MSN vs. DNP: Definitions, Differences and Tips

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated June 15, 2022 | Published May 25, 2021

Updated June 15, 2022

Published May 25, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

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Two nurses discuss patient records in a medical office setting.

The nursing field provides a variety of career paths for those interested in specializing or pursuing a leadership role. To do either, it's helpful to get an advanced degree such as a master’s in nursing (MSN) or doctorate in nursing (DNP). Whether you want to advance in your career or seek new job opportunities, comparing these degrees may help you decide which is a better choice for you. 

In this article, we discuss what MSN versus DNP degrees are, describe their similarities, explain how they're different and explore eight useful tips to help you decide between them.

What is an MSN?

 A Master of Science in nursing (MSN) is a graduate degree that provides students with advanced education and opportunities to refine their clinical skills and theoretical knowledge. An MSN also offers students many specialization routes so they can prepare for certain clinical and administrative health care positions.

For example, some MSN graduates work in health information systems or medical education. Other students may pursue an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) profession, such as a nurse practitioner or nurse midwife. 

Read more: Types of Master's Degrees in Nursing

What is a DNP?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is another advanced degree that prepares students for leadership positions within the nursing industry. Students typically earn an MSN beforehand, and it’s one of the highest nursing degrees a student can complete besides a Ph.D.

Getting a DNP degree can prepare students for specialized health care fields, like pediatrics, family care and critical care. They may also study data analysis, allowing them to pursue high-level administrative or research roles in a clinical facility, such as a medical and health service manager. 

Related: What Are the Different Levels of Nursing?

Similarities between an MSN and a DNP

MSN and DNPs have some key similarities, meaning they could benefit any professional who holds a bachelor’s degree and wants to develop their skill sets. For example, they’re both advanced degrees that allow you to pursue advanced nursing positions in a health care organization.

These programs provide in-depth coursework on clinical nursing skills, such as triaging or suturing, alongside options for specializations. 

MSNs and DNPs also emphasize leadership skills in the nursing field, as students receive training on how to make effective decisions and improve health care policies. Earning either degree may increase your chances of finding a position after graduation. Here are some additional similarities:

  • Earning potential: Graduates of both programs can increase their annual income, depending on their chosen specialization. For example, MSN and DNP graduates who hold an APRN position can make an average base salary of $123,780 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

  • Admissions requirements: Prospective MSN and DNP students have similar educational requirements for admission, including a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing (BSN) and a registered nursing license. They may also need to submit letters of recommendation, a resume and their academic transcript.

  • Practicum requirements: Both MSN and DNP programs require students to complete clinical hours in a health care organization, where they receive hands-on training in their specialization. They also learn to coordinate with other medical professionals, depending on their daily responsibilities.

Related: 20 Benefits of Earning a Master’s Degree in Nursing

Differences between an MSN and a DNP

Here are some of the primary differences between an MSN and a DNP:

Career opportunities 

The MSN degree path focuses on providing nurses with key medical skills and knowledge so they can excel in a new role or accept new responsibilities in a current job. For example, a nurse who wants to work in a psychiatric department might develop key skill sets related to mental health care.

An MSN can also provide nurses with instruction on medical ethics and relevant legal issues, preparing them for complex decision-making processes in the workplace. Here are some other examples of common career opportunities for MSN graduates: 

  • Nursing consultant

  • Nursing educator 

  • Forensic nurse 

  • Certified nurse-midwife

  • Clinical nurse specialist

A DNP degree program, meanwhile, provides nurses with advanced nursing skills and knowledge of health care systems so graduates can better work in positions of authority. While an MSN allows nursing professionals to work in APRN roles, DNP graduates may have an opportunity to serve as departmental leaders or policymakers.

This doctorate allows nurses to gain the necessary business intelligence to oversee other health care professionals effectively. A DNP program can increase your chances of getting a leadership role, such as:

  • Chief nursing officer 

  • Head nurse 

  • Nursing professor 

  • Advanced nurse practitioner

  • Clinical instructor

  • Health care lobbyist

Related: 10 High-Paying Nursing Jobs (And How To Get One)

Degree length 

It’s important to consider the time required to complete each program. An MSN degree typically requires anywhere between one and three years to complete, depending on your institution and specialization. The duration may also increase if you enroll part-time or decrease if you find an accelerated program. 

DNP programs can take four to seven years to complete after you finish an MSN, meaning it’s often a more long-term academic path. These additional years often account for DNP final project requirements, which typically require more in-depth research and study. Some universities offer a dual master’s and doctorate program, which may reduce the DNP degree’s overall length. 

Related: How Long Does It Take To Get a Master’s in Nursing?

Program requirements and coursework 

An MSN curriculum may provide instructions on various topics relevant to the health care field, including nursing theories, business management, behavioral science, clinical techniques and nursing informatics.

