Few nurses hold a master of science in nursing degree, so finding someone to discuss graduate nursing education with can be challenging. Even for myself, I remember many of my questions went unanswered when I first began to consider graduate school, as I knew no one who had pursued that level of education. In the end, I was able to navigate courses and deadlines on my own that first year of graduate studies, but I truly feel that I would’ve benefited from some guidance beforehand. Learning from this experience, I hope to share some of my knowledge with you, the FreshRN reader who may be considering a master program, but doesn’t have anyone to refer to for advice.
Master of Science in Nursing: Choosing a Program for Success
Now, whether you just decided graduate studies interested you 5 minutes ago when you saw this post, or have been contemplating a return to school for decades, I assure you that nothing is more important in this process than taking your time in choosing a master of nursing program. Since requirements to earn a master degree vary greatly between colleges, you must consider how the unique features of each program will impact your life today, and in the future.
To help you in this selection process, I want to outline in this post what I consider to be the top three most important differences between master of nursing programs:
- Course or Thesis Based
- Online or Brick-and Mortar
- Full or Part time
Though these options may seem straight forward, each choice has unique consequences that can hurt or help you on the road to academic nursing success.
Course or Thesis Based?
Choosing between course or thesis work is basically deciding between lots of little projects, or doing one big project. Although variations exist, most master of science in nursing programs offer one year of general course work followed by either another year of courses or a thesis. During your thesis, you will not attend class, but work closely with a faculty member on a research project, and then write a substantial report on the work you did.
A common misconception about thesis work is that only students who want to go onto doctoral work do such in-depth research. I would say this is not true because there are many nursing research positions that only require a master degree, and thesis work would be great preparation for these jobs!
In my opinion, your final decision to become a course or thesis work student should be based on two components. First, you must be okay with writing and problem-solving independently to write a thesis. Realistically, you may only see your supervising faculty member a couple times a month, so you need to be productive between these meetings to finish the project. Second, you need to look at what will be the content of either the courses or thesis project you will undertake, and determine if this interests you. Because honestly, graduate work will be long and difficult if you hate it.
Online or Brick-and-Mortar?
Recently, online master of science in nursing programs have become really popular, and more nurses than ever before are enrolled in online graduate courses. Wondering what the benefits of online learning were, I took a peek at the research and found that graduate nursing students of online programs report less stress related to family and work thanks to the flexibility in their studies. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar students feel their in-person courses provide them with better accommodation for their unique learning styles, and closer relationships with other students.
In my experience, brick-and-mortar programs hold their value for students interested in future careers in nursing education and research, but are not already connected with anyone in those fields. For example, being on campus can provide you with opportunities to teach undergraduate students, assist in faculty research projects, and network routinely with experts in your research field of interest.
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For nurses in remote places, you may feel you have no option other than to pursue online education. If true, I would still ‘shop’ around the numerous online programs available to you looking for colleges that have both easy-to-access technical support, and forums to contact other online students and faculty outside of the classroom.
Full or Part Time?
Depending on who you speak to, the choice to be a full or part time graduate student can be a controversial subject. I have heard some faculty encourage students to take the program at their own pace, and adjust course timelines to suit their personal life. Yet, I have also heard different faculty state, “Get the program done in case life circumstances stop you from finishing”. Even research on this subject is mixed, with students enjoying part time course loads more, but then taking a greater number of education leaves related to caregiving of children or elderly parents.
In my case, the decision to be full or part time boiled down to one question:
Do I have the funds for full-time education?
Graduate school is a ‘catch 22’ situation where the less you work, the more time you have for school. But at the same time, the more you go to school, the less money you have to fund your education. In the end, I did have to get a student line of credit to begin my graduate studies full time. But if you have a mortgage or other debts then part time schooling may be the most financially responsible option.
Another factor to consider when choosing full or part time studies is the amount of time that has passed since your undergraduate education.
If working now:
- Part time studies are a good way to slowly get back into the groove of academia.
- Especially if you haven’t written a paper since undergraduate!
- Full time studies are awesome if you need to take a break from the clinical setting, and decompress from years of practice. I know that may seem strange, as graduate studies can definitely be stressful. But trust me, they can be very therapeutic too.
If in undergraduate now:
- Part time studies are ideal for many new nursing graduates, as you can get some clinical experience while not falling out of practice with schoolwork. Also, some employers may be hesitant to hire you if pursing full time master studies, as they need a nurse flexible to work.
- Full time studies are ideal if you are driven to do research. With a master and doctoral degree combined taking over seven years to complete full time, your likely right to just get started!
With all this new information in mind, I leave you with my opinion that no master of nursing program is better than another, and that your decision to enter a graduate nursing program should not be based on the academic prestige of the school. Instead, choosing a graduate nursing program should be driven by your personal characteristics, life circumstances, commitments, and career aspirations. The disadvantages and benefits of different graduate nursing programs discussed in this post are only meant to act as stepping stone in your ultimate decision of choosing a master of nursing program.
About the Author: Crystal McLeod is a master of nursing education student, in her final year, at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. McLeod’s research interests include continuing education for rural nurses, intergenerational conflict in the clinical setting, Indigenous health, and childhood disease. Before embarking on graduate education, McLeod worked for several years as an emergency and obstetrical nurse in rural southwestern Ontario.