MSN vs. DNP - Which Degree is Better?


Written By: Sarah Jividen BSN, RN, SCRN

If you are a registered nurse with a desire to advance your education, you may have considered obtaining a master's of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP).

There are many factors to consider before taking the plunge into advanced nursing education.

The commitment required to achieve these nursing degrees takes several years of classroom education and clinical training. Any advanced education, whether completed online or in a classroom setting, can be extremely competitive, not to mention, expensive. But if you have the dedication and grit to succeed in an MSN or DNP program, you will have many more nursing career opportunities than you would have without an advanced degree.

Both programs are geared towards creating leaders within the nursing profession. These degrees show that a nurse has gained the experience and education to be an expert within their field of specialty. Both degrees also show that a nurse has achieved the knowledge to make educated decisions that influence patient care outcomes and earn higher-level career opportunities.

This article will give you a breakdown of everything you need to know about the similarities and differences of MSN vs. DNP.

Why MSN over DNP? or Vice Versa?


Making a decision between getting an MSN vs DNP can be a hard one. Both an MSN and a DNP help nurses develop the skills to work autonomously and they both offer a higher salary along with significantly more responsibility. But it is also essential to have a deep understanding of your exact career goals before you decide between the two.

If you are not sure what to do but know that you want to advance your nursing career, you can always complete an MSN program within the specialty you want to focus on and then complete a DNP program further along in your career. If you do not already have an MSN, you will need to complete it anyways before earning your DNP. (Although you can also take a direct BSN to DNP program, and obtain the MSN during that program as well.)

What is an MSN Degree Program?


An MSN degree program is a "master's of science in nursing" degree. There are several different types of programs and specialty options for nurses to choose from within that degree. Once you have determined what patient population you want to serve, you can begin to research which programs will allow you to achieve an education that is tailored to your desired niche.

There are two directions that an MSN can take nurses:

1. Administrative or leadership roles
2. Advanced clinical roles with higher responsibility for patient care

A nurse can achieve an MSN with a focus on administration, for example, and work as a unit director and eventually move up to become a chief nursing officer (CNO). This type of MSN takes a nurse away from the clinical setting and into a higher administrative role within a medical facility.

Within the clinical setting, achieving an MSN allows an RN to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or nurse practitioner (NP). It is possible to become an APRN and an NP, and it is also possible to become an APRN and not be an NP

What is a DNP Degree Program?


A DNP degree program provides a "doctorate of nursing practice" degree. It is an alternative to obtaining a Ph.D. in nursing, which is the only other doctorate a nurse can achieve in the nursing field

It is important to remember that just as there are several types of MSN programs to choose from, there are also many types of DNP programs from which to choose. You can also become a DNP and earn your APRN and NP, but in some programs, you have the option not to - especially if your goal is to work in administration and leadership settings

There are generally two types of roles that a DNP program will allow you to fill:

1. Administration and leadership
2. Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)

Becoming a DNP does not mean that you are a physician. The training for medical school and DNP school is similar in that they both aim to provide the highest standard of patient care, yet they are also very different. However, DNPs and NPs also perform many of the same duties as physicians do on a day-to-day basis.

What Are The Key Similarities Between MSN and DNP?


Both MSN and DNP roles allow a nurse to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)


You can be an APRN by earning an MSN or a DNP and allow the advanced practice nurse to focus in one of the following roles:

• Nurse Practitioner (NP)
• Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
• Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
• Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

Both MSN and DNP degrees use the medical model of care.


All registered nurses start by using a "nursing model," which focuses on patient care concepts and nursing theories. The nursing model focuses on holistic treatment plans by considering a mental and physical framework for providing care.

Nurses who achieve an MSN or DNP use the "medical model," which is the same model used by medical doctors. The medical model incorporates how doctors are trained (it includes patient history, physical exam, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment). Becoming an MSN or DNP will not make you a physician. However, it will allow you to practice medicine in a similar way to how doctors practice.

Both MSN and DNP degrees allow a nurse to become a leader and decision-maker within the nursing profession.


Achieving an MSN or a DNP allows nurses to help drive policy change for better patient outcomes and sets a higher standard of patient care.

