MSN Vs DNP: Comparison & Differences

Learn about the differences between an MSN and a DNP, such as program length, admissions requirements, common courses, and careers each program qualifies individuals for.

The Differences Between an MSN and a DNP

Master of Science in Nursing

An MSN, or Master of Science in Nursing, is a two-year graduate degree that is designed for registered nurses (RNs) to study nursing in more advanced specialties, such as public health nursing or advanced practice nursing, or study the business side of healthcare (for example, healthcare administration and nursing leadership). These programs typically require applicants to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing with a minimum GPA of 3.0, an RN license in good standing, letters of recommendation, and a CV/resume; some schools may require employment experience as a registered nurse. Some schools have bridge programs for those who have a bachelor's degree in another field, but some prerequisite coursework is still required. Typical curricula in nursing master's programs can include courses such as foundations of nursing practice, primary care, and pathophysiology; however, many courses are specific to the individual's chosen concentration. MSN programs can prepare individuals for careers as APRNs (advanced practice registered nurses) and nurse administrators.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

A DNP, or Doctor of Nursing Practice, is a doctoral degree that can last anywhere from 2-4 years, depending on the individual's previous nursing education, and prepares registered nurses to apply research to their practice and change healthcare policy. DNP programs are similar to MSN programs in terms of certification and potential careers; however, there are generally more concentrations to choose from in a DNP program, and the degree is terminal, meaning it is the highest form of education available in the field. Applicants will need to hold a BSN or an MSN, an unencumbered RN license, a certain number of hours of professional nursing experience, letters of recommendation, and a CV/resume. Coursework primarily depends on what concentration an individual chooses, such as neonatal care or family primary care, and students will need to complete a project/residency in order to gain certification. DNP programs can prepare individuals for careers as CNSs (clinical nurse specialists) and nurse educators.

Degree Program Program Length Program Requirements Related Careers
Master of Science in Nursing 2 years *RN licensure
*BSN degree
*Advanced Practice Registered Nurse
*Nurse Administrator
Doctor of Nursing Practice 2-4 years depending on the previous degree earned *RN licensure
*BSN or MSN degree
*Clinical Nurse Specialist
*Nurse Educator

Potential Careers for MSN and DNP Graduates

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses

Advanced practice registered nurses provide healthcare for patients in specialized fields; they need a master's degree in nursing in their chosen specialty in order to qualify. They may work in various concentrations such as anesthesia, midwifery, or primary and specialty care, and can work with specific populations such as children or individuals with mental health disorders. They can work independently or with physicians, and typically diagnose problems, prescribe medications, and order medical testing to be done.

Nurse Administrators

Nurse administrators work in clinical settings such as hospitals or nursing homes and oversee the nursing staff and may help develop or change policies and procedures. Their typical job duties can include managing and directing the nursing staff, hiring, reviewing staff performance, overseeing or managing budgets, and ensuring that patient needs are met; nurse administrators don't typically work directly with patients. MSN holders would use their knowledge of healthcare policy, administration, and nursing experience in this career.

Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical nurse specialists are a type of advanced practice nurse who work in a specialized field of their choosing, such as pediatrics or oncology. They are leaders in their field and are responsible for managing and improving nursing care, supervising other nurses in their department, providing direct specialized nursing care, and analyzing patient results to provide feedback for developing policies specific to their department. An individual with a DPN would be qualified for this career since it involves leading others in an advanced, specialized field and may also include research, which can only be done at the doctoral level.

Nurse Educators

Nurse educators develop and oversee the continuing education of individuals learning to practice as registered nurses. They typically work in classrooms and clinical settings to teach and train students, develop and evaluate curricula, and evaluate research to improve nursing practice. DNP holders would be qualified for this position due to their experience and expertise in nursing practice.

Job Title Median Salary Job Outlook (2018-2028)*
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) $113,930 (2018)* 26%
Nurse Administrators $86,877 (2019)** 14% (for all healthcare occupations)
Clinical Nurse Specialists $88,520 (2019)** 12% (for all registered nurses)
Nurse Educators $74,642 (2019)** 11% (for all postsecondary teachers)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **

MSN and DNP programs differ by how advanced and specialized the course material is; however, the educational requirements are generally similar, with both programs lasting at least two years and requiring a BSN and RN licensure for admission. MSN holders qualify for positions as APRNs and nurse administrators, while DNP holders qualify for positions as clinical nurse specialists and nurse educators.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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