February 22, 2024

For a professional nurse, completing a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) can open many new doors. In addition to deepening one’s nursing knowledge and level of specialization, the degree can lead to more stable hours, new job opportunities, and greater independence in the workplace. Because online coursework is generally asynchronous, or self-paced, working nurses may prefer this format because it allows them to complete lectures and readings on their own schedule.
And while it’s easy to understand the upsides of completing an online MSN degree, successfully managing its course deadlines and clinical hours requires careful preparation and time management skills. That’s especially true for working nurses who may be juggling a career, school, family obligations and even second jobs.
For Vilaya Kang, an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse enrolled in Maryville University’s online acute care nurse practitioner program, her busy schedule requires tracking dates and times for most everything—and then sticking with it. “You have to find a method of organization because if not, you’re just kind of flying by the seat of your pants and that doesn’t work.”
Fortune spoke with institutional experts and current students to learn how to stay organized and thrive in an online MSN program. Here’s what they told us.
MSN students emphasize the importance of finding a calendar system that works for you and mapping out your schedule far in advance.
For Evinn Townes, an online MSN student in Sacred Heart University’s clinical nurse leader program, that involves asking herself a series of questions at the beginning of every course. “What do you have to do in these eight weeks? How many hours? When can you do them? What can be moved around from the start of the course?” 
By asking these questions before classes start, her goal is simple: “Basically mapping the whole course out.”
A full-time school nurse at an independent school in Connecticut, Townes is a mother who also finds time to balance a part-time nursing position at a sports complex—all while attending school full-time. She says that an old-fashioned paper planner works for her needs.
While your system for tracking dates and times may look different based on individual preference, what counts is developing one that works for you and then keeping up with it, says Kang. “In my phone, literally everything goes in my calendar, even if I’m going to go grocery shopping.” 
Diligent scheduling has allowed Kang to successfully balance school along with clinical hours and shifts at her nursing job at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, California. “Any work commitments, family commitments, school commitments, even our Zoom meeting, everything goes in my calendar.”
One of the challenges of an online MSN program is that most students will need to identify their own practicum site to meet clinical requirements. That means remote MSN students will need to start identifying and reaching out to potential clinical sites early into the program.
Because most programs prohibit students from completing their clinical hours with their current supervisor or in their current department, locating a preceptor to complete your clinical requirements requires students to network, be proactive and reach out to multiple organizations in order to find a good location.
“Their current role is not the right role for them to identify that,” says Karen Daley, dean of the Dr. Susan L. Davis, RN, & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing at Sacred Heart University. 
“We’ve got advisors, and each of the students has a faculty mentor and they all work together to help them move through,” Daley of the process. “Typically, once they are interested in a place, they let their faculty know and my clinical placement group know, and then we vet them to see if it is an appropriate place. If it is, there are some contracts that get signed and then they can go ahead and move forward.”
Current students say it’s normal to receive several rejections before finding a match for a clinical placement. Townes reached out to seven different organizations before getting a ‘yes’ from the local public health department, where her practicum project focuses on addressing gaps in care in school settings.
“The preceptor does have a portion of work to do as well and paperwork,” says Townes, explaining why some groups may be hesitant to accept an MSN student. Additionally, “you’re really trying to find a problem to fix. So do you want somebody to identify problems in your facility that doesn’t work there?”
After finding a practice location, it can still be difficult to find the hours to go to both clinical hours and your regular job, making it important to maintain good communication with your supervisors about your program’s requirements.
“I think that’s a huge factor too,” says Kang, adding: “If your management is willing to work with your schedule.” Recently, she completed a clinical rotation in her hospital’s emergency while continuing to work her regular position part-time.
“I am very fortunate that maybe because I’ve been working there for a while that they’re gracious enough to work with my schedule,” she adds. “And so I try to be flexible, too.”
Completing an online MSN degree program will require some sacrifices, in addition to diligent time management, according to students. That’s why it’s important to prioritize some time for social engagements and hobbies in order to keep sane.
For Kang that means spending time outdoors and seeing her family. “I think that’s a huge part about being successful in any program,” she says. “It’s important to make time for the stuff that keeps you energized and passionate.”
Of course, social events, like most other things in an MSN program, require some preplanning.
“If I plan ahead, I can maybe do, like a Friday night or Saturday night,” says Townes about social outings. “But like Sunday through Thursday, probably not.”
Ultimately, students say that the temporary sacrifices are worth it to advance their nursing career.
“I’m passionate about what I’m doing,” says Kang. “If not, I would probably quit.”
See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the doctorate in education programs MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).


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