Nursing Degrees & Schools / MSN vs. DNP
When you’re ready to advance your nursing career, you might have a difficult time choosing between a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Which you choose depends on your specific career goals.
With an MSN degree, you can further specialize your skills and education to prepare for more advanced nursing roles. A DNP prepares you for some of the highest leadership roles you can obtain within the nursing industry.
Learning more about each of these advanced nursing degrees can help you make the right choice.
In this article we’ll explore:
- What is an MSN?
- What is a DNP?
- How do MSNs and DNPs compare?
- What are the differences between an MSN and a DNP?
What is an MSN?
An MSN is a graduate-level degree in nursing. It is one of the most popular degrees for advancing your nursing career. Most registered nurses (RNs) who wish to become nurse practitioners (NPs) must pursue an MSN or higher. NPs earn attractive salaries across most of the U.S.
You also need an MSN degree for some nursing specialties, including:
- Clinical nurse researcher
- Family nurse practitioner
- Forensic nurse consultant
- Geriatric nurse practitioner
- Nurse ethicist
- Psychiatric nurse practitioner
Pursuing a master’s degree requires commitment and additional education. You can continue working as an RN or other nursing professional while earning your advanced degree.
Earn your CEUs free
Our easy online CE courses are ANCC-accredited and 100% free for nurses.
Salary and career outlook
Earning an MSN can be an expensive, but it’s worth the investment.
With a master’s degree, you can become a nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or nurse practitioner. Your salary depends on your nursing specialty and location. Nursing professionals in some specialties can earn upwards of $118,040.
Nursing professionals with advanced degrees continue to be in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a growth rate of 40% from 2021 to 2031 for nurses with MSN degrees. That’s much higher than the average for all other career choices.
Scope of practice
- Advocating for patients with their health insurance companies and other healthcare providers.
- Educating patients and their family members about health conditions and treatment plans.
- Mentoring other nurses in a leadership capacity.
- Prescribing medications as part of a patient’s treatment plan.
- Researching health topics to advance nursing best practices.
Make sure you know your state’s scope of practice before you begin your degree.
Most nursing professionals need at least three years to complete an MSN degree if they don’t already have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. If you already have your BSN, you can earn your MSN in as little as 18 months by enrolling in a BSN-to-MSN program.
To enroll in an MSN program, you must first complete the following requirements:
- Hold a BSN degree
- Have an active nursing license
- Have at least one year of nursing experience (or more)
Some MSN programs also require you to obtain letters of recommendation from other nursing professionals who have worked with or supervised you in a professional capacity.
Before you can apply for an MSN program, you must hold a current RN license in your state of practice. In addition to holding your RN licensure, you must also have at least two years of clinical experience before applying.
If you do not yet have your RN license, you must complete the educational requirements for becoming an RN. Then, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam.
Once you have your MSN degree, it opens the door to advanced nursing certifications. Some of the most popular certifications include:
What is a DNP?
A DNP is one of the highest degrees a nursing professional can earn. Nurses with a DNP can work in a variety of leadership roles, including as a director of patient care services.
If you’re seeking an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs, then a DNP is a good choice. Nurses with DNPs don’t work in academia or research. They have the skills and training to work in the field in supervisory roles.
Once you have a DNP, you can choose to work as a nurse practitioner (NP) if leadership roles aren’t appealing to you.
Salary and career outlook
Nursing professionals with a DNP can earn an average annual salary of $117,412. DNPs with the highest level of experience can make upwards of $213,500 depending on their location. Some states pay better than others.
The top 5 best places to work as an DNP if salary is your primary concern include:
- Washington State – $135,497
- New York – $127,126
- California – $122,339
- Idaho – $121,659
- New Hampshire – $120,171
The BLS predicts nurses with DNP degrees can enjoy a growth rate of 40% from 2021 to 2031.
Tired of applying for nursing jobs?
With Incredible Health, hospitals apply to YOU.
Scope of practice
DNPs have a lot of responsibility when serving in leadership roles. The nursing scope of practice for DNPs includes:
- Advocating for policies that improve population health.
- Employing strategies that enhance communication in a team setting.
- Implementing systems-level changes to improve patient outcomes.
- Promoting emotional safety within an organization.
You may have additional responsibilities as a DNP depending on where you work.
A DNP is one of two terminal degrees nursing professionals can earn. The other is a doctorate degree (Ph.D.). Terminal degrees are the highest academic credential given for nursing. DNPs focus on nursing practice, while a Ph.D. concentrates on research.
There are several ways you can earn your DNP. Some nursing professionals opt to get their BSN-to-MSN degree and then pursue a DNP. However, there are bridge programs designed to get you there faster. Two of the most popular bridge programs are:
- MSN-to-DNP bridge programs cater to nurses who already have an MSN degree. You can fast-track to your DNP degree in 1 to 2 years if you attend full-time, or 3 to 4 years if you attend part-time.
- BSN-to-DNP bridge programs combine the curriculums of an MSN and a DNP. It takes 3 to 4 years to complete attending full-time, or 4 to 6 years to complete attending part-time.
If you want to pursue a DNP, you must first become a licensed RN in your state of practice. Becoming a licensed RN requires passing the NCLEX-RN exam.
Some DNP programs require you to hold a BSN degree as a licensed RN. If you have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and not a BSN, you may first have to earn your BSN.
Once you complete your DNP, you must pursue certification credentials for your nursing specialty. Some of the most popular options include:
- Post-DNP Family Nurse Practitioner
- Post-DNP Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
- Post-DNP Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
How do MSNs and DNPs compare?
MSNs and DNPs serve different purposes. If you prefer to continue in a clinical setting with hands-on patient care, then pursing an MSN is the best option. Nursing professionals more interested in academia and research find a DNP to be a better choice for advancing their careers.
Both advanced degree programs require a high level of commitment to your education. You’ll need to be well organized if you plan to pursue an MSN or DNP while continuing to work in your field.
What are the differences between an MSN and a DNP?
The main difference between an MSN and a DNP is that a DNP is a terminal nursing degree. Once you earn it, you’ve reached the highest level of education available for the nursing field. You qualify for nursing leadership roles at the highest levels.
MSN degrees cover some of the same material as a DNP, but primarily are used to help you earn your initial licensure and certification as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).
Another difference is it takes longer to complete a DNP degree, especially if you’re working while continuing your education.
Before you decide to pursue an MSN or a DNP, take time to explore your nursing career goals. You’ll also need to determine if the additional expense of one of these advanced degree programs fits into your budget. A DNP can cost upwards of $30,000 depending on which program you choose.
Discover your true salary range
Receive a free salary estimate in minutes. Then get matched with nursing jobs to pay it.
A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree prepares nursing for careers in nursing administration or for more advanced nursing licensures. Many nurses with MSNs become nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, or midwives.
A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal nursing degree that prepares you for work in supervisory roles within the clinical setting.
Nurses with MSN degrees can work in academic or research, while DNPs seek leadership roles within the clinical setting. It also takes longer to complete a DNP because it’s a terminal nursing degree.
- Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification. aaacn.org. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Certified Pediatric Nurse. pncb.org. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification (MEDSURG-BC™). nursingworld.org. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners. bls.gov. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- PNP-PC post-DNP certificate. uic.edu. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Post-DNP Certificate. nursing.uic.edu. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate. nursing.pitt.edu. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- QUIZ: What Master in Nursing (MSN) Specialty is Right for Me? herzing.edu. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Scope of Practice for Nurse Practitioners. aanp.org. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- What Is the Average DNP Salary by State? ziprecruiter.com. Accessed October 8, 2022.
- Image from Canva.com