DNP vs. NP: Comparing Nursing Roles

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A DNP-prepared nurse meets with a patient and their spouse.
DNP vs. NP is a tricky distinction to make, as some nurse practitioners (NPs) hold a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

The high level of overlap between the terms can cause confusion when career planning. One refers to the professional, clinical role of nurse practitioner, while the other refers to the highest level of clinical nursing education.

Earning a DNP as well as becoming a nurse practitioner offers many benefits for a nursing professional. Those who are wondering about the differences between a DNP and NP can learn more about how an online Doctor of Nursing Practice can advance their nursing career.

What Is an NP?

NP is the title for a nurse practitioner, a medical professional who is educated to perform the following.

  • Assess and diagnose patients
  • Administer and evaluate diagnostic tests
  • Prescribe and manage medications
  • Focus on disease prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion
  • Advise, counsel and guide patients and their families in making care-related decisions

The scope of practice of NPs is wide and depends on their specialization and the state in which they reside. For instance, many NPs become certified in providing primary care to specific patient populations, such as families, women, seniors or patients with chronic or acute conditions. They can do this in a number of different job settings.

  • Hospitals (state, local or private)
  • Community clinics
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Urgent care clinics
  • Primary care offices

One advantage to becoming an NP is practice autonomy. More than half of U.S. states extend full practice authority to NPs, allowing them to see patients, evaluate tests and prescribe medications without a supervising physician or physician assistant.

NP Salary

As of December 2020, nurses with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) earned a median annual salary of approximately $95,000, according to the compensation website PayScale. However, a nurse practitioner’s salary can vary based on their job location, years of experience, education level, certifications, specializations and other factors. A nurse practitioner’s area of specialty and the job demand for that specialty also can have an impact on yearly earnings. For example, PayScale notes that acute care nurse practitioners earn a median salary of around $103,000, while psychiatric nurse practitioners earn $111,000.

How to Become an NP

NPs are in high demand across the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for the career to grow 52% between 2019 and 2029. The job can be personally and professionally rewarding, so interested nursing students or medical professionals should take heed of these five steps to becoming an NP, as laid out by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).

  1. Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN certification exam to become a registered nurse.
  3. Earn either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.
  4. Secure national board certification in a specialty.
  5. Become registered in or licensed by the state in which you practice.

What Is a DNP?

To understand the differences between a DNP degree and an NP, it’s important to know that a DNP is the terminal degree for clinical nurses and is one step above an MSN. However, it’s not the only terminal degree in nursing. The other is the Ph.D., geared toward nurses involved in research. The DNP, on the other hand, is for nursing practice as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), nursing leader, nurse educator, nurse executive or nurse director.

The doctorate can open many doors to new careers in administration, management, education and advanced nursing practice. The DNP degree holder is able to participate in assuring that evidence-based practice is applied to patient care. A nurse who holds a DNP-FNP (Family Nurse Practitioner) degree is able to look at patient data through computer analytics and discern whether certain processes may be enhanced to ultimately improve patient outcomes.

DNP Salary

Advancing one’s education can yield many benefits, from having a stronger foundation of knowledge to potentially earning a higher salary. With a nursing shortage increasing across the country, health care facilities need advanced practice registered nurses, nurse executives and nurse directors now more than ever. Those who are prepared with a DNP may be compensated for it. DNP-prepared nurses earned a median annual salary of about $103,000 as of December 2020, according to PayScale.

How to Become a DNP-Prepared Nurse

The process of earning a DNP degree can look different based on an individual’s level of education and years of experience.

Earn a BSN

After an individual earns a BSN and passes the NCLEX-RN exam, they become a registered nurse. Registered nurses who want to earn a DNP degree should decide whether they want to become nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, nurse educators, nurse administrators, public health nurses, or nurse informaticists. Gaining experience in a certain specialty — such as mental health, pediatrics, gerontology, neonatal, emergency or family care — is an important aspect of preparing for a DNP program.

RNs who have a current RN license and have earned a BSN from a regionally-accredited college or university and an NLNAC-, ACEN-, or CCNE-accredited* nursing program can apply to some nurse practitioner-focused DNP programs.

Earn an MSN

Nurse practitioners are required to hold an MSN degree. Depending on the career specialization they are pursuing, NPs may choose to pursue a doctorate. NPs who have a current RN license and have earned an MSN from an NLNAC-, ACEN- or CCNE-accredited* nursing program can apply to some DNP-Leadership programs.

*The master’s degree program in Nursing, Post-Graduate APRN Certificate program, and the Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Bradley University are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (

DNP vs. NP: Opportunities

Nurse practitioners may choose to earn a DNP for a variety of reasons. One of the most important is that it can make a nurse more competitive in the field. While a BSN or MSN program can teach a nurse how to provide quality patient care, a DNP dives deep into nursing theory, evidence-based practice and the principles of advanced practice. DNP curricula also cover health policy, nurse and patient advocacy, nursing leadership, and organizational management.

When considering earning a DNP, many nurses take into account their long-term goals. A DNP with an NP focus can open doors for a registered nurse to become nationally certified as an APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse). A DNP can also help those interested prepare for career advancement. For example, a DNP-prepared nurse may become a nursing director — a health care career focused on executive leadership and policy.

What Are the Benefits of a DNP?

Although an MSN is the minimum degree needed for practice as an APRN, a DNP will satisfy the education requirements. There are two main reasons why NPs should consider doctoral studies.

  1. DNP graduates can compete for higher-paying and more influential jobs.

Experience and education are factors in determining a nurse’s salary. Leadership roles and jobs in the executive suite also pay more, and are frequently sought by DNP graduates.

  1. The education requirements for becoming an APRN may change in the future.

In 2004, the AACN recommended the DNP replace the MSN as the preferred degree for APRNs. While the change has not been enacted, it is still possible for the requirements to become more stringent. In that case, earning a doctorate could grant future benefits.

What Does a DNP Program Look Like?

Now that the differences between a DNP vs. NP are more clear, we can examine what makes NPs and the DNP degree unique. In terms of learning objectives, DNP programs focus on achieving these eight core outcomes, as outlined by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

  1. Integrating nursing science with ethical, psychological, analytical and organizational knowledge
  2. Developing and evaluating care delivery and cost-effectiveness of initiatives, while also applying principles of budgeting and finance
  3. Using information technology to inform quality of care improvements and further tracking, analyzing and interpreting data and outcome results
  4. Designing and maintaining systems of evaluation that monitor everything from care outcomes to how patients engage with consumer materials and technologies
  5. Grasping policy formulation and dissemination; acting as an advocate and providing leadership to all levels of nursing/care staff
  6. Ensuring effective communication and collaboration between departments
  7. Analyzing cultural diversity and epidemiological, environmental and biostatistical records as a function of managing population health
  8. Consistently demonstrating advanced knowledge in clinical judgment, accountability, evaluation and improving patient outcomes

Earn Your DNP Online

Doctoral programs may seem intense given their subject matter, but interested nurses can earn their DNPs online in a convenient and seamless manner. Bradley University offers two DNP tracks, one for family nurse practitioners and one designed for leadership roles. Both can be completed online when nurses have the time, even if personal and professional obligations demand their attention.

If you’re interested in learning more about a DNP vs. NP, explore how Bradley University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice program can help you achieve your professional goals.

Recommended Readings

Nurse Practitioner vs. RN Career Paths

Should I Move from an MSN to DNP?

What Is a DNP Degree?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Doctor of Nursing Practice

PayScale, Doctor of Nursing Practice Average Salary

PayScale, Master of Science in Nursing Practice Average Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners