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Why do nurses pursue a master’s degree?
Sep 23, 2019, By: Deborah Francis
An empty hospital hallway.

Take away messages:

  • Many nurses pursue a master’s degree but not just in nursing. Other subjects such as business administration or health policy are also relevant to nursing.
  • The type of master’s degree nurses choose is often influenced by their experiences as front-line nurses.
  • Regardless of the path, the goal of a master’s degree is the advancement of the nursing profession.

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague on the topic of master’s-prepared nurses. He stated, “It seems like every young Registered Nurse nowadays is pursuing their master’s in nursing. If they’re looking for management jobs, there’s only so many to go around, so what happens to the front-line positions? We need front line nurses.”

When I realized that I was both “young” and “masters prepared,” instinctively, I wanted to respond, “What makes you think we are all looking for management jobs? Why would you think that we pursue a master’s degree to ‘get away’ from the bedside, and more importantly, why is this never an issue that is discussed about other professions, such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy? Why is it that in nursing, to get a master’s degree is seen as almost an abandonment of the bedside, or a message to the next generation that the bedside role is inferior to other roles?” But instead, I sat there with a look of disbelief and introspection on my face. I thought for several days about this perception.

In those moments of quiet reflection, these were some of my thoughts.

In some ways, I could not entirely disagree with my colleague’s point of view. But if I could have that moment back, my response might sound a lot like the following.

Common themes

While the pursuit of higher education is uniquely individual, there are some common themes among nurses who wish to pursue a master’s degree. There are two broad camps that most nurses would find themselves in.

The first camp is those who think a master’s degree would provide them with the opportunity to “get away” from the bedside. The other camp would be those who are trying to explore the world of nursing and effect change through newly acquired skillsets and networks.

In my career so far, the camp that I find most of us fit into is the latter, and that is encouraging. I have had the privilege of exchanging ideas with some of the greatest minds in the world of nursing, who have inspired me to push boundaries and challenge the status quo. These people have ultimately revitalized my passion for nursing.

Nursing is a versatile profession that offers individuals various options to pursue as higher education. The decision as to which option to pursue is often determined by their experiences as front-line nurses.

Unique lens

The front line provides a unique lens that allows the nurse to experience the value of resources and how this affects patient care. Front-line nurses, understanding their role as self-regulated professionals who require continuous professional development, come to appreciate the importance of having a knowledge resource that will support their practice.

Day-to-day interactions with patients help front-line nurses value technology and research; they experience how each of these makes interactions more meaningful and satisfying for both the patient and the nurse. These experiences provide front-line nurses with a useful vantage point.

When front-line nurses choose to pursue higher education, they often do so as a result of the impact that previous experiences have had on their career.

Different paths

Nurses who resonate with and appreciate the world of technology and its effects on patient care often pursue a master’s degree in health informatics. Those who resonate with how resources such as finances and staff are allocated and the overall workings of a health care environment might choose to pursue their degree either in nursing administration or in business administration. Those who value education and advancement of the profession through the creation of new literature might pursue a master’s degree to expand their knowledge of research and education as researchers, scientists, and educators. And those who love interacting directly with patients and working more autonomously might choose to become a Nurse Practitioner.

To assume that nurses pursue a master’s degree solely for the purpose of gaining a management job seems to me a myopic view—one that fails to recognize the vast range of options that are open to nurses.

Further, to view nurses who pursue their master’s degree in a field other than nursing—such as business administration, education, or law—as abandoning nursing, limits the opportunities for the advancement of nursing. Our profession has often seen advancements because of individuals who have pioneered different paths that have ultimately served to enhance the nursing voice, not take away from it. Had Florence Nightingale confined her vision to the traditional role of a nurse, she would never have explored the impact of the environment on patient care and would never have advocated for nursing in the way that she did.

A place at the table

From a more personal perspective, while speaking with an architectural firm that was redesigning a space in the hospital where I was working, I learned that one of the partners was a Registered Nurse by background. Intrigued, I went to speak to her and asked her why she had chosen to work in an architectural firm. Her response was astonishing. She replied, “I chose this because I wanted to change how health care spaces are designed. As a front-line nurse, I remember working in spaces that were not conducive to good nursing, and I wanted to change that. I always wear my nursing hat, even though I’m not at the front line, and I still maintain my nursing registration.” This conversation was truly eye-opening.

Why did I pursue my master’s in nursing? I pursued my degree with wide-eyed optimism—not for the purpose of “landing a management job,” but to be able to inspire a younger generation of nurses who may be disillusioned with nursing either because of health care pressures, old ways of doing things, lack of support, or the inability to see their worth at a time when nursing is being redefined.

In many ways, the pursuit of a master’s degree does not mean that we have abandoned the front line. Rather, it provides us with the currency to advocate at the right table for the preservation of that very essential front-line role—the one that will, and should always be, the cornerstone of nursing.

Deborah Francis is a Nursing Practice Consultant working at Unity Health in Toronto. Her passion for health systems, nursing professional practice and leadership, was fueled by her experiences as a Registered Nurse and the mentorship of inspirational nursing leaders.


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