What is a Typical MSN Curriculum? Classes by Program

To become a nurse, students must complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. These two-year programs provide graduates with the education they need for entry-level work in this field. However, a master of science (MSN) is becoming the standard for many employers and specialties. MSN degrees are available to nurses and non-nurses and can be a significant career stepping stone.  

Embarking on the journey toward earning an MSN degree is an investment in oneself and an affirmation of dedication to personal and professional growth. MSN programs go beyond traditional nursing education and include more advanced topics such as leadership or management, quality improvement, translating scholarship into practice, and interprofessional collaboration. 

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) oversee curriculum standards for MSN programs. These two accrediting bodies ensure that the education nurses receive in their master’s program is sufficient to competently practice in the field or specialty for the given program. The curriculum will vary based on the program and the student’s previous education. For example, a direct entry MSN for a non-nursing student will cover nursing basics, while an MSN in adult-gerontology will prepare an already licensed registered nurse for independent practice. 

Keep reading to learn why to complete an MSN degree, the curriculum standards, and typical classes by specialty. 

Why Earn An MSN?

There are many reasons why one might pursue an MSN. Here are four of the top reasons:

Higher Earnings

On average, nurses with an MSN degree will earn more money than their counterparts with a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) or associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). In some cases, the higher pay is due to a higher level of responsibility, such as an executive administrative role or scope of practice, but in many instances, the wages for the same position can be higher strictly based on the level of education attained. According to Payscale.com, a salary aggregate website, MSN degree holders earn $102,000 annually on average, while BSN holders earn $92,000 and ADN, $76,000

Different Scope Of Practice

Nurses wanting to expand their practice scope must complete a graduate degree. At a minimum, an MSN degree is required to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Master’s educated APRNs can be nurse practitioners (NPs), clinical nurse specialists (CNS), certified nurse midwives (CNM), and more. 

Advance into a Leadership Role

Completing an MSN degree can put nurses on a leadership career path. Typically, nurses who want to move into leadership roles will complete an MSN for nurse executives or in nursing administration. These managerial or leadership positions can include chief nursing officer, director of nursing, healthcare administrator, clinical nurse manager, and nurse educator. 

Career Change

Professionals who have earned a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing can pursue an MSN degree to start a new career as a registered nurse. These programs are often called direct entry degrees and cover the curriculum necessary for entry-level work as a nurse.

Standards for MSN Curriculum

To be eligible for licensure or certification, students must complete an MSN program accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). The CCNE and ACEN have standards for master’s degree curricula that establish benchmarks for what education for nurses at this level should entail. 

The CCNE standards are delineated in The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing. The curriculum must include three components: graduate nursing core, direct care core, and functional area content. ACEN standards require that the curriculum “supports the achievement of the end-of-program student learning outcomes and program outcomes and is consistent with safe practice in contemporary healthcare environments.”

Core Curriculum For Most MSN Programs

Per the CCNE, here are the core areas of instruction for MSN programs:

Background for Practice in Sciences and Humanities

All master’s level nursing students must have a working understanding of general science and humanities. This background allows them to think interdisciplinarily and problem-solve using many different methodologies. Classes in this area can include Healthcare economics and finance models, advanced nursing science, scientific bases of illness prevention, health promotion, genetics, genomics, pharmacogenomics, and public health science. 

Organizational and Systems Leadership 

Since many nurses with master’s degrees will go on to leadership roles, organizational and systems leadership classes are essential. Not only does this ensure nurses are well prepared for the roles, but it can improve patient outcomes and safety. Through these courses, students will learn to communicate effectively, work as part of a team, and demonstrate care coordination skills. Course titles can include operations research, leadership in healthcare, change theory, communication, and data-driven decision-making.   

Quality Improvement and Safety

Knowledge and skills in human factors and safety design principles to address unsafe practices are essential. Students must take courses in quality improvement and safety to analyze systems and create a culture of safety where errors can be openly disclosed while maintaining professional accountability. Content for these classes can include principles of a just culture, quality improvement models, data management, simulation training in various environments, and analysis of errors. 

Translating and Integrating Scholarship into Practice

Nurses must be able to take what they have learned and apply it. Not only is this a critical skill for the knowledge they gain during their master’s degree, but it is essential as nurses move through their careers and complete continuing education. These courses will help nurses develop inquisitive minds focusing on practical applications. Coursework can include research process, evidence-based practice, translational science, and research ethics. 

Informatics and Healthcare Technologies 

Technology is a critical component of patient care. Nurses need to be up to date on current technology and develop technology literacy skills to continue to evolve with new developments. Topics covered under these classes must include these five components: use of patient care and other technologies to deliver and enhance care, communication technologies to integrate and coordinate care, data management to analyze and improve outcomes of care, health information management for evidence-based care and health education, and facilitation and use of electronic health records to improve patient care. 

Health Policy and Advocacy 

In addition to their care, nurses must also advocate for their patients. As evidence establishes links between psychosocial, economic, and cultural factors and health status, nurses need to integrate these factors into their approach to care. The curriculum in MSN programs must include how to effectively advocate for patients in a given healthcare setting and how to advocate for health policy that will benefit patients and improve outcomes. The health policy and advocacy classes’ content will include the structure of healthcare delivery systems, social justice, economics of healthcare, and ethical and value-based frameworks guiding policymaking. 

Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes 

A cooperative work environment is essential to effective patient care. In fact, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has identified working in interdisciplinary teams as one of the five core competencies for all health professionals. Nurses must be able to work amongst their peers and collaborate effectively with staff below them, as well as management and leadership. Course content will include scope of practice, stages of team development, group dynamics, cultural diversity, and conflict management. 

Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving Health 

The best healthcare is prevention, which can happen at the individual patient level and with a population as a whole. Nurses who complete a master’s degree will take classes on establishing preventative care with their clients and addressing population health issues, including health promotion and disease prevention. While some master’s programs may emphasize this more than others, this is essential for all students to master. Students can expect to cover coursework in epidemiology, environmental health, disaster preparedness, health disparities, and health behavior modification.

Additional Classes By Speciality

In addition to the core courses listed above, coursework for MSN programs will vary based on specialization. Here are some classes students can expect to find in the most common specializations. 

Nurse Practitioner

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), “the emphasis in a graduate NP program is on the development of clinical and professional expertise necessary for comprehensive primary care and specialty care practice in a variety of settings.” Classes will vary based on specialization but will include these seven domains:

  • Management of patient health/illness status
  • The nurse practitioner-patient relationship
  • The teaching/coaching function 
  • Professional role
  • Managing and negotiating healthcare delivery systems
  • Monitoring and ensuring the quality of healthcare practices
  • Culturally-sensitive care 

For example, at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Cizik School of Nursing, all advanced practice registered nursing students will take these core classes in addition to their specialty courses: 

  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Advanced Practice Role in Population Health
  • Advanced Physical Exam/Differential Diagnosis
  • Advanced Physical Exam/Differential Diagnosis Lab
  • Diagnostic Tests and Procedures
  • Advanced Pathophysiology

Nurse Administrator

The American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) believes nurse leaders, administrators, and executives have a “leader within” that anchors the five core domains: business skills and principles, communication and relationship building, knowledge of the healthcare environment, professionalism, and leadership. Classes will vary by school but will include coursework that will develop these domain areas.  

At the University of Alabama, the curriculum for a nurse administrator includes:

  • Population Health
  • Nursing Informatics Healthcare
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Research and Evidence-Based Practice
  • Health Policy and Finance
  • Roles and Leadership in Nursing Administration Didactic and Practicum 
  • US Health Care Systems and Quality & Safety Didactic and Practicum
  • Advanced Financing and Strategic Planning in Health Care Didactic and Practicum

Nurse Educator

The National League for Nursing (NLN) has identified eight core competencies for nurse educators which all curricula should help develop. These include:

  • Facilitate Learning
  • Facilitate Learner Development and Socialization
  • Use Assessment and Evaluation Strategies
  • Participate in Curriculum Design and Evaluation of Program Outcomes
  • Function as Change Agent and Leader
  • Pursue Continued Quality Improvements in the Nurse Educator Role
  • Engage in Scholarship
  • Function within the Educational Environment

Here are the core curriculum courses for the master’s of science in nursing for nurse educators at Duke University:

  • Facilitating Student Learning and Teaching Innovation 
  • Curriculum Development in Nursing Education 
  • Educational Program Evaluation & Accreditation 
  • Assessment and Evaluation Strategies in Nursing Education 
  • Implementing the Educator Role: Synthesis 
  • Innovations in Clinical Teaching & Evaluation

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Per the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS), the curriculum for clinical nurse specialists must develop these competencies:

  • Provide clinical expertise and education
  • Coordinate the development and implementation of a plan of care
  • Implement evidence-based practices
  • Lead quality initiatives
  • Conduct research
  • Promote effective communication

To ensure students develop these skills, the master’s of science clinical nurse specialist program at Michigan State University College of Nursing requires these classes:

  • Clinical Epidemiology for Healthcare Practice
  • Scientific Foundations for the Advanced Practice Nurse
  • Healthcare Informatics
  • Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Patient Safety, Quality Improvement, and Quality Management in Healthcare
  • Leadership in Complex Health Systems
  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Advanced Physical Assessment
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Wellness Promotion for Diverse Populations
  • Clinical Decision Making and Management of Acute Chronic Complex Conditions
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist Advanced Practice Role Development

Certified Nurse Midwife

The International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) believes certified nurse midwives must develop “general competencies that apply to all aspects of a midwife’s practice, and competencies that are specific to care during pre-pregnancy, antenatal, labor, birth and the postnatal period.” 

At Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, the curriculum includes these classes to ensure students obtain the necessary skills:

  • Advanced Health Assessment and Clinical Reasoning
  • Advanced Physiology and Pathophysiology
  • Roles and Contexts for Advanced Nursing Practice
  • Advanced Health Assessment Applications for Nurse-Midwifery
  • Gynecologic, Reproductive, and Sexual Health for Nurse Midwifery
  • Reproductive Anatomy and Physiology
  • Evolution of Midwifery in America
  • Advanced Pharmacotherapeutics 
  • Advanced Practice Nursing in Primary Care of the Adult
  • Professional Formation 2: Application of Evidence in Healthcare Environments
  • Antepartal Care for Nurse-Midwifery
  • Practicum for Gynecologic, Antepartum & Primary Care for Nurse-Midwifery
  • Leading Collaborative Change: Improving Delivery of Healthcare to Patients and Populations
  • Skills for Nurse-Midwifery
  • Practicum in Intrapartum/Postpartum/Neonatal Nurse-Midwifery Care
  • Intrapartum Care for Nurse-Midwifery
  • Postpartum and Neonatal Care for Nurse-Midwifery
  • Nurse-Midwifery Role Synthesis, Exploration, and Analysis
  • Advanced Clinical Integration Experience for Nurse-Midwifery
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about nursing careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning, which drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.