DNP vs MSN Degree – Benefits + Differences

Nursing professionals who want to enjoy the highest level of responsibility and salary usually will choose to earn a Master of Science of Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Which degree you decide to get will depend upon your career goals. Earning your MSN takes less time and in some cases, offers more career options. But there are career paths where a DNP could be the best option as well.

Also, remember that the DNP is slowly becoming the standard degree of choice to enter some advanced nursing practices, such as nurse practitioner and nurse anesthetist (more on this later in this article).

For students who are trying to decide between the MSN or DNP should really understand the similarities and differences between the two graduate level degrees.

Generally, it is important to remember the following difference between these two excellent degree choices:

  • DNPs usually work to come up with new clinical, scientific and structural information about the nursing profession, and they then apply that knowledge to practice. They are scientists and nurses who work in a clinical or academic setting.
  • MSN holders usually practice medicine in clinical settings and they do not stress scientific and academic research in their daily work.

MSN Overview

The Master of Science in Nursing degree has been the standard graduate level degree for experienced registered nurses to move into higher paying advanced practice nursing professions. These professions are:

  • Nurse practitioner
  • Certified nurse anesthetist
  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Certified nurse midwife

The MSN degree stresses rigorous academic and clinical preparation in clinical health, administration, leadership, global health care and education. Coursework focuses on advanced clinical diagnosis skills, management and leadership.

An MSN requires at least two years of full time study and 500+ hours of supervised clinical work. A thesis or capstone project usually is required as well.

Some of the classes MSN students cover:

  • Physiology and pathophysiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical assessment
  • Clinical decision-making
  • Family and organizational systems
  • Clinical management
  • Research methods and evidence-based practice

MSN holders who work as nurse practitioners tend to provide more direct medical care as they diagnose, treat and provide highly effective after care to patients.

DNP Overview

A DNP degree provides you with more advanced nursing skills in a clinical setting, as well as in administration and leadership. Generally, a DNP program is somewhat an extension of the work done in an MSN program:

  • Addresses vital skills that are needed to take evidence-based care and translate it into practice.
  • Curriculum focuses on highly advanced clinical care and speciality courses, as well as advanced instruction in nursing theories and nursing research.
  • Learn to incorporate advanced nursing theories, knowledge and concepts to come up with ethical systems and new methods of managing nursing practices to reduce disparities.

Classes that are covered in the DNP program differ from MSN. The program is more focused on pursuing advanced clinical and research work:

  • Healthcare economics
  • Informatics and healthcare systems
  • Public policy initiatives
  • Grant writing
  • Clinical leadership and inter-professional collaboration
  • Professional ethics
  • Statistics and biostatistics
  • Clinical issues in genetics and genomics
  • Epidemiology
  • Therapeutics
  • Research methods and evidence-based practice

DNP holders also are more often becoming nurse practitioners but they also are often executive and administrative leaders of health care organizations, and also come up with new best practices for providing the best health care.

One of the primary reasons to consider earning your DNP is that the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) will begin to require all nurse practitioners to have a DNP as of 2015. Nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses with an MSN will be able to continue to practice, but most new advanced practice nurses will need to earn their DNP.

While many universities continue to offer the MSN degree, there is a slow transformation underway in the industry. Approximately 30% of universities in the US now offer BSN to DNP programs, and are entirely skipping the MSN degree.


The nursing professions is in a transition period, as the DNP degree is slowly becoming the standard to enter the advanced nursing practice profession. As you continue to explore the profession, you should examine some of the facilities you may want to work in a few years. You should learn if a DNP degree will be required, or if you can get an MSN degree.

According to a report by AACN, for now, there will continue to be two tracks: a BSN to DNP process and a BSN to MSN, followed by an MSN to DNP later. The report noted that as of 2015 most employers were not differentiating between an MSN and DNP, although this will likely change with time.