MSN vs. DNP: What Are the Differences?

A care provider in a white coat talks with a patient.
A care provider in a white coat talks with a patient.

Updated March 17, 2023

Few professions are in as high demand nationwide as skilled nurses. Playing a key role in our health care system, advanced practice nurses can provide valuable, necessary care to patients and communities in need. Requiring extensive knowledge and skills, nurses with an advanced level of education and experience have the opportunity to play key roles in both the care of their patients and as leaders in the future of nursing. 

The main educational paths to becoming an advanced practice nurse are a Master of Nursing Science (MSN) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). There are many differences between a DNP vs. an MSN, including their educational outcomes. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there is a consensus that DNP programs expand beyond a master’s considerably, making it a highly sought-after qualification for many nurses and institutions.

The annual demand for DNPs continues to climb. Widespread concern over the shortage of primary care physicians coupled with an aging population creates prime ground for DNPs to step in.

By pursuing an advanced, well-rounded education or nursing specialization such as a DNP, nurses gain an abundance of knowledge and skills that benefit themselves, their patients and the state of health care nationwide.


MSN vs. DNP: Full Overview

Nurses have several options to choose from when completing their education. From their beginnings as registered nurses (RNs) to the specializations available to advanced practice certified nurse practitioners (NPs), each certification takes time and dedication and can greatly shape the future of a nurse’s career. 

For many, their highest level of education is a choice between a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). While the MSN and DNP are both advanced nursing degrees, a DNP is called a terminal degree — the highest level of education in nursing practice.


What Is an MSN?

An MSN is a graduate level nursing degree following a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). At the graduate level, nurses build complex and skilled nursing knowledge, and with an MSN and additional post-graduate certifications, they can become nurse practitioners or pursue a specialization with full practice authority.


What Is a DNP?

The terminal degree for nurses, a DNP is a degree that can equip future nursing leaders with a solid foundation for roles ranging from patient care to research, education and nursing administration. A practical degree, the DNP allows nurses to pursue specializations and gain experience in the latest nursing research, all while providing them with the leadership skills needed to pursue senior level roles. 

While both the MSN and DNP are significant investments in education, a DNP normally takes longer to achieve and offers more extensive training in complex clinical areas. 


MSN vs. DNP Leadership Opportunities

With proper certification and licensing, both MSN and DNP degree holders may currently practice as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) or nurse practitioners (NPs). Still, the MSN and DNP have significant differences, both in potential advantages to the nurse and benefits to the health care field.

Leadership prospects are disparate between an MSN vs. a DNP, with many institutions more likely to select a DNP-certified candidate for senior leadership or administrative and policy-centered roles. 

Many leaders in nursing believe that the DNP will become the educational standard for nurses in the future, with many institutions, experts and policy leaders working toward DNP standardization for advanced practice nurse practitioners across the country. With this shift in mind, many institutions both medical and educational favor DNP graduates when hiring for senior leadership roles. 

Since most nurses with advanced degrees stop at an MSN, a DNP is an excellent way to stand out as a candidate. Given the relatively small number of DNP degree holders, the degree stands out in the already in-demand nurse practitioner field.

Similarities exist in some MSN and DNP roles. For example, nurse practitioners who hold an MSN and those with a DNP can both specialize in different areas, including family care, acute care, adult gerontology or women’s health. 


Gaps in the Health Care Field That a DNP Can Fill 

Nursing is the largest health care profession in the U.S., with 3.1 million registered nurses (RNs) in 2021, according to the AACN. Data indicates that graduate degree-holders across the board are an elite group. According to the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey, 48.1% of nurses held a bachelor’s, 14.9% held an MSN and only 1.4% held a DNP degree.

Job growth for registered nurses between 2021 and 2031 is projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to be 6%, while nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners can expect a 40% growth rate. While the nursing profession is growing in all categories, several gaps exist that a DNP is in a unique position to fill.


A Changing Health Care Environment

The United States health care system is experiencing a nationwide shortage of both nurses and physicians. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the United States could see a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.

Many experts are projecting a demand for nurses to bridge the gap between traditional nursing roles and physicians. However, there is also a rising nursing shortage across the country, with the BLS projecting over 30,000 openings for advanced nursing professionals between 2021 and 2031.


State Practice Environment

The state practice environment, or the ability of a nurse practitioner to practice independently of a physician, varies around the U.S. Nurses who are certified to practice under full practice authority can provide additional and more advanced care services, including the ordering and diagnostics of tests and prescribing medication. 


