Online MSN or PhD Programs in Nursing

What is an Online Graduate Nursing Program?

Online nursing graduate programs encompass Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), PhD and nursing certificate programs. There are online nursing degrees for students with diverse levels of education and top goals for their careers.

As with campus equivalents, online nursing schools could help nurses and non-nurses develop key skills and knowledge in evidence-based practice, teaching, medical informatics, research, and leadership in the healthcare industry. However, unlike traditional nursing programs, online nursing may allow students to take nursing classes whenever and wherever is convenient for them.

Online MSN or PhD Programs in Nursing infographicwritten by Rana Waxman

Why Consider Online Nursing Graduate Programs?

For current nurses and busy professionals, online nursing graduate programs could provide the opportunity to earn advanced credentials while continuing to work. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), including nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists, require graduate education to practice. Graduate-level online nursing programs could help nurses prepare to enter or progress in these fields, as well as take on managerial roles, go into academia, conduct research, or work in inter-professional teams.

There is no uniform structure for online nursing graduate programs, but in many cases the instructive courses might be completed online, with any practicum components completed in person at an approved site.


Some online nursing graduate programs allow students to take one class at a time. This is a feature that could provide some room to fully understand the course material before you move on.

Also, you may not have any pre-set log in times. This could allow you to view your ‘classes’ whenever it suits you and from wherever you have internet. That said, you may have opportunities for “live” online classes where online students attend with campus peers via video-conferences. But if this worries you and your schedule is too tight, classes of this nature are typically recorded and stored in a course management system where you could have 24/7 access.

Graduate Nursing Programs : Online Learning and Interaction

In terms of interaction, online nursing degree programs often encourage students to connect with instructors and classmates. This is often done through online discussion forums where questions are shared, email, and other methods that your school uses.

The Virtual Classroom

The virtual classroom could be like an in-person one in that students typically follow a syllabus for course content. Along the way, you might have to do exercises or solve problems, whether on your own or in a team. There could be weekly assignments, projects, written papers and tests that assess your progress. And, of course, deadlines that must be met.

Practicums and Campus Visits

Some, but not all, online graduate nursing programs are fully online. Why? Well, many nursing graduate degrees blend clinical practicums with classroom education. To address this, you may have to find a preceptor-mentor in your local community with whom you partner while you go through your supervised practice.

Also, since many traditional universities offer online nursing programs, you might be required to take some courses in brief residencies. These campus visits could provide hands-on training in how to use equipment, and workshops where you could learn about patient care through role-play exercises or be supervised and assessed by faculty.

Which Online Graduate Nursing Degree is Perfect for Me?

Online nursing graduate programs are available at the certificate, masters and doctoral levels, with some offered in accelerated formats. To find one that may fit your needs, you could refine your list by nursing specialty or degree level to get started. Then, look for a program that could help further your education in a desired area, such as those listed below.

Popular Schools with Online Nursing Degrees

ProgramInstitutionDegree Awarded
Master of Science NursingIncarnate Word CollegeMSN
M.S. Nursing - Adult Clinical Nurse Specialist or Adult Nurse PractitionerUniversity of Colorado DenverMS
Master of Science in NursingTennessee State UniversityMSN
Master of Science in Nursing (Family Nurse Practitioner)University of Saint FrancisMS
Master of Science in NursingMiddle Tennessee State UniversityMSN
Doctor of Education - Nursing EducationNational UniversityDNP
M.S. Nursing - Family Nurse Practitioner (BSN to MSN)Western Governors UniversityN/A
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)Grand Canyon UniversityDNP
Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Postgraduate CertificatePurdue GlobalN/A
M.S. in Nursing (MSN)Regent UniversityMSN
D.N.P. - Doctor of Nursing PracticeSouth CollegeN/A
MSN in Care CoordinationCapella UniversityMSN
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To find a program that may prepare you for future practice, you should check with your state board to find out about APRN requirements and what certification exams you need to prepare for. Then contact individual programs to learn how they might help you fulfill any requirements.

In states that recognize some or all the roles, APRNs must have a registered nursing license, complete an accredited graduate-level program, and pass a national certification exam.i

Accelerated Online Nursing Programs

Accelerated online nursing programs could be referred to as ‘fast-track’, ‘second-degree’, ‘entry level’ or ‘bridge’ programs. Because nursing schools use different language to describe their programs, you should read further to see what the terminology means. For instance, is it just a more intensive program? Does it allow you to earn two levels of nursing degrees? Is it designed for individuals who do not have a BSN degree to transition into nursing? Just be aware and informed.

  • Online RN to BSN to MSN Programs:For active RNs with an associate’s degree but who have not earned a bachelor’s degree in any subject, a ‘traditional’ online RN to MSN option may be the right fit. This type of program is often composed of undergraduate general education, undergraduate nursing, and graduate nursing coursework. Along the way, students could earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. From there, they could move directly to the MSN courses and those in an intended nursing specialty.
  • Online RN to MSN Bridge Programs: An online RN to MSN bridge program is often designed for active RNs with a non-nursing bachelors degree who would like to enroll in an MSN program. Bridge courses could cover topics such as population health and health promotion, which could help students develop a grasp of key issues and prepare for their Master of Science in Nursing curriculum. Some accelerated entry-level masters programs in nursing could take about three years to complete, and students are typically encouraged not to work while they are enrolled.

