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MSN vs. DNP Degree Differences

Healthcare jobs are among the most in-demand in the country, and the nation is expected to add about 2.4 million new jobs in the industry by the time this decade is over. Jobs for nurses who have advanced degrees are projected to see even more rapid growth; nurse practitioners, for instance, should see job opportunities expand by 45%, one of the fastest rates of all jobs in the country.

Whether they want to expand their scope of practice, learn new skills or simply open themselves up to higher-paying jobs, for many nurses, pursuing advanced education is the next logical step. For many, that can mean deciding between a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Which degree is right depends on the individual’s goals, and making the decision means learning more about each degree so you can make an informed choice.

Degree Differences

There’s one obvious difference between these two degrees — one is a master’s degree, while the other is a doctorate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a DNP is automatically a better choice by virtue of being a more advanced degree than an MSN, and the reality is that depending on your goals, earning a DNP actually wouldn’t get you where you need to be.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

An MSN is considered an entry-level requirement for many jobs filled by advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), and it’s common for registered nurses (RNs) to pursue this degree when they want to specialize in a particular area but lack the formal training required.

Program Length

The time required to complete the degree varies by the educational institution, but it’s reasonable to expect to spend at least two years earning your MSN, if you attend on a full-time basis. While some programs may allow students to go part-time and continue working while they tend to their education, this isn’t always the case. So, if it’s necessary for you to earn your MSN on a part-time basis, be sure that the program permits that before you apply.

Admission Requirements

Applicants typically must hold an active nursing license and a bachelor’s degree in nursing, though some programs will accept those who have bachelor’s degrees in other areas. This varies considerably depending on the program, and for those who aren’t already nurses, completing the MSN will take much longer. Many programs also have requirements related to the length of professional experience, but this could vary depending on specialty. Typically, though, to be considered for admission, an applicant needs at least a year of professional nursing experience.

Degree Tracks

The most traditional path to earning this degree is a BSN-to-MSN track, and this is the ideal way to ensure that you’ll be able to complete your MSN in just two years. However, other tracks are also possible, including a direct-entry MSN, which is appropriate for non-nurses who have a bachelor’s degree in another field. Other possible paths include an RN-to-MSN program, which is appropriate for nurses who have a two-year degree, or a bridge RN-to-MSN program, designed for RNs who have a two-year nursing degree and a bachelor’s degree in another field.

Specializations

One of the most common reasons for pursuing an MSN is to gain specialized education and hands-on experience in an area of interest. The most common include:

  • Gerontology (acute and primary care)
  • Pediatric (acute and primary care)
  • Psychiatric-mental health
  • Neonatal
  • Nurse anesthetist
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Nurse-midwife

Nurses who have a particular interest in any of these areas should be sure any programs they’re considering offer degrees in that particular field, as not all programs offer every possible specialization.

Tuition Range

Overall cost varies quite a bit depending on the college or university, specialization and program length. This could mean that those who will need to attend for more than two years, such as those without a four-year nursing degree, should expect to spend more to earn their MSN. But for those on the most common path (BSN-to-MSN), it’s reasonable to assume your degree will cost between $20,000 and $75,000 to complete.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

A DNP is one of two terminal doctoral degrees in the field of nursing (the other being a Ph.D.), and it’s ideal for professional nurses who want to pursue healthcare leadership positions, whether clinical or administrative in nature.

Program Length

DNP programs can be lengthy, as they require intense doctoral-level coursework and at least 1,000 hours of clinical practice (though some of that can come during an MSN program, if applicable). The most common path, an MSN-to-DNP, generally will take at least two years if attending full-time or as many as six in the case of part-time students. But the total time commitment depends on the applicants existing nursing education and training.

Admission Requirements

Some but not all DNP programs accept applicants with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, but not a master’s. Generally, all applicants will need to have at least one year of full-time nursing practice under their belts as well as a valid RN license.

Degree Tracks

Prospective DNP students have fewer paths they can pursue to earn their degrees. Outside of some possible custom arrangements that can be set up for exceptional candidates who don’t fit either path, the two possible ways to earn a DNP is an MSN-to-DNP or a BSN-to-DNP. Currently, the MSN-to-DNP track is more commonly available, but of the new programs in the works across the country, most are BSN-to-DNP.

Specializations

Potential specialization areas for DNP programs add several leadership-focused areas to the list of clinical specialties that can become available after earning an MSN. That expands the possible list of specializations to:

  • Nurse administrator
  • Nurse educator
  • Advanced clinical practice
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Women’s health nurse practitioner
  • Gerontology (acute and primary care)
  • Pediatric (acute and primary care)
  • Psychiatric-mental health
  • Neonatal
  • Nurse anesthetist
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Nurse-midwife

Tuition Range

Costs for a DNP program depend on factors like institution type, existing education and other factors. But students should expect to spend at least $25,000 and as much as $60,000.

Certifications

Certifications required will depend on the job you’re pursuing, but in many cases, either type of degree can help you get there, at least for now. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing is lobbying states to require a DNP for all advanced practice registered nursing jobs, but currently, many of those certifications require an MSN.

Students pursuing an APRN specialty, such as nurse practitioner, must pass national certification exams in their specialty field, regardless of whether they’re getting an MSN or DNP.

Practice Restrictions

The tasks a nurse becomes qualified to perform vary depending on the certifications earned, and in some cases, those with nurse practitioner certifications are able to perform many of the functions performed by physicians.

Many of these advanced professionals, such as nurse practitioners or nurse-midwives, are able to do their jobs with a wide degree of latitude. However, it’s common to require them to work under the supervision of a physician. However, these rules vary by state, so check out the regulations that apply where you live or plan to practice.

Careers & Salary

As advanced practice registered nurses, nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, administrators and others, holding either an MSN or DNP is a wise investment in your future career. Here’s a look at the most common jobs and key statistics about them:

Registered nurse: While this might be considered a lateral move, particularly for those earning an MSN, a registered nurse position could be ideal, depending on the specialty. And an RN with a master’s degree is likely to command a higher wage. The median annual wage for RNs is $73,000, and these roles are expected to expand by 7% through 2029. That’s nearly double the rate of all other jobs in the economy.

Nurse anesthetist, nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner: These are three of the jobs most commonly desired by those considering either an MSN or DNP, and it’s no wonder why. The median annual income level for these jobs is high (nearly $116,000), and jobs are projected to grow by 45% through the end of the decade, which is blistering expansion compared to other jobs — even many other healthcare jobs.

Medical and health services manager: Many people who pursue DNP degrees are hoping to make the leap to healthcare leadership roles that could see them serving in executive and other administrative roles. Not everyone who fills these types of roles will have a DNP, which means that for those who do have a doctorate, the median salary rate of about $101,000 will be on the low end of what they can expect. Growth for these jobs also is extremely rapid, with 32% expansion projected through 2029.

Conclusion

Deciding between an MSN and a DNP is a huge choice that will have enormous ramifications for your life and career. But the reality is that for most professional nurses, you really can’t go wrong. Depending on your desired specialty area, where you live and the specific job you’re looking for, chances are good either type of degree will help you on your journey.

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