The Difference Between MSN and DNP Degrees

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Doctor of Nursing Practice

Nurse speaking to her patient

Advanced practice nurses do more than deliver care. Their well-honed medical acumen helps them make sense of the ever-changing landscape of the health care industry in a way that delivers the most positive patient outcomes possible. Those aspiring to work in an advanced practice nursing role typically pursue one of two degrees: a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). While obtaining either degree can be key to finding success in the profession, there is a noticeable difference between MSN and DNP degrees — one that warrants deeper scrutiny.

Similarities and Differences

There are common threads between an MSN and a DNP. The most obvious is the goal that drives both positions. Both MSN and DNP graduates are charged with taking on advanced roles in clinical nursing in a manner that optimizes patient care.

Those with MSN and DNP degrees can work either independently or in collaboration with physicians. In some states, these professionals have the authority to order medical tests, prescribe medications, and diagnose health issues.

While the goal of providing optimal patient care represents the primary similarity between the two fields, it also establishes the biggest difference between MSN and DNP degrees: how this goal is achieved. In the workplace, a DNP graduate is charged with synthesizing information and research data mined from the ever-evolving sphere of health care into a cohesive, teachable plan of care that strives to improve patient outcomes. An MSN graduate, on the other hand, uses his or her understanding of these plans to execute care at the patient level. This fundamental difference in role can allow MSN and DNP graduates to operate as a cohesive unit.

Pursuing a MSN

An MSN curriculum typically narrows the student’s focus to a specific area of nursing, such as family care, pediatrics, geriatrics, or obstetrics and gynecological nursing. Some students may also incorporate courses focused on nursing administration or education as part of the MSN curriculum.

Regardless of the focus area, students can usually expect coursework devoted to advanced nursing theory, where they will explore current and theoretical concepts of how to provide optimal nursing care. Other typical courses center on management issues, research, clinical practice, and social and physical sciences.

Pursuing a DNP

DNP curriculum typically focuses on the development of skills needed to translate care theories born from research and evidence into practice-based care. Collectively, the courses strive to prepare students to become positive influencers on the nursing practice through the creation and execution of health care policy.

DNP coursework usually uses the concepts and experience taught at an advanced or master’s level as a foundation to hone the research and administrative elements of advanced health care practice. Ultimately, the curriculum may prepare students who are already registered nurses to become independent designers of primary health care.

MSN vs. DNP Degree Requirements

The length of time it takes to earn an MSN degree depends on the path taken. If an RN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), it typically takes two years of full-time coursework to obtain an MSN. If a student pursues the degree on a part-time basis, this degree can take up to four years to finish.

MSN students also must complete a defined number of clinical practicum hours prior to obtaining the degree. The number of hours required may range from 600 to 1,000, depending on the student’s specialty. This is to ensure graduates have the hands-on training needed to practice professionally. It also qualifies them to take the certification exam in their respective specialties.

Most BSN to DNP degree programs take three to four years of full-time coursework to complete. If students pursue this degree part time, they may need four to six years to complete it. Those transitioning from an MSN to a DNP may complete the program with one to two years of full-time study or two to three years of part-time study.

Additionally, DNP students must complete at least 500 to 1,000 clinical practice hours for doctorate qualification, depending on what degree they are transitioning from. Students also must produce an original scholarly work that demonstrates a capacity to apply DNP curriculum concepts to real-world settings.

Career Opportunities in Advanced Nursing

The field of advanced practice nursing is projected to boom over the next several years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 31 percent growth in jobs for advanced practice registered nurses from 2016 to 2026 — a rate that is much faster than the average occupation during this time.

There is an extra layer of potential job growth in the DNP field. Those who successfully complete a DNP program may have the unique opportunity to redefine health care as they translate new concepts and theories into viable practice.


Though both MSN and DNP graduates strive for an optimal health care experience, they go about reaching this goal differently. Obtaining a DNP degree gives students the ability to provide not only improved patient care today but also even better patient care in the future through the creation of research-based health care programs.

Learn More

The difference between MSN and DNP degrees is in the levels of education and responsibility that each one provides. When considering graduate school to pursue the MSN or DNP degrees, it’s important to consider both the school’s curriculum and how the program will fit into your life and work schedule. At Regis College, our online MSN to DNP degree program offers rigorous instruction, a deep academic curriculum, and a flexible online learning platform.


Recommended Reading

MSN to DNP – Sometimes It’s About the Journey

Career Opportunities for Graduates with a DNP Degree

Meeting the Need for Qualified Nurses with a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)




Bureau of Labor Statistics