Online Masters in Nursing Programs

Online master of science in nursing (MSN) programs could build upon the skills students take away from BSN programs to help prepare for advanced clinical and leadership roles.

Online MSN Program Requirements

Some online MSN programs could take two years or so to complete when a student enrolls on a full-time basis. These programs could entail about 36 to 70 plus credits but this depends on an applicant’s prior experience, education, and the degree focus. Generally, applicants need a bachelors degree in nursing and valid RN license to apply, but there are masters level programs for non-nurses and RNs who just have their associates degree.

Online MSN Program Curriculum

The curriculum of an online MSN program depends on the program emphasis, although there are typically some core courses that all students take. Core course names vary from school to school, but typically blend concepts from nursing and information science with research and clinical practice. Students might explore epidemiology, health policy, ethics, and the role of the advanced practice nurse.

Areas of emphasis could be clinical or non-clinical. Examples of clinical areas of emphasis include nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist. Non-clinical areas include nursing education, nursing leadership, nursing administration, and nurse informatics. Online MSN degrees with clinical focuses always require supervised rounds in a healthcare setting where nurses practice advanced hands-on care. This may mean your online program has additional in person requirements. Contact schools to learn more.

Online Doctorate Nursing Programs

A doctorate degree in nursing could help nurses achieve the highest level of clinical practice or scholarship. Students interested in working towards a terminal nursing degree online might find two options – the online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD in Nursing program. A PhD in nursing program is focused on research and science, while a DNP program focuses on the clinical practice aspect of nursing.

Online DNP Program Requirements

An online DNP degree could take three to five years to complete, depending on the applicant’s experience and whether they enroll on a full or part-time basis. Applicants to online doctoral programs in nursing generally need an accredited BSN or MSN degree, along with a valid nursing license. Some programs also require a year or more of professional nursing experience.

  • Online BSN to DNP programs could help students who have a BSN degree enter a DNP program and earn their MSN along the way.
  • Online MSN to DNP programs are intended for students who have their MSN degree and experience.

Online DNP Program Curriculum

Coursework in an online DNP program could vary based on specialization. However generally, programs could cover topics in evidence-based practice, population health, healthcare policy, and nursing best practices. Some schools also require a final project designed to address healthcare improvements via policy and practice.

By contrast, PhD students could take courses on qualitative and quantitative analysis and research design, as well as more classes that support their concentration. Online nursing PhD students also need to complete and defend a dissertation at the end of their degree program. The goal of this work is to contribute to improvements in healthcare through new knowledge that might advance nursing science.

Online Certificates in Nursing

Online nursing certificate programs could be available in many nurse practitioner specialty areas. Certificates are designed for nurses at different stages in their career who want to gain additional skill sets or refine their expertise in a certain area. Post-masters certificates are often considered stand-alone credentials which could help APRNs pursue extra licensure. Or, transition into an area other than the one they earned an MSN degree in. Post-bachelors certificates could be add-ons to a DNP degree. Either way, online certificates in nursing usually zero in on one content area and target it in a few courses.

Online Nursing Certificate Requirements

The length of time it takes to complete a certificate will vary depending on the type of certificateyou work towards.For instance, a post-master's certificate in a subject such as family nurse practitioner could take about a year and a half to complete, while a nurse educator certificate may take less than a year. Admission requirements will depend on the level of certificate sought, as well as school specific material.

Online Nursing Certificate Curriculum

The coursework in a certificate reflects the content area. For instance, students who pursue a post-masters nurse practitioner certificate are presumed to have taken the core MSN courses. As a result, the certificate could entail about 18 credits of focused content. Students might take courses in advanced pharmacology, pathophysiology, assessment and specialty clinical courses. Contact schools for a full course list.

Accredited Online Nursing Graduate Programs

Naturally, in addition to searching by type of program, you could do some other homework to see what features like faculty credentials, graduation rates, student services and technologies each online nursing degree program offers. Many online graduate nursing programs are available at regionally accredited institutions which means some of these issues could be addressed. But, you may also want to look a bit further into accreditation for individual programs.

Program Certification and Accreditation

To that end, prospective nursing graduate students might check that any degree program they consider is accredited and recognized by their state's licensing board. This is because national certification exams could require students to show evidence that they graduated from an accredited program to be eligible to take board exams.

What is the CCNE?

Individual online nursing graduate programs might be accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) and/or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The CCNE is linked with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Accreditation is a voluntary peer review that speaks to professional standards and keeps a school accountable through a renewal process.

Top States for Employment: Registered Nurses
StateEmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
New York152,850$85,750

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Top Salary Metro Areas in the United States: Registered Nurses
Metro AreaAnnual Mean SalaryEmployment
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA$139,01015,990
Salinas, CA$134,3002,470
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA$133,6701,520
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA$129,27035,480
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA$121,9303,170

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Top 97 Graduate Schools with Online Graduate Nursing Programs 

  • Other programs available: Nursing Education, Nursing Informatics, Nursing Leadership
  • Online degrees in business, counseling, education, health administration, human services, information technology, nursing, public health, psychology and social work.
  • 97% of alumni agree FlexPath provided the flexibility they needed to pursue their degree (Alumni Outcomes Survey 2017)
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