DNP vs. MSN: Which Advanced Nursing Degree Should You Choose?

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A smiling DNP graduate in a white coat.

In today’s evolving health care landscape, doctors and nurses are adapting to ensure that patients are getting the treatment they need. The nursing shortage currently facing the health care industry has in part brought on this need to adapt. The country is projected to experience a shortage of nurses as the need for health care services grows and the baby-boom generation ages, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

The growing population of older adults is putting additional strain on remaining health care workers. Managing how to do more with less often falls on nurse leaders such as nurse managers and chief nursing officers. These individuals have experience in areas such as risk assessment, team leadership, quality improvement, and outcomes measurement. Unlike registered nurses (RNs), who work with patients one-on-one, nurse leaders focus on the big picture of a health care organization and its overall efficiency.

Nurse leaders are crucial to the health care system’s response to changing conditions. They’ve played a vital role in guiding health care facilities through the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing cost-effective measures to protect their workforces while maintaining the quality of patient care. They’ve also advocated on behalf of their facilities for medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

Advanced degrees such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) prepare students to take on challenging health care leadership roles. However, when considering a DNP vs. MSN, what’s the best way to determine the degree that’s right for you?

DNP vs. MSN: What’s the Difference?

While both are advanced degrees that build on an RN’s education and experience, the two programs involve different levels of study and can offer different concentrations. Each degree may also focus on a specific element of care delivery or on the administrative side of nursing.

MSN

An MSN is an advanced nursing degree that prepares RNs for advanced nursing roles. In addition to the generalist program, MSN programs offer numerous concentrations, including the following:

  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)
    • Family NP
    • Adult-Gerontology NP
    • Psychiatric NP
    • Pediatric NP
    • Acute Care NP
    • Women’s Health NP
    • Orthopedic NP
    • Neonatal NP
    • Emergency NP
    • Hospice Care NP
    • Dermatology NP
    • Cardiac NP
    • Surgical NP
    • Holistic NP

A student’s concentration will determine the curriculum. For example, a women’s health NP will focus on assessing, diagnosing, and treating conditions that relate to obstetric, reproductive, and gynecological health. The coursework would focus more on women’s health, whereas a family NP’s coursework is broader because family NPs treat male and female patients of all ages.

A student’s level of prior education determines the length of an MSN program. For example, students who don’t already have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can enroll in a program that covers introductory courses before moving on to more advanced material. The four main types of MSN programs are as follows:

  • Entry-level MSN for students with a non-nursing degree (approximately three years)
  • BSN to MSN (approximately 18-24 months)
  • RN to MSN (approximately three years)
  • Dual MSN (approximately three to five years)

Program length also depends on whether students are full or part time.

DNP

A DNP is a terminal degree, meaning that it’s the highest degree in nursing education. However, a DNP isn’t the same as the Doctor of Medicine (MD) for physicians.

Similar to MSN degrees, generalist DNP programs are available, along with several different concentrations. Some of the most popular ones include the following:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care NP
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care NP
  • Family NP
  • Leadership
  • Psychiatric Mental Health NP

The concentration determines the curriculum of a DNP. For example, a student in the family nurse practitioner (FNP) to DNP program would take classes in advanced pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology. Students — regardless of concentration — should expect more advanced coursework from the DNP program compared with the MSN program.

NP students need 500 supervised direct patient care clinical hours, according to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB). Post-master’s DNP programs require at least 1,000 hours of clinical hours, according to the AACN. Additionally, DNP students are required to turn in a capstone project that culminates their educational experience.

The type of DNP program selected determines the length of the program. The four main types of DNP programs are as follows:

  • MSN to DNP (one to two years full time; three to four years part time)
  • BSN to DNP (three to four years full time; four to six years part time)
  • RN to DNP (four to six years full time; over six years part time)
  • Direct-entry DNP for students with a non-nursing degree (four to six years full time)

The Benefits of Earning a DNP

One distinct benefit of earning a DNP is that it can open up new career opportunities. DNP graduates can become NPs, clinical nurse specialists, or any other role that requires an MSN degree; however, they can also find positions in executive leadership, clinical research, and the education branches of health care.

Another benefit is the ability to make wide-reaching positive change. Whereas NPs usually work one-on-one with patients, those in leadership and education can impact the larger picture of health care. For example, a nurse executive’s decisions and the policies they implement aim to improve their entire department, and a nurse educator trains the next generation of nurses. While DNP and MSN graduates share the same goal of creating better patient outcomes, DNPs can work on a larger scale.

Worth considering when making the DNP vs. MSN comparison is that DNPs usually command higher salaries than their MSN counterparts. MSN degree holders made a median annual salary of approximately $98,000, while DNPs made a median of $107,000, according to Payscale’s most recent reporting (April 2022).

The Future of the DNP

The current educational requirement for advanced practice nursing roles is an MSN degree, but some are advocating for that to change. In October 2004, the member schools affiliated with the AACN voted to endorse the Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing, which called for the minimum degree type for advanced nursing roles to be elevated from MSN to DNP.

There are several reasons why this change is being requested:

  • A complex health care environment requires the highest level of education.
  • It’s projected that this change will improve patient outcomes overall.
  • This change addresses the national concerns about the quality of health care and patient safety.
  • A nursing shortage means that nursing leaders should be better prepared.

In 2014, AACN’s board of directors hired the RAND Corporation to conduct a national study to check on the progress of nursing schools transitioning to the DNP. The study revealed near-universal agreement regarding the value of DNP education and that DNP programs were becoming more widely available. In 2020, enrollment in DNP programs increased by 8.9% from 2019, despite the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic caused, a clear indicator that more students are interested in this particular degree type, according to a survey by the AACN.

Currently, DNP programs are available in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) reports that approximately 80% of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have a master’s degree as their highest level of education while just 14% have a DNP. Many DNP graduates opt to go into either education or administration rather than remain in clinical work.

Although making the DNP the standard in education for APRNs is a goal that health care professionals agree on, no hard date has been set for implementation. For anyone who’s an APRN or planning on becoming one, the AACN recommends enrolling in a DNP program before the requirement officially changes. DNP graduates will be in a highly advantageous position once this policy goes into effect.

Be a Leader in a Critical Field

When weighing the advantages of a DNP vs. MSN, a DNP may be more appealing to nurses interested in executive leadership and education, and DNPs usually earn higher salaries.

Bradley University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice program has several options for those who already have a BSN, with APRN concentrations that include the following:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care NP (DNP-AGACNP track)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care NP (DNP-AGPCNP track)
  • Family NP (DNP-FNP track)
  • Psychiatric Mental Health NP (DNP-PMHNP track)

Additionally, Bradley offers a DNP program in leadership for those who’ve already earned an MSN degree and are interested in managerial and executive positions. Each DNP program features an advanced curriculum intended to instill the knowledge and develop the skills one will need in an APRN or a leadership role.

Pursue your passion for health care by enrolling in the DNP program at Bradley University.

 

Recommended Readings

Nursing Career Paths: 5 Job Opportunities for DNP Graduates

How Nurse Leaders Create Effective and Fair Nurse Scheduling

How to Become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner