Nursing School vs. Medical School: Making the Choice

Doctors and nurses are very different career paths in terms of education and responsibilities, but nursing could be the best path for you if you value starting sooner, having a wide range of career opportunities, and developing meaningful patient relationships.

Marquette MSN student in a classroom setting

Feeling the pull of a career in healthcare but not certain which nursing school vs. medical school is the best choice for you? You are not alone. Prospective students to our Direct Entry Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program often tell us that they considered medical school before making the choice that pursuing a career in nursing was a better fit for them.

There are many reasons that students cite for choosing nursing school vs. medical school. Some are deeply personal, the result of a life-changing experience. Others are more pragmatic — nursing programs offer a more direct path into a career in patient care. Still, many just find the compassionate dedication of nurses inspiring and see nursing as a rewarding career that will let them make real differences in people’s lives.

The Different Care Models Practiced by Nurses and Physicians

Before diving into any comparisons of the two professions, it’s important to clarify that many of the differences between nurses and physicians stem from the fact that they practice different models of care. Both professions play equally critical roles in providing primary care to patients, and each brings a unique set of skills to the table while collaborating to ensure that each patient receives the best care possible.

Typically, physicians and physician assistants (PAs) practice under the medical model of care. Within the medical model, the primary emphasis is on the diagnosis and treatment of symptoms. Many physicians today have integrated a broader view of health and illness into patient care, but their primary focus remains on overcoming the presenting health issue. Because of the less hands-on approach in this model, physicians often spend less time with individual patients.

Two marquette students examining a simulation manikin

Advanced practice nurses also diagnose and treat patients, but along with all fellow nurses they practice with an emphasis on a holistic model of care. Within the holistic model, patients are treated with individualized, personal care that takes the entire person into account. Nurses administer and coordinate patient care, but as they are able to spend more time with patients, they can also be the first care provider to note changes in a patient’s condition.

Despite the many differences in their respective care models, medical students and nursing students alike are united by their ambition to provide the best patient care possible. Making the choice between nursing school and medical school is often about finding which care model appeals the most to you and fits best with your personality type.

Why Choose Nursing as a Career?

Physicians and nurses are both dedicated to treating and advocating for patients, but if you’re considering whether to choose nursing school or medical school, you might come out on the side of nursing school. See some of the reasons why a career in nursing could be the best move for you.

1. Nurses Develop Strong, Trusting Patient Relationships

If developing strong relationships with patients is important to you, nursing may be a good career fit.

Through the lens of their holistic model of care, nurses are able to apply their critical thinking and technical skills to the benefit of patients. Nurses across many different areas of practice can spend the majority of their time directly attending to patient needs as they arise. Because of their individualized approach and dedication to patient care, nurses have been ranked as the No. 1 most ethical and honest profession in the nation time and time again.

For Shelby, Direct Entry MSN program graduate, the relationships nurses develop with patients and their families were a big part of her decision to become a nurse after weighing medical school.

“My dad had chronic pain all my life, and so I was practically raised in the hospital, and that’s why I wanted to go to med school,” she says. “After he passed away, I realized I wanted more one-on-one time with patients because of the great care my dad received from nurses.”

Student journey from having a bachelor's in biology to a BSN degree.

Shelby used her biology degree to get her nursing career started. Hear more of Shelby’s story

2. Nurses Can Make a Significant Impact Quickly

Nursing school is challenging and rigorous, taking about four years to earn a BSN through a traditional program; however, if you already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree and meet all admissions requirements, Marquette University’s Direct Entry MSN program gives you the opportunity to earn a master’s in nursing in 19–21 months. Earning your master’s in nursing is a huge accomplishment and an important step for those students wanting to become an advanced practice nurse.

Pursuing a medical school path can take upward of 10 years before you are able to become a practicing physician. In other words, you really need to be sure medical school is right for you before starting down the long road to becoming a physician. Or do you want to make an impact on patient care sooner? These are the types of things you’ll need to consider when deciding between medical school vs nursing school.

3. Nurses Have A Wide Range of Career Opportunities

A nursing degree is your ticket to a world of opportunity. As the demand for healthcare increases, so too does the demand for registered nurses, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 9% employment growth between 2020 and 2030 — and that’s not even factoring in the jobs that will need to be filled as baby boomer nurses continue to retire.

Nurses take on plenty of care responsibilities, and while enacting a high standard of care, they can also pursue careers across plenty of specialized care areas. “There are lots of different paths nursing can take you and that makes me really excited,” says Marlyn, who recently passed the NCLEX-RN. “There’s a lot of room for growth and movement.”

MSN student working in lab setting on manikin

However, it’s not just demand that gives nurses the upper hand career-wise. Unlike physicians, whose opportunities may be limited by their specialty area, nurses can work in a variety of settings both in and out of the hospital. Nurses earn a generalist degree and are able to apply those skills across a range of care areas and settings without needing to attain a different degree. For example, nurses can find opportunities at insurance companies, in school nursing, as health coaches, case managers and nurse navigators, as on-staff nurses at non-healthcare companies, and even at law firms, as medical forensics investigators.

Graduating with a master’s in nursing also gives you a leg up on recent BSN graduates by positioning you for nursing leadership roles and more thoroughly preparing you academically for advanced practice nursing. An MSN does not automatically qualify you to become an advanced practice nurse, but it does provide you with the academic foundation you will need to break into many advanced nursing careers, including:

“I know that with that masters [degree] is going to come a lot of opportunities,” says Allysa, a Marquette University Direct Entry MSN program alumnus. “If I want to go into education in the future, if I want to take on leadership roles — I might want to become an NP [nurse practitioner] someday — and having that masters is the stepping stone to all of those future career opportunities. It made the most sense.”

BSN vs. MSN Degrees: Which Is Right for You?

Deciding between getting a BSN and MSN degree can be a difficult decision. Learn the differences here.

Use Your Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree to Earn an MSN

Now that you know the differences in career paths accessed through nursing school vs. medical school, it’s time to choose for yourself. If a career in nursing is the right path for you and you already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, our Direct Entry MSN program may be your best path forward. With three start dates each year, you can start working toward your nursing degree sooner. Fill out this form to speak with an admissions adviser.

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