MSN students typically complete a minimum of 500 clinical hours in a health care facility. Depending on their chosen field, they may also complete certification courses to earn a credential after graduation. Here are some examples of common coursework in an MSN program:

  • Biology and chemistry

  • Statistics 

  • Diagnostics 

  • Teaching and evaluation

  • Scientific writing

  • Advanced health care management

DNP students complete similar coursework on nursing skills and knowledge, with an additional emphasis on data research and evidence-based practice. They receive specialized instruction on how to make positive changes to health care systems.

DNP programs typically require candidates to complete a final project involving a unique nursing theory or solution to an industry-wide issue. Many DNP graduates also complete a maximum of 1,000 clinical hours and may use their practicum experience to inform their project findings. Here are some examples of DNP courses:

  • Scholarly writing

  • Applied statistics 

  • Health care policy development

  • Systems leadership in nursing

  • Health care financial management

  • Interprofessional collaboration

Related: NP vs. DNP: Descriptions, Degree Requirements and Salary

Salary opportunities

DNP students often study specialized leadership skills, meaning they may have more opportunities for a high-paying, senior-level position than an MSN graduate. For example, a nurse manager makes an average base salary of $90,554 per year, while a chief nursing officer makes $128,028 per year.

Be sure to research salary information for your specialization and location, as these numbers can vary. MSN graduates can also increase their chances of getting a leadership position by completing additional coursework or getting relevant certifications.

Related: How Much Does an MSN Make in 2022? (Plus MSN Degree FAQs)

8 tips for choosing the right role

 Reasons to pursue an MSN or DNP can vary depending on your personal goals and life circumstances. Here are eight tips to help you decide between an MSN or a DNP:

1. Assess your circumstances

Consider your current academic status, career level and living situation, as these factors may affect which degree program you want to pursue. For example, if you have a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN), it may be helpful to pursue an MSN that accepts previous clinic hours or graduate-level coursework. An MSN may also work better if you currently work in a nursing position and have limited time to attend on-campus classes, as you may find more online course options.

Related: How To Choose the Right Nursing Degree Program for You

2. Evaluate your time commitments

n. Whether you want to pursue an MSN or DNP, it’s important to consider how they’re going to fit into your daily schedule. These degrees can have multiple time commitments for course activities, including practicum, studying, writing and researching. Try locating previous schedules from your top school choices online to evaluate your options more concretely. You can also develop example schedules based on this research. 

Related: Time Management: Tips to Effectively Manage Your Time

3. Consider your skills

List your most relevant capabilities for a nursing position. . For example, you may be skilled at providing clinical care to children or managing a team of nurses. Afterward, identify any areas of improvement you want to address in a degree program. Considering these elements can help you decide whether an MSN or DNP can best help you succeed in your career. 

Related: 15 Nursing Skills To Put on Your Resume

4. Define your career goals

 Take some time to reflect on your long-term career objectives. For instance, you could aspire toward promotion or work in a completely new medical role. You may also simply want to pursue a degree for general career development or to increase your knowledge for a teaching role. . Understanding your career goals can help you choose the most relevant program and specialization track. 

Read more: Learn How To Make a Plan for Your Career Goals

5. Examine the coursework

 Assess each program’s coursework commitments while making your decision. This factor can vary based on the university and the specific curriculum, so it may be helpful to note your favorite course options and whether they’re from an MSN or DNP program. You may discover that the coursework in one program aligns more with your career goals.

Related: Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree Worth It?

6. Consider personal obligations

 Depending on your family or work obligations, it may be important to consider which type of program offers part-time versus full-time enrollment options. For example, if you have both caretaking and job responsibilities, you might prefer a part-time schedule with classes at night. Consulting with your family or employer may provide you with some valuable insight and help you make a decision. 

Related: Effective Tips for a Better Work-Life Balance

7. Make a list of pros and cons

Making a pros and cons list can help identify which program works best for your career goals and lifestyle needs. Identify how and why each program can benefit you, then try to identify some challenges of pursuing an MSN or DNP. If the pros of one degree outweigh the cons of the other, your list may help you choose an optimal right academic path. If you identify any new factors in the future, be sure to update this list for your final decision-making process.

Read more: How To Create a Meaningful Pro-Con List

8. Review financial factors

 It’s often important to consider the costs of a graduate program. Several factors can influence these costs, including how many courses you take or how long a program takes to complete. You may also pay out-of-state fees or pay rent for new living accommodations.

If you currently work as a nurse, consider asking your employer if the organization covers any continuing education fees for employees. You can also research scholarship opportunities online or consult an academic career adviser if you currently attend a university. Identifying these financial factors can help you make a more informed decision between MSN and DNP programs.

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