How to decide if getting an advanced nursing degree is worth the effort and expense

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At some point in your career, you will likely ponder the decision whether to pursue an advanced nursing degree to take your career to the next level. Is it worth the time and expense? Will it pay off both monetarily and in terms of professional growth and satisfaction? 

Since this will require a large investment in time and money, there are definitely a lot of factors to consider before you make the decision to take the next 

Here are some questions to consider when deciding if the timing and investment in time and money is right for you.

Is an advanced degree right for me?

As a new nurse, you will be busy focusing on making the transition from school to being a successful clinician, says Heidi Keeler, PhD, RN, director of Continuing Education at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Nursing. “But as you become comfortable in your new role, you should start asking yourself what you want to be doing in the next three to five years. How am I going to grow and what are the next steps to help me get there? And on a larger scale, what do I want my personal contribution in nursing to be? If you’re not asking yourself these types of questions, you are not going to be eligible or prepared to move forward should you decide to do so. Remaining stagnant can lead to dissatisfaction in your job or even burnout.”

Determining what your new role or career path should be may require some personal reflection and exploration, says Keeler. 

Try working in new areas of the hospital. Talk to nurses you admire and aspire to and adopt them as a mentor. Talk to other professions and ask what they consider the most admirable qualities in you and other nursing professionals. Talk to current students and discuss opportunities with the staff at UNMC and/or Clarkson College of Nursing. 

If you’re still not sure how you’d like to advance your career, another route to consider before you commit to an advanced degree is certification in a specific area of nursing. 

“A certification is considered a higher level of competency by your peers and might be a good way to advance without getting a degree or it could end up being your entryway to an advanced degree,” says Keeler. Certifications are offered in clinical specialty areas such as oncology, critical care, gerontology, medical/surgical, as well as for nurse educators, leaders and managers. 

The bottom line is, you need to be happy with your nursing career. “If you’re someone who is not content without growth and you want to contribute to making the profession better, advancing your formal education will open new opportunities for you,” says Keeler. 

An article in Becker’s Healthcare that looked at why people leave their nursing jobs, revealed that in most cases, it wasn’t because of money, it was because they didn’t have the opportunity to grow in their careers,” says Keeler. “One of the keys to professional growth is to develop skills that make you more marketable and more effective.”

Will it open new career doors?

If you want to expand with your current nursing practice scope and are looking for more autonomy, management or administrative type positions, an MSN or other degree might be what you need to help you move up the ladder. 

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is ideal for the nurse who wants to grow in her clinical capacity and have more autonomy to assess, diagnose and prescribe medications as an advanced nurse practitioner (NP). 

NPs can specialize clinically, entering into acute or primary care roles, or specialty practice, such as a psychiatric nurse practitioner or certified nurse anesthetist. Other positions that an MSN can prepare you to do includes such roles as a clinical nurse specialist, who helps develop patient education, workflow and processes and policies that affect the delivery of care; a nurse educator who trains the next generation of nurses; or a managerial role as a nurse leader. 

It will also give you the tools to advance to positions such as a clinical nurse specialist, who helps develop patient education, workflow and things that affect the delivery of care, a nurse educator, nurse anesthetist, psychiatric nurse practitioner or a managerial role. 

A PhD in nursing is designed for those who want to focus on research, discovery and generating new knowledge. A Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) is more suited for those interested in applying that new knowledge by using data and analysis to achieve quality improvement in clinical practice. And a doctorate degree in education (EdD) may appeal to someone who is interested more generally in the science of instructional nursing.

The changing health care environment has opened up new opportunities for nurses. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for NPs and DNPs is estimated to grow by 31% by 2026, which is faster than the national average of other health care related professions.  Working nurse practitioners totaled approximately 203,800 in 2016 in the US. That number is expected to grow by another 64,200 by 2026. Advanced practice nurses specializing in geriatrics is one area where the demand is expected to boom.

Jennifer Rounds, DNP, BSN, APRN, advanced lung disease nurse practitioner in Pulmonary, Critical Care, Sleep and Allergy at Nebraska Medicine, says she sought the autonomy and larger role in patient care she would be able to offer as an NP. “I’ve always enjoyed learning and expanding my knowledge so going back to school was always part of my plan,” she says. “I decided to go for the doctorate because I also have an interest in teaching and this would allow me to transition to that role later down the road.”

Rounds says her nursing experience has been very valuable in enabling her to be a better NP. “I recommend you work a few years as a nurse clinician before going back to school,” she advises. “That real life clinical experience will help you in your coursework in school and provide the foundation you need to become a confident nurse practitioner.” 

Completing an MSN degree is one of Michelle Schulte’s proudest achievements. Schulte, MSN, RN-BC, ambulatory supervisor for the Dermatology clinic at Nebraska Medicine, says she has always aspired to be a great nurse leader and her MSN degree laid the path for her to achieve that. “I learned leadership skills and how to use statistics and evidence-based research, which allowed me to become involved in quality improvement projects at the hospital,” she says.

