In all types of health care settings, nurses play a critical role in providing quality care to patients. Professional nursing organizations encourage registered nurses to pursue available education and training opportunities. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing states that, as of a 2008 survey, 36.8 percent of RNs held a baccalaureate degree and 13.2 percent held either a master's or a doctorate degree. In order to improve both patient outcomes and RN job satisfaction, the AACN supports measures to increase the number of associate degree- and diploma-prepared nurses who embark on a baccalaureate education within five years of graduation. In addition, RNs can pursue graduate degrees to qualify for positions with greater responsibility.

BSN Overview and Requirements

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing is a four-year degree offered at colleges and universities. Students take courses in anatomy, nutrition and other relevant science topics. They also enroll in liberal arts classes and receive training in communication, leadership and critical thinking skills. The BSN requires clinical work in a variety of health care settings. The basic BSN program is designed for students who have no previous nursing experience. However, students with a bachelor's degree in another area may be able to enroll in an accelerated BSN program, and RNs with work experience can complete an articulated RN-to-BSN program.

MSN Overview and Requirements

The Master of Science in Nursing provides advanced, focused training in one particular area of nursing care. MSN programs typically incorporate theories of nursing science and health care management and include extensive clinical experience and research. Courses may cover statistics, research management, health policy, family planning, and other topics specific to each student's studies. When enrolled full-time, students usually need 18 to 24 months to complete degree requirements. Admission requirements vary, but most MSN programs require an accredited bachelor's degree, an active RN license, essays, recommendation letters and test scores.

BSN Career Opportunities

The BSN is one of three main educational pathways to entry-level nursing positions. Some employers may prefer to hire BSN-prepared nurses, especially since the AACN considers a baccalaureate education to be necessary for a fully prepared and professional work force. Nurses sometimes need a BSN in order to advance to management and other positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that job opportunities for BSN-prepared nurses are generally better than for RNs without a BSN. As of May 2012, all registered nurses and clinical nurse specialists, who generally have graduate degrees, earned an average salary of nearly $67,930 per year, according to the BLS.

MSN Career Opportunities

With an MSN, RNs can become advanced practice RNs, or APRNS, such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists or nurse anesthetists. Duties vary by state and position, but APRNs generally have more authority than RNs, and can diagnose illnesses and administer medication. Additionally, APRNS are often responsible for overseeing other members of a health care team, and motivating and managing them accordingly. Nurses with master's degrees and sufficient experience can also work as nurse educators. According to the BLS, nurse midwives made an average of $91,070 as of May 2012, while nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists earned $91,450 and $154,390, respectively.