The healthcare system appears to be growing in complexity by day. With advances in technology and new scientific studies giving us updated information so rapidly, studying for any advanced degree teaches nurse clinicians how to interpret and utilize the most current information.

Both MSN and DNP programs provide nurses the opportunity to specialize in non-patient care roles, such as education, administration, and nurse informatics.


Advancing your nursing education doesn't mean that you must continue working in direct patient care roles. Many nurses choose to get an MSN or DNP to steer away from direct patient care and enter administrative or leadership roles. Nurses are a valuable asset in administrative positions because they have direct patient care experience and have a tremendous value add within healthcare management at an executive level.

Someone with an MSN or DNP is valuable to upper management within the hospital setting because they have direct experience working within the parts of healthcare that someone with a business degree does not.

Advanced nursing education is also a requirement to be able to teach as a professor at the university level. The higher the nursing degree and experience level, the more teaching opportunities that become available.

Both MSN salary and DNP salary offer high earning potential.


Average annual salary with an MSN is $94,000 and average annual salary with a DNP is $102,00

Both MSN and DNP education must be accredited.


The MSN or DNP program you want to attend must be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education In Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Accreditation shows that the institution where you receive your advanced nursing degree has been shown to meet or exceed the recommended standards for education and contributes to the improvement of public health.

Both DNPs and MSNs practice alongside physicians and other healthcare professionals.


DNPs and MSNs are not physicians. However, they both often perform similar roles as physicians in the hospital setting. For example, DNPs and MSNs who become APRNs are allowed to see their own patients, do health assessments, write prescriptions, and order diagnostic tests.

What Are The Key Differences Between MSN and DNP?


An MSN and DNP degree offer different credentials upon graduation.


The most obvious difference between MSN and DNP education is that an MSN is a master's degree, and a DNP is a doctorate level of education.

A DNP is the highest level of nursing education and a "terminal degree."


Achieving a doctorate in nursing practice is the highest level of education, and there is no further opportunity for educational advancement within the nursing profession

A DNP takes several more years of education and costs more money than an MSN.


An MSN takes anywhere from 1-3 years, depending on the program you choose and whether you go full or part-time. Achieving a DNP takes anywhere from 4-7 years. The cost of education for MSN and DNP varies per school; however, since a DNP is about twice as long, it costs significantly more.

On average, DNPs make more money than MSNs.


Starting annual salary for an MSN grad is $68,420 and starting salary for a DNP is $74,250. Average hourly wage with an MSN is $45.19 and average hourly wage with a DNP is $49.04

If your goal is to be a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), you will soon be required to have a DNP.


Historically APRNs were only required to hold an MSN degree. However, the ACNN will soon be changing the requirements. Starting in 2025, CRNAs will also be required to hold a DNP. At that time, CRNAs will be the only APRN that is required to be a DNP.

Side-By-Side Comparison: MSN vs. DNP

MSN DNP
Degree Objective A Masters of Science in Nursing is an advanced degree designed to educate nurses for the following roles:

• Leadership within clinical nursing
• Advanced nursing practice
• Nurse educator
• Administrative nursing
In addition to the degree objectives of an MSN prepared nurse, the DNP degree objective aims to

• Prepare an advanced practice nurse (APRN) at the highest professional nursing practice level
• Advance nursing practice knowledge
• Improve overall healthcare delivery
Degree Pathway Options RN to MSN
BSN to MSN
Direct Entry MSN
BSN to DNP
MSN to DNP
Degree Specialization OptionsAPRN Specializations

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PACNP)
Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP)
Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

Non-APRN Specializations

Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)
Nursing Executive/Administrator
Nurse Educator
Nurse Researcher
Public Health Nursing
Nursing Informatics
APRN Specializations

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (PACNP)
Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP)
Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

