Students graduating with a bachelor's degree in nursing entered the workforce to the tune of nearly $50,000 in 2011—the average starting salary for new grads was $48,100—making it one of the top-paying professions for new graduates outside of engineering and information technology, according to an annual survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Unlike engineering or IT professionals, however, registered nurses may see little movement in their paychecks if they advance their degrees.
"For frontline nurses, we don't have differentiated pay," says Debra Moyer, chief nurse executive and vice president of nursing services at Iowa Health Des Moines, part of the Iowa Health Systems network.
Bachelor's- and master's-trained nurses enter at the same pay grade at Iowa Health Systems, one of the largest nonprofit healthcare networks in the country, even though earning a master's of nursing degree can be a significant commitment of both time and money.
[Medical school or nursing school? The Admissions Doctor weighs in.]
Investing in an online master's of nursing degree can cost anywhere from $35,000 to more than $60,000 in tuition and fees depending on the school and degree focus, according to information found on school websites, but may lead to a salary bump of only $10,000, according to nursing school officials.
Starting salaries for nurse practitioners—the largest segment of master's-trained nurses—average $60,000 to $65,000 in the Midwest, but are higher on the East and West coasts, says Patricia Coyle-Rogers, director of graduate nursing at Clarkson College of Nursing in Omaha, Neb.
"Most of the time the incentive to get a master's degree isn't monetarily focused. It's esoteric in a way—they do it because of the kind of care they can give," she says. "They're able to make decisions that, as an RN at the bedside, you really can't make, even though you know in your heart of hearts that those decisions need to be made."
While registered nurses check patients' symptoms, administer medications, and perform diagnostic tests, nurse practitioners assume a broader spectrum of responsibilities—from diagnosing and treating, to ordering X-rays and writing prescriptions. While some states require nurse practitioners to work under a licensed physician, others allow them to work autonomously.
[Read more about the rise of healthcare jobs.]
Additionally, many nurses pursue a master's degree to escape the "grueling life" of being a floor nurse, which entails odd shifts and long hours on their feet, says Tony Damewood, vice president of operations at Clarkson.
For most nurses, climbing the ladder to nurse supervisor or manager means getting a master's degree. Demanding work schedules can make online degree programs especially attractive, since nurses can often complete their clinical requirements on the job, says Coyle-Rogers. Enrollment in the online master's of nursing program at Clarkson has more than doubled in the past two years, she says.
"At our hospital now, to be a supervisor, you have to have your master's degree, or be working towards it," says 37-year nursing veteran Mary Kay Subramanian, referring to Mercy Hospital in Chicago.
Some hospitals, like those in the Iowa Health Systems network, offer bonuses to nurses who continue their education via graduate school or certificate programs. Nurses hoping for a salary hike to accompany their master's degree can choose a specialty program with a higher payoff.
"The nurse anesthesia [specialty] is the biggest bang for the buck," says Coyle-Rogers. "They make $125[,000] to $150,000 the moment they walk out the door."
The six-figure salary comes with some trade-offs, though. Certified Nurse Anesthetists must carry professional liability insurance and are often on call at all hours, Coyle-Rogers says.
Nurse anesthesia programs are also fiercely competitive. Clarkson is one of slightly more than 100 schools that offers a nurse anesthesia program. Out of more than 100 applicants from across the United States, only 12 were admitted to Clarkson's nurse anesthesia program in 2011, Damewood says.