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MSN vs. DNP: Exploring the Differences

Hospitals and healthcare facilities are looking for nurses who are able to excel above and beyond the minimum job requirements while leading the next generation of skilled nurses. Forward-thinking medical facilities want experienced health professionals who have nursing expertise and can approach medicine from an analytical yet compassionate point of view. Considering that nurses are already in short supply, with that employment gap expected to grow as the current workforce retires, the demand for these types of experienced, capable nurses is only going to increase in the coming years.

To adapt to these evolving healthcare trends, nurses are pursuing advanced degrees that can set them up for success. However, before nurses can reach the next level of their education and career, they need to understand the differences between the DNP and MSN degrees.

What Are the DNP and MSN Degrees?

Nursing professionals who want to strengthen their skills and advance in the field can do so by pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree and/or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. There are actually multiple requirements to become a nurse, because each state has its own licensing guidelines. While the degrees do not guarantee a significant bump in salary or a higher position within the field, pursuing them can provide nurses with leadership skills and healthcare expertise that many of their peers don’t have.

A nurse with a DNP or MSN degree will likely be more adept at making difficult decisions and handling challenging medical procedures than their colleagues without the degree. They can become better communicators, more skilled and ethical practitioners, and more thoughtful and inspiring leaders because of their advanced education. While there are benefits to both a DNP and MSN, the two degrees are not the same, nor are they intended for the same type of nursing student.

Comparing an MSN vs. a DNP reveals helpful information to nursing students who are considering future careers. For instance, the board of directors of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) has recommended that the entry degree requirement for practicing as a nurse anesthetist should be raised to the doctoral level by 2025.

The Critical Differences Between MSN and DNP

Many RNs, even those with considerable experience in the field, may be confused about the differences between the two degrees. The first significant difference is in their focus. MSN degrees focus on medical skills such as support for those with various mental diseases, or the preparation and administration of anesthesia. DNP programs combine that training with an added focus on leadership, statistical analysis, and employee management.

The second major difference between the two degree programs is the type of academic coursework. MSN candidates study the foundations of advanced nursing and must be able to combine those with ethical practices, legal concerns, and the fields of social, behavioral, and medical sciences. DNP candidates deal primarily with data research and evidence-based practice. Students in a DNP program are expected to learn how healthcare systems are changing in the modern world and how to adapt to advances in the field. DNP programs usually require candidates to complete a major research project to prove mastery of their area of study and to serve as a springboard for their careers moving forward.

What Are the Benefits of an MSN Degree?

An MSN is an advanced degree with an enhanced nursing curriculum that can help registered nurses achieve more prestigious positions and leadership roles in the workplace. Students commonly take classes such as Healthcare Policy, Advanced Health Assessment, and Theoretical Foundations of Nursing Practice in this program. Some of the positions that MSN graduates can obtain are nurse consultant, nurse educator, or advanced nurse practitioner, specializing in a specific medical field such as pediatrics, psychiatry, or gerontology.

An MSN program can offer students the option of selecting from nurse practitioner specialties, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP), adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP), adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Some programs can be completed entirely online, so students can continue their career and manage personal responsibilities while pursuing an advanced education. Students can complete clinicals in a location convenient to wherever they’re situated, and they are not required to take the GMAT or GRE to be admitted.

RNs who enjoy direct contact with patients may be concerned that obtaining an MSN will remove them from that primary healthcare role, but many organizations are finding value in having highly trained professionals on the floor. For candidates who prefer that aspect of the job, obtaining a further degree won’t separate them from patients but will allow them to provide more comprehensive care.

What Are the Benefits of a DNP Degree?

Nursing professionals who want to continue their education after an MSN degree, or are interested in a particular advanced practice specialization, would then pursue the DNP degree. There are two options for a DNP degree: DNP and DNP-NP. The DNP option provides students with advanced understanding of healthcare procedures and theory, and allows them to pursue some of the most prestigious positions in the nursing field, including top level administration roles, policy manager positions, and research and academic appointments. The DNP degree also gives students an even deeper understanding of crucial concepts in the health landscape, such as evidence-based practice, legislative advocacy, and patient care. This degree usually requires completion of anywhere from 30 to 33 credits over two to three years.

The DNP-NP option allows students to pursue a nurse practitioner specialty while completing the same terminal DNP program. The five DNP-NP specialties are the same as the MSN specialties: family nurse practitioner (FNP), adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP), adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP), pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

How Do the Degrees Compare?

Nursing professionals trying to weigh the benefits of a DNP vs. MSN will find that both degrees are valuable for enhancing one’s nursing skill set, career opportunities, and earning potential. The MSN degree provides nurses with advanced knowledge and a specialty in healthcare and puts students on the road to becoming successful nurse practitioners. The DNP degree helps nurses who already have their MSN to achieve an even greater expertise and to pursue higher leadership, organizational, and decision-making roles reserved for only the most knowledgeable and capable nursing professionals.

Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that employment of advanced practice nurses (which includes both NPs and DNP nurses) is expected to see growth of up to 26% between 2018 and 2028, much higher than the average for all jobs in the same period.
The BLS also reports that median pay for these professions is around $114,000 per year, while that for NPs is around $107,000 per year.

Start Your Journey Today

Maryville University offers convenient and flexible nursing degrees that enable professionals to grow their knowledge and expertise. Visit the online MSN and online DNP degrees now for curriculum information and how to get started in pushing your nursing career to the next level.

Sources:

AANA Journal, “Doctoral Education: Which Degree to Pursue?”

Maryville University, Online Doctor of Nursing Practice

Maryville University, Online MSN Curriculum

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. News & World Report, “More Nursing Disciplines Require a Master’s or Doctoral Degree”

Recommended Readings:

The Future of Nursing: Leading Change in the 21st Century

Future Trends in Healthcare for DNPs

DNP & DNP-NP Informational Webinar