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Direct Entry MSN Programs For Non-Nursing Majors

I don't have a nursing degree but I am thinking about nursing as a second career. I want to use my previous life experiences to advantage and want to start at a relatively high level. Can I do it?

Yes, with a bachelor's degree in another field and a strong track record, one is poised to enter the field well credentialed. There are more options for a nurse who holds a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Among the options is the direct entry master's degree (MDE).

Nursing is one field where demands are high for those with education at the highest level of education – and where it is necessary to cast the net wide to secure an adequate workforce. Having a highly educated nursing workforce can mean fewer medical errors and better care. It’s not just conjecture. One can look to organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) for research. The goal of major stakeholders is to increase the number of nurses with baccalaureate education (making this level the norm) and also to increase the number of nurses with graduate degrees. Master’s level nurses take on many roles: supervisor, case manager, patient educator, advanced practice nurse. They coordinate care and plan programs for people with complex needs (for example, pediatric cancer survivors). A nurse with an MSN may start out competing with BSN nurses but work his or her way up quickly.

Nurses who are entering at the MSN level do need to master lower level clinical/ technical skills but may do so an accelerated pace -- admissions departments recognize previous academic and professional experience as a signal that one can pace oneself and handle more than a little rigor. There can be advantages to achieving the higher credential quickly, in a streamlined manner – and to having guidance that is focused on long-term goals.

The time to program completion depends in part on the track selected. Programs are often year-round. In some cases, students are finished in only five terms.

Master of Science in Nursing Program Standards

Programs must be accredited. It is most likely that a nursing program at the MSN level will achieve its program-level accreditation through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The program will incorporate the MSN Essentials developed by the AACN. There are three components: the master’s core, the direct care core, and the role-specific coursework. The master’s core encompasses many areas from leadership to informatics to interdisciplinary collaboration. The direct care core includes health assessment, physiology/ pathophysiology, and pharmacology coursework, all taught at the advanced level. The advanced level direct care core is not just for those seeking advanced clinical care credentials; it is for any MSN nurse who works directly with patients. Care coordination is a common role – modern healthcare science affords endless opportunities to improve lives but also endless opportunities for patients to get lost in the system.

Career Options

A direct entry master’s student may select a generalist program or a specialized one. Master’s level nursing positions range from population-focused to advanced clinical care. Options exist that fall between the two. An example is clinical nurse leader, a point-of-care leadership role that involves evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and care coordination for complex cases. This type of position may be attained relatively quickly – previous education and life experiences may be very applicable.

It is a little more of a time investment to take on an advanced clinical role. The amount of time vested will depend on several factors. If one seeks a career in something other than general primary practice, work experience at the RN level can be crucial. The school may still set up a program whereby the experience is gained, and the articulation process completed, in the most expedited manner possible.

Students enrolled in the on-campus direct entry acute care nurse practitioner program at Northeastern University, for example, spend 16 months completing their license-qualifying RN coursework and then a year or two attaining work experience in required settings before returning for their advanced clinical studies. The school supports students in attaining qualifying positions and allows them to take nonclinical advanced courses during their work experience period, but ultimately, there is quite a bit that the transitioning professionals need to do on their own. While classified as a direct entry master’s, this isn’t as direct a path to a master’s degree as some others. Some professionals, though, may find it the most direct – or promising – pathway to meet their particular career goals. Again, it depends on just what those career goals are.

At the University of Pennsylvania, there is a formal experience requirement for some specialties such as pediatric acute care (chronic, critical, or oncology) but no formal requirement for others (family nurse practitioner, mental health nurse practitioner).

Many advanced practice programs are now taught at the doctoral level. Even in these instances, the school may streamline the process such that a person can progress relatively easily to the level of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Admission may be simultaneous. The student may have the option of earning a credential such as Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) en route to the DNP.

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