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The compassion, dedication, and expertise of qualified nurses are the foundation of quality patient care. In fact, nurse executives directly affect patient care by playing a vital role in shaping the healthcare industry’s values, practices, and future. If you aspire to join the ranks of healthcare leadership and drive transformative change as a nurse executive, you may find yourself choosing between two graduate school degrees—a Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).

Both an MHA and an MSN are considered advanced degrees for nurse executives. They’re both designed to help students adeptly navigate health administration while maintaining a strong clinical foundation. However, each nursing degree has its own distinct advantages and potential career outlook. So, how can you choose?

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the nuanced intricacies of MHA vs. MSN programs so that you can make an informed decision for your nurse executive career.

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What is an MHA Degree?

Healthcare is where compassion intersects with strategy, leadership styles in nursing blends with clinical expertise, and ideals meet reality. At the helm of these crossroads stands the Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) degree.

For nurse executives who wish to orchestrate positive change in healthcare quality and wield influence on healthcare organizations, the MHA offers a higher education path to leadership and administrative roles in the industry. 

Let’s explore the MHA's academic content, profound benefits, and potential impact on your career trajectory.

Curriculum Overview: What to Expect in an MHA Program

An MHA is a master’s degree with one major intention—to prepare individuals for leadership, management, or oversight roles in health care administration. Typically, this means an MHA degree’s curriculum will include courses in both business and healthcare.

An MHA usually takes two years to complete, depending on the program’s structure and requirements. While every program will have its distinct lessons, here's a glimpse of what you can expect to study within a typical MHA program:1 

  • Healthcare management and operations
  • Public health
  • Financial and managerial accounting
  • Healthcare economics 
  • Healthcare policy and health management 
  • Global health systems 
  • Managed care and contractual services
  • Principles of leadership 
  • Leadership strategies
  • Public health ethics

Additionally, an MHA program will often require students to complete a capstone project or internship. These real-life experiences can help shape a student’s future career path, giving them a chance to explore a particular role or area of study.

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Career Opportunities with an MHA in Nursing Leadership

Every healthcare organization needs smart, effective, and positive leaders. While an MHA can prime you to enter a nurse executive role, it can also prepare you to step into other administrative and managerial roles.

Between its holistic overview of healthcare and fostering of leadership skills, an MHA could prepare you for any of the following career paths:2

  • Nurse executive
  • Chief nursing officer (CNO)
  • Healthcare administrator
  • Director of nursing services
  • Health services manager
  • Nursing home administrator
  • Clinical director
  • Pharmaceutical executive
  • Government healthcare consultant
  • Group practice administrator
  • Hospital chief executive officer (CEO)

Benefits of Pursuing an MHA for Nurse Executives

Earning an MHA degree is not merely a pursuit of academic excellence—it's also a transformative journey that empowers any healthcare professional to form their own style of leadership. Beyond the classroom, the benefits of an MHA spread far and wide.

If you’re curious about this degree, consider the many potential advantages for a nurse executive pursuing an MHA:

  • Leadership expertise, with an emphasis on key administrative and health systems management skills 
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge across legal, ethical, and clinical nursing disciplines
  • High impact on healthcare policy, from patient care to organizational structure
  • Career advancement to high-level executive and leadership opportunities
  • Financial management and knowledge for budgeting and operations

What is an MSN Degree?

If you possess the mind of a clinician and the spirit of a leader, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree may offer you an unparalleled academic journey. MSN programs fuse clinical expertise with visionary leadership, guiding nurse executives to prioritize these two aspects within their careers.

While considered more of a clinical practice degree than a management degree, an MSN can still prepare you for any leadership role like a nurse executive. To that end, let’s explore the intricacies of this particular degree for nurse executives, from coursework to potential career paths.

Curriculum Overview: What to Expect in an MSN Program

The core tenet of an MSN program’s curriculum is the degree’s title—science. These graduate programs are more clinically inclined, emphasizing in-hospital work and patient care. However, that doesn’t mean an MSN won’t prepare you to be a nurse executive.

Most MSN programs take around two years to complete, but this may vary with part-time or accelerated programs. You can expect to take any of the following courses while pursuing an MSN degree:3

  • Communication and relationship management
  • Healthcare environments
  • Advanced nursing theory
  • Pharmacology
  • Research
  • Clinical practice
  • Organizational leadership
  • Nursing education
  • Advanced information management
  • Nursing science
  • Health policy and advocacy 

Similar to an MHA, an MSN program will typically ask students to complete a thesis or research project within their specialty. This project serves as a capstone experience, showcasing your ability to conduct independent research, critically analyze data, and contribute meaningfully to the field of nursing—a true test for future leaders.

