What's The Difference Between a DNP vs. MSN?

Nurses who have earned a bachelor’s degree may want to pursue a graduate education to unlock new career doors, like advanced practice nursing or leadership roles. When surveying the educational requirements for these jobs, nurses are likely to come across two degrees: the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

This article will help provide answers to the common DNP vs. MSN questions that nurses have. It’s important to understand what the separate degree programs entail — from curriculum to internships and online or on-campus format — as well as what you can do upon earning an MSN or DNP. This knowledge is valuable in planning your career and ensuring you have the requisite education and skills to succeed in high-level positions.

What’s a Master’s Degree in Nursing?

MSN programs offer students a chance to build their skills and knowledge of nursing competencies. Typically, registered nurses with a bachelor’s and other professionals with a health care-related degree will pursue an MSN to gain greater insight into improving patient care, advanced pathology, population health, evidence-based practice, principles of advanced practice and health care organization management.

Generally, MSN programs are offered on a part-time or full-time basis and take between two and four years to complete. However, the timeline to completion depends on several factors, like the format of the program and the track:

  • Students can choose between on-campus and online options. An on-campus MSN program will require in-person attendance; online programs let students complete their work and exams as other personal and professional engagements allow, for the most part. There are both synchronous and asynchronous online programs. Synchronous programs allow students to complete work online, but at a dictated pace. Asynchronous programs allow you to finish your work at your own pace.
  • Some MSN programs have a track that prepares nurses for a specific role or offer an accelerated timeline to a master’s. For instance, Bradley has an MSN program that focuses on preparing students to become family nurse practitioners (FNPs), as well as one that allows students with an associate’s degree to enter and finish with a master’s.

What’s Included in MSN Curricula?

Learning outcomes of an MSN program may vary, but overall, master’s degree curricula are designed to:

  1. Improve and refine students’ clinical skills
  2. Introduce topics like health care finance and statistical procedures
  3. Include specialty courses if the program has a track. For example, Bradley’s MSN-FNP program has five courses addressing the principles of family practice. Other courses may focus on primary care, acute conditions, women’s health, gerontology or pediatrics
  4. Prepare students for the next step in their career, like a leadership position or certification as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

Some typical topics that MSN coursework may include:

  • Evidence-based practice: Nurses will study scientific methods for producing evidence to inform and guide clinical decision-making, like making patient care or safety improvements. Research utilization and critical thinking are also key topics of evidence-based practice.
  • Health care informatics: Big data analytics are integral to patient care and organizational management, from telehealth to electronic health records (EHRs). In informatics-focused courses, students may explore data best practices, information management, security and privacy, and related certifications.
  • Advanced health assessment: Students learn and apply various interviewing techniques to take health histories and complete advanced physical assessments. They also learn how to collect this data over a patient’s lifespan and in different care settings.

Beyond coursework, an MSN program will also include clinical hours requirements (Bradley’s MSN-FNP with a BSN entry requires 750 clinical hours, for example) and possibly a capstone project. These curricula features are included to give nurses experiential learning opportunities in which to apply and analyze the skills and knowledge they’ve gained.

Why Earn an MSN?

While earning an MSN can be beneficial for any registered nurse looking to move their career forward, a master’s degree is a must for any nurse with ambitions of becoming an APRN. Advanced practice nursing roles include:

  • Nurse practitioners (which extends to family nurse practitioners)
  • Certified nurse midwives
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists
  • Clinical nurse specialists

Each of these positions requires a master’s for national certification. Beyond that, an MSN can prepare students to become a nurse educator, nurse manager or nurse leader.

Additionally, an MSN can help open doors to independent practice. While laws vary, nearly half the states in the country grant certified NPs full practice authority, meaning they can treat patients and prescribe medication without the supervision of a physician or physician’s assistant. Earning an MSN is necessary for becoming an APRN, and thus potentially opening or joining a private practice as an NP or FNP.

What’s a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

The DNP is the terminal degree for clinical nurses, meaning there is no higher degree attainable. That’s a key distinction in assessing the DNP vs. the MSN.

Compared to the PhD, which is the terminal degree for nurses focused on research and academia, the DNP is the ultimate preparation for practicing nurses. The goal of the DNP education is to refine a student’s grasp of evidence-based practice and advanced nursing theories, while also building their understanding of complex topics like policy-making, nurse advocacy, executive leadership, data management and population health.

Importantly, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommended the DNP replace the MSN as the desired degree for APRN certification. This recommendation was made in 2004, but hasn’t been phased in as a rule. Still, enrollment in DNP programs has increased substantially, as have the number of accredited programs offered.

