by Doris M. Boutain, RN, PhD Minority Nurse Writer
Are you one of the growing number of minority students who are entering nursing school later in life, or returning to school mid-career to continue your education by earning a baccalaureate or post-graduate degree? If so, you may be wishing there was a way to make up for lost time, a way to somehow earn your advanced degree just a little more quickly than usual so that you can put it to work for you as soon as possible.
Happily, fulfilling this desire is not impossible at all. Enrolling in a so-called “fast-track” nursing program—i.e., a program that allows students to earn two degrees concurrently or even bypass one degree level altogether—could be the perfect solution for your needs.
The fast-track approach to advancing your education means that you don’t have to follow the traditional route of first gaining basic registered nurse (RN) preparation in hospital-based (diploma), associate (AA/AD/AS) or baccalaureate (BSN) programs and then sequentially attaining master’s and doctoral degrees. Fast-track programs are a more customized alternative in which, to cite just two examples, a student with an AD degree can go directly to a master’s degree without having to separately earn a baccalaureate, or a nurse with a BSN can go directly to a PhD, bypassing the MSN.
If this approach sounds appealing to you, one of the first and most important decisions you will need to make is choosing the nursing program that will best facilitate your career goals within a fast-track context. With at least 600 nursing programs available throughout the United States, you will find many that offer contemporary options that are far more flexible and non-linear than traditional nursing programs.
When perusing a program’s literature, look for phrases like “individualize your program,” “may be required” and “flexible options.” These phrases signal that the traditional degree sequence may be circumvented or combined, depending upon the student’s needs.
Which Lane is Right for You?
For a closer look at how fast-track degree programs work, and to give you an introduction to the many different possibilities available, here are just a few examples of successful programs from around the country.
Non-Nurse with BS or BA to RN with Master's Degree. Even if you are not a registered nurse, it is possible to graduate as an RN with a master's degree in nursing. For example, the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing offers the Masters Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN), a three-year program leading to an MS degree for persons without previous nursing preparation but with a baccalaureate degree (BS/BA) in another field. For more information, see the university’s Web site (http://nurseweb.ucsf.edu/www/ucsfson.htm).
About 60 students are admitted to the MEPN program each year. The first year of study, which spans four quarters, provides a general foundation in nursing and qualifies the student to take the California Board of Registered Nursing licensure examination. The final two years of the program are more individually paced.
RN with Diploma or Associate Degree to RN with Master's Degree. Several universities offer accelerated coursework for RNs with two-year degrees who wish to earn a master's degree in nursing, bypassing the BSN. The Department of Nursing at California State University, Los Angeles (www.calstatela.edu/dept/nursing/), currently offers two different fast-track MS degree options. The first program is for RNs with non-nursing baccalaureate degrees; the other is for RNs without a baccalaureate degree. The admission requirements, program length and coursework vary depending on the educational track entered. Both programs offer basic and advanced nursing study.
The University of Michigan School of Nursing (www.umich.edu/~nursing/) is another school that offers an RN-to-MS degree program; however, this option is available at the Ann Arbor campus only. You can complete the RN-to-MS pathway as a part-time student in three to four years, depending on your master's specialty. The program integrates your prior education and experience into the curriculum by using your transfer credits and by allowing you to earn credit through examinations.
RN with BSN to RN with PhD. If you are an RN with a baccalaureate degree, you can earn a PhD in Nursing Science without having a master's degree. For instance, at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle (www.son.washington.edu), an RN with an bachelor's degree can either earn a master's degree while also pursuing a PhD degree, or graduate with a PhD without going for the master's.
Other schools, such as Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore (www.son.jhmi.edu) have programs where an RN with a BSN can earn a combined MSN/PhD concurrently. Both the Seattle and Johns Hopkins programs are highly selective, have an integrated course of study and allow students to develop their own research programs with faculty guidance.
Can You Handle the Speed?
Fast-track educational options have both benefits and limitations. Because these positives and negatives are interrelated, it’s important to consider them carefully within the context of your career goals. The benefit of completing the required coursework for two degrees in an accelerated format, for instance, is coupled with the fact that the coursework is more intense and time-consuming. The shorter length of fast-track programs requires you to learn more information in less time than a student enrolled in a traditional program in which each degree is earned sequentially.
There are also financial considerations. If you are enrolled in a fast-track option, you may find it impossible to work part-time because of your heavier academic schedule. Therefore, your need for ongoing financial aid is more critical and substantial.
In a fast-track program, you may have fewer opportunities to benefit from educational diversity. For instance, a student earning two separate degrees at two different universities may experience different curricula and teaching styles, while a student earning a fast-track or combination degree will more than likely learn in similar environments with a select group of faculty. On the other hand, students in a fast-track program may be able to form more substantial relationships with their professors over time, building stronger collegial networks which may be beneficial in the future.
One major limitation of earning a PhD without a master's degree in nursing is that many state boards of nursing, as well as schools of nursing, recognize the master's degree as qualification for undergraduate- and graduate-level clinical teaching, while the PhD is seen as a research-focused degree. Thus, without the master's degree, you may not be technically prepared to teach clinical-level coursework—a significant drawback if your desired career plan involves becoming a faculty member.
Getting On the Road
If you are interested in entering nursing with an advanced degree, or are an RN seeking to increase your career potential by continuing your professional education, now is an excellent time to learn more about fast-track degree programs. Use the Internet as a resource to explore the flexible educational options available to you. Many of these programs are tailored to recognize your abilities and talents while capitalizing on your prior educational and clinical experience.
Earning advanced degrees helps you hone your critical thinking and decision-making skills while introducing you to emerging, innovative areas of nursing. Your career options as an RN will multiply as you discover exciting new areas for professional growth and advanced competency.