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The Master Class: From RN to MSN
Should you pursue an advanced degree beyond your BSN?
As Jennifer Mixsell, RN, MSN, CPEN, CPN, reported to work one day, three large pelicans caught her eye. They were standing behind the main first aid station at Sea World, where Mixsell, an avid animal lover, works as a nurse. “It was a nice surprise as I was walking in,” she says.
Mixsell landed this highly sought after position because of her extensive pediatric and emergency clinical experience and her advanced nursing degree. She earned her master’s degree online from Cal State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) after suffering bilateral femur fractures and other injuries in a head-on car crash over a decade ago. “The accident is why I no longer work 12-hour shifts and ultimately inspired me to look at other options, such as Sea World,” she says. “I have been able to have so many opportunities available to me because of this degree.”
A Healthcare System in Transition
In addition to working at Sea World, Mixsell teaches pediatric clinical nursing at CSU San Marcos and the University of San Diego. As a teacher, she employs multiple teaching and learning methods, to which she was exposed in her master’s program in nursing education.
“These techniques have been very helpful in my current roles, both clinically and in the classroom,” Mixsell says. “Teaching is more than just reading off information to the students. They can get the information themselves. It is our job as instructors to teach students how to apply that information and make decisions based on their assessments. This requires many techniques, which have been learned from my coursework and from interaction with other instructors.”
A master’s degree is a minimum requirement for most advanced roles in nursing service or education. An advanced degree can open the door to desirable career options and pave the way to greater professionalism and job satisfaction. A master’s degree is also an asset to organizations and healthcare as a whole. A 2010 Institute of Medicine report on the future of nursing recommends that nurses continue their education and training in order to become agents of change for a healthcare system in transition.
“I think that hospitals and healthcare agencies are responding to the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report,” says Cynthia Johnson, RN, Ed.D., graduate program coordinator at CSUDH School of Nursing. “More advanced practice nurses, educators and nurse administrators are needed for this initiative to be successful.”
Mixsell says it takes organization, self-motivation, professionalism and personal accountability to succeed in graduate school, as the work is both research-based and self-directed. Even more dedication and commitment are required when you complete your MSN online. “There is no one to ensure you complete your research, your papers or your discussion boards,” she explains.
However, studying online has its advantages, as well. “It is great in that you can work without having to revise any schedules,” says Mixsell. “I can imagine this would also be helpful if someone had kids at home. You do your school time on your own time every day, when you have time to do it.”
The Business Side
For nurses who want to branch out from bedside nursing, another option to consider is an MSN in nursing administration, which teaches nurses to understand the managerial and financial sides of healthcare organizations.
“Generally, nurses are not provided training in the business aspect of healthcare,” explains Kay O’Reilly, RN, MSN. O’Reilly, who began her nursing career in the nontraditional fields of traveling nursing and correctional healthcare, knew early on that she wanted to pursue nursing management. In 1997, she earned her master’s degree in nursing administration from UCLA. “My education provided me with the knowledge of general business practices, strategic planning and how to read financial information, such as balance sheets, cash flow and annual reports,” she says.
O’Reilly is now a senior clinical consultant for a Fortune 500 insurance company, where she is about to begin her 14th year. Her role is to review medical records and other information to evaluate the functional ability of insured patients to perform their occupations. She credits her success to her graduate degree. “I think one of the best things getting my MSN did for me was improving my critical thinking skills,” she says. “I use these skills every day at work when reviewing the claims. I also help the claims payers to think through the whole picture of a disability claim to understand what they may be missing or what they need to know.”
Another non-bedside graduate program available to RNs is a master of science degree in health informatics.
“Health informatics is that unique and strategic crossroads where health sciences meet information and computer sciences,” explains Linda Travis Macomber, RN, BSN, MBA, health informatics program lead at National University. “For RNs, health informatics is a career-growth opportunity where high tech meets human health.”
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided healthcare facilities with funding and financial incentives to adopt new health information technology. Nurse leaders who have computer know-how and an advanced degree can help take on these medical record challenges. “As healthcare is going digital, nurses and others are placed in positions to adopt many new technologies into practice,” Macomber says.
Nurses are making many important decisions and are finding they need the broader, more integrated background that a graduate degree provides. Where previously practice-based experience and learning on the job were common, today, degrees are increasingly required.
Options + Opportunities
Pursuing a graduate degree may involve some cost and time-management challenges, but RNs who accept those challenges are on the road to becoming more marketable and qualified for the most desirable positions in the nursing field. An advanced education can boost emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills, knowledge base and confidence, preparing nurses to succeed in the rapidly changing healthcare environment. Obtaining an MSN or other advanced degree is an investment likely to pay off.
“The number of opportunities and options increases significantly for the nurse who is distinguished by a graduate nursing degree,” explains Marsha Sato, RN, MN, Ed.D., professor of nursing at Mount St. Mary’s College. “When speaking with our alums, they frequently comment, ‘It was one of the most challenging times in my life, having to balance graduate school with work and family, but it was worth it.’”
2010 Institute of Medicine report on the future of nursing