"The decision about when to pursue an advanced degree in nursing is very personal," said Tammy King, MSN, RN, CRRN, CMS, chief nurse executive at Shepherd Center, Atlanta. "I began with my associate's degree in nursing, which prepared me very well for the workplace. After awhile, I wanted to make a career out of nursing and respected my profession, so I earned a BSN."
King knew she wanted to go on for a master's degree, but waited 4 years to choose the right path. "My clinical experiences during those years helped me narrow down my field of study," she said. "Even though I was a rehab nurse, I chose a specialty in geriatrics that I felt would inform and broaden my practice, and that has served me well."
Freedom to Explore
Jennifer Twaddell, MSN, RN, assistant professor in the department of nursing at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, supported King's recommendations. "When you go through a BSN program, it's essentially a process of jumping through hoops to complete the requirements," she said. "A master's program allows you the freedom to explore your own ideas and interests, but students who come right from the BSN to MSN may not have developed those interests and can still feel it's still a process of jumping through hoops. I waited 7 years before going back for my MSN, and that was a good choice for me."
Not Quite Ready
Joann Preece, BSN, RN, clinical educator for surgical services at Middlesex Hospital, Middletown, CT, was a diploma school grad and enrolled in a BSN program in 1997. "I was young and immature, and soon blew it off," she recalled. "Four years later, with some experience under my belt, I signed up for a BSN program and graduated in 2006."
Preece made the commitment to graduate school with a little help from her friends, and will graduate next May. "My 11 years in PACU taught me so much, and gave me the opportunity to grow up," she said. "My colleagues encouraged me by saying, 'You'd be a great teacher!' and the director of surgical services, Barbara Thompson, MSN, RN, CNOR, served as a role model when she attended the same graduate program. She gave me that little push: 'If you really want to do it, you should go for it and see it through!'"
Ability to Relate
For Philecia Grant, MSN, FNP, med/surg staff nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, NY, who started her career with an ADN, the road to an advanced nursing degree has been a continuous learning journey.
"I felt earning a BSN would broaden my perspective, so I earned my BSN as a part-time student in 2003, and then my MSN with an FNP focus in 2007. I'm definitely glad I had real experience before going for those degrees, and that I continued to work during both of those programs, because the clinical experiences gave me the ability to relate to what the instructors were talking about in class. The combination of work and school tied everything together for me, so I didn't have to learn all of the concepts from scratch."
Working Toward a Goal
Melanie Gawlik, BS, RN, assistant nurse manager on the orthopedic trauma/neuro unit at Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA, is currently earning a graduate degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills, as the latest step in a goal-oriented educational journey. "I earned my BS in biochemistry and cellular biology as a pre-med major, and then realized I wanted to be a nurse," she said. "I earned my ADN from a private nursing school, but always intended to go on for an accelerated BSN-MSN program."
In addition to working at the hospital, Gawlik is rounding off her resume by teaching in an MSN program. "I have a long-term goal of becoming a hospital administrator, and that's been my driving force to continue my education and professional development," she said. "I wanted to earn my master's before having children, and in 3-4 years, I may pursue my doctorate in nursing practice."
Kelly Melaven, BSN, RN, a med/surg staff nurse at Middlesex Hospital, Middletown, CT, found her clinical experiences led to a change of heart. "I tried to make myself focus on a clinical track leading to an advanced practice role at the bedside, but realized that's not where I wanted to be 10 years from now," she said. "I talked with my colleagues - both new and more experienced nurses - as well as some of the new nurses I mentored. They told me, 'Kelly, you'd be really good as a nursing leader and I'd work for you any day.' With their support, I decided to enroll in the MSN program's Patient Care Services and System Administration track at UConn."
Diane Hays, BSN, RN, CRRN, a staff nurse on the acute rehab unit at Ochsner Medical Center - New Orleans, who is currently enrolled in a master's program in nursing, believes nurses should work for a while before selecting a program. "You don't realize how many aspects of nursing there are until you get out into the workplace and start looking around," she explained. "I originally thought I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, but decided I still want to work with patients at the bedside, so I'm going to be a clinical nurse specialist."
When It Feels Right
After graduating from The Finley Hospital School of Nursing in Dubuque, IA, Eunice Simmons, MSN, RN, CCRN, director of the medical ICU at St. Mary's Hospital, Madison, WI, worked as a nurse before heading back to earn a BSN and then an MSN from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "My BSN education gave me a much broader and deeper knowledge of nursing while fulfilling my need for continuous learning," she said. "When I decided to go into management, I took the initiative to pursue my master's because I personally believe that should be the minimum requirement for a nursing leadership role."
Understanding Your Options
With 8 years of staff nursing and nursing management experience under her belt, Roxanne Vara, BSN, RN, nurse manager of the pediatric med/surg unit at Texas Children's Hospital, Houston, is finalizing plans for graduate study. "Being a clinician and then a manager has helped me understand what my choices are in terms of advanced education," she said. "I've narrowed the options down to an MBA or an MSN, and am in the process of deciding which will be most helpful for my personal development and my professional growth."
Marilyn Allatin, BA, BS, RN, CEN, a staff nurse in the ED at Middlesex Hospital, Middletown, CT, is currently working on her master's thesis. "I love ED nursing, but started seeing the writing on the wall when I realized it's killing my body and I can't do this for the rest of my life," she said. "I don't believe nurses can go into a nurse practitioner role without years of nursing experience, so my 25 years of practice will make me a completely different practitioner than someone who has gone from their BSN to MSN in just a couple of years."
It All Depends
Mary Robinson, PhD, MS, BSN, RN-BC, chief nursing officer at Harris Methodist Southwest Hospital, Fort Worth, TX, believes nurses need to do some soul-searching to determine the best time for advanced education. "There's no cut-and-dried answer because it depends on what you're trying to accomplish with your career," she said. "For the most part, clinical roles requiring advanced degrees also require several years of experience in a particular area along with the graduate degree. As long as you're okay with earning your degree and then working in a clinical area to gain that experience after school, it's OK to go for your master's right away."
Many nurses take advantage of employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement programs and career advancement opportunities before heading off to grad school. "You may be attracted to a particular nursing role early on, but may identify new or different pathways in clinical care, education, or management that are more fitted to your needs and interests as time goes on," said Robinson. "Clinical ladders offer stair steps along the way that give you experiential ways of progressing along one of those pathways, while identifying the level and timing of education to continue advancing."
Sandy Keefe is a frequent contributor to ADVANCE.