Comparing the most popular graduate nursing degrees
As the field of nursing continues to grow, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is becoming a more popular option for advanced practice nurses looking to reach the highest heights in the field.
The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) remains viable across many nursing specialties. But the DNP is picking up steam, and nursing students must seriously consider the doctoral level when planning their educational pathway.
Discover the main differences between an MSN and DNP degree:
Let’s start by identifying all the relevant terminology to define the meaning of all the acronyms and abbreviations:
- DNP stands for Doctorate of Nursing Practice
- MSN stands for Master of Science in Nursing
- APRN stands for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, which encompasses Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM), and Nurse Practitioner (NP).
Not all MSN or DNP-prepared nurses are technically considered APRNs. For instance, nurse educators, leaders and administrators are not officially called APRNs.
The DNP is not the only doctoral degree option for nurses. There are also Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing and a Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS, or DNSc).
1. Degree levels and utility
An MSN degree continues to be a tried-and-true graduate-level pathway for students seeking to specialize in a particular field or become an APRN. Specialty MSN programs are designed to help you develop focused clinical skills in an area of your choosing, including nurse practitioner, nurse educator, clinical nurse specialist, or nurse administrator/leader.
The DNP degree is the next step up from an MSN degree.
The DNP represents a terminal degree, meaning it’s the highest degree you can earn in the field of nursing. Earn a DNP and you can best qualify for advanced nursing jobs and leadership opportunities across many different specialties.
Both MSN and DNP programs can be offered in distinct concentrations, such as various nurse practitioner specialties, executive/leadership, and nursing education, among others. However, available concentrations vary widely by school.
2. Curriculum differences
Both types of graduate-level degrees can cover similar topics in advanced practice nursing, but the difference lies in the scope of those topics.
However, a DNP program expands on concepts introduced in MSN programs, and includes a scholarly project as opposed to a clinical practicum.
Master’s-level classes tend to focus on a particular aspect of clinical care, with some initial coursework in leadership and management.
DNP classes more thoroughly explore topics in nursing leadership, administration, informatics, systems-based practice, and improvement science. These are deeper dives into topics relevant across all advanced practice specialties.
The most important hands-on component of an MSN program is typically a deep interdisciplinary clinical practicum experience. This is designed to prepare you best for clinical practice in your chosen specialty.
The key component of a DNP program is the scholarly project focusing on practice improvement. You’ll identify and engage with a problem, discovering the process of how to create positive change in the nursing field.
This is a very broad comparison but represents the basic differences between MSN and DNP curriculums.
Every school will tailor their programs uniquely based on their particular points of emphasis.
3. Certification requirements
Certification requirements vary by specialty—but keep close attention: the landscape is changing.
For instance, many advanced practice certifications to become a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP), and many others do not yet require a doctoral-level degree. Right now, master’s degree graduates continue to be eligible to become different types of certified APRNs.
But that may be changing soon.
The nursing industry, recognizing the enhanced skills and abilities doctorally-prepared nurses bring to healthcare, has begun pushing towards DNP requirements in advanced practice roles.1
This change is likely directly influencing recent enrollment trends.
4. Enrollment trends
Master’s degree programs are more abundant and produced many more overall graduates in 2021. According to the AACN’s most recent Annual Survey:
|Nursing program||2021 Programs||2021 Graduates|
|Doctor of Nursing Programs||407||10,086|
However, recent trends favor the DNP.
For the first time since 2001, there was less enrollment at the master’s level vs. the year prior (a 3.8% decrease).
Meanwhile, DNP enrollment increased by 4% over the same period, continuing a 20+ year trend of annual enrollment growth.
5. Salary potential
Because the DNP is the terminal degree in nursing, earning a DNP can potentially qualify you for top positions in the field of nursing—which can come with higher potential salaries.
According to the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey, registered nurses whose highest education was a DNP reported a median salary of about $100,000, 11% higher than the $90,000 median for those who had earned as much as a master’s degree. Medscape’s 2021 APRN Compensation Report states nurse practitioners with a doctorate make about 5% more than those with a master’s degree.2
Better pay represents just one of many potential benefits of earning a DNP.
6. How long it takes to complete
Program lengths ultimately vary by school—but expect it to take at least 2 years to earn either an MSN or DNP.
It will take additional time for BSN holders to earn a DNP as they will need to complete both master’s and doctoral-level classes.
Our DNP program, currently offered to those who have already earned an MSN, takes an average of 24 months to complete when attending full-time.