October 31, 2019

MSN vs. DNP - Which is Better?

Choosing between an MSN vs DNP largely depends on your ultimate career goals — here’s a guide to help you decide which degree is right for you. 

If you’re a nurse looking to further your education, you may be wondering what type of graduate program is right for you. Should you choose a Master’s degree in nursing or go for your doctorate? What are the advantages of each?

While there is no one clear advantageous degree, the two degrees do support different career paths, so it’s important to understand the differences between the two before deciding which graduate program is right for you.

In general, an MSN degree has traditionally been geared towards nurses who are looking to specialize clinically, while a DNP is geared towards nurses looking for leadership positions to incorporate a more systematic approach to care that may also expand beyond the bedside. However, those are not hard and fast rules about the degrees, and ultimately, the decision depends on the type of education you want. 

There has also been the talk of changing the requirements for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses from an MSN to a DNP, so that is a consideration as well if you are planning your education advancement further into the future. For instance, if you won’t be enrolling in your graduate education for a few years, you should be aware that the requirements may change by then. But until that happens, here is some more information about the two different degrees. 

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

An MSN, or Master of Science in Nursing degree, is a graduate degree in nursing that provides advanced education in nursing. There are several different pathways that you can take with an MSN degree to choose which type of specialty you would like to focus on. 

For instance, you might focus on a Master’s degree in a non-direct patient care role, such as education, management, or health information systems, or choose a direct patient care role through an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) pathway with as a Nurse Practitioner. All APRNs must complete their Master’s degree, as well as any additional certifications for their specialty, while non-APRNs can earn just their Master’s. Here are more specifics about what you can expect from an MSN degree: 

>>Related: The Highest Paying Jobs For Nurses With an MSN Degree


The most recent 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the average salary for an MSN-degree prepared nurse is $115,800 per year. In general, you can expect to make more with an MSN degree, but the exact amount you can make will depend on if you work full or part-time, what specialty you choose, and what kind of work environment you have, such as a hospital or private practice. 

Scope of Practice

The most common types of APRN MSN degrees are Nurse Practitioners and Nurse-Midwives. The BLS notes that most MSN-prepared nurses work full-time and work in a variety of settings from hospitals to clinics to private practices or in academic and research-based institutions.

An APRN MSN degree will prepare a nurse to:

  • Act as an independent practitioner in his/her specialty field.
  • Prescribe medications, as per his/her specialty. 
  • Own and operate his/her own medical practice, as per state regulations. 

Program Length and Requirements

Typically, it takes anywhere from two to three years to complete an MSN program full-time. The program may take longer if you enroll part-time, but not all MSN programs allow part-time students and those that do may cap the maximum amount of time you can take to complete the program as well. 

In order to enroll in an MSN program, you will need to meet the following requirements:

  • A Bachelor’s degree in Nursing
  • An active nursing license in your state
  • A completed application, along with fees your school requires
  • One year or more of nursing experience (this will depend on the school and specialty you are choosing)

Additionally, most schools will ask you to provide letters of recommendation, a statement explaining your intent, and you may have to take some prerequisite classes and/or the GRE. 

Some schools also allow individuals who are not nurses but have a Bachelor’s degree in another area to enroll directly into an MSN program. These types of programs may take a little longer than a traditional MSN program, as they prepare you to take both the NCLEX and any chosen APRN certification as well. 

Career Outlook

The BLS lists the outlook for MSN-prepared nurses, especially in the APRN role to be growing at a rate of 26% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average rate of job growth. 

Certifications Required

In order to earn your MSN, you must successfully complete a graduate program in nursing. If you choose an APRN MSN pathway, you must also pass the national certification exam in your specialty field.

Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP)

A DNP is a doctorate degree in nursing and it is the highest level of education in the nursing field. A DNP degree can function similarly to an MSN degree, as that it can prepare a nurse to sit for certification as an APRN in a variety of clinical specialties, such as a Geriatric NP, Pediatric NP, Critical Care NP, or Family Care. 

