How Hard is MSN Program – (15 Biggest Challenges & How to Overcome)

Written By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, RN, BA, CBC

Deciding to apply for an MSN program can be scary. Starting an MSN program can be even scarier especially if school doesn’t come easy to you or you have been out of school for a significant period of time. The real question everyone wants to know is how hard are MSN programs? I completed an MSN Education program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and let me tell you – it wasn’t easy. But, with the proper knowledge and preparation, you can succeed in any MSN program. This article will discuss the 15 biggest challenges you will face in an MSN program and how to overcome them.


The short answer- yes! MSN programs are hard, especially Nurse Practitioner (NP) programs. These programs focus on advanced health assessment, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. Most MSN degrees require a minimum of two years of relevant experience before applying to a program. For that reason, most nurses complete their MSN program when they are slightly older. This can in turn make obtaining an MSN degree even harder. Keep reading to find out some of the biggest challenges you may need to overcome. Remember, some of these challenges may not apply to you but it’s important to make a mental note in case life changes occur during a program.


(The following are the 15 biggest challenges you will face in MSN programs and ways you can successfully overcome them.)

CHALLENGE #1: Clinical Experiences Require Significant Time Commitment

About the Challenge:

An MSN program requires a significant time commitment especially once clinical rotations start. The time commitment is just one of the many reasons that MSN programs are hard. For my MSN Education program, I had to complete both clinicals at a university working in a classroom and with nurse educators in the hospital setting. For NPs, you will be required to complete a series of clinical rotations, all with their own specific requirements.

With my MSN program, I could only do my clinicals on specific days because of when the classes were taught at the university I was working with. The pediatric clinical course that I worked with was on Mondays and Tuesdays for an hour and a half. Because of this, I was unable to work those days at the hospital.

How to Overcome:

Plan, plan, plan! Get an organizer and write everything down from work commitments, clinical requirements and commitments, as well as your additional MSN classes. If you are able to work part-time or per diem during the MSN program this is extremely helpful, especially once clinicals start. I was fortunate enough to only work per diem during my MSN program, but it still was overwhelming to juggle at times. Making sure I had an organized calendar at all times with ALL of my life, work, and school commitments really made a difference.

CHALLENGE #2: Cost Might Be Prohibitive

About the Challenge:

MSN programs can be extremely expensive.

How to Overcome:

I would recommend talking to your employer to see if there is tuition reimbursement available for furthering your education. For example, some hospitals will offer a specific amount of tuition money to full-time (or even part-time) employees for a time commitment. Specifically, a healthcare system might give $5,000 per academic year with a commitment to work two years after the money is distributed.

Other healthcare systems might have partnerships with local academic or online institutions and offer higher tuition pay packages if you attend those specific programs. This can be helpful, especially if you do not have the means to pay out of pocket.

CHALLENGE #3: Choosing the Right MSN Program

About the Challenge:

There are thousands of MSN programs available around the country offered in-person, online, and in a hybrid format. Choosing the right MSN program can be a hard decision.

How to Overcome:

The first thing to do is to decide how you want your future in nursing to look. Do you want to be an NP or a clinical nurse specialist or maybe a nurse educator? This can help determine the type of program you will apply to.

When I was applying for MSN programs, I became overwhelmed by all of the options, especially deciding between online programs or brick-and-mortar programs that were offered online. I remember asking one of my former clinical instructors for advice. She told me that “the name of the program matters” especially in the world of academia. I saw my future in nursing heading towards academia so I knew that where I went to school would matter. And it did. The connections and relationships I made at my program were invaluable and really helped forge the path I have taken today.

CHALLENGE #4: Finding a Preceptor

About the Challenge:

Almost all MSN programs require in person clinical experiences which must be overseen by a licensed individual that holds the relevant credentials. For example, if you are in an MSN program for your pediatric NP training, then you will have to work directly with a PNP to successfully pass the clinical requirements.

How to Overcome:

I cannot stress this enough but start looking for preceptors immediately once you start your MSN program. This can be one of the hardest things in an MSN program, especially if you are in a large city that may be oversaturated with MSN students, or you are from a small town with limited options. Start networking within your healthcare institution to see if anyone is available to precept but also to see if there is a contract in place between your academic institution and the healthcare system.

