Master’s in Nursing (MSN) vs. Doctorate in Nursing (DNP) Degree – What’s the Difference?

If you want a career in nursing, you may be considering degree options beyond a bachelor’s degree. Pursuing a graduate degree program may prepare you for more specialized and upper-level nursing opportunities. Both a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) are options, but you’ll need to decide which is right for you based on your career goals.

What are the MSN and DNP Degrees?

MSN and DNP degree programs are for nurses who want to further their education and explore more career options than what’s available with only a bachelor’s degree.

The MSN is a graduate degree that may provide you with specialized knowledge, skills and expertise to pursue career opportunities like nurse administrator, nurse educator and clinical nurse specialist. 


The DNP is a doctoral program that may help prepare you for advanced nursing roles and leadership opportunities. According to the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF), the DNP degree may be the entry-level degree requirement for APRNs by 2025.

When deciding a nursing career track, some people may wonder, “Should I get my MSN or DNP?” The MSN and DNP have some key similarities and differences. Understanding how the degree programs compare may help you to decide the degree program path that’s right for you.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

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Earn a Master of Science in Nursing online from Simmons University.

  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 23 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

Earn an M.S. in Nursing online at the Wegmans School of Nursing

  • The Wegmans School of Nursing is ranked among the top 100 nursing schools nationally, and is No. 6 in New York state1
  • Part-time and accelerated tracks available
  • Four program options: PCFNP, PMHNP, AGACNP, AGPCNP

Earn your MSN online from USC’s Top-Ranked School of Social Work.

  • Prepares RNs to pursue board certification as family nurse practitioners
  • Earn a CCNE-accredited MSN in as few as 21 months
  • Choose from part-time and full-time study options

1 U.S. News & World Report, 2022 Best Nursing Schools: Master’s. Ranked in 2021.

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Similarities Between an MSN vs. DNP

Both the MSN and DNP are specialized programs that may help prepare you for your nursing career. They are designed to equip you with the skills you’ll use daily, including triaging patients, solving problems, and serving as a leader. Both programs give you the chance to explore more specialized fields of study than the more general education offered by a bachelor’s degree. 

These programs share similar education requirements. Most programs require that you complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing and have a current RN license to be admitted. 

After completing either of these degree programs, you may be more qualified and prepared for more opportunities than you would with a bachelor’s degree alone. These programs may prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse, pursuing a specialized career as a clinical nurse specialist, family nurse practitioner, certified nurse-midwife, or nurse practitioner.

Differences Between an MSN vs. DNP

The major difference between the MSN and the DNP is that the DNP is a terminal degree in the nursing field, and it helps to prepare nurses at the highest level of their practice–especially those planning to go into leadership positions. The MSN, being a master’s degree, does cover some of the same material as the DNP, but it may be designed to help nurses pursue initial licensure and certification as an APRN. 

The DNP is a slightly more versatile degree. It may still prepare you to pursue a specialty area, but it opens up other opportunities like the ability to become a clinical researcher or health care lobbyist.

These programs also take different amounts of time to complete. Earning an MSN takes about two years on a full-time basis. The DNP may take slightly longer, averaging two to three years. 

Master’s in Nursing Overview

An MSN degree is a graduate degree that may help registered nurses advance their careers. This degree program provides you with a specialized education that may prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse. 

If you decide that earning a graduate degree in nursing is right for you, you’ll have many nurse practitioner programs to choose from. An online MSN program may allow you to further your career while still meeting your full-time work and family requirements. Online family nurse practitioner (FNP) programs may also help prepare you for this specialized career field.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

Sponsored

Earn a Master of Science in Nursing online from Simmons University.

  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 23 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

Earn an M.S. in Nursing online at the Wegmans School of Nursing

  • The Wegmans School of Nursing is ranked among the top 100 nursing schools nationally, and is No. 6 in New York state1
  • Part-time and accelerated tracks available
  • Four program options: PCFNP, PMHNP, AGACNP, AGPCNP

Earn your MSN online from USC’s Top-Ranked School of Social Work.

  • Prepares RNs to pursue board certification as family nurse practitioners
  • Earn a CCNE-accredited MSN in as few as 21 months
  • Choose from part-time and full-time study options

1 U.S. News & World Report, 2022 Best Nursing Schools: Master’s. Ranked in 2021.

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Education Requirements

Education requirements for an MSN may vary from program to program. Many MSN programs require that you have a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) from an accredited program, as well as a current RN license. Programs may have different work experience requirements, with a minimum of one or more years of experience. 

Other potential requirements include a minimum undergraduate GPA and minimum GRE test scores. If you’re considering a particular MSN program, it’s best to thoroughly read the program’s admissions requirements to determine what additional steps you might need to take before applying.

Salary

With an MSN degree, you may be qualified for more specialized positions with higher salaries. The following are the mean annual wages for these nursing positions as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 

  • Registered nurses: $77,460
  • Nurse anesthetists: $181,040
  • Nurse midwives: $108,810
  • Nurse practitioners: $111,840

Keep in mind that many factors, including your location and years of experience, may affect nursing salaries, but earning an MSN may be a good start to boosting your earnings.

