What Can I Do With My MSN Degree?

Today’s nursing workforce continues to broaden to just about every corner of our lives — from ethics to research to larger policy issues. Consequently, career paths for those with nursing skills are diversifying too. Nurses increasingly find work in varied settings and seek careers with stability and flexibility.

“It doesn’t matter what area you are in, nurses have to think critically,” said Sharon O’Neill, the director of the online Family Nurse Practitioner program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Department of Nursing. “Nurses work with different personalities and different environments, and it’s important to follow your passion and what you love within the profession. You really need to love what you’re doing. The ability to adapt, take in information and think creatively in new situations are all strong traits of nurses.”

Applying creative thinking, leadership and adaptability to various career paths are great ways for nurses to pursue career goals they may have never considered. For example, family nurse practitioners, or FNPs, often find careers in which they collaborate with legal and governmental sectors, or they work in nonconventional health care settings such as schools or community-based organizations.

Although many of these career paths may require advanced practice degrees as well as additional training, certification, clinical experience, education or licensing, the varied career opportunities might surprise you. From health informatics to forensic work, “we’ve encouraged nurses to demonstrate their value,” said Liz Stokes, an attorney and trained nurse who is now the director of the American Nurses Association Center for Ethics and Human Rights.

So, what exactly can you do with your MSN degree that will demonstrate your value? Whether you want to use your specialized nursing skills in new ways or tailor your career to specific personality traits, here are some career paths to consider.

Family Nurse Practitioner

As populations age and the current health care workforce begins to retire, the need for primary care continues to expand. According to Nursing@USC, U.S. News & World Report ranked nurse practitioner as the fourth most desirable career path of its “100 Best Jobs of 2018.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts the family nurse practitioner workforce will grow by 36 percent by 2026. This translates to a promising and fulfilling career option for nurses considering furthering their education and autonomy. Nursing@USC highlights the value of FNPs as advanced practice nurses who are “qualified to deliver high-level health services, including: diagnosing and treating common health problems, interpreting lab results, prescribing medications, managing treatment plans and providing patient education and counseling to promote wellness, referring patients to other health professionals as needed.”

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

If you love working with children, becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner may be the job for you. The bonus is, of course, watching the young ones you’ve cared for over the years flourish into young adults. A pediatric nurse treats children in an intensive care or clinical environment where communication, patience and sensitivity are key. To become a pediatric nurse practitioner, you will need to have at least a Master of Science in Nursing degree, with specialty training in pediatrics. You can develop special knowledge of pediatrics with additional certification exams such as the Certified Pediatric Nurse Examination, which is administered by the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board.

Diverse working environments are a big draw in this field, ranging from children’s hospitals and private pediatrician offices to government and social service agencies and schools.

“I work in the emergency room, and when children bounce back and get well, it’s an amazing feeling,” said Martha Roberts, a nurse practitioner who specializes in pediatrics. “The families are so grateful. It’s also very rewarding and that added a lot of value for me. On the other hand … you have to be really flexible because kids are unpredictable. You have to act quickly, be punctual and be readily available. But most of all, you have to have a big heart. In this field, you don’t just use your brain, you also use your heart.”

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Nursing Informatics Specialist

Does the combination of nursing and technology sound like your thing? Working in informatics, you’ll combine skills in nursing, computer science and information technology and apply them to patient care. As technology evolves, this career path will grow even more diverse as large medical facilities, private consulting firms and technology startups move to modernize and disrupt all areas of health care. You’ll apply cognitive and information science to push forward innovation as it applies to nursing.

Employers in this field typically prefer applicants with an MSN and additional experience in health informatics, health care management or electronic health and medical records. Additional certification is offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for those who choose to pursue a certificate in nursing informatics.

Geriatric or Gerontological Nurse Practitioner

Family nurse practitioners often have experience working with elderly patients, typically within a hospital or care facility, and have experience dealing with chronic illnesses, dementia and arthritis. If you thrive in environments where you care for the elderly and treat complex diseases related to aging, this career path will be rewarding. You’ll work closely with geriatric physicians, home health aides and hospice workers to manage and monitor patient outcomes. You will need an MSN degree and a board certification for gerontological practice that is provided by the American Nurses Credentialing Center of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

Clinical Nurse Researcher

Nurse researchers are critical in pharmaceutical and medical research, evaluating and researching new areas of scholarship. Using their clinical know-how, nurse researchers write proposals for grants, evaluate data and synthesize large amounts of information in myriad areas of research. Work schedules tend to be regular, but the stress levels can vary. Strong verbal and communication skills with a focus on research and writing are key in this field. If you enjoy working with statistics, data collection and evidence-based methodology, this career path can be enriching.

