSN Programs for Bachelor’s Degree Holders in a Major Other than Nursing: In an effort to attract students into the nursing profession, a number of institutions have begun offering the entry-level (also called direct-entry) MSN program, designed for students that possess a bachelor’s degree in an area other than nursing. The entry-level MSN allows students to first work toward their RN and then earn their MSN, all in one accelerated program.
Many schools have also begun offering MSN programs in a partially or fully online format. These programs allow students to complete most or all of the didactic components of their MSN through online study and then complete the clinical portion of their MSN at clinical sites close to home. Usually, students of online programs are able to complete clinical sequences at their current place of employment.
The Components of an MSN Nurse Practitioner Degree Program
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s (AACN) Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing recognizes a master’s nursing curriculum as including three components:
- Direct Care (APRN) Core: The content deemed essential for providing direct patient services at an advanced level
- Graduate Nursing Core: The foundational curriculum content deemed essential for all students who pursue a master’s degree in nursing, regardless of the functional focus
- Functional Area Content: Clinical and didactic learning experiences identified and defined by the professional nursing organizations and certification bodies for specific nursing roles or functions
Direct Care (APRN) Core – All accredited MSN-Nurse Practitioner programs include a Direct Care (APRN) Core, which includes three courses in:
- Advanced physiology/pathophysiology, including general principles that apply across the lifespan
- Advanced health assessment, including the assessment of all human systems, concepts and approaches, and advanced assessment techniques
- Advanced pharmacology, including:
- Pharmacotherapeutics of all broad categories of agents
Graduate Nursing Core – According to the AACN, a graduate NP program like the MSN should prepare students to engage in higher-level practice and leadership and:
- Lead change to improve quality outcomes
- Advance a culture of excellence through lifelong learning
- Build and lead collaborative interprofessional care teams
- Navigate and integrate care services across the healthcare system
- Design innovative nursing practices
- Translate evidence into practice
The core curriculum for an NP program should also include a focus on:
- Health promotion and disease prevention
- Healthcare financing
- Healthcare policy
- Human diversity and social issues
- Organization of the healthcare delivery system
- Policy, organization, and financing of healthcare
- Professional role development
Functional Area Content – The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) developed the Nurse Practitioner Core Competencies in an effort to guide the development of U.S.-based nurse practitioner program curricula, regardless of population focus:
- Scientific foundation competencies: Able to analyze data and evidence, translate research, and develop new practice approaches for improving advanced nursing practice
- Leadership competencies: Able to assume advanced leadership roles, advocate for improved healthcare access and quality, and provide/demonstrate leadership
- Quality competencies: Able to use the best available evidence to improve clinical practice; evaluate organizational structure, care processes, financing, and marketing/policy decisions; and anticipate variations in practice
- Practice inquiry competencies: Able to provide leadership when translating new knowledge into practice
- Technology and information literacy competencies: Able to integrate technologies for knowledge management, translate technical and scientific health information, and demonstrate information literacy skills in complex decision-making
- Policy competencies: Able to demonstrate an understanding of policy and how it affects practice, and advocate for new policies and policy amendments
- Health delivery system competencies: Able to apply knowledge of organizational practices and complex systems to improve the delivery of healthcare
- Ethics competencies: Able to integrate ethical principles into decision-making and evaluate the ethical consequences of decisions
- Independent practice competencies: Able to function as an independent licensed practitioner
Courses Specific to Patient Population
All MSN-Nurse Practitioner programs must include additional coursework in one or more NP patient population foci. The following samples provide insight into the type of NP population-specific courses and clinical experiences students can expect to complete as part of their MSN-Nurse Practitioner program:
- Family/Individual Across the Lifespan
- Adult Healthcare
- Healthcare of Women Across the Lifespan
- Healthcare of Infants, Children, and Adolescents
- Health Promotion Across the Lifespan
Clinical experiences in an NP program with a focus on family/individual across the lifespan include working in a variety of specialties in ambulatory primary care settings.
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care
- Management of Patients in Acute/Critical Care
- Acute Care Advanced Diagnostics and Procedures
- Common Acute and Emergent Adult Health Problems
Clinical experiences in an NP program with an adult-gerontology acute care focus include managing adult populations across the continuum of acute, chronic, and critical care, many of whom are physiologically unstable, dependent on medical technology, and highly vulnerable. Settings may include critical care, post-operative care, and intensive care units in hospitals, as well as specialty services and medical evacuation/transport units.
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care
- Healthcare in an Aging Society
- Primary Care: Diagnosis and Management of Adults Across the Lifespan
- Clinical Management of Primary Care with Adults
- Advanced Concepts in Primary Care
Clinical experiences in an NP program in adult-gerontology primary care emphasize prevention, wellness, and patient education and focus on promoting and sustaining health in the community and the workplace, with an emphasis on culturally diverse and high-risk populations. The patient population includes adolescents, young-to-middle adults, and older adults.
- Neonatal Health
- Primary Care to Age 2 of the Formerly Ill Child
- Development and Neonatal Physiology
- Advanced Newborn/Infant Pharmacotherapeutics
Clinical experiences of an NP program in neonatal health focus on both the acute and chronic management of patients from birth until the age of two. Settings include all levels of neonatal intensive care units, transport, and outpatient clinics.
- Pediatric Acute Care
- Child and Adolescent Health
- Pediatric Pharmacology
- Advanced Pediatric Practice
- Palliative Care Across the Spectrum
Clinical experiences of an NP program in pediatric acute care focus on the care of well children, children with common acute illnesses, children with stable chronic conditions, and critically ill children in a wide variety of settings.
- Pediatric Primary Care
- Primary Care of Infants, Children, and Adolescents
- Episodic Care of Infants, Children, and Adolescents in Primary Care
- Primary Care of Children with Special Needs
- Management and Care of Adolescents in Primary Care
Clinical experiences for NP programs in pediatric primary care focus on conducting health examinations and diagnosing illnesses and conditions in settings such as private offices, community offices, clinics, and schools.
- Psychiatric Mental Health
- Neuroscience for Mental Health Practitioners
- Theoretical Foundations of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing with Groups and Families
- Population-Based Mental Health Across the Lifespan
Clinical experiences for psychiatric mental health NP programs occur in a variety of sites, including ambulatory primary care and inpatient settings.
- Women’s Health
- Women’s Health Issues
- Primary Care of Women
- Complex Care of the Childbearing Woman
- Well Woman Healthcare
Clinical experiences for NP programs in women’s healthcare include work in antepartum, gynecologic, peri-/post-menopausal, and primary care.