MSN vs. DNP Guide: Which One Is Better for You?

MSN vs. DNP Guide: Which One Is Better for You?


MSN vs. DNP degree – which one is better for you? Read on to find out.

Advanced practice nurses should aim to accomplish three main goals: improve the overall health of the population, reduce costs for patients, and make sure that patients have the best experience they can. In order to prepare nurses and make sure they’re ready to achieve these goals, aspiring nurses must have at least a graduate degree and pass their national and local certifications. Nurses who wish to enter the advanced practice nursing field can choose between obtaining a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and/or the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

MSN degrees generally take two years to complete (in addition to a baccalaureate degree) and may be a great option for nurses who want to start their career as soon as possible. DNP degrees generally take four years to complete and is perfect for nurses who want a career in research and academia. DNP nurses may even qualify for certain management roles as well as higher pay. DNP nurses are generally more practice-focused, whereas Ph.D.’s are more research focused.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that nurses who aspire to enter the advanced nurse practitioner field obtain the DNP degree instead of an MSN degree. The AACN believes that a DNP program will better prepare nurse practitioners regarding the issues they will face in their profession and provide a deeper understanding of their career. However, there are still plenty of MSN programs for all nurse practitioner specializations both on-campus and online. Nurse practitioners who obtain their MSN degree can also choose to complete an MSN-to-DNP program, which should take about two years to complete.

Why Choose One Degree Over the Other?

Nurse practitioners have a strong career outlook, no matter which degree they seek to obtain. Salaries are especially similar once you get into graduate degrees. However, the responsibilities and duties of each may vastly differ in certain cases, which makes it all the more important to know the difference between the degrees. Aspiring nurse practitioners should choose their career path based on their long-term goals, and that can only happen if they’re informed.

The major difference between both degrees is that a DNP degree is a doctoral degree. A DNP degree is also what’s known as a terminal degree, which means that a DNP degree is the highest degree one can earn in nursing. While an MSN degree is great on its own, aspiring nurse practitioners don’t need one in order to enter a DNP program. There are several ADN-to-DNP and BSN-to-DNP programs that nurses can complete.

Advanced nurse practitioners with an MSN degree generally focus on case management and patient care. DNP nurses are also able to handle those responsibilities but they can also do much more. DNPs tend to look at the larger systems of healthcare, applying evidence-based care into their clinical practice and paying attention to what’s affecting the overall health of the population and community at large.

The Differences Between an MSN and a DNP

The following presents some of the key differences between an MSN degree and a DNP degree. While the focus is on nurse practitioners, keep in mind that there are several advanced program pathways for other professionals in the nursing field such as certified nurse midwives, nurse executives, clinical nurse specialists, and nursing educators.

How Long Does It Take to Complete?

Master of Science in Nursing

In order to apply to an MSN program, you need an active RN license and a college degree. The following degrees are acceptable: associate degree in nursing (ADN), bachelor’s degree (doesn’t have to be in nursing), or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Students entering an ADN-to-MSN program can expect to complete it in three to five years if they study full-time. Students entering a BSN-to-MSN program can expect to complete it in two years. If you have a bachelor’s degree in something other than nursing, you may need to complete additional nursing courses before starting the core of the MSN program.

What Classes Will I Take?

Doctor of Nursing Practice

The application requirements for DNP programs are similar to those of an MSN program. In order to apply to a DNP program, you need an active RN license and a college degree. The following degrees are acceptable: associate degree in nursing (ADN), bachelor’s degree (doesn’t have to be in nursing), a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), or an MSN degree. Students entering an ADN-to-DNP program can expect to complete it in five to six years if they study full-time. Students entering a BSN-to-DNP program can expect to complete it in three to four years. Students entering an MSN-to-DNP program can expect to complete it in two years.

Master of Science in Nursing

Students in an MSN program can expect courses that teach general, graduate-level subjects and course that focus on clinical specializations. Some of the most common specializations include family health, pediatrics (primary or acute care), neonatal care, and adult-gerontology (primary or acute care). Courses that you can expect to take no matter your specialization include the following:

  • Evidence-based nursing practice
  • Diagnostic reasoning
  • Physical assessment
  • Safety in healthcare systems
  • Healthcare policy and advocacy
  • Clinical pharmacology
  • Population health in global society
  • Advanced physiology across a lifespan

There are also a number of schools that offer sub-specializations, which can include endocrinology, oncology, and veteran healthcare.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

In contrast to the MSN program, DNP courses are focused on health policy, leadership, and technology as well as clinical work. Some of the courses you may encounter include:

  • Introduction to clinical ethics
  • Scholarly writing and dissemination
  • Comparative quantitative research design and methodology
  • Health policy and advocacy
  • Philosophy of bioethics
  • Practice leadership and quality

How Do I Obtain My Certification and License?

Master of Science in Nursing

Nurse practitioners have to obtain their national and local (state-based) credentials before they begin working in the field. Depending on which specialization you choose, you’ll need a certification from a specific organization. The following are nurse practitioner specializations and the organizations from which they need a certification. Keep in mind that you only need a certification from one of the following groups:

Family health NPs:

  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)

Pediatric NPs:

  • Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Women’s health NPs:

  • National Certification Corporation (NCC)

Adult-gerontology NPs:

  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
  • American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)

Neonatal NPs:

  • National Certification Corporation (NCC)

Psychiatric-mental health NPs:

  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

In order to obtain a certification, you first need to meet the following pre-requisites:

  • Have an RN license
  • Have an MSN degree from an accredited program
  • Have proof of specific coursework completed
  • Have at least 500 supervised clinical hours completed
  • Have a passing score on a comprehensive exam

Certifications can last anywhere from one to five years. In order to recertify, you’ll need continuing education credits. Licensing depends on which state you practice medicine.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

DNPs have to complete everything an MSN nurse does to obtain their certification and license. In addition, DNPs can also obtain certification from the American Board of Comprehensive Care. Introduced in 2007, this credential requires a passing score on an advanced exam. DNPs who wish to maintain their certification, which lasts five years, have the option of retaking the advanced exam or they can prove that they have completed 75 CE units and at least 1,000 clinical practice hours.

Where Will I Work?

Master of Science in Nursing

Nurses with an MSN degree can expect to work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals (state, local, and private)
  • Educational services (state, local, and private)
  • Physician offices
  • Other healthcare practitioner offices
  • Outpatient care centers

Doctor of Nursing Practice

Nurses with a DNP degree can expect to work in any of the settings available to nurses with an MSN degree. DNPs can work as executives as well as faculty positions. The following are some of the workplace settings DNPs can find themselves in:

  • Universities: Most nurse practitioner professors have either a Ph.D. or a DNP.
  • Public health offices: Nurse practitioners in the public health field often work to solve general health issues in the population and can influence health officials and policymakers based on their findings.
  • Independent practice: Nurse practitioners who launch their own practice can set their own hours and services, creating a flexible yet hard-working environment.

How Much Will I Earn?

Master of Science in Nursing and Doctor of Nursing Practice

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $113,930 in May 2018. Those in the lowest tenth percentile earned less than $80,670 and those in the highest tenth percentile earned more than $182,750. This range also includes nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists.

Unfortunately, the information available doesn’t distinguish between nurse practitioners with an MSN or DNP degree. However, wages are generally proportionate to one’s education degree and experience. DNPs can expect to generally earn more than MSNs, as well as assume bigger responsibilities, including management roles. While salaries will vary by geographic location, job role, and place of employment among other factors, DNPs can feel save about commanding higher salaries than their MSN counterparts.

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