Honestly, this can be one of the hardest things to sit and try to wait for. I had made a connection and found a preceptor at a local hospital. Only one small problem – there was no contract between my university and the hospital. I waited and waited for months as legal went back and forth about the wording of the contract and ultimately the healthcare institution refused to sign the paperwork. As a direct result, I lost months of time and a preceptor. I was then sent into a panic looking for a preceptor. Had I started looking from day 1, I would have had more time and not been as stressed.

CHALLENGE #5: Dealing with the unexpected

About the Challenge:

During clinicals, you will be responsible for seeing and caring for patients with a variety of ailments. You may see things that you haven’t learned about in school or during other clinical rotations.

How to Overcome:

This might feel like one of the moments where the MSN program is hard, and it is. Ask your preceptor for help and guidance in situations that are unknown to you. If you can’t recall the information or are in a tricky situation, remember that your preceptor is there to help you and teach you. You are not alone in your MSN journey.

CHALLENGE #6: Feeling alone

About the Challenge:

You may feel alone during your MSN program, especially during clinicals and if you are working during the program. You will be consumed by long clinical days and hours of studying.

How to Overcome:

Lean on your support system! Whether this is family, friends, co-workers, or loved ones. Ask for help when you need it. It might include cooking, washing your laundry, or just being a study buddy. I found that during my clinical rotations while working I had very little time to see friends and family. The time off I had required prepping for my next clinical day or studying for exams. Home delivery meal prep programs are also a great option if you do not have a steady support system.

CHALLENGE #7: Underestimating the amount of work

About the Challenge:

It’s naïve to think that MSN programs do not require a great deal of work. Didactic classes can be quite challenging. You will be required to build upon the knowledge learned in didactic classes once in clinical. Clinical days can be long and hard and often include not only applying the information learned during class but also learning new things.

How to Overcome:

It’s important to know that MSN programs are hard and require work and sacrifice. You will be responsible for advanced learning in pharmacology and health assessment as well as other advanced classes. My recommendation would be to find an appropriate planner where you can keep track of school and clinical requirements. This can also help you identify the amount of work that you will need to complete each week.

CHALLENGE #8: Risk of communicable disease

About the Challenge:

As an MSN-educated advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) you will come in contact with patients suffering from varying ailments. For example, if you are a family nurse practitioner (FNP), during the winter you will come in contact with patients that have different cold ailments.

How to Overcome:

Regardless of your degree, it is important to remember proper precautions including hand washing, wearing gloves with patients especially during blood exposure, and wearing a mask. It is impossible to stay clear of all communicable diseases, especially when seeing patients, so it’s best to take all the precautions needed to keep yourself safe and healthy.

CHALLENGE #9: Online Classes

About the Challenge:

Most MSN programs consist of online didactic courses, that require students to work independently to learn the information. Classes can be held via online live or pre-recorded lectures. Other programs might only consist of PowerPoint presentations.

How to Overcome:

For me personally, I knew that I succeeded with in-person instruction. This can be difficult with online classes. In my MSN programs, most of my courses had weekly in-person lectures that allowed us to ask questions and learn directly from our professors. This method might not be for everyone, but for me, it was one of the main reasons why I was able to succeed.

CHALLENGE #10: Lack of simulation labs

About the Challenge:

Most online MSN programs do not have in-person simulation labs; however, some programs will have intensives, where students are required to be in-person on campus for a specific amount of time.

How to Overcome:

If attending simulation labs is important to you, then it would be beneficial to attend a brick-and-mortar MSN program or one that has intensives requiring in-person attendance. Personally, my program did not have any in-person labs but rather everything was done via online simulation. I found this difficult at times and preferred to have worked in-person with my instructors.

CHALLENGE #11: Getting accepted into a program

About the Challenge:

Don’t be so focused on only one program that you do not look into others that may also be a good fit for your education needs.

How to Overcome:

Personally, I only applied to one MSN program but in hindsight, I should have applied to other programs. It can be nerve-wracking waiting to hear on acceptance but there are many options available. There is currently a shortage of APRNs according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with an expected growth of 38% from 2022 to 2023. To meet this growing demand there are currently countless programs available to students so remember to apply to more than one!