Non-APRN Specializations

Nurse Educator/Educational Leadership
Nursing Administrator/Executive Leadership
Nursing Informatics
Advanced Clinical Practice
Program AccreditationThe two major accreditation entities for MSN and DNP programs include the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education In Nursing (ACEN). Both the CCNE and ACEN are national accreditation agencies and are recognized by the US Department of Education.
Faculty CredentialsWhen considering an MSN or DNP program, the faculty credentialing requirements for accredited universities are usually the same. Faculty instructors are required to have at least a master’s degree in nursing, but most institutions prefer a doctorate. The reason for that is that educational standards are extremely high for MSN and DNP programs. The future success of MSN and DNP students is often directly related to the education level of the faculty who is instructing classes. Always research the education and experience levels of the educators before you decide which MSN or DNP program you want to attend.
Admission RequirementsThere are three main types of MSN programs, which include RN to MSN, BSN to MSN, and direct entry MSN. This makes it possible for nurses with different credentials to have the opportunity to earn an MSN efficiently and start working as an advanced clinician in the nursing profession.

MSN programs are well-known for being both competitive and challenging and are designed to "weed out" students who are not committed to performing well and succeeding in the program. It is important to remember that requirements for each program will vary slightly and depend on the specialty program that you strive to attain. But most will have the following admission requirements:

• Must have the required credentials:

• Must have an unencumbered RN license (if applying to an RN to MSN or BSN to MSN program)
• Must show transcripts with at least a 3.0 GPA or above (requirements vary per program)
• Must have a bachelor's degree in some field (other than nursing) to apply for a direct entry MSN program

Must have an unencumbered RN license (if applying to an RN to MSN or BSN to MSN program)
Must show transcripts with at least a 3.0 GPA or above (requirements vary per program)
Must have at least one year or more of clinical nursing experience (for all programs except direct MSN program)
2-3 letters of recommendation
Minimum required GRE scores (this may be waived if your GPA is high enough)
Complete an application for the school you desire to attend
A letter of intent and what you want to achieve with your MSN degree
A face-to-face interview (maybe done online in some cases)
If you are attending a direct MSN program, you must have already completed all required prerequisite classes with at least a B grade.
Prerequisites vary per school but usually at a minimum include the following:

• Anatomy and Physiology 1 & 2
• Statistics
• Nutrition
• Chemistry
• Microbiology

Before entering into an MSN program, students need to have chosen a specialty of focus. Many schools offer different specialty options, and it is important to research several schools to make sure you attend one that fits your educational and career goals.
There are two main types of DNP programs, which include BSN to DNP and MSN to DNP. This makes it possible for nurses with different credentials to have the opportunity to earn a DNP degree efficiently and start working as an advanced clinician more quickly than having to complete additional programs.

As the highest level of nursing education, it is no surprise that DNP programs are highly competitive and stressful as they are designed for nurses to become advanced practitioners and leaders.

It is important to remember that requirements for each DNP program will also vary from program to program, and each state has its own requirements as well. But at a minimum, they will have the following admission requirements:

• Must have either a BSN or an MSN degree.

• Must have a BSN from an accredited nursing school if applying to a BSN to DNP program
• Must have an MSN from an accredited nursing school if applying to an MSN to DNP program

Must have an unencumbered RN license
Must show transcripts with at least a 3.0 GPA or above (requirements vary per individual program.
Must have the minimum GRE score (some programs will wave this if the student has a high GPA)
2-3 letters of recommendation
Completed application for the DNP school you desire to attend
A letter of intent and what you want to achieve with your DNP degree
A resume or curriculum vitae
An interview

Before entering into a DNP program, prospective students need to have chosen a specialty of focus. Many schools offer different specialty options, and it is important to research several schools to make sure you are attending one that fits your educational and career goals.
Curriculum Focus

The curriculum focus of MSN vs DNP degrees varies if you are in an APRN specialty (NP, CNS, CNM, or CRNA) or a non- APRN specialty (i.e., nurse educator, researcher, public health, or nursing informatics)
Completing the MSN degree curriculum usually takes 2-3 years to finish, depending on whether you go full or part-time. Many students in MSN programs work to some extent within the nursing profession while also attending university.

APRN focus:
The curriculum coursework of an NP or CNS student, for example, will rely more heavily on advanced science and healthcare classes as well as clinical practice hours.

