MSN vs. DNP: 5 Key Differences

Whether you’re just starting out in planning your nurse practitioner education or are already a practicing NP with years of experience and a master’s degree, you’ve probably heard about Doctor of Nursing Practice programs. Although a Master’s degree is still the mandatory education level required to practice as an NP, there has been a push for a doctorate requirement to take its place. As a result, many NP programs have already begun making the transition to only offering DNP programs for prospective NP students

Although both options allow nurses the opportunity to be in advanced roles with more responsibility and authority than RNs, understanding their differences is helpful in deciding which option is best for your goals as an NP.

Here’s how they measure up.


The most significant difference between the curriculum is that DNP programs have a specific set of required doctoral-level coursework. Unlike a Ph.D. in nursing, however, a DNP is a practice-based doctorate; so while there is still a research component, DNP graduates use research to influence their nursing practice. The coursework for MSN programs focuses on advanced nursing theory, management issues, research, social and physical sciences, clinical practice and nursing informatics. DNP programs build upon the MSN education further with more emphasis on preparing nurses to be able to use science-based theories in order to better understand the nature of health and healthcare delivery and evaluate the effectiveness of clinical outcomes.

Clinical Practice Hours

While both programs require students to complete a certain number of clinical practice hours, DNP programs undoubtedly require more than MSN programs. At least 500 hours are required in traditional BSN to MSN pathways; whereas DNP programs, on the other hand, require at least 1,000 post-BSN clinical practice hours. Most doctoral programs do allow students to count a portion of the hours they earned during their MSN program towards the requirement.

At the doctoral level, students must also complete a capstone project in conjunction with their clinical practice hours. The capstone is an original scholarly project developed over multiple semesters and is designed to demonstrate that the student has mastered the theories and practices learned throughout the doctorate program, ultimately showcasing the nurse’s ability to apply what they’ve learned toward real issues that affect the nursing practice or a specific patient population.

Program Length

The amount of time it takes to complete either program depends on what degree the nurse held prior to enrollment. Generally, a traditional BSN to MSN program requires about 40 credits for completion. BSN educated nurses can enter directly into a DNP program but may have to complete anywhere from 65 to 95 credits; whereas nurses in a traditional MSN to DNP program may only have to complete 33 – 43 credits. By comparison, MSN programs are certainly shorter and take about two years overall to complete.

Roles in the Nursing Profession

Earning an MSN will allows nurses the opportunity to be in advanced roles with more responsibility and authority than RNs; however prior to the DNP being an available education option, nurses weren’t able to expand their expertise even further in a clinical role since PhDs were intended for those wanting to work as nurse scientists or scholars. The DNP allows nurses the opportunity to either obtain the highest level of proficiency in advanced practice nursing or if they so choose, to turn their attention to working in administration, executive leadership, nursing education and other high-level roles that don’t involve direct patient care.

Although a DNP is a higher education than an MSN, NPs who have earned either degree generally have the same responsibilities in both clinical and hospital settings; while DNPs are more poised for management and leadership positions in nursing, as well as policy and administration positions.

Salary Differences

A 2013 survey by Advanced Healthcare Network found that DNP-prepared NPs earned about $5,000 more per year than a masters-prepared NP. Similarly, a 2015 Medscape salary report found that doctoral-prepared NPs earned an average salary of $96,000 per year- an estimated $9,000 more than a master’s prepared NP. Although the studies indicate that DNP salaries generally do outpace that of MSN salaries, this may not always be the case, as in some scenarios, there may not be much (if any) difference in salary depending factors such as the position itself, years of experience, geographic region, etc.

Choosing whether you should get a master’s degree or take the plunge and go for your Doctor of Nursing Practice is a big decision. Fortunately, you can take it one step at a time by first enrolling in an MSN program and later applying to a DNP program if you find you want to advance your education even further as well as dive into non-clinical roles.


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