This article was originally published in Fortune: https://fortune.com/education/business/articles/2022/08/05/why-i-chose-to-get-my-masters-degree-in-nursing-online/.
An Online MSN Program Can Foster Community
Katarina Maric had logged a decade as a registered nurse before tackling her master’s degree in nursing. In fall 2020, Maric enrolled in Marymount University’s online master’s program in nursing to become a family nurse practitioner. “I always knew I wanted to be a nurse and continue my education,” she says. “I wasn’t sure of the right time.”
Taking courses online worked best for Maric—she’s busy at home in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with her 3- and 5-year-old boys. Selecting the best time to begin and the program was a process, she says.
Turns out, Maric’s decision process is fairly typical, says Alison Colbert, a professor at Duquesne University’s School of Nursing. “I always joke, no one says, ‘Well, I wish I waited longer to get my graduate degree,’” says Colbert. “But an equal number of people say, ‘I needed the experience and the perspective. I had my life.’”
Because nursing is predominantly a female profession, that inevitably informs how schools approach education—particularly for advanced degree programs, Colbert says. Schools offering advanced nursing degrees need to be flexible to capture students who need to work, raise children, care for parents—or simply find the time to save money, arrange for childcare, or shift work schedules to make room for school to begin with.
For Maric, who will graduate in December, navigating the decision to enroll in Marymount’s online MSN program took time and thought. She sat down with Fortune to share her experience and offer some advice for prospective students considering a similar path.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
An MSN degree can open up new career options
Fortune: Why did you go back to school?
Maric: Right before I went to Marymount, I got sick and was navigating the health care system and got really frustrated. I decided that as soon as I felt better, I was going to go back.
How does the master’s degree line up with your professional goals?
It’s an advanced practice nursing degree. I will be able to function as a primary care provider. As an RN, you follow orders, and there’s not much autonomy. As a family nurse practitioner, I can work anywhere—in family practice or in a specialty with patients of all ages. There are different routes; they say it’s like cradle to grave, from newborns to end of life. I can work with anybody and function as their primary care provider and work in any specialty.
I wanted to expand my professional knowledge and felt like it was a natural progression to move into a more advanced role, more of a health care provider role. As a school nurse, I worked at a middle school that had a lot of underprivileged students. I was realizing I was often the only health care professional they’d see. Their parents work hourly jobs and can’t afford to take off to take them to the doctor.
At first, I thought it would be cool to work in the school system as a nurse practitioner in a clinic in the school system. That was my initial thought: Maybe I could bridge that gap. But I’ve since learned that in Virginia, in order to practice independently as a nurse practitioner, you have to have a practice agreement with a physician for five years before you can apply to practice independently. Maybe down the line somewhere; I won’t be able to do that right out of school.
An online MSN program can offer both flexibility, student support
How did you choose your program?
I did a ton of research. Marymount is semi-local, as Arlington is 40 minutes from my house. I wanted support. As soon as I talked to a student success coach and adviser, I got the feeling they have a good support system.
Even though the program is mostly online, I wanted to be able to go to campus if I had to. They have student success coaches that stay with you throughout the program. It’s my first experience with online education. I want to be present for my kids, and the traffic in D.C. is crazy. I didn’t want to have to drive and waste time driving, when I could be spending that time studying.
MSN programs may include learning opportunities outside of coursework
Are you working while going to school?
I decided to stop working so I can spend time with my kids and go to school. My kids are only in school for four hours a day, so it doesn’t leave too much time. As part of the program, we do work. I work three days a week right now in an internal medicine practice as part of the program. Marymount finds clinical placement for you and they set you up. They found this practice for me.
We also have a nurse residency program. For that, we have to go on campus for one weekend—when we are done with our core classes, before we start clinical rotations. We see patients on campus and do physical exams on them to show our skills.
Has your decade of experience as an RN helped with that piece of it?
I think it really helps that I worked for 10 years—understanding the health care system, understanding patients and their stories, talking to people. There is an art in talking to patients on sensitive subjects, especially if they have serious trauma or something they are embarrassed about. It helps to have that nursing background so you know how to approach patients. We are building on knowledge we already have, from ecology to pathophysiology.
An online MSN program can foster community
What has surprised you most about your experience?
The main surprising thing is related to it being online. I thought you just do it and get your work done week by week. I’m surprised by the relationships I’ve built with people—you don’t feel like you’re online, you have support all of the time. We have [mandatory] synchronized sessions over Zoom every other week. We are all there and talking and interacting. I’ve become great friends with my classmates.
Our professors have gone above and beyond, taking out extra time to meet with us on Zoom or help us find clinical placement. For people that don’t have an established network—they pulled out their own contacts and helped set them up. The professors are extremely involved and truly care about our success. They want us to have the tools we can to perform well. I thought it might be lonely to do it online, but it’s definitely not.