The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing reflect the profession’s continuing call for
imagination, transformative thinking, and evolutionary change in graduate education. The
extraordinary explosion of knowledge, expanding technologies, increasing diversity, and global
health challenges produce a dynamic environment for nursing and amplify nursing’s critical
contributions to health care. Master’s education prepares nurses for flexible leadership and
critical action within complex, changing systems, including health, educational, and
organizational systems. Master’s education equips nurses with valuable knowledge and skills to
lead change, promote health, and elevate care in various roles and settings. Synergy with these
Essentials, current and future healthcare reform legislation, and the action-oriented
recommendations of the Initiative on the Future of Nursing (IOM, 2010) highlights the value and
transforming potential of the nursing profession.
These Essentials are core for all master’s programs in nursing and provide the necessary
curricular elements and framework, regardless of focus, major, or intended practice setting. These
Essentials delineate the outcomes expected of all graduates of master’s nursing programs. These
Essentials are not prescriptive directives on the design of programs. Consistent with the
Baccalaureate and Doctorate of Nursing Practice Essentials, this document does not address
preparation for specific roles, which may change and emerge over time. These Essentials also
provide guidance for master’s programs during a time when preparation for specialty advanced
nursing practice is transitioning to the doctoral level.
Master’s education remains a critical component of the nursing education trajectory to prepare
nurses who can address the gaps resulting from growing healthcare needs. Nurses who obtain the
competencies outlined in these Essentials have significant value for current and emerging roles in
healthcare delivery and design through advanced nursing knowledge and higher level leadership
skills for improving health outcomes. For some nurses, master’s education equips them with a
fulfilling lifetime expression of their mastery area. For others, this core is a graduate foundation
for doctoral education. Each preparation is valued.
The dynamic nature of the healthcare delivery system underscores the need for the
nursing profession to look to the future and anticipate the healthcare needs for which
nurses must be prepared to address. The complexities of health and nursing care today
make expanded nursing knowledge a necessity in contemporary care settings. The
transformation of health care and nursing practice requires a new conceptualization of
master’s education. Master’s education must prepare the graduate to:
• Lead change to improve quality outcomes,
• Advance a culture of excellence through lifelong learning,
• Build and lead collaborative interprofessional care teams,
• Navigate and integrate care services across the healthcare system,
• Design innovative nursing practices, and
• Translate evidence into practice.
Graduates of master’s degree programs in nursing are prepared with broad knowledge
and practice expertise that builds and expands on baccalaureate or entry-level nursing
practice. This preparation provides graduates with a fuller understanding of the discipline
of nursing in order to engage in higher level practice and leadership in a variety of
settings and commit to lifelong learning. For those nurses seeking a terminal degree, the
highest level of preparation within the discipline, the new conceptualization for master’s
education will allow for seamless movement into a research or practice-focused doctoral
program (AACN, 2006, 2010).
The nine Essentials addressed in this document delineate the knowledge and skills that all
nurses prepared in master’s nursing programs acquire. These Essentials guide the
preparation of graduates for diverse areas of practice in any healthcare setting.
• Essential I: Background for Practice from Sciences and Humanities
o Recognizes that the master’s-prepared nurse integrates scientific findings
from nursing, biopsychosocial fields, genetics, public health, quality
improvement, and organizational sciences for the continual improvement
of nursing care across diverse settings.
• Essential II: Organizational and Systems Leadership
o Recognizes that organizational and systems leadership are critical to the
promotion of high quality and safe patient care. Leadership skills are
needed that emphasize ethical and critical decision making, effective
working relationships, and a systems-perspective.
• Essential III: Quality Improvement and Safety
o Recognizes that a master’s-prepared nurse must be articulate in the
methods, tools, performance measures, and standards related to quality, as
well as prepared to apply quality principles within an organization.
• Essential IV: Translating and Integrating Scholarship into Practice
o Recognizes that the master’s-prepared nurse applies research outcomes
within the practice setting, resolves practice problems, works as a change
agent, and disseminates results.
• Essential V: Informatics and Healthcare Technologies
o Recognizes that the master’s-prepared nurse uses patient-care technologies
to deliver and enhance care and uses communication technologies to
integrate and coordinate care.
• Essential VI: Health Policy and Advocacy
o Recognizes that the master’s-prepared nurse is able to intervene at the
system level through the policy development process and to employ
advocacy strategies to influence health and health care.
• Essential VII: Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and
Population Health Outcomes
o Recognizes that the master’s-prepared nurse, as a member and leader of
interprofessional teams, communicates, collaborates, and consults with
other health professionals to manage and coordinate care.
• Essential VIII: Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving
o Recognizes that the master’s-prepared nurse applies and integrates broad,
organizational, client-centered, and culturally appropriate concepts in the
planning, delivery, management, and evaluation of evidence-based clinical
prevention and population care and services to individuals, families, and
• Essential IX: Master’s-Level Nursing Practice
o Recognizes that nursing practice, at the master’s level, is broadly defined
as any form of nursing intervention that influences healthcare outcomes
for individuals, populations, or systems. Master’s-level nursing graduates
must have an advanced level of understanding of nursing and relevant
sciences as well as the ability to integrate this knowledge into practice. .