Career Opportunities for Prospective Nurse Executives with an MSN 

When pursuing an MSN degree, you’ll likely be asked to choose a specialty. Although, as a nurse executive, you might oversee multiple departments, choosing a specialty can give you more expertise and help develop nursing skills in one particular area. 

Your specialty can be either clinical or non-clinical. It’ll determine some of the courses you take, provide hands-on experience in a particular nursing department or discipline, and typically direct your future career path.

Within MSN programs, the specialty of Nurse Administration may be best suited for prospective nurse executives. However, you could also choose any of the following specialties:4

  • Disability studies
  • Mental health
  • Nurse education
  • Nurse informaticists
  • Nurse midwife
  • Nurse anesthesia
  • Forensic nursing
  • Hospice nurse practitioner

In particular, an MSN degree can open the door to Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) roles. Within these roles, people in the nursing practice can further specialize in specific patient populations (families, neonatal, etc.). These four advanced and licensed nursing titles include:5

  • Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Benefits of Pursuing an MSN for Nurse Executives

The pursuit of an MSN is a profound commitment to nursing excellence and a testament to the enduring ambition of nurse executives. A nurse executive with an MSN is not only prepared to take on complex nursing tasks but also ready to lead others through them.

Let's delve deeper into the other benefits nurse executives may gain from pursuing an MSN: 

  • Clinical excellence through extensive experience and education
  • Nursing specialization that aligns with specific career interests and goals
  • Patient care advocacy through bridging clinical practice and managerial skills 
  • Mentorship or educator opportunities with fellow nurses or RNs
  • Prestigious clinical roles, including the four APRN positions

How Can You Decide Between an MHA vs. MSN Degree?

Unsure which graduate degree will put you on the best path toward becoming a nurse executive and achieving your career goals? The choice between pursuing an MHA or an MSN can be a complex decision—but fortunately, a few careful questions can help make it easier.

Let’s consider how your personal and professional needs and aspirations can help you determine the best graduate degree for you:

  • Educational and professional background – Both an MHA and MSN require students to have prior education. Typically, MSN programs require candidates to have a two-year Registered Nurse degree or a bachelor’s degree (preferably in nursing). On the other hand, most MHA programs only require candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree—it doesn’t necessarily have to be in nursing.  However, it’s still preferable to have a bachelor’s degree that’s related to nursing or at least some educational or professional background in nursing to become a nurse executive through either of these degrees.
  • Career skills – While a nurse executive combines both clinical practice and leadership skills, the role can vary across organizations. An MHA prepares students more for nurse executive roles that emphasize organizational structure, administrative skills, and visionary leadership. Alternatively, an MSN typically prepares students for nurse executive roles that emphasize hands-on clinical practice, medical knowledge, and education.
  • Ideal jobs – While both MHA and MSN degrees can help prepare you for a nurse executive role, they can also open doors to different careers in the healthcare world. If you wish to pursue more leadership and administrative roles in the different levels of nursing, such as a hospital CEO or policy coordinator, you may find the MHA an ideal pathway. If you wish to pursue an advanced clinical position, such as a CNP or CRNA, then an MSN may suit your career path. 

Enroll at Alliant International University and Earn Your MSN Degree

If a nurse executive role is your ultimate career ambition, then you’ll need the right education—and Alliant International University can carve out your path, no matter where it starts. 

Our MSN-Direct Entry program is designed for students with non-nursing bachelor of science degrees, guiding them through the clinical and policy essentials they need to pursue advanced roles in the field. Through our program, you’ll have the opportunity to:

  • Complete key coursework for a nursing career in just two years
  • Qualify to take the NCLEX-RN exam
  • Earn over 800 clinical practice hours
  • Develop the essential leadership skills you’ll need for administrative nursing roles

Turn your passion for healthcare into a career. Check out the nursing programs at Alliant and apply today.


  1. Writers, Coursera. “What Is the Master of Health Care Administration (MHA)?” Coursera. June 16, 2023. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  2. Indeed Editorial Team. “25 Jobs You Can Do With an MHA”. Indeed. March 13, 2023. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  3. Staff. “Everything You Need to Know About the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree”. June 26, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  4. Staff. “Everything You Need to Know About the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree”. June 26, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  5. Staff. “Everything You Need to Know About the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree”. June 26, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  6. Staff. “Everything You Need to Know About the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree”. June 26, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2023.

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