Non-APRN focus:
The curriculum coursework for a non-APRN specialty, such as a nurse administrator or nursing informatics, will include some science, but will more heavily focus on administrative, policy, ethics, and business courses, health policy, ethics, nursing theory, and business in the healthcare setting.
Completing a DNP degree curriculum usually takes 4-7 years and depends on whether you go full or part-time. Most DNP students also work within the nursing profession while attending their DNP program.

Like the MSN, the curriculum you have as a DNP student will depend greatly on your area of focus. The curriculum for both APRN and non-APRN DNP students is very similar to the coursework for those achieving an MSN.

APRN focus:
The APRN DNP courses include more advanced science and clinical education. The DNP requires additional classroom education than an MSN and also requires more clinical education hours then an MSN.

Non-APRN focus:
Non-APRN DNP courses are more focused on health care policy, nursing theory, business management, nursing ethics, and human resource management within the healthcare setting- type courses. The DNP requires additional classes and education than those required to get an MSN.

The most significant difference between the curriculum focus for the MSN vs. the DNP is that DNP programs also contain additional and higher-level training in core competencies. For example, DNP programs have additional training in evidence-based practice, interprofessional collaboration, health care policy, leadership, and health information systems.
Core Courses Here are a few typical courses for an APRN MSN student (classes vary between programs):

• Health Care Policy
• Advanced Pharmacology
• Advanced pathophysiology
• Biomedical statistics
• Advanced Physiology
• Health assessment
• Health Care System Ethics
• Nursing Theory
• Clinical leadership
• Clinical practice: hands-on training

In addition, APRN students will complete additional coursework related directly to their chosen specialty.

(The amount of MSN clinical training and hours varies by state depending on each state's nursing board requirements).

These are a few typical core courses for a non-APRN MSN student (classes vary between programs):

• Health Care Policy
• Biomedical statistics
• Health economics
• Nursing Theory
• Healthcare ethics
• Business in the healthcare setting
• Leadership
• Interprofessional collaboration
Also, non-APRN MSN students will complete additional coursework related directly to their chosen specialty.
What makes a DNP program stand apart from an MSN program is that, in addition to the core classes above, DNP students have significantly more educational course requirements than an MSN student for both ARPN and non-ARPM roles.

According to the American Association of Colleges in Nursing (ANCC), doctoral programs are specifically designed to prepare DNP students for additional core competencies.

As stated directly by the AACN's Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice, here are the eight additional core competencies for DNP students..:

• Scientific Underpinnings For Practice
• Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvements and Systems Thinking
• Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-based Practice
• Information/Systems and technology for the improvement and Transformation of Healthcare
• Healthcare Policy For Advocacy in Health Care
• Interprofessional Collaborations For Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
• Clinical Prevention and Population Health For Improving the Nation's Health
• Advancing Nursing Practice
Clinical Hours

Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) states that clinical hours can include organized learning activities that help MSN and DNP students understand, perform, and improve on professional nursing competencies.

Clinical experience not only takes place within a patient care setting, but also includes any form of experience by which nursing intervention is used to improve patient and healthcare outcomes

Specific clinical hour requirements for DNP and MSN programs depend entirely on the degree, specialty, and state laws of the student attending the nursing program.
Most MSN programs require a minimum of 200 clinical hours. However, some nurse practitioner, NP, CNS, CNM, or CRNA programs require over 600 hours.DNP programs require over 1000 clinical hours to qualify for a DNP.
Program LengthFull-Time
RN to MSN: 30 to 36 months
BSN to MSN: 15 to 24 months
Direct Entry MSN: 20 to 24 months

Part-Time
RN to MSN: 36 to 48 months
BSN to MSN: 24 to 48 months
Direct Entry MSN: 24 to 48 months
Full-Time
BSN to DNP: 3 to 4 years
MSN to DNP: 1-2 years

Part-Time
BSN to DNP: 4 to 7 years
MSN to DNP: 2 to 4 years
Program CostTuition Ranges
RN to MSN: $22,070 - $231,600
BSN to MSN: $18,810 - $185,280
Direct Entry MSN: $22,570 - $222,340
Tuition Ranges
BSN to DNP: $26,490 - $254,260
MSN to DNP: $17,660 - $169,510
Distance Learning/Online OptionMany MSN and DNP programs come with the online option. Online education has never been more available than it is now due to advances in technology and the recent need to move education into an online format due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Advances in technology have also allowed traditional brick-and-mortar programs to offer classes online, and many have had to move their programs almost entirely online due to circumstances caused by the pandemic and social distancing requirements.