As with MSN degree programs, DNP programs can be offered as either part time or full time. There are also many online options for a DNP education in addition to campus-based programs, and some, like Bradley’s DNP-FNP program, are 100% online. Completing a DNP program takes, on average, up to four years.

What’s Included in DNP Curricula?

According to the AACN, DNP program curricula build on the foundation of a traditional master’s degree by providing education in evidence-based practice, quality improvement and systems leadership. To that end, the AACN has identified and outlined eight core essentials of DNP programs:

  1. Scientific underpinnings for practice: Integrate nursing science with knowledge from ethics and biophysical, psychosocial, analytical and organizational sciences, forming the basis for the highest level of nursing practice. Develop and evaluate new practice approaches based on theories from nursing and other disciplines.
  2. Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking: Develop and evaluate care delivery approaches that meet current and future needs of patient populations based on medical sciences, as well as organizational, political and economic sciences. Ensure accountability through communication, cost analysis, cultural sensitivity and ethics.
  3. Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice: Use analytic methods to evaluate patterns and implement the best evidence for practice. Design, direct and evaluate quality improvement methodologies to promote safe, timely, effective, efficient, equitable and patient-centered care.
  4. Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of health care: Demonstrate the conceptual ability and technical skills to develop and execute an evaluation plan involving data extraction from practice information systems and databases. Provide leadership in the evaluation and resolution of ethical and legal issues within health care systems relating to the use of information, information technology, communication networks and patient care technology.
  5. Health care policy for advocacy in health care: Advocate for the nursing profession within the policy and health care communities. Influence policy-makers through active participation on committees, boards or task forces; educate others, including policy-makers at all levels, on nursing, health policy and patient care outcomes.
  6. Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes: Lead interprofessional teams in analyzing practical and organizational issues. Deploy effective communication and collaboration skills in implementing new policies.
  7. Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health: Analyze epidemiological, biostatistical and environmental data related to individual and population health. Evaluate care delivery models and/or strategies using concepts related to community, environmental and occupational health, and cultural and socioeconomic dimensions of health.
  8. Advanced nursing practice: Demonstrate advanced levels of clinical judgment, systems thinking and accountability in evidence-based practice. Guide, mentor and support other nurses to achieve excellence in nursing practice.

Given these broad outcomes, DNP curricula generally feature a blend of clinical, nursing science, informatics and leadership courses that cover:

  • Health care policy: Learning how policy is created and implemented; how it impacts population health, regulation, care delivery and organizational finance, as well as how to initiate, develop and evaluate reform for quality improvement.
  • Management in health care organizations: Analyzing the behavioral processes of leadership, communication, motivation, group dynamics, conflict, change and organizational development; building an understanding of diversity, social responsibility and ethics.
  • Leadership in advanced practice nursing: Examining organizational and system leadership strategies in advanced practice nursing and how to increase productivity, improve health outcomes and foster interprofessional collaboration

All DNP programs require students to complete a DNP project. The Bradley DNP-FNP curriculum, for example, includes a series of our seminar courses where students develop, implement, evaluate and disseminate a scholarly project. DNP programs require that students complete 1,000 clinical hours.

Why Earn a DNP?

One of the primary motivations for earning a DNP vs. MSN is the potential shift in APRN certification requirements. As the ranks of DNP-prepared nurses grow, the AACN’s recommendation may come to bear and doctoral-level preparedness may become the standard for advanced practice nursing.

Overall, a doctorate can be used to enter a wide number of nursing careers, whether clinical, administrative, organizational or educational. Some career options for DNP-prepared nurses include:

  • Nursing director
  • Nurse executive
  • Nurse lobbyist or legislative consultant
  • Health care director
  • Nursing care facility manager

Another advantage of the DNP is increased potential for career earnings. According to PayScale, DNP-prepared nurses make, on average, $102,000 a year, while MSN nurses averaged $92,000 in 2019. That compensation can climb depending on bonuses, the position — like nurse executive — or the workplace (NPs and FNPs in independent or private practice can earn from profit sharing).

Earn Your DNP or MSN at Bradley

Considering the benefits of the DNP vs. MSN? At Bradley, prospective students can find both MSN degree and DNP degree programs that can help them gain advanced skills and knowledge to elevate their career. Whether you are looking to become an FNP or pursue leadership roles, the nursing programs at Bradley can help prepare you for certification, advanced practice nursing or the demands of the boardroom.

Our graduate programs are all offered online. Contact an enrollment advisor today to learn more.



American Association of Colleges of Nursing – DNP Essentials (PDF)

Payscale – Doctor of Nursing Practice

Payscale – Master of Science in Nursing