Which Degree Path is Right for Me? (MSN vs. DNP)

Nurse Practitioner - MSN or DNP Paths
Nurse Practitioner - MSN or DNP Paths

If you want to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), you might take several educational routes to achieve this goal. Both the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees are potential pathways for a registered nurse to pursue. When choosing graduate nursing education to become a nurse practitioner, you must consider the MSN vs. DNP.

Successful completion of doctoral education in nursing is not a mandatory requirement for advanced practice nurse practitioners, but there are benefits to earning a DNP degree. This blog will help you differentiate between the MSN and DNP degree routes and help you determine which is best for you.

Key Differences Between MSN and DNP Programs

A Master of Science in Nursing degree with a clinical practice focus prepares nurses to become advanced practice clinicians. You will develop the ability to effectively apply research evidence in practice with an MSN degree, and you can become a qualified nurse practitioner with this advanced education. The Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is the next step beyond an MSN for emerging APRN leaders in healthcare.

Tuition for a graduate nursing program is dependent on the number of credit hours you are looking to complete in your chosen degree program. The cost commitment per semester is variable with part-time or full-time schedules. Affordable programs are available in online formats that are customizable to fit your needs, and some students are eligible for financial aid.

Generally speaking, an MSN program will take less time to complete than a DNP program. However, students may choose a part-time or full-time schedule to work through any curriculum at a pace tailored to their unique timelines. Knowing your desired program completion date is essential for determining the best pathway forward.

Program Lengths and Scheduling Options

Part-time schedules are typically designed to accommodate working nurses, while full-time schedules naturally require students to reduce outside commitments and devote focused energy toward a more intensive experience. An MSN degree can be completed in approximately eight semesters (or 32 months), while the DNP completion timeline is dependent upon whether you enter the doctoral program holding a current bachelor’s or master’s degree.

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to DNP program can be completed in approximately ten semesters, while a Post-Master’s DNP takes approximately six semesters. You also have the option to earn an MSN degree first and then enroll in a DNP program.

As you explore available MSN and DNP program options, you may find programs with similar core requirements but distinctions in clinical hours or elective program content. Next, let’s explore what differentiates the MSN program curriculum from the terminal, clinical doctorate.

Accreditation Requirements Guide Required Curriculum

Programmatic accreditation is a process where faculty and staff work diligently to ensure you receive a high-quality education. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is a national accrediting agency that sets forth curriculum requirements and processes for the delivery of education to ensure graduates of accredited programs are prepared to serve the public well. Both MSN and DNP programs are eligible to receive CCNE accreditation, and this is an important marker to look for when you evaluate potential graduate nursing program options.

Both MSN and DNP programs require the completion of practicum hours that can range from 750 to 1,250 in accordance with accreditation standards. To become a nurse practitioner, you will be engaged in direct patient care under the supervision of a preceptor and faculty member. These individuals (along with clinical coordination staff) ensure your clinical placement is appropriately vetted to meet program outcomes so your clinical activities align with the population and scope of practice appropriate for the credentials you will earn.

In a DNP program, clinical hours earned in an MSN program are often credited toward the number of required hours for the DNP program. This is encouraging for potential doctoral students entering the program with an MSN already completed. Once the required direct patient care clinical hours are achieved, remaining doctorate clinical experiences for your degree completion may include other learning activities specifically designed to grow your competency in the areas deemed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) to be essential for advanced nursing practice.

Essentials for the DNP

DNP graduates complete more clinical hours than MSN graduates, and DNP programs focus heavily on integrating the AACN essentials within the curriculum. The DNP essentials include:

  • Scientific foundations for nursing practice
  • Leadership skills for quality improvement and systems thinking
  • Scholarship and methods for analyzing research evidence for translation to practice
  • Strategic applications of information and patient care technology
  • Principles related to health care policy and advocacy within health systems
  • Focus on interprofessional collaboration for improved outcomes
  • Health promotion and disease prevention in public health
  • Implementation of these essentials within an advanced nursing practice role

With the completion of doctoral education, professorial appointments and other employment opportunities in teaching are more plentiful. In addition, roles held by DNP graduates may have a higher focus on organizational and executive leadership when compared to MSN graduates.

MSN vs. DNP Nurse Practitioner Practice

State laws regulate the scope of practice for nurse practitioners. Both MSN and DNP programs qualify graduates from the education requirement perspective for eligibility to sit for national board certification and apply for nurse practitioner licensure. The ability of a nurse practitioner to pursue independent practice in a particular state is dependent on that state’s regulations for licensed nurse practitioner practice. It is not dependent on whether the nurse practitioner was educationally prepared through an MSN or DNP degree program.

Education is one factor that employers consider when hiring nurse practitioners. Your prior nursing background and employment history and educational preparation are essential. Nurse practitioners with a DNP often make a higher salary than their MSN counterparts. According to PayScale, the average salary for nurse practitioners with an MSN degree is approximately $94,710 per year while the salary for a DNP is approximately $109,000 per year, with variations depending on the specialty area.

Advance Your Nursing Education with UIndy

As the needs of the United States healthcare workforce continue to change, you can be equipped with expanded practice options to transform patient care challenges in an advanced nursing practice role. You can become a nurse practitioner by enrolling in one of the online Master of Science in Nursing programs or online Doctor of Nursing Practice programs offered by the University of Indianapolis.

Programs are CCNE accredited with online coursework that brings flexibility to the experience of achieving quality education. A dedicated clinical placement department will secure your clinical experiences in alignment with your chosen program so you can focus your studies and reach your goals.

Visit the online nursing programs page today and explore how you might obtain your graduate nursing degree from the University of Indianapolis