Masters in Nursing: Career Guide

Discover how you can use your graduate education to pursue a specialized career in nursing, and get information on degree requirements, job outlook, and salary expectations for various nursing concentrations.

From dermatology to surgery, nursing careers encompass a significant swath of healthcare professions. In this age of healthcare reform, many nurses are returning to school to get a master’s in nursing and advance their careers. A master’s in nursing is a critical step in advancing up the field’s established career ladder. This will lead to greater responsibilities and overall contributions to an already essential career. Getting an advanced degree is a major investment, however, and should only be made with the proper amount of research and experience. Always keep an open mind until you find the specialty and program that truly meets your personal and professional goals.

It can be challenging to begin a career in nursing with so many options. Some nurses love the fast pace of the emergency room, while others enjoy the more routine preventive care duties of a family clinic. Many are helping the baby boomer generation age into their golden years, and others help bring newborns into the world. This guide is dedicated to making those decisions easier by providing you with an overview of various masters in nursing specializations and investigating the world of career possibilities.

Career Opportunities for the Master’s in Nursing

While the nursing field contains a multitude of career specializations for the master’s degree holder, they tend to fall into a handful of general categories, including surgical and emergency care, nursing administration, and clinical care.

Critical Care Nurse

  • Projected national job growth:  26%
  • Median salary: $45,000/year
  • Job description: Critical care nurses care for acutely ill patients and their families. These patients are often in serious condition or at risk for life-threatening health problems. Critical care nurses most often work in high-intensity environments such as the intensive care unit, and often specialize in a particular area, such as cardiovascular or neonatal care.
  • Why would I want to do this? Pursue this field if you learn fast, think quickly, and thrive in stressful situations. The ability to think and act under pressure, display strong management skills and leadership ability, and display determination are important characteristics for the job.

Gerontology Nurse Practitioner

  • Projected national job growth: 26%
  • Median salary: $64,690/year
  • Job description: Gerontology nurses work specifically with the elderly. Elder care is a complex field and often includes monitoring mental health, providing emotional support to patients and families; and observing emergent medical conditions. Nurses can specialize in a specific gerontology concentration such as oncology, cardiology or primary care.
  • Why would I want to do this? Choose this career if you want a high-demand job and you are interested in the unique problems of the elderly. In the coming decade, health care professionals will spend at least half their time caring for the older population, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control.

Health Policy Nurse

  • Projected national job growth: 26%
  • Median salary: $44,000/year
  • Job Description: Health policy nurses hold leadership roles in advocacy, research, analysis, policy development and evaluation. They work in a range of organizations, from research firms to legislative and regulatory offices, as well as advocacy and professional associations.
  • Why would I want to do this? Pursue this career if you want to advocate for changes that determine how the medical industry is governed. Nursing policy work requires critical thinking skills and the ability to understand the economic, ethical, and social implications of policy decisions.

Nurse Anesthetist

  • Projected national job growth: 19%
  • Median salary: $129,000/year
  • Job description: A nurse anesthetist with an MSN can administer anesthesia and anesthesia-related care to patients before, during, and after surgery. This career path is one of the most challenging to pursue, but also one of the most in-demand and well-paid of all nursing professions. Once a job for physicians alone, more and more healthcare organizations are employing APRNs to administer anesthesia.
  • Why would I want to do this? Follow this career path if you are interested in hands-on medical care in a surgical setting normally reserved for physicians. An anesthetist must have knowledge of the ER and operating room, as well as of pain management and outpatient procedures, so you will need to be attentive to detail and highly skilled.

Nurse Educator

  • Projected national job growth: 37%
  • Median salary: $68,640/year
  • Job description: Nurse educators are responsible for teaching and preparing the next generation of nurses studying for certifications and degrees. Those who work at large universities are also likely to conduct research, write grant proposals and help maintain clinical standards in the nursing profession.
  • Why would I want to do this? Pursue this specialization if you want to help train and foster a new generation of nurses. This is an ideal career if you are less interested in the hands-on practice of medicine than the academic and theoretical aspect.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

  • Projected national job growth: 39%
  • Median salary: $63,000/year
  • Job description: Working with children to attend to their healthcare needs is the primary role of a pediatric nurse. The range of care includes routine exams in a family practice or managing the care of a child with a serious or chronic condition. Pediatric nurse practitioners work alongside physicians to diagnose illnesses, conduct exams, and prescribe medication.
  • Why would I want to do this? A love of children and a love of subtle details are both critical characteristics of the pediatric nurse.  If you are compassionate, caring, and have a desire to attend to young children in a healthcare setting, this is the career for you.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

  • Projected national job growth:  26%
  • Median salary: $66,000/year
  • Job description: Psychiatric nurse practitioners function in the same capacity as a psychiatrist, diagnosing mental illness and prescribing medication. Many work as counselors helping patients deal with depression, anxiety or suicide. Advanced practice RNs with their master’s degree also contribute to a growing body of research, policy development, quality improvement, practice evaluation, and health care reform in the psychiatric nursing field.
  • Why would I want to do this? Pursue a career in psychiatric nursing if you wish to work in the area of mental health, especially caring for specific populations such as patients who are at high-risk for mental illness.