Nursing is a field with many opportunities for personal and professional advancement. The combination of caring for others with scientific knowledge and skilled technical work provides multiple opportunities for developing your career. Many nurses view their job as a vocation or a calling and want to dedicate themselves to it as much as possible, and continuing education is the best way to achieve this.

However, once you’ve qualified as a registered nurse and entered the workplace, you may feel that you have little time or energy left for further study and training. All nurses know that the job can be all-encompassing, and although there is free time, it is often best used for rest and relaxation. Failing to “switch off” from your job when you get home can lead to the risk of burnout, a hazard that is all too common within the nursing profession.

Many nurses do go back into education while continuing to work, either full or part-time, despite having a more intense, high-pressure career than most people. By gaining higher-level qualifications in the nursing field, whether it’s a master’s degree or a doctorate, they open the door to more career opportunities, higher salaries and a greater range of interesting work. There are several reasons a working nurse might want to go back into education, and there are plenty of methods that can be used to make studying while working easier.

The first step

If you already have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, the next step is to study for a Master of Science in nursing (MSN). An MSN lets you further develop your knowledge and skills while allowing you to specialize in one or more areas. Although the focus is on practical and clinical expertise, you will also add to your theoretical understanding of the nursing profession.

An MSN can take between one and three years to complete, depending on factors such as whether you study full-time or part-time and whether you need to include an introductory first year. Options for specialization typically include mental health, disability, midwifery, anesthetics and becoming a nurse educator. Specializing in one of these areas at an MSN level is usually obligatory if you want to pursue a career in that field.

Combination degrees

While the MSN focuses on practical bedside care, it’s possible to combine it with a second qualification that provides the knowledge and skills necessary for those who want to move into the administrative side of nursing. Dual Master’s programs are available that combine an MSN with either a Master of Business Administration (MBA), a master’s in healthcare administration (MHA) or a master’s in public administration (MPA).

The MSN/MBA dual degree is intended for those who want to work in nursing management, perhaps as a chief nursing officer or director of nursing. The other two combinations are more geared toward high-level administrative work. With a master’s degree, you’ll be able to command a significantly higher salary, especially if you go into certain specialist fields. You’ll also have the option of continuing to the highest level of nursing qualification.

The next step

Many nursing professionals go on to study for a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, which is the most advanced qualification in the field. While equivalent courses of study, such as a PhD or a conventional doctorate, are more research-based, a DNP combines systems thinking with practical expertise. It prepares students for higher leadership roles as administrators, clinical faculty, or expert practitioners in a range of specialist fields.

As with a master’s qualification, studying for a DNP takes around two years depending on your starting point and whether you are a full- or part-time student. At Spring Arbor University, you can earn a DNP online in as little as 20 months while taking advantage of the flexibility of an entirely internet-based course that allows you to work at your own pace. This is the preferred option if you intend to work and study at the same time.

Career opportunities

Having a DNP opens up multiple new career opportunities. These include leadership positions, teaching roles and high-level jobs in instruction and administration. You’ll also be qualified to enter certain specialized fields, some of which regard a DNP as the minimum entry requirement. One example of this is nurse anesthesia practice; to become a nurse anesthetist, which is one of the highest-paid nursing positions in the US, you’ll need to hold a DNP.

Academic medical facilities often prefer candidates to have DNPs when recruiting for supervisory or high-ranking positions. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with DNPs earn, on average, the highest salaries among hospital nurses in the US. With a DNP, you can find work in hospitals, medical centers, psychiatric and substance abuse clinics, and colleges, as well as in physician’s offices and private medical care facilities. DNP nurses also earn highly competitive salaries providing outpatient care, home healthcare, and in advisory or private administrative roles.

Reasons to study for a DNP

The DNP qualification is becoming more sought-after and important due to the increasing amount of technical knowledge required in nursing practice. As digital healthcare trends and medical theory both advance rapidly, nurses need to have a combination of extensive academic knowledge, practical experience and skills. The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties has recommended that the DNP become the entry-level requirement for nursing practitioners by 2025.

Along with the growing complexity of patient care, an aging population has led to an overall nursing shortfall. In particular, there is an urgent need for nursing leaders who can design and assess care programs, acting as both expert practitioners and clinical faculty. This is precisely the type of advanced nurse that the DNP program is designed to develop.

Additionally, a shortage of qualified physicians means that advanced practice nurses are increasingly performing physicians’ roles.

Working and studying at the same time

Working and studying at the same time isn’t easy. There are only so many hours in a day, even if your regular job isn’t as emotionally and physically demanding as nursing. Everyone needs to eat, sleep, socialize and exercise, and all of these activities need to be given time, as well as your day job and your course work.

You will have to make sacrifices, but you can plan them carefully in advance. Look at what you’re prepared to give up for the duration of your course and calculate how many hours in a week you’ll gain by doing so. There is no point in stopping a hobby that you love if it hardly takes up any time.

Don’t attempt the impossible by deciding that you’ll manage on three hours of sleep a night for the next two years, or that your family can get by without you and that you can get by without them. Giving up your social support system and letting your responsibilities slide won’t help you gain that qualification.

Look for realistic sacrifices that you can make that will genuinely free up time and space to study. This might mean seeing friends once a month instead of once a week or cutting out a TV show you watch regularly. If you do this, make sure that you use the extra time effectively.

Scheduling study

Your reading list and assignments may seem incredibly daunting, so it’s important to break them down into manageable chunks of time. Use a spreadsheet, whiteboard or calendar app to keep track of all your deadlines, then schedule regular study times to get everything done by then.

Besides smaller units of study time each day, try to schedule a full day when you can dedicate yourself to course work and reading. This could be once a week or twice a month. If you’re studying online, you can manage your time much more easily than if you have to attend set lectures and classes in person.

Making time

You can listen to online lectures, seminars and even audio versions of your textbooks while conducting routine tasks such as cleaning and cooking or making your daily commute. Maximize your spare minutes and hours, but be sure to give yourself some genuine downtime as well. See if you can improve your reading speed so you can crack the books quicker.

Make sure that you confide in family, friends and employers so they know what you’re studying and why. In most cases, they’ll be supportive and understanding. Occasionally, you may need to ask them to cover for you in a work or social capacity. You’ll certainly need someone to talk to on a regular basis who can give you the encouragement you need.

Above all, stay focused on your ultimate objective. If you feel despondent or distracted, take a moment to remember what you’re studying for. BLS projections suggest that employment prospects for nurses with advanced qualifications such as an MSN or DNP will grow by 40% between 2021 and 2031, which is considerably faster than overall job growth rates.

By studying online, it’s possible to earn an MSN and a DNP while continuing to earn a living and gain essential nursing experience. Once qualified, your career options and salary expectations will be much greater. Any advanced practice nurse will tell you that continuing your studies is a worthwhile endeavor.