CHALLENGE #12: Increased Responsibilities

About the Challenge:

As an MSN-educated nurse you have increased responsibilities ranging from educating the next generation of nurses as a nurse educator or caring for patients as an APRN.

How to Overcome:

It can be overwhelming, scary, and added stress knowing that you will have increased responsibilities but you will continue to learn and grow as a student. Clinicals are a great way to hone your skills and learn from MSN-educated nurses with advanced training and years of experience.

CHALLENGE #13: Take the time to REALLY learn the information

About the Challenge:

MSN programs are hard and will teach you a lot of information. The difference is – all of the information you will learn is important and vital to your success. Without the information, you will not succeed in your APRN role.

How to Overcome:

Classes are intense, and you will be presented with a lot of information over the course of the program. It can be easy to go on auto-pilot and just start memorizing the information without retaining it. You may have to adjust your study habits and they may differ from what you used in your undergraduate nursing program.

CHALLENGE #14: Prioritizing yourself

About the Challenge:

Taking time for yourself during an intense MSN program can be difficult. If you keep pushing, you may end up running empty and not succeeding.

How to Overcome:

There were many times that I found myself second-guessing my free time because my MSN program was hard and time-consuming. During those moments I had to remember to recharge my batteries and do something for myself. It could be something as simple as taking the dogs for a walk, laying on the couch to watch my favorite TV show, or getting a massage. This kept me going during the rigorous MSN program.

CHALLENGE #15: Afraid to Ask Questions

About the Challenge:

It can be scary and embarrassing asking your instructor or preceptor for help, especially towards the end of the program but don’t be afraid. They were once in your shoes and know that MSN programs are hard.

How to Overcome:

Always, always ask the questions. This will make you understand the information better and make you more prepared for jobs after your MSN degree completion. Professors and preceptors are there to help you and guide you along the way.


MSN programs are hard and can be a struggle, especially without the proper support system. However, with the proper expectations, and planning, students will succeed in any program. The most important thing to remember is to take your time before applying to a program as MSN programs cost a significant amount of money and time. Knowing the 15 biggest challenges you will face in MSN programs and how to overcome them can really make the difference between succeeding in your program or struggling. Knowing and understanding how hard an MSN program is will prepare you to face any obstacles you may meet during the program and work towards successfully completing the program.


1. How Long Does MSN Program Take?

MSN programs vary in length depending if the program is an MSN Nurse Practitioner or MSN Nurse Education. Most programs take two years full-time or up to five years part-time.

2. Is It Normal To Struggle In MSN Program?

Yes! It’s completely normal to struggle in an MSN program. The programs are fast-paced, and students are expected to learn a great deal of information as well as complete on-site clinical rotations.

3. Which Year Of MSN Program Is The Hardest?

Clinicals are often the hardest part of an MSN program because they involve applying all of the information learned throughout the didactic portion.

4. What Are The Hardest Classes In MSN Program?

The hardest classes in an MSN program are typically advanced health assessment, advanced pharmacology, and advanced anatomy and physiology.

5. How Many Hours Do I Need To Study In MSN Program?

This will vary depending on the student and the program, but most students can expect to study at least two hours for every credit hour taken. So, for a 3-credit course, you can expect to study a minimum of 6 hours.

6. Is It Hard To Work During MSN Program?

Students can generally work during the didactic portion of the program, but it is more difficult during clinicals.

7. What Percent Of MSN Students Drop Out?

This varies based on the program, but typically students do not drop out of MSN programs.

8. Is It Common To Fail MSN Program?

No, it is not common. Professors and the MSN program will do everything possible to help you succeed. This might include offering additional time with the professor to go over information, a tutor, or additional reading suggestions.

9. What Next After Failing MSN Program?

While rare, if you do fail your MSN program have a discussion with your academic advisor and determine the WHY behind your failure. Did you fail because you are working full-time and don’t have enough time to study? Did you decide that you don’t like the MSN program you are in? Was there something going on in your personal life affecting your study time? Once you determine the why – you can determine the next steps.

Kathleen Gaines MSN, RN, BA, CBC
Kathleen Gaines is a Master’s prepared registered nurse with 15 years of experience specializing in pediatric and neonatal intensive care. Kathleen initially graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia with a degree in English/Journalism and a minor in Biology.