MSN vs. BSN: Your Nursing Degree Options

MSN and BSN nursing students talking in hospital

A career in nursing is a popular choice for many reasons. It’s a high-demand occupation that allows professionals to make a meaningful, positive difference in people’s lives. Nursing also allows for many specialization options.

If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in nursing, you’ll need to think carefully about your academic choices. Use this career planning guide to consider your choices and get the answers to some common questions, such as “What’s the difference between an MSN vs. BSN degree?”

MSN vs. BSN Planning Guide Table of Contents:

What’s the Difference Between BSN and MSN Nursing Programs?

There are a lot of nursing-related abbreviations to become familiar with, and it can be a little confusing for someone who is new to the nursing field. Although mastering the terminology for patient care-related topics will take quite a bit of study, sorting out the differences in nursing credentials is, fortunately, much simpler. The main difference between BSN and MSN programs is that the former are undergraduate (baccalaureate) degrees, while the latter are graduate degrees.

A BSN is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program. An MSN is a Master of Science in Nursing degree program. If you want to earn an MSN, you will first need to earn a BSN, or possess an undergraduate degree in another field and complete prerequisite course requirements as well as obtain a registered nurse (RN) license.

Not all nurses have a BSN or an MSN. It’s possible to become a licensed nurse with an associate degree, which is a two-year degree program. However, those who opt for this pathway may find their employment and advancement opportunities are limited.

This is why you’ll often find nurses with associate degrees returning to school to earn a four-year degree in order to enhance their qualifications. So, although it’s possible to become a nurse with a two-year degree, it may be preferable to earn a BSN degree.

An MSN degree, may be required for nurses who desire career advancement and greater specialization opportunities.

MSN vs. BSN: A Look at What You’ll Study

An accredited pre-licensure BSN program will cover all of the areas tested on the NCLEX-RN exam, which is the national licensing exam that all aspiring nurses must pass after earning an undergraduate degree. While working toward a pre-licensure BSN degree, you will study the continuum of care — from patient assessments to follow-up care. You’ll also explore professional ethics, policies and best practices in nursing research.

Some of the specific topics you can expect to study as a nursing student include the following:

  • Behavioral health nursing
  • Health assessment
  • Adult health nursing
  • Leadership, ethics, and policy in health care
  • Population health

These are just a few sample topics. You’ll work through a mix of lecture courses, labs and simulated nursing experiences. You’ll also be assigned to multiple clinical rotations in which you will provide patient care under close supervision.

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If you decide to earn an MSN, you’ll take a deeper dive into nursing theories and applications. You’ll refine your nursing research skills and sharpen your skills in the advanced role. At this level of education, you will also have the opportunity to choose a degree that has a specialization, and you’ll take multiple classes in that particular specialization.

Before choosing your MSN degree program, think carefully about the type of advanced nursing role you’d like to become. Options include: nursing education, nursing leadership, public health nursing, or a nurse practitioner. For example, if you want to specialize as a nurse practitioner in acute care for adults, look for a Master of Science in Nursing: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner with an Emphasis in Adult-Gerontology degree.

There are many other options as well, such as MSN programs that offer a concentration in healthcare quality and patient safety, health informatics or a family nurse practitioner. As you consider your choices, think about your personal and professional goals.

What Are the Types of BSN Degrees?

Although it’s not common to select a BSN degree with a specific concentration, there are different types of BSN programs to consider. The BSN program that’s right for you will depend on whether you are seeking initial licensure to become a licensed nurse or whether you're already a practicing nurse but are seeking a bachelor's degree. Here are your options:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (leads to licensure)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (leads to licensure, accelerated — ABSN)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (post-licensure, RN to BSN)

The BSN (pre-licensure) is the right degree option for students whose goal is to pursue a nursing career.

One option is suitable for individuals who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than nursing. They may have spent some time in the workforce before deciding that they’d like to switch careers and become an RN. The accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (ABSN) allows these individuals to build on previously acquired foundational knowledge.

Practicing RNs with an associate degree in nursing can apply for enrollment in the RN to BSN program. This degree builds on the knowledge that these learners already possess so that they can graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

How To Prepare for Your BSN Pre-Licensure Degree

Now that you have a firmer grasp on the various abbreviations of nursing education, it’s time to begin preparing for your post-secondary academic journey. If you’re in high school and you’re planning on earning a BSN pre-licensure degree, you should schedule a meeting with your guidance counselor. Discuss whether you can add any relevant courses to your schedule that would help you prepare for your post-secondary education.

Nursing students need to build strong competencies in mathematics and life sciences, so focus on these subjects. However, humanities are also important because nurses need to develop strong critical thinking skills, communication abilities and an understanding of cultural diversity.

In addition to your studies, look for ways of becoming involved with the nursing community. Volunteer at your local hospital or take on a summer job with a home health agency.

Whether you’re a high school senior exploring your baccalaureate degree options or an actively working nurse thinking of going back to school, Grand Canyon University has a suitable degree option for you. With a tradition of nursing education excellence, the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) degree program and various MSN programs, such as the Master of Science in Nursing with an Emphasis in Health Care Quality & Patient Safety program and the Master of Science in Nursing: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner with an Emphasis in Adult-Gerontology degree.  


Approved by the Dean of the College of Nursing and Healthcare Professions on Dec. 19, 2022.

1Cannot be used in conjunction with other GCU scholarships or awards.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.