“I’ve always been interested in understanding how research and evidence benefit the world of medicine,” said Beth Harper, workforce innovation officer at the Association of Clinical Research Professionals. “To be a researcher you should enjoy the operational side of research and be hyper-organized. This field is notoriously detail oriented and heavy on documentation. You really use different parts of your brain as a nurse researcher since you are focused less on just patient care and more on clinical administration and research operations.”

Beyond an RN license, research nurses are not required to have additional certifications. However, some nurse researcher positions strongly prefer candidates who have experience working in clinical research and who have earned the Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP) certification offered by the Society for Clinical Research Associates.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

As a psychiatric nurse, you’ll work in a fast-paced, often unpredictable environment to treat patients with organic and functional psychiatric disorders. Working alongside psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, teamwork will be key as well as knowledge of acute and chronic mental health problems ranging from depression to schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. You must have a minimum of two years of experience as a registered nurse to become a certified psychiatric nurse. You should also have a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in a mental health setting and 30 hours of continuing education in mental health within the three years prior to taking the certification examination.

Forensic Nurse Consultant or SANE Specialist

Forensic nurse consultants work as advisors to law enforcement and criminal defense attorneys and as expert court witnesses for prosecutors. There is still an element of direct patient care since forensic nurses also treat patients while looking for signs of criminal activity, as they often see cases related to domestic abuse and other forms of violence. Additional certification through the International Association of Forensic Nurses is often helpful when offering these services.

A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), meanwhile, is a registered nurse who has completed specialized education and clinical preparation in the medical forensic care of a patient who has experienced sexual assault or abuse. This role requires great patient advocacy and dedication to survivor healing. Nurses who thrive by providing emotional support do well in this field, but the emotional toll can be difficult and burnout sometimes occurs. SANE specialists often specialize in the collection of evidence for prosecution in cases of assault and human trafficking. To become a SANE specialist, you must first be a registered nurse, preferably with experience in advanced physical assessment skills, such as emergency, critical care and maternal child health. There may also be local community requirements varying by state, province or county to become a SANE specialist.

Nurse Ethicist

The science of nursing can also be an art when solving ethical issues. From informed consent to quality of life decisions to capital punishment, nurses often find themselves weighing in on tough ethical issues that require careful conversation and research.

Nurse ethicists “work as interdisciplinary teams to resolve ethical dilemmas,” Stokes said. “It’s a very conscientious experience where you have to take time to look at all the roles and perspectives of everyone involved. It’s a way for nurses to step back and consider the values of their patients.”

Nurse Educator

Educating the next generation of nursing students and health care leaders can be a rewarding pursuit. If you take pride in teaching and academic rigor, working as a nurse educator can provide the challenge you are looking for. In shaping the next generation of nurses, educators will develop lesson plans, supervise students’ clinical practice and often serve as mentors to students. Many nurse educators simultaneously continue their own practice of caring for patients while working as educators. As a nurse educator, you are responsible for implementing nursing education and evaluating curriculum, working in a variety of settings from universities and trade schools to health care facilities that offer nurse training programs. Often, experience as a nurse educator may lead to administrative and managerial roles within nurse education programs.

Health Care Attorney or Legal Nurse Consultant

Increasingly, the legal profession, government sector and the medical world are intersecting. From malpractice cases to lobbying for health care reform to legal issues related to the Affordable Care Act, specialized health care knowledge can be helpful across industries.

“Nurses tend to do well in law school because of the way we are trained to think,” said O’Neill, who holds both a legal and nursing degree.

Nurses who specialize in law, whether as a lawyer or consultant, may understand the intricacies and terminology at the center of many legal cases. A legal nurse consultant helps law professionals gather and study evidence and medical records and understand legal information. Becoming a health care attorney will require a JD. Meanwhile, to become a legal nurse consultant, you may consider a training course through the American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants, which offers a certification examination for aspiring legal nurse consultants.

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Citation for this content: Nursing@USC, the online FNP program from the University of Southern California