Nursing practice interventions include both direct and indirect care
Master’s Education in Nursing and Areas of Practice
Graduates with a master’s degree in nursing are prepared for a variety of roles and areas
of practice. Graduates may pursue new and innovative roles that result from health
reform and changes in an evolving and global healthcare system. Some graduates will
pursue direct care practice roles in a variety of settings (e.g., the Clinical Nurse Leader,
nurse educator). Others may choose indirect care roles or areas of practice that focus on
aggregate, systems, or have an organizational focus, (e.g. nursing or health program
management, informatics, public health, or clinical research coordinator). In addition to
developing competence in the nine Essential core areas delineated in this document, each
graduate will have additional coursework in an area of practice or functional role. This
coursework may include more in-depth preparation and competence in one or two of the
Essentials or in an additional/ supplementary area of practice.
For example, more concentrated coursework or further development of the knowledge
and skills embedded in Essential IV (Translational Scholarship for Evidence-Based
Practice) will prepare the nurse to manage research projects for nurse scientists and other
healthcare researchers working in multi-professional research teams. More in-depth
preparation in Essential II (Organizational and System Leadership) will provide
knowledge useful for nursing management roles.
In some instances, graduates of master’s in nursing programs will seek to fill roles as
educators. As outlined in Essential IX, all master’s-prepared nurses will develop
competence in applying teaching/learning principles in work with patients and/or students
across the continuum of care in a variety of settings. However, as recommended in the
Carnegie Foundation report (2009), Educating Nurses: A Call for Radical
Transformation, those individuals, as do all master’s graduates, who choose a nurse
educator role require preparation across all nine Essential areas, including graduate-level
clinical practice content and experiences. In addition, a program preparing individuals for
a nurse educator role should include preparation in curriculum design and development,
teaching methodologies, educational needs assessment, and learner-centered theories and
methods. Master’s prepared nurses may teach patients and their families and/or student
nurses, staff nurses, and variety of direct-care providers. The master’s prepared nurse
educator differs from the BSN nurse in depth of his/her understanding of the nursing
discipline, nursing practice, and the added pedagogical skills. To teach students, patients,
and caregivers regarding health promotion, disease prevention, or disease management,
the master’s-prepared nurse educator builds on baccalaureate knowledge with graduatelevel
content in the areas of health assessment, physiology/pathophysiology, and
pharmacology to strengthen his/her scientific background and facilitate his/her
understanding of nursing and health-related information. Those master’s students who
aspire to faculty roles in baccalaureate and higher degree programs will be advised that
additional education at the doctoral level is needed (AACN, 2008).
Context for Nursing Practice
Health care in the United States and globally is changing dramatically. Interest in
evolving health care has prompted greater focus on health promotion and illness
prevention, along with cost-effective approaches to high acuity, chronic disease
management, care coordination, and long-term care. Public concerns about cost of health
care, fiscal sustainability, healthcare quality, and development of sustainable solutions to
healthcare problems are driving reform efforts. Attention to affordability and accessibility
of health care, maintaining healthy environments, and promoting personal and
community responsibility for health is growing among the public and policy makers.
In addition to broad public mandates for a reformed and responsive healthcare system, a
number of groups are calling for changes in the ways all health professionals are educated
to meet current and projected needs for contemporary care delivery. The Institute of
Medicine (IOM), an interprofessional healthcare panel, described a set of core
competencies that all health professionals regardless of discipline will demonstrate: 1) the
provision of patient-centered care, 2) working in interprofessional teams, 3) employing
evidence-based practice, 4) applying quality improvement approaches, and 5) utilizing
informatics (IOM, 2003).
Given the ongoing public trust in nursing (Gallup, 2010), and the desire for fundamental
reorganization of relationships among individuals, the public, healthcare organizations
and healthcare professionals, graduate education for nurses is needed that is wide in
scope and breadth, emphasizes all systems-level care and includes mastery of practice
knowledge and skills. Such preparation reflects mastery of higher level thinking and
conceptualization skills than at the baccalaureate level, as well as an understanding of the
interrelationships among practice, ethical, and legal issues; financial concerns and
comparative effectiveness; and interprofessional teamwork.
Master’s Nursing Education Curriculum
The master’s nursing curriculum is conceptualized in Figure 1 and includes three
1. Graduate Nursing Core: foundational curriculum content deemed essential
for all students who pursue a master’s degree in nursing regardless of the
2. Direct Care Core: essential content to provide direct patient services at an
3. Functional Area Content: those clinical and didactic learning experiences
identified and defined by the professional nursing organizations and
certification bodies for specific nursing roles or functions.
This document delineates the graduate nursing core competencies for all master’s
graduates. These core outcomes reflect the many changes in the healthcare system
occurring over the past decade. In addition, these expected outcomes for all master’s
degree graduates reflect the increasing responsibility of nursing in addressing many of the
gaps in health care as well as growing patient and population needs.
