The field of nursing offers a wealth of continuing education opportunities, which employers often support through tuition reimbursement, and schools encourage through part-time and online classes for working nurses. Registered nurses who already have a Bachelor of Science in nursing have the option of earning a related master's degree, or even pursuing a doctorate degree. Data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing shows that many nurses are taking this option: The percentage of master's- or doctorate-prepared nurses has increased from 10.3 percent of the workforce in 2000 to 13.2 percent in 2008.

Master's Programs in Nursing

RNs who wish to take on greater responsibilities in their work and become specialized in areas such as nursing administration or nursing education can pursue master's degrees. The typical name for the professional master's degree is a Master of Science in Nursing, or M.S.N.; however, some programs may offer a Master of Arts or Master of Science with a nursing major, or a Master of Nursing – the key for students is to ensure that their program is professionally accredited. Most traditional M.S.N. programs take between 18 and 24 months to complete. RNs who have not yet completed a B.S.N. can enroll in RN-to-M.S.N. programs, which take around three years to finish and include training covered in B.S.N. programs.

Master's Degree Career Choices

An M.S.N. is the minimum educational requirement for advanced practice nurses (APRNs), who can work as clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists or nurse practitioners. In addition to providing direct patient care, master's-prepared nurses take management positions in businesses related to health care. Others can work for employers such as insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, where they focus in marketing, consulting and policy development. They are also qualified for teaching positions in nursing education programs.

Doctorate of Nursing Practice

Unlike the research-focused Ph.D., the Doctorate of Nursing Practice is designed for nurses who wish to be prepared at the highest possible level for advanced nursing practice and policy work. Since the D.N.P. is becoming the preferred required degree for APRNs, some schools offer B.S.N.-to-D.N.P. programs, which take three to four years to finish. Program length varies by school, but master's-prepared students may only need one to two years to earn the D.N.P. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education lists 131 accredited D.N.P. programs in the U.S.

D.N.P. Career Choices

Besides preparation for advanced direct patient care, doctorate-prepared nurses can take on executive and leadership positions in many of the same health care organizations for which master's prepared nurses may work. They may direct the provision of health care, helping shape policies either at an individual workplace or through work at an overarching health care institution. Nurses with a D.N.P. often qualify for a greater number of advanced faculty positions in nursing education programs than master's-prepared nurses.

Advanced Nursing Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners both earned slightly more than $91,000 per year on average, while nurse anesthetists earned more than $154,000 annually. Registered nurses, in comparison, took in slightly less than $68,000, on average. All APRNs should have good job prospects, especially in areas with demand for health care services, such as inner cities and rural locations. Nurse educators can expect to find work with relative ease, with 1,181 empty faculty positions as of 2012, 88.3 percent of which either required or preferred a doctorate degree.