When she applied for the supervisory position she holds now, her MSN degree boosted her to the top of the candidate list. And one of the best parts, she notes, the hospital paid for the majority of the tuition through their tuition assistance program. 

“If you have any desire to advance your knowledge, you should definitely give it a try,” says Schulte. “There were a lot of late nights, but in the end, it is extremely rewarding.”

What is the potential to earn a higher salary?

Your salary potential will vary greatly depending on your specialty, area of the country in which you work and type of position you are pursuing. 

According to a 2015 report issued by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, nurses with graduate degrees earned 33% more than nurses with undergraduate degrees. In Nebraska, the average salary for a BSN nurse is approximately $79,000. That falls in line with estimates provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that finds nationwide, nurses with an MSN make more than $100,000 per year. For example, a nurse anesthetist, can expect a median income of about $111,000 per year, with some making much more than that. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that DNP prepared nurse practitioners earned an average of nearly $136,000 a year.

Will I have the support and time commitment needed?

Completing an MSN will typically take about two to four years depending on if you go to school part-time or full-time.

Courses at Clarkson College of Nursing are all online while UNMC College of Nursing offers a combination of classroom and online classes to meet your needs. Representatives from both colleges explain that they are very flexible and will do everything they can to accommodate each student’s schedule and special needs. 

 “We do require that you complete your degree within seven years,” says Layna Himmelberg, EdD, MSN, CNE, director of Graduate Nursing at Clarkson College of Nursing. “We also ask you to continue working while you are pursuing your degree as we want you to be obtaining nursing experience and developing those critical thinking skills.” 

One of the biggest factors to consider if you have decided you want to pursue higher education, is whether you will have the support of family and friends as this will be a big time commitment, says Laura Thayer-Mencke, director of Student Financial Aid at Clarkson College of Nursing. 

She recommends doing some long-term planning before you commit. “You need to think ahead and determine how long you will be in school, the time commitment that is involved and whether your personal and/or family commitments will allow for that, in addition to the financial responsibility.”

Another suggestion, “Consider reaching out to the supervisor on your floor to let him/her know your plans so you will have their support as well,” suggests Himmelberg. “Discuss opportunities for advancing and let them know if there is a particular position you are interested in so they can help you achieve that goal.”  

How will I manage the financial investment?

Pursing an advanced nursing degree is definitely a big investment and something you need to consider. According to US News, depending on the school and degree focus, an online master’s degree in nursing typically falls in the range of $35,000 to $60,000. 

While the potential to earn a higher salary will help offset that investment later down the road, coming up with the funds or taking out loans may present challenges.

Do your research first, advises Thayer-Mencke, as there are lots of opportunities for tuition assistance by many employers as well as loans, scholarships and partnership programs. For instance, Nebraska Medicine will reimburse full time employees up to $5,000 a year with a $20,000 cap depending on what type of degree you are pursuing. This tuition reimbursement can be used at any school as long as the employee is in good standing. 

Also be aware that there is a limit to the amount of loans you can take out from a federally funded loan program. If you have already taken out a loan for your BSN, you may have already reached your limit or may be close, notes Thayer-Mencke. 

“Our cohort default rate is 2%, which is the percentage of students who have borrowed money and have defaulted,” says Thayer-Mencke. “From this data, we can infer that our students are graduating, getting jobs and are able to pay their living expenses as well as their loans.” 

Is my school of choice accredited?

You will want to make sure the school you will be attending is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Earning a degree from a school that is not accredited will not be recognized by most hospitals and employers. 

Will I be accepted into the program?

Depending on the program, there can be a lot of competition to get a spot. Some programs require a GPA of 3.0 or higher and still others limit the number of students they will accept each semester. 

The certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) at Clarkson College, for instance, limits the number of students it accepts and only admits students once a year. 

“Make sure you start doing your research plenty of time ahead so you can make sure you have time to get your application in, transcripts, apply for loans, scholarships or tuition assistance programs,” recommends Thayer-Mencke. 

If you are considering nursing education, the Nurse Faculty Loan Program (NFLP) is a funding program offered by the federal Health Resources & Service Administration to increase the number of qualified nursing faculty. It is available only to students enrolled in advanced education nursing degree programs such as  MSN or EdD degrees at accredited schools. Students who complete their degree and become full-time nurse faculty will get up to 85% of their loans forgiven. Not every school offers this program so students should check before applying and enrolling.

While completing an advanced nursing degree will definitely require a large commitment of time and resources, most nurses will find that the personal growth and development as well as the opportunities that will become available, will help you achieve a more satisfying and rewarding career, notes Keeler.