MSN vs. DNP: Supply and Demand

The demand for highly qualified nurses is growing nationwide, opening doors for both MSN and DNP certified nurses. When contemplating pursuing an MSN vs. DNP, however, it is worth taking career goals and the potential transition towards DNP as the education standard into consideration. 

For those looking to pursue careers focused on either research or bedside care, earning an MSN, particularly with a post-master’s certification, can be a fantastic opportunity for many nurses. However, for those with ambitions that reach senior-level roles, education, administration or policy, the demand for DNP-level graduates in these coveted roles outnumbers the number of qualified candidates currently available to pursue them. 


The Need for More DNP-Educated Nurses

While the medical field is embracing every nurse practitioner, DNPs have never been more needed. As the need for health care grows with physician shortages and a changing medical landscape, DNPs are influencing health care for the better. While MSNs may practice as family nurse practitioners, DNPs bring the leadership and organizational experience to manage a multi-provider practice, open a business or move into other leadership roles.

The need for DNPs is continually growing, and the AACN notes the following as just a few of the factors affecting this progression:

  • Increased complexity of patient care
  • Shortages of nurses, “which demands a higher level of preparation for leaders who can design and assess care”
  • National concerns about health care quality
  • Shortages of doctorally-prepared nursing faculty
  • Increasing educational expectations in health care


The Industry Is Moving Toward the DNP as the Standard

A growing and consistent trend among credentialing bodies is the move to endorse the DNP as the standard for nurse practitioners.

In 2004, the AACN projected that by 2015, the DNP should replace the master’s degree for advanced practice. Further, in 2018 the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) endorsed a shift to making the DNP the entry-level of preparation for NPs by 2025. 

In their statement on MSN vs. DNP as the standard for NPs, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) notes that the DNP evolution can provide strength and encourage positive outcomes, ensuring that nurses are equipped to provide the best available care to their patients while making the transition to the DNP as an educational standard as smooth as possible. 


MSN vs. DNP: Salary Expectations

With average six-figure salaries and substantial projected job growth, few careers offer as much security as that of nurse practitioner. According to the BLS, the mean salary for all nurse practitioners was $118,040 as of May 2021.

The BLS does not differentiate between nurse practitioners with an MSN vs. DNP salary-wise. But the salary range among nurse practitioners is expansive. The BLS reports a $79,470 mean salary in the lowest 10% of incomes and almost double that, $163,350, in the 90th percentile.

With only 1.4% of registered nurses holding a doctorate, that may be a deciding factor in salary. Different states and areas of practice may come with differing salaries for DNPs.


How Do MSN and DNP Graduates Fare in Landing Jobs?

The demand for DNPs is mounting — the BLS reports that the overall employment of nurse practitioners is projected to grow by 40% between 2021 and 2031.

While employers are demanding more DNP-educated nurses in primary care for patients, DNPs are not limited to jobs in direct patient care. Universities need more qualified nursing instructors, and many DNP graduates fill postsecondary teaching positions. 

The AACN predicts a growing demand for DNP-held jobs in schools, hospitals, public health agencies and other settings. The BLS projects that medical service managers, an administrative position, will add 136,200 positions between 2021 and 2031, an increase of 28%. DNP-educated administrators may oversee a team of nurses, several nursing units, an entire department or an entire health system.

DNP-educated nurses may also choose to pursue:

  • Nursing informatics — This growing field may include focusing on maximizing efficiency, reducing cost and improving patient care using computer and information science.
  • Public health — This may involve managing clinics in state or community settings and working with government officials, teachers and parents.
  • Public policy — DNPs in this field help to shape health policy at the national or local level.


Start Your Nursing Career at Marymount University

The entry-level option for students with non-nursing undergraduate degrees is the Online ABSN. In just 16 months, Online ABSN students complete the following requirements in preparation for RN careers:

  • An on-campus residency
  • Clinical placements in Virginia
  • 100% online courses on topics like Research and Evidence-Based Practice

Marymount’s ABSN is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Nursing courses at Marymount are taught by practicing APRNs who can speak with authority about the profession. The university’s stellar reputation is confirmed by top U.S. News & World Report rankings in its National Universities and Nursing categories. 

If you want to become an RN, contact one of our student advisors to discuss if this program is right for you.


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