DNP vs. MD: What’s the Difference?

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The medical field has no shortage of career options; this can make choosing an educational path a challenge. Students have to consider the demographic of patients they want to work with and what type of care they want to deliver. Furthermore, variables such as salary and job outlook also play a huge factor.

Out of all the available degree paths, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Medicine (MD) are two that students often compare. Both are terminal degrees that can lead to successful, high-paying careers in health care, but they have several distinct characteristics that students must understand before committing to one.

When comparing the DNP vs. MD, students will notice that their coursework, program intent, program length, and job opportunities are vastly different. A DNP program, for example, will position graduates to enter the workforce faster than an MD program.

Learning what a DNP is compared to an MD will do much to clarify how each degree path can launch a successful career in health care.

What Is a DNP Degree?

A DNP is considered a terminal degree, meaning that it is the highest level of education a nurse can attain. The degree is intended for nurses who wish to pursue leadership roles or advanced clinical roles. However, although a DNP is a doctorate-level education, DNP graduates do not have the same level of authority as medical doctors.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the curriculum of a DNP program builds upon a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) education and typically includes coursework covering systems leadership, evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and other key areas. Nursing students looking for an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs are a big reason that the number of DNP programs continues to grow year over year.

Another advantage of the DNP program is the various tracks and specialties that are available. DNP students at Regis College may select one of the following areas of concentration:

  • Adult Gerontology – Acute Care (AGACNP): Includes courses such as Acute and Critical Care Pharmacology; Clinical Concentration Course: Acute and Critical Care of the Adult-Gerontology Client; and Clinical Concentration Seminar: Acute and Critical of the Adult-Gerontology Client
  • Adult Gerontology – Primary Care (AGPCNP): Includes courses such as Political, Financial and Social Issues in Gerontology; Clinical Concentration Course – Adult Gerontology Primary Care I; and Clinical Concentration Seminar – Adult-Gerontology Primary Care
  • Nurse Education: Includes courses such as Instructional Methods in Nursing Education; Assessment and Evaluation in Nursing Education; and Introduction to Simulation in Nurse Education
  • Nurse Leadership: Includes courses such as Concepts in Nurse Leadership; Regulatory Issues: Nurse Leadership; and Strategic Management of Health Care Organizations
  • Pediatrics (PNP): Includes courses such as Clinical Concentration Course – Primary Care of the Child, and Clinical Concentration Seminar – Primary Care of the Child
  • Family (FNP): Includes courses such as Clinical Concentration Course – Primary Care of the Family, and Clinical Concentration Seminar – Primary Care of the Family
  • Psychiatric Mental Health (PMHNP): Includes courses such as Advanced Psychopharmacology; Theory and Practice of Contemporary Psychotherapies; and Clinical Concentration Course – Primary Care of the Psychiatric Mental Health Client
  • Women’s Health (WHNP): Includes courses such as Care of the Childbearing Woman; Clinical Concentration Course – Primary Care of the Woman; and Clinical Concentration Seminar – Primary Care of the Woman

The DNP program has multiple entry points, making it accessible to a broad range of students. For example, the MSN to DNP program is intended for those who already have a master’s degree in nursing. The length of the program is 24 to 36 months; students taking the MSN to DNP bridge program may take up to 44 months to graduate.

What Is an MD Degree?

An MD degree is what medical students who plan on practicing as physicians must earn. It is the highest level of clinical degree in the medical field.

MD students must hold at least a bachelor’s degree and meet the program’s eligibility requirements to gain acceptance. A traditional MD program consists of four years of clinical and classroom instruction. Indeed breaks down the MD program as follows:

  • Years 1 and 2: Classroom and laboratory academic classwork
  • Year 3: Clinical clerkship that takes place under the supervision of a qualified health care professional
  • Year 4: Continuation of clinical work and residency application

After medical school, students enter the residency program, where they work at a hospital or other health care facility. During the residency is when students may select a specialty. Depending on the specialty they choose, residency can take as little as three years or as many as seven.

MD specialties include the following:

  • Anesthesiology
  • Neurology
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Emergency medicine
  • General surgery
  • Hospice and palliative medicine
  • Medical oncology

MD vs. DNP Salary and Job Roles

Salary and career prospects are important factors to consider when comparing the DNP and MD. Students want confirmation that gainful employment awaits them once they complete their education and training.

Regarding DNP salary, Payscale reports that the median salary for an individual with a DNP  is approximately $110,000 per year (as of March 2023). By comparison, Payscale reports that the median salary for an individual with an MD is approximately $225,000 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), meanwhile, reported that the median annual salary for physicians and surgeons was upward of $200,000 in 2021.

Earnings potential is largely dependent on job title. For example, nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $120,680 in 2021, according to the BLS. This salary is in line with the average for an individual with a DNP. However, Payscale reports that psychiatric nurse practitioners can earn upward of $147,000. Factors such as experience and region also influence how much DNP and MD degree holders earn.

Pursue an Advanced Career in Health Care

Individuals interested in advancing their health care education must consider numerous factors when trying to select their path forward. For DNP and MD programs, the content of the coursework, degree intent, and program length are important considerations. For example, the MSN to DNP degree path is typically much shorter than the MD degree path, allowing graduates to enter the workforce much sooner.

Students must also consider the types of roles their degree will qualify them for, along with each role’s salary range. There are numerous specialties in nursing and medicine, and some make significantly more than others.

If you’re considering advancing your nursing education, explore the online MSN to DNP degree program at Regis College. Offered in eight different specializations, the program is the perfect avenue to prepare you for the next step in your career.

Learn more about the program and find out how it can help you advance your nursing career.

Recommended Readings

How a DNP Can Prepare You for Nursing Advocacy

How the Nurse Educator Shortage Is Impacting the Field

Is a DNP Worth It?


Association of American Medical Colleges, Careers in Medicine

Incredible Health, “What’s a DNP Degree?”

Indeed, “DNP vs. MD: Definitions, Key Differences and Tips”

Indeed, “How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?”

Indeed, “M.D. vs. PhD Degrees: What Are the Key Differences?”

Payscale, Average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

Payscale, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

Payscale, Medical Doctor (MD) Degree

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physicians and Surgeons