Master’s nursing education, as is all nursing education, is evolving to meet these needs
and to prepare nurses to assume increasing accountabilities, responsibilities, and
leadership positions. As master’s nursing education is re-envisioned and preparation of
individuals for advanced specialty nursing practice transitions to the practice doctorate
these Essentials delineate the foundational, core expectations for these master’s program
graduates until the transition is completed.
Figure 1: Model of Master’s Nursing Curriculum
* All master’s degree programs that prepare graduates for roles that have a component of
direct care practice are required to have graduate level content/coursework in the
following three areas: physiology/pathophysiology, health assessment, and
pharmacology. However, graduates being prepared for any one of the four APRN roles
(CRNA, CNM, CNS, or CNP), must complete three separate comprehensive, graduate
level courses that meet the criteria delineated in the 2008 Consensus Model for APRN
Licensure, Accreditation, Certification and Education.
(http://www.aacn.nche.edu/education/pdf/APRNReport.pdf). In addition, the expected
outcomes for each of these three APRN core courses are delineated in The Essentials of
Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice (pg. 23-24)
+ The nursing educator is a direct care role and therefore requires graduate-level content
in the three Direct Care Core courses. All graduates of a master’s nursing program must
have supervised practice experiences that are sufficient to demonstrate mastery of the
Essentials. The term “supervised” is used broadly and can include precepted experiences
with faculty site visits. These learning experiences may be accomplished through diverse
teaching methods, including face-to-face or simulated methods.
In addition, development of clinical proficiency is facilitated through the use of focused
and sustained clinical experiences designed to strengthen patient care delivery skills, as
well as system assessment and intervention skills, which will lead to an enhanced
understanding of organizational dynamics. These immersion experiences afford the
student an opportunity to focus on a population of interest or may focus on a specific
role. Most often, the immersion experience occurs toward the end of the program as a
culminating synthesis experience.
The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing
Essential I: Background for Practice from Sciences and Humanities
Master’s-prepared nurses build on the competencies gained in a baccalaureate nursing
program by developing a deeper understanding of nursing and the related sciences needed
to fully analyze, design, implement, and evaluate nursing care. These nurses are well
prepared to provide care to diverse populations and cohorts of patients in clinical and
community-based systems. The master’s-prepared nurse integrates findings from the
sciences and the humanities, biopsychosocial fields, genetics, public health, quality
improvement, health economics, translational science, and organizational sciences for the
continual improvement of nursing care at the unit, clinic, home, or program level.
Master’s-prepared nursing care reflects a more sophisticated understanding of
assessment, problem identification, design of interventions, and evaluation of aggregate
outcomes than baccalaureate-prepared nursing care.
Students being prepared for direct care roles will have graduate-level content that builds
upon an undergraduate foundation in health assessment, pharmacology, and
pathophysiology. Having master’s-prepared graduates with a strong background in these
three areas is seen as imperative from the practice perspective. It is recommended that the
master’s curriculum preparing individuals for direct care roles include three separate
graduate-level courses in these three content areas. In addition, the inclusion of these
three separate courses facilitates the transition of these master’s program graduates into
the DNP advanced-practice registered-nurse programs.
Master’s-prepared nurses understand the intersection between systems science and
organizational science in order to serve as integrators within and across systems of care.
Care coordination is based on systems science (Nelson et al., 2008). Care management
incorporates an understanding of the clinical and community context, and the research
relevant to the needs of the population. Nurses at this level use advanced clinical
reasoning for ambiguous and uncertain clinical presentations, and incorporate concerns of
family, significant others, and communities into the design and delivery of care.
Master’s-prepared nurses use a variety of theories and frameworks, including nursing and
ethical theories in the analysis of clinical problems, illness prevention, and health
promotion strategies. Knowledge from information sciences, health communication, and
health literacy are used to provide care to multiple populations. These nurses are able to
address complex cultural issues and design care that responds to the needs of multiple
populations, who may have potentially conflicting cultural needs and preferences. As
healthcare technology becomes more sophisticated and its use more widespread,
master’s-prepared nurse are able to evaluate when its use is appropriate for diagnostic,
educational, and therapeutic interventions. Master’s-prepared nurses use improvement
science and quality processes to evaluate outcomes of the aggregate of patients,
community members, or communities under their care, monitor trends in clinical data,
and understand the implications of trends for changing nursing care.
The master’s-degree program prepares the graduate to:
1. Integrate nursing and related sciences into the delivery of advanced nursing care to
2. Incorporate current and emerging genetic/genomic evidence in providing advanced
nursing care to individuals, families, and communities while accounting for patient
values and clinical judgment.
3. Design nursing care for a clinical or community-focused population based on
biopsychosocial, public health, nursing, and organizational sciences.
4. Apply ethical analysis and clinical reasoning to assess, intervene, and evaluate
advanced nursing care delivery.
5. Synthesize evidence for practice to determine appropriate application of interventions
across diverse populations.
6. Use quality processes and improvement science to evaluate care and ensure patient
safety for individuals and communities.
7. Integrate organizational science and informatics to make changes in the care
environment to improve health outcomes.
8. Analyze nursing history to expand thinking and provide a sense of professional
heritage and identity.
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