MSN vs. DNP: What’s the Difference?

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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). Both degrees are attracting thousands of online and on-campus students: According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), in 2019, 146,403 students were enrolled in nursing master’s degree programs, and 36,069 were enrolled in DNP programs.

While obtaining either degree can be key to finding success in the profession, there’s a noticeable difference between MSN and DNP degrees — one that warrants deeper scrutiny. For nurses who are considering enrolling in MSN to DNP online programs, doing an MSN vs. DNP comparison can be a useful exercise.

What Is an MSN Degree?

As AACN explains, nursing master’s degree programs help nurses climb the career ladder and move into more advanced nursing roles in areas such as direct patient care, teaching, administration, health informatics, and conducting research.

Individuals can earn their MSN degrees through a range of different programs. For example, according to AACN:

  • Individuals who have bachelor’s degrees in something other than nursing can enroll in entry-level master’s degree programs that are sometimes conducted in an accelerated fashion. Taking about two to three years, these programs generally lead to licensure as a registered nurse (RN) after the first year.
  • Individuals who are already RNs and have associate degrees can enroll in RN to master’s degree programs. These programs take about two years, depending on the coursework an individual has previously completed.
  • Individuals seeking dual degrees can enroll in dual MSN programs. Examples include dual MSN and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees, dual MSN and Master of Public Administration (MPA) degrees, and dual MSN and Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees. These dual programs run about two to three years.

What Is a DNP Degree?

AACN describes the DNP degree as a type of terminal degree for nurses who are seeking something other than a doctoral program focused on research. DNPs can put into practice the science that nurses develop through research-focused doctoral programs.

Rather than focusing on research, DNP programs are generally devoted to areas such as systems leadership, evidence-based practice, and improving the quality of health care. AACN notes that the DNP was developed in response to factors such as:

  • The growing complexity of patient care, as well as concerns about patient safety and health care quality
  • The ongoing nursing shortage, which has increased the need for nurse leaders who can assess a patient and plan patient care
  • A shortage of nursing faculty with doctoral degrees

Similarities Between MSN and DNP Degrees

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.

Differences Between MSN and DNP Degrees

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 an understanding of these plans to execute care at the patient level. This fundamental difference in the roles can allow MSN and DNP graduates to operate as a cohesive unit.

MSN vs. DNP: Typical Salary

Salaries for MSN- and DNP-credentialed nurses vary depending on the specific careers they pursue. Many MSN- and DNP-credentialed nurses choose to work as nurse practitioners, specializing in areas such as pediatrics, mental health, women’s health, adult gerontology or family health. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $111,680 as of May 2020.

While working as a nurse practitioner is a common career with either an MSN or a DNP, a number of other career options are available. For example, nurses with MSNs may choose careers as:

  • Nurse administrators, who manage teams of nurses or an entire nursing unit. According to PayScale, nurse administrators earned a median annual salary of about $89,600 as of September 2021.
  • Clinical nurse specialists, who diagnose and treat patients in specialized areas such as critical care, emergency care, or oncology. According to PayScale, clinical nurse specialists earned a median annual salary of about $91,900 as of September 2021.

Individuals who earn DNPs may choose careers as:

  • Nurse educators, playing a critical role in educating the next generation of nurses. According to PayScale, nurse educators earned a median annual salary of about $77,400 as of September 2021.
  • Health care executives, putting their expertise to work managing a medical department or an entire health care facility. The BLS reported that medical and health services managers earned a median annual salary of $104,280 as of May 2020.

 A DNP-prepared nurse sitting at a desk.

Pursuing an MSN

An MSN curriculum typically narrows the student’s focus to a specific area of nursing, such as family care, pediatrics, gerontology, 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, in which they’ll 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 out of 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 RNs 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 must also complete a defined number of clinical practicum hours prior to obtaining the degree. The number of hours required may range from 500 to 1,000, depending on the student’s specialty. This is to ensure that 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’re transitioning from. Students must also 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 BLS projects 52% growth in jobs for nurse practitioners from 2019 to 2029 — a rate that’s much faster than the projected growth rate of 4% for all occupations.

There’s an extra layer of potential job growth in advanced practice nursing. Those who successfully complete MSN or DNP programs may have the unique opportunity to redefine health care as they translate new concepts and theories into viable practice.

MSN vs. DNP: Progressing on Your Nursing Career Path

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.

If you’ve earned your MSN and you’re interested in pursuing your DNP, explore Regis College’s MSN to DNP online program. Offering rigorous instruction, a deep academic curriculum, and a flexible online learning platform, the program could be the next step on your nursing career path. Take the first step on that path today.


Recommended Readings

Career Opportunities for Graduates with a DNP Degree

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

MSN to DNP – Sometimes It’s About the Journey



American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2020 Annual Report: Building on the Past, Envisioning the Future

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Master’s Education

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, What Is a CNS?

PayScale, Average Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Salary

PayScale, Average Nurse Administrator Salary

PayScale, Average Nurse Educator Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers

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