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MSN vs. DNP - Which is Better?

9 Min Read Published November 7, 2023
Smiling doctor standing near window in hospital

Choosing between an MSN vs DNP largely depends on your ultimate career goals — here’s a guide to help you decide which degree is right for you. 

If you’re a nurse looking to further your education, you may be wondering what type of graduate program is right for you. Should you choose a Master’s degree in nursing or go for your doctorate? What are the advantages of each? While there is no one clear advantageous degree, the two degrees do support different career paths, so it’s important to understand the differences between the two before deciding which graduate program is right for you.

MSN vs. DNP: What’s the Difference?

In general, a master's degree in nursing has traditionally been geared towards nurses who are looking to specialize clinically, while a DNP is geared towards nurses looking for leadership positions to incorporate a more systematic approach to care that may also expand beyond the bedside. However, those are not hard and fast rules about the degrees, and ultimately, the decision depends on the type of education you want.

In general, an MSN degree has traditionally been geared towards nurses who are looking to specialize clinically, while a DNP is geared towards nurses looking for leadership positions to incorporate a more systematic approach to care that may also expand beyond the bedside. However, those are not hard and fast rules about the degrees, and ultimately, the decision depends on the type of education you want. 

MSN vs. DNP Compared

 

MSN

DNP

Tuition

$30,000 - $100,000

$20,000 - $150,000

Program Length

3 - 5 years

3 - 7 years (depending on MSN degree)

Program Types

  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nursing Informatics
  • Health Policy
  • Educational Leadership
  • Executive Leadership
  • Professional Leadership
  • Public Health
  • Nursing Education
  • Nurse Midwife

Salary

  • Nurse Anesthetists - $203,090
  • Nurse Practitioner - $121,610
  • Nurse Midwife - $120,880

(BLS)

$117,859 per year 

(ZipRecruiter.com)

 

Now, let’s dive into each of these degrees in more detail to understand their differences and who each degree is right for. 

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Overview

An MSN, or Master of Science in Nursing degree, is a graduate degree in nursing that provides advanced education in nursing. There are several different pathways that you can take with an MSN degree to choose which type of specialty you would like to focus on. 

For instance, you might focus on a Master’s degree in a non-direct patient care role, such as education, management, or health information systems, or choose a direct patient care role through an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) pathway as a Nurse Practitioner (NP). 

All APRNs must complete their Master’s degree, as well as any additional certifications for their specialty, while non-APRNs can earn just their Master’s. 

Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the average salary for an MSN degree-prepared nurse is $125,900 per year.

Scope of Practice

The most common types of APRN MSN degrees are Nurse Practitioners and Certified Nurse Midwives (CNM). 

An APRN MSN degree will prepare a nurse to:

  • Act as an independent practitioner in their specialty field.
  • Prescribe medications as per their specialty. 
  • Own and operate their own medical practice, as per state regulations. 

Program Length 

Typically, it takes anywhere from two to three years to complete an MSN program full-time. The program may take longer if you enroll part-time, but not all MSN programs allow part-time students.

Program Requirements

In order to enroll in an MSN program, you will need to meet the following requirements:

  • A Bachelor’s degree in Nursing
  • An active nursing license in your state
  • A completed application, along with fees your school requires
  • One year or more of nursing experience (this will depend on the school and specialty you are choosing)

Career Outlook

The BLS lists the outlook for MSN-prepared nurses in APRN roles to grow by 38% from 2022 to 2032, which is much faster than the average rate of job growth. According to the BLS, there will be around 123,600 openings for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners during that period.

Certifications Required

In order to earn your MSN, you must successfully complete a graduate program in nursing. If you choose an APRN MSN pathway, you must also pass the national certification exam in your specialty field.

Show Me MSN Programs

Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP)

Overview

A DNP is a doctorate degree in nursing, and it is the highest level of education in the nursing field. A DNP degree can function similarly to an MSN degree, as it can prepare a nurse to sit for certification as an APRN in a variety of clinical specialties, such as a Geriatric NP, Pediatric NP, Critical Care NP, or Family Care NP

Salary

The BLS does not track individual DNP salary statistics, as many DNP and MSN-prepared nurses practice in the same APRN roles. However, you can expect a similar baseline salary of around $125,900 for APRN positions. More specifically, nurse practitioners still earn a median annual salary of $121,610, while CRNAs make $203,090. 

