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Is A Master's Degree in Your Nursing Future?

Is A Master's Degree in Your Nursing Future?

L. Finke

August 10, 2009

Q: I think graduate school could really help my career, but I don’t know where to start. Do you have any recommendations?

A: As the need for graduate prepared nurses escalates, many nurses are considering graduate education as an entry into exciting career opportunities. Finding the program that fits you the best and prepares you for the role you wish to obtain is well worth the search.

Doing the research

While doctoral programs generally prepare nurse researchers, master’s programs prepare advanced practice nurses, including clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists, as well as nurse administrators. The first step in determining what master’s program to pursue is a self-assessment that examines your strengths; financial, geographic and time constraints; and future career goals. You should also explore the forecasts for health care to examine trends, work force needs and opportunities. This can be done by talking with health care administrators, attending professional meetings and reading professional journals. Talk with nurses who are in the role you might like to pursue and get their advice. It is also important to determine the state requirements for the position desired since they vary. For example, some states may have course requirements to obtain prescriptive authority or clinical hour supervision requirements.

Emphasis must be placed on developing individual career goals to determine what graduate program best fits your specific career objective. The selected program should not only prepare you for the desired specialty but also meet state and national certification requirements. It is important to determine the requirements for the certification desired before exploring graduate programs.

What does the school offer?

Though graduate programs usually allow for some flexibility to meet individual goals, it remains a large time commitment. It is most difficult to work full time and attend school full time; most students in nursing graduate programs either work or attend school part time. Fortunately, the learning that takes place at school can be applied in the work setting the very next day. This type of learning can be energizing and stimulating. It is also important to be sure that the faculty members of the program hold the credentials that you are seeking. For example, if you are pursuing a clinical nurse specialist position in child psychiatric nursing, some of the faculty should hold that credential. A recognized nursing body such as the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education should also accredit your program. Graduating from an accredited program is a requirement for certification. Financial assistance is another factor to consider when selecting a program. Some programs can provide stipends for students who are enrolled or tuition waivers in exchange for serving as a research assistant or teaching assistant. Another factor is the method used to deliver courses. Is there a part-time program? Are courses offered through distance education such as the Internet? Are courses offered on weekends, evenings or one or two days a week? All these factors may be helpful in assisting you with your decision making.

Before you apply

Master’s programs in nursing are usually about two years full time or four to six years part time. Prerequisite requirements often include a statistics course and physical assessment skills depending on the major you wish to obtain. Many schools do require entrance tests such as the Miller’s Analogy (a vocabulary-type test) or the Graduate Record Exam (verbal, math and decision-making skills). These tests do not measure nursing expertise but test general knowledge; therefore, it is usually a good idea to study or even take a review course to prepare for the test. Sylvan Learning Centers are the distributor for the tests worldwide. There may be other requirements as well that apply to non-English speakers if pursuing a program in the United States. Licensure in the state offering the degree program may be required.

Taking these steps will help you determine if a graduate degree will be a logical and rewarding step in your career development. For more information about graduate schools, contact programs in your area.

Linda Finke, RN, PhD, is the director of professional development services at the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.