MSN vs. DNP: What Are the Differences?

DNP nurse talking to students
DNP nurse talking to students

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A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) are both advanced nursing degrees. In contrast to an MSN, a DNP is a terminal degree, the highest level of education in nursing practice.

The DNP is increasingly valued in the growing healthcare industry. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) compares the DNP to the MD, PharmD, “and others that require highly rigorous clinical training.” Elsewhere, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes the great value of the DNP education is “almost universally agreed-upon” among healthcare experts.

When students consider the curricula of an MSN vs. DNP, they can know a DNP curriculum expands a master’s considerably, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). They provide training “in evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and systems leadership, among other key areas.”

DNP-prepared nurses are well-equipped, according to the AACN, to implement the latest medical research in their daily work. This research includes “science developed by nurse researchers prepared in PhD, DNS, and other research-focused nursing doctorates.”

These healthcare industry observations of the DNP’s significance come as the annual demand for DNPs continues to climb. Widespread concern over the shortage in primary care physicians coupled with an aging population creates prime ground for DNPs to step in.

In considering an MSN vs. DNP, students should know that each degree may result in different outcomes for their career. A DNP offers abundant benefits for nurses, their patients, and the state of healthcare in the U.S. and world. Just a few of these include leadership opportunities, salary, and filling gaps in healthcare, some details of which follow.


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Roles and Leadership Opportunities for MSN vs. DNP

With proper certification and licensing, both MSN and DNP degree holders may currently practice as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) or nurse practitioners (NPs). Nearly 90 percent of all NPs are prepared in primary care. Still, the MSN vs. DNP have significant differences, both in potential advantages to the nurse and benefits to the healthcare field.

Leadership prospects are disparate between an MSN vs. DNP, according to one study published in NIH. Nurses who achieve their DNP are more likely to be hired in management roles than those with only a master's degree in nursing (MSN).

In considering the MSN vs. DNP management prospects, one nursing site agrees that DNPs are likely to have an edge. A DNP can “open doors to positions like chief nursing officer or nurse administrator that would not be available . . . with only an MSN.” The DNP is becoming the standard for nurse leaders and for nursing administration roles.

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

The coursework for MSN vs. DNP offers differing leadership preparation. According to research published in NIH, students moving beyond their MSN to DNP can focus on broad issues affecting healthcare. These include “evidence-based practice, quality improvement techniques, translation of research evidence to clinical practice, and addressing system-wide concerns.”

Similarities exist in some MSN vs. DNP roles. For example, nurse practitioners who hold an MSN as their highest degree may specialize in several areas, including family care, acute care, adult gerontology, or women’s health. DNPs may practice in any of these specialty areas.


MSN vs. DNP Salaries

With average six-figure salaries and substantial projected job growth, few careers offer as much security as that of a nurse practitioner. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean salary for all nurse practitioners is $111,840.

BLS does not differentiate between salaries for nurse practitioners with an MSN vs. DNP. The salary range among those nurse practitioners, however, is expansive. The BLS reports an $81,410 mean salary in the lowest 10% of incomes and almost double that, $152,160, in the 90th percentile.

With only 1.2 percent of registered nurses holding a doctorate, that may be a standout deciding factor in salary. One site notes, “Nurses with a DNP . . . would typically qualify for the higher end of the pay scale than nurses without their doctorate.” Different states and areas of practice may come with typically higher or lower salaries for DNPs.

U.S. News & World Report reported that some nursing specialists can earn more than doctors. According to one medical consulting firm, qualified nurse practitioners may be offered up to $197,000. Further, DNPs can complete their terminal degree in less time than physicians—and typically with less debt.


Gaps in the Healthcare Field That a DNP Can Fill

Nursing is the largest healthcare profession in the U.S., with more than 3.9 million registered nurses (RNs). Data indicates that degree-holders for MSN vs. DNP across the board are an elite graduate group. According to AACN, 45.2% of nurses hold a bachelor’s, 17.1% hold an MSN, and only 1.2% hold a DNP degree.

The 10-year job growth for registered nurses sits at 12%. Nurse practitioners can expect a 28% growth rate. While the nursing profession is growing in all categories, several gaps exist that a DNP is in a unique position to fill.


The Need for MSN vs. DNP in a Changing Healthcare Environment

The United States healthcare system is experiencing a nationwide shortage of physicians. The Kaiser Foundation observes, “Over 58 million Americans reside in geographic areas or belong to population groups that are considered primary care shortage areas.” Several studies demonstrate nurse practitioners can manage up to 90 percent of the care traditionally provided by primary care physicians.

As the healthcare landscape continues to grow and shift with an aging population, so do opportunities for DNPs. “Evidence from substantial research literature shows that primary care outcomes . . . are comparable between patients served by NPs and patients served by physicians.” These include reduction of symptoms, patient satisfaction, and improvement in pathological conditions.

Naturally, this DNP medical proficiency has led to a nationwide drive to educate and hire more DNPs. U.S. News & World Report observes the push for more DNPs. “The increased responsibilities of advanced practice nurses [can] bridge gaps as primary providers due to doctor shortages.”


The Existing Supply of Nurses with MSN vs. DNP

Graduate programs have risen in response to this need for DNPs. According to the AACN, the number of DNP programs has tripled over the last decade.

From 2017 to 2018, the number of students enrolled in DNP programs grew steadily from 29,093 to 32,678. Similarly, the number of DNP graduates grew from 6,090 to 7,039.