Scope of Practice

During an MSN program, you may learn skills that you’ll use daily, like how to conduct a thorough physical examination, criteria when prescribing medications, and how to make decisions on the job. Depending on the career path you choose, your scope of practice may differ slightly. 

For example, a nurse practitioner program may help nurses gain skills to provide direct patient care that involves performing checkups, diagnosing and treating illnesses or injuries, and even prescribing medication. In contrast, a certified nurse midwife program may help students learn more about prescribing medication and treatments, ordering diagnostic tests, caring for women and newborns, and more.

What can you do with an MSN degree?

One of the potential benefits of an MSN degree is that you may be able to pursue many career paths. Your MSN may prepare you to become an advanced practice registered nurse. Below are just a few of the careers that you may pursue with an MSN: 

  • Nurse practitioner (NP): As a nurse practitioner, you might work in a hospital, a government agency, or another health care setting. You may work to help patients stay healthy and might pursue a specialization, like acute care or cardiac nursing.
  • Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP): A PMHNP may assess, diagnose, and treat patients with psychiatric disorders. As a PMHNP, you might work in a psychiatric facility, correctional facility, mental health center, school or other location.
  • Women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP): A women’s health nurse practitioner specializes in women’s health and typically works with women of all ages, providing gynecological, prenatal, and well-women care. You might work in an OB-GYN clinic, a hospital, a women’s health clinic, or in another setting. 
  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP): A family nurse practitioner holds a role that’s similar to a physician, and may provide primary care to patients. Other responsibilities include educating patients and collaborating with other health care professionals.
  • Certified nurse-midwife (CNM): As a certified nurse-midwife, you may specialize in women’s health, care for women throughout their pregnancies, or care for newborns. 
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA): In this advanced practice area, you may administer general and local anesthesia, sedation, epidurals, and nerve blocks. You might work in a pain clinic, a dentist office, a medical center, and more.

Doctor of Nursing Practice Overview

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program delivers specialized, advanced training to nurses who want to hold upper-level positions. While traditional Ph.D. programs may focus more on academics and research, a DNP program may help nurses gain skills and education for further advanced practice and leadership roles. 

During a DNP program, you may learn how to manage teams, use new research in your practice, and improve health care. With a DNP degree, you may also be able to pursue many career options, including becoming a nurse educator, a certified nurse-midwife, and more.

Sponsored Online DNP Program

Georgetown University’s Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies’ (NHS) online Post-Master’s DNP program prepares APRNs to improve outcomes in clinical settings and implement systems-level change. The 30-credit curriculum can be completed part time in 20 mos.

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Simmons’ Leadership-Focused DNP Program for APRNs

 APRNs, earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice online from Simmons School of Nursing. Become a leader in your field and improve health care through evidence-based research. Master of Science in Nursing and RN license required.

Education Requirements

DNP program education requirements may vary, depending on the program. Some programs may require a bachelor’s degree in nursing; others may require at least a master’s degree in nursing. 

Programs may also require you to hold an RN license and minimum GPA and/or GMAT or GRE test scores. You may also need to have a certain number of years of work experience as a nurse. It’s best to carefully review the requirements of the programs you are considering.

Salary

With a DNP, you may be able to pursue more specialized career paths that often carry higher salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the 2019 median income for APRN careers was $115,800. Completing a DNP program may help prepare you to become an APRN in various specialties.Other careers may include becoming a nurse educator or patient advocate. Aa nursing instructor’s mean annual wage in 2019 was $83,160, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Salaries will vary depending on your geographic location, your years of experience, and where you work.

Scope of Practice

A DNP degree may help prepare you for many nursing career pursuits, and your scope of practice will largely depend on the career you choose. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, your DNP education will focus on areas like evidence-based practice, systems leadership and quality improvement

Earning your DNP degree may be applicable for many career options, whether that’s leading change in a practice, caring for a vulnerable population or being a mentor to other nurses. However, by 2025, the DNP degree may be the entry-level degree requirement for APRNs, as reported by the NONPF.

What can you do with a DNP degree?

With a DNP degree, you may potentially hold leadership positions. You might choose to specialize in one of many different fields, but just a few of your potential career options include: 

  • Nurse educator: With your specialized knowledge, you might choose to educate future nurses in college or at the postgraduate level. With a shortage of nurses, teaching the future generation of nurses is more important than ever. 
  • Patient advocate: As a patient advocate, you would help patients navigate the health care system, ensuring that their needs are met and that they’re connected with the right resources. Patient advocates may work in many settings, including hospitals, community agencies and nonprofits.
  • Private practice: Nurse practitioners may consider working in private practice settings. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) provides resources on practice management for NPs interested in private practice or expanding their knowledge on health care business.

In addition to these upper-level, specialized roles, a DNP degree may also prepare you for many of the same roles you could have with an MSN, including certified registered nurse anesthetist and certified nurse-midwife careers. 

Information on this page was last updated in January 2021.