As John Hopkins University explains, DNP-prepared nurses gain advanced levels of clinical skills and systems thinking, which allows them to enter into roles with more responsibility to care for both individual and population health needs. For instance, a Nurse Practitioner with an MSN degree may work in a hospital as a Critical Care Practitioner to deliver bedside care, while a Nurse Practitioner with a DNP degree may deliver care as well as lead the nursing team in an expanded role. 

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) also explains that practice-based DNP programs focus on 7 key areas of instruction:

  • Scientific underpinnings for practice
  • Advanced nursing practice
  • Organization and system leadership/management, quality improvement, and system thinking
  • Analytic methodologies related to the evaluation of practice and the application of evidence for practice
  • Utilization of technology and information for the improvement and transformation of healthcare
  • Health policy development, implementation, and evaluation 
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration for improving patient and population healthcare outcomes


The BLS does not track individual DNP salary statistics, as many DNP and MSN-prepared nurses practice in the same APRN roles. However, you can expect a similar baseline salary of around $113,930 for APRN positions like nurse practitioners or $174,790 for CRNAs. DNP nurses also have more opportunities for salary advancement in senior leadership positions.

Scope of Practice

A DNP-prepared APRN can:

  • Practice as an independent practitioner for the most complex of patients
  • Employ advanced critical thinking skills and evidence-based practice and care
  • Implement new healthcare strategies and influence healthcare strategy and policies
  • May initiate healthcare research and projects
  • May act in expanded communication liaison roles such as between medical device and pharmaceutical companies

Program Length and Requirements

Although you might think that you have to earn your Master’s degree first in order to enroll in a DNP program, most do not require an MSN as a prerequisite; instead, the DNP program is an expanded program that is similar to the MSN degree. As such, a DNP program typically requires:

  • A Bachelor’s degree in Nursing
  • An active nursing license in your state
  • A completed application and fees
  • One year or more of full-time nursing experience 

Additionally, most schools will ask you to provide letters of recommendation, a statement explaining your intent, and you may have to take some prerequisite classes and/or the GRE, especially if it has been a while since you earned your Bachelor's degree. 

Most DNP programs require a full-time commitment of three to four years, and the majority of schools do not allow part-time enrollment. It’s recommended that nurses enrolling in DNP programs do not work outside of their academic work or do on a very limited basis. As with any doctoral course of study, nurses in a DNP program must also complete a capstone DNP project that meets the requirements set by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing that include:

  • Change that will impact a healthcare outcome
  • A plan for sustainability 
  • A foundation for future practice\

Show Me DNP Programs

Career Outlook

The career outlook for DNPs is anticipated to be strong, especially as the AACN is advocating to transition all APRN roles to require a DNP degree. The AACN argues that APRN roles should require a doctoral degree, as they are similar to professions such as Physical Therapists and Pharmacists, which require doctorates. And some have already started making the transitions — for instance, by 2025, all CRNA programs will begin to offer a DNP pathway for CRNAs. As of right now, CRNAs will not be required to get a doctorate degree, but it will be offered as a mainstream option alongside a Master’s degree. 

The AACN also notes that there has been a significant increase in enrollment in DNP programs, with an additional 3,000 students enrolling from 2017 to 2018 and 98 new DNP programs being planned to be added to schools across the country. 

Certifications Required

In order to earn your DNP, you must successfully complete a doctoral program in nursing. If you choose an APRN DNP pathway, you must also pass the national certification exam in your specialty field.  

Overall, there is no way to say with authority if an MSN or DNP degree is right for you — both degree pathways will prepare you for an advanced practice role as an RN and both may provide leadership and expanded clinical opportunities. 

A DNP may be the right choice if you are looking to become a CRNA, or wish to serve in more senior leadership positions or to achieve the highest education level available in the nursing profession. The AACN is also advocating to move all APRN roles to a DNP program, so it may be advantageous to pursue a DNP if that move should take place. However, a DNP program may be more expensive and time-consuming than an MSN, so expense and your life circumstances (if you have to continue working or have family responsibilities, for instance) should be considered.

Find Nursing Programs