DNP nurses also have more opportunities for salary advancement in senior leadership positions.

Scope of Practice

A DNP-prepared APRN can:

  • Practice as an independent practitioner for the most complex of patients
  • Employ advanced critical thinking skills and evidence-based practice and care
  • Implement new healthcare strategies and influence healthcare strategy and policies
  • May initiate healthcare research and projects
  • May act in expanded communication liaison roles, such as between medical device and pharmaceutical companies

Program Length

Most DNP programs require a full-time commitment of three to four years, and the majority of schools do not allow part-time enrollment. It’s recommended that nurses enrolling in DNP programs do not work outside of their academic work or do it on a very limited basis. As with any doctoral course of study, nurses in a DNP program must also complete a capstone DNP project.

Program Requirements

Although you might think that you have to earn your Master’s degree first in order to enroll in a DNP program, most do not require an MSN as a prerequisite; instead, the DNP program is an expanded program that is similar to the MSN degree. As such, a DNP program typically requires:

  • A Bachelor’s degree in Nursing
  • An active nursing license in your state
  • A completed application and fees
  • One year or more of full-time nursing experience 

Additionally, most schools will ask you to provide letters of recommendation, a statement explaining your intent, and you may have to take some prerequisite classes and/or the GRE, especially if it has been a while since you earned your Bachelor's degree. 

Career Outlook

The career outlook for DNPs is anticipated to be strong, especially as the AACN is advocating to transition all APRN roles to require a DNP degree. The AACN argues that APRN roles should require a doctoral degree, as they are similar to professions such as Physical Therapists and Pharmacists, which require doctorates.

Some specialties have already started making the transitions. For instance, by 2025, all CRNA programs will begin to offer a DNP pathway for CRNAs. As of right now, CRNAs will not be required to get a doctorate degree, but it will be offered as a mainstream option alongside a Master’s degree. 

Certifications Required

In order to earn your DNP, you must successfully complete a doctoral program in nursing. If you choose an APRN DNP pathway, you must also pass the national certification exam in your specialty field.  

How to Choose Between an MSN and a DNP

Deciding which degree can be a very big decision, especially when factoring in cost and time. 

Overall, there is no way to say with authority if an MSN or DNP degree is right for you — both degree pathways will prepare you for an advanced practice role as an RN and both may provide leadership and expanded clinical opportunities. 

A DNP may be the right choice if you are looking to become a CRNA, or wish to serve in more senior leadership positions, or to achieve the highest education level available in the nursing profession. A DNP degree is also considered a terminal degree, so once students achieve this degree, they will not have to continue to further their education. With an MSN degree, students may need to continue their education depending on their specific APRN degree. 

The AACN is also advocating moving all APRN roles to a DNP program, so it may be advantageous to pursue a DNP if that move should take place. However, a DNP program may be more expensive and time-consuming than an MSN, so expenses and your life circumstances (if you have to continue working or have family responsibilities, for instance) should be considered.

Another consideration is your lifestyle and what you can fit in. Most programs require in-person clinical experiences, making it difficult to maintain full-time employment. In fact, CRNA schools do not allow students to work at all once clinicals start because of the rigorous clinical requirements and call schedules. However, the sacrifice is worth it for many as the salary expectations are some of the highest among APRNs. 

When deciding which option is best, consider everything - from program length to program cost and career goals to determine which option is right for you.

Chaunie Brusie
BSN, RN
Chaunie Brusie
Nurse.org Contributor

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, RN is a nurse-turned-writer with experience in critical care, long-term care, and labor and delivery. Her work has appeared everywhere from Glamor to The New York Times to The Washington Post. Chaunie lives with her husband and five kids in the middle of a hay field in Michigan and you can find more of her work here

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