Unfortunately, despite this promising trend, the need for DNPs still far outweighs the current level of graduates. In 2018, only 17.1 percent of registered nurses held their master’s, while less than 2% held a DNP. According to AACN, “The demand for . . . doctorally prepared nurses for advanced practice, clinical specialties, teaching, and research roles far outstrips supply.”


State Practice Environment

The state practice environment, or the ability of a nurse practitioner to practice independently of a physician, varies around the US. In early 2020, several states quickly augmented their restrictive practice with the rise of COVID-19 and the mounting need for qualified healthcare.


Choosing an MSN vs. DNP as Your Highest Degree

According to industry experts, nurses should continue moving past an MSN to a DNP for at least three compelling reasons.

First, in considering an MSN vs. DNP, many agree the DNP is moving toward becoming the industry standard for nurse practitioners. Second, with the nationwide shortage of primary physicians, DNPs have never been more needed to ensure quality and efficiency in practice. Finally, several studies indicate patient outcomes are commensurate with nurse education levels.


MSN vs. DNP - The Industry Is Moving Toward the DNP as the Standard

While both degrees are valued, in considering an MSN vs. DNP, many agree the healthcare industry is steadily shifting its focus. A growing and consistent change among credentialing bodies has moved to endorse the DNP as the standard for nurse practitioners.

While not yet mandated across the profession, U.S. News & World Report observes the movement. “There's a general trend within nursing to increase education levels across the board among both entry-level nurses and advanced practice nurses.”

The magazine goes on to note this is not limited to the field of nursing. “Many high-paying healthcare occupations, such as physical therapists and audiologists, which previously required a two-year degree, now require a doctorate.”

In 2004, the AACN projected that by 2015, the DNP should replace the master’s for advanced practice. Further, in 2018 the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) endorsed moving all “entry-level nurse practitioner education to the DNP degree by 2025.”

In their statement on MSN vs. DNP as the standard for NPs, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) is thoughtful. AANP notes that the DNP evolution “can add strength to programs and NP practice.” However the movement “must be conducted in a manner that allows for smooth transitioning.”

A chief academic officer at AACN notes that many nurse practitioner organizations have endorsed the shift to DNP. They “have put out statements and mandated that programs transition” to the DNP as the standard. Therefore, when students are choosing between an MSN vs. DNP, the AACN officer encourages students to consider the DNP program.


MSN vs. DNP—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 healthcare grows with physician shortages and a changing medical landscape, DNPs are influencing healthcare 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 data in scholarly journals consistently points to the growing need for DNP-prepared nurses. According to research publishing in NIH, “The rapid development of the clinical practice doctorate since 2004, the doctor of nursing practice or DNP degree, is shaping the preparation of nurses for advanced practice roles.”

While the need for DNPs is continually growing, AACN noted 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 healthcare quality
  • shortages of doctorally-prepared nursing faculty
  • increasing educational expectations in healthcare


Research Shows That Better Educated Nurses Result in Better Patient Outcomes

Multiple research studies over recent decades have shown a link between the level of degree held and patient well-being. One Journal of the American Medical Association article “identified a clear link between higher levels of nursing education and better patient outcomes.” In another study, researchers discovered that surgical patients had 14% lower odds of inpatient death with well-educated nurses.

The healthcare industry is actively working to make doctoral degrees among nurses more common. One NIH article noted, “Changes underway are intended to increase the cadre of . . . advanced practice nurses needed to address the pressing health problems in society.”

Similarly, AACN noted, “Nursing is moving in the direction of other health professions in the transition to the DNP. Medicine (MD), Dentistry (DDS), Pharmacy (PharmD), Psychology (PsyD), Physical Therapy (DPT), and Audiology (AudD) all require or offer practice doctorates.” In many ways, the DNP is shaping the future of advanced practice nursing.


How Do MSN vs. DNP Graduates Fare in Landing Jobs?

The demand for DNPs is mounting, and the unemployment rate in the nurse practitioner profession is virtually non-existent at 1.2%. While nurses made the BLS list of occupations with the most job growth at 12.1%, the pace of NPs far exceeds that.

BLS projects a 26% 10-year growth for advanced practices nurses—much faster than the average for all occupations, which is five percent. That growth rate shows no signs of slowing. According to AACN, “Employers are quickly recognizing the unique contribution these expert nurses are making in the practice arena, and the demand for DNP-prepared nurses continues to grow.“

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. AACN observes, “Given the shortage of nurse faculty, the job outlook for those seeking careers in nurse education is bright.”

AACN predicts a growing demand for DNP-held jobs in schools, hospitals, public health agencies, and other settings. BLS projects that medical service managers, an administrative position, will add 71,600 positions, an 18% growth rate, in the coming years. 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.


Are You Ready for the Next Step in Advancing Your Career?

Are you considering an MSN vs. DNP? In 2019, 100% of Marymount program graduates passed their certification exam on their first attempt. Marymount University is U.S. News & World Report ranked for Best Value Schools.

Marymount University’s online BSN to DNP-FNP program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). CCNE is the leading accrediting agency for graduate nursing programs in the U.S.

The comprehensive, faith-based education Marymount offers meets the needs of the whole student as they grow—academically, emotionally, and spiritually. While a credentialed, MSN-prepared nurse can assist in primary care settings as an FNP, a DNP opens innovative opportunities in business, managing medical practices, research, and academics. Take your nursing skills to the next level and join the next generation of nurse leaders with Marymount University’s online BSN to DNP-FNP program.


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