Remember that both degrees require in-person clinical hours, which cannot be fulfilled in an online setting. The AACN requires DNP programs to have a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours. Depending on the MSN program, between 200 and 600 clinical hours must be completed.

Exact clinical requirements vary depending on what school you attend and what specialty you are studying for.
Part-time OptionMost master of science in nursing and doctor of nursing practice programs offer both part-time and full-time options and vary depending on the application and specialty area of study.
What are the Top Schools in the Nation?1. Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD
1. Duke University Durham, NC
3. University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, NC
3. University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA
5. Emory University Atlanta, GA
6. Ohio State University Columbus, OH
6. University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA
6. University of Washington Seattle, WA
9 University of Michigan--Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, MI
9. Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN
1. Columbia University New York, NY
1. University of Washington Seattle, WA
3. Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD
4. Duke University Durham, NC
5. Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN
6. University of Illinois--Chicago Chicago, IL
7. University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, NC
8. Emory University Atlanta, GA
8. Ohio State University Columbus, OH
8. Rush University Chicago, IL
8. University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA
Higher Education Options after GraduationAn MSN educated nurse can advance their education by going back to school for a DNP. A DNP education is a terminal degree and there are no further higher education options after graduation within the nursing profession.
Career Opportunities after GraduationFollowing graduation and certification, an MSN graduate has many career opportunities ahead of them. Most usually obtain a position that fits with their specialty of practice.

For example, a non-APRN MSN graduate with a focus on healthcare administration could work as a unit director or higher-level nursing administrator. An MSN graduate who graduates as a nurse practitioner in emergency medicine would likely start their career as an ER NP. Career opportunities depend on the specialty of the specific MSN program and specialty they attended.
Following graduation, DNP graduates also have so many potential career opportunities ahead of them. But most start working within a position aligned with the specialty they studied in their program.

Many DNP graduates become educators, clinical researchers, healthcare facility members, or APRNs. For example, a DNP graduate with an APRN focus in critical care nursing may begin a career as an NP on a medical ICU unit in a hospital. Career opportunities for DNPs also depend on the specialty of the specific DNP program and specialty they studied.
Starting Salary Hourly - $32.89
Monthly - $5,700
Annual - $68,420
Hourly - $35.70
Monthly - $6,190
Annual - $74,250
Average Hourly Wage$45.19
(Source: PayScale)
$49.04
(Source: PayScale)
Average Annual Salary$94,000
(Source: PayScale)
$102,000
(Source: PayScale)
Salary by Level of ExperienceStarting (Entry-Level): $32.89 - $5,700 - $68,420
1-4 Years of Experience: $37.50 - $6,500 - $77,990
5-9 Years of Experience: $44.38 - $7,690 - $92,300
10-19 Years of Experience: $51.33 - $8,900 - $106,770
20 Years or More Experience: $61.49 - $10,660 - $127,890
Starting (Entry-Level): $35.70 - $6,190 - $74,250
1-4 Years of Experience: $40.69 - $7,050 - $84,630
5-9 Years of Experience: $48.15 - $8,350 - $100,160
10-19 Years of Experience: $55.70 - $9,650 - $115,850
20 Years or More Experience: $66.72 - $11,560 - $138,770


Conclusion: Master of Science in Nursing vs. Doctor of Nursing Practice - Which Degree is Right for You?


The decision to advance your nursing education can be a difficult one. However, if you consider your overall career goals and the comparisons between achieving an MSN vs DNP in this article, you may have an easier time making that decision. Best of luck to you in your quest for higher nursing education and career advancement.

Sarah Jividen BSN, RN, SCRN is a healthcare content writer and experienced ER and neuro/trauma nurse. Her writing is focused on the nursing profession, breaking medical news, evidence-based healthcare and wellness trends, and motherhood. When she is not working you might find Sarah playing with her two toddlers, or exploring the great outdoors.