Choosing the Right Graduate Nursing Program: MSN vs. DNP

So you’ve decided you want to further your Nursing Practitioner (NP) education. Now begins the first step – choosing what type of graduate program is best for you. Should you choose a Master’s degree in nursing or aim for your doctorate? 

While there are no clear advantages between the two degrees, both do support different career paths, so it’s essential to understand the differences between the two before choosing which graduate program you would be taking. 

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

An MSN is a graduate degree that provides advanced education and training in nursing. You can take several paths with an MSN degree depending on which type of specialty you would like to focus on. For instance, you may opt for a Master’s degree in a non-direct patient care role, such as education, health information systems, or a direct patient care role via an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) pathway. 

Nurse Practitioners and Nurse-Midwives are the most common types of APRN MSN degrees. Generally, MSN-prepared nurses work in various settings, from clinics to hospitals to private practice or in academics and research. They also work either full-time or part-time, depending on what specialty you’ve chosen and what kind of work environment you have.

An APRN MSN degree will train a nurse to:

  • Work as an independent practitioner in his/her specialty field.
  • Be able to prescribe medications, as per his/her specialty. 
  • Operate own medical practice, as per state regulations. 
Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP)

A DNP is a doctoral degree in nursing and is considered the “terminal” degree for nurses – which means it is the highest level of education for registered nurses. Similar to an MSN degree, a DNP degree can prepare a nurse to be eligible for APRN certification in a variety of clinical specialties, such as Pediatric NP, Geriatric NP, Family Care NP, or Critical Care NP.

As written on John Hopkins University website, DNP-prepared nurses learn advanced clinical skills, allowing them to do roles with more responsibility to provide care for both individuals and population health needs. 

For example, an NP with an MSN degree may work as a Critical Care Practitioner to render bedside care, while an NP with a DNP degree may perform the same care as well as be the lead in the nursing team in an expanded role. 

An APRN DNP degree will train a nurse to:

  • Employ advanced critical thinking and evidence-based practice and care
  • Practice as an independent nurse practitioner for the most complex of patients
  • Execute and influence new healthcare strategies and policies
  • May act in expanded communication liaison roles (i.e., between medical device and pharmaceutical companies)
  • Work in healthcare research and projects

Generally, DNP programs require a full-time commitment of 3-4 years. It’s recommended that nurses planning to pursue DNP programs do not work outside of their academic work. Moreover, as with any doctoral course of study, nurses in DNP programs must also accomplish a capstone DNP project that meets the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) requirements that include the following:

  • Change that will impact a healthcare outcome
  • Plan for sustainability 
  • Foundation for future practice

The AACN encourages APRN roles to get a doctoral degree. Cultivating the educational “standard” guarantees that APRNs are not only honed with skills to manage complex clinical situations but also recognize complex issues in healthcare delivery and work to solve and improve patient care outcomes.

So, Which Should You Pursue?

Both MSN and DNP allow the APRN to practice in one of the four recognized roles of a nurse: 

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

Overall, choosing which educational opportunity to take between an MSN or a DNP degree depends on your end goal as a nurse. A DNP may be the best choice if you are looking to become a CRNA or wish to serve in more senior leadership positions or attain the highest level of education in the nursing profession. However, a DNP program may be more time-consuming and expensive.

Kojo Sarfo, a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, recommends doing a quick self-assessment when torn to decide between MSN and DNP. He said that pursuing advanced education may mean that you are prepared to sacrifice a little bit of time away from your family and friends. Make sure you are prepared for additional years in school, mentally and emotionally. 

When planning to advance one’s practice in nursing, it’s essential to reflect on your ultimate goal to determine the educational path that best suits you. Luckily, the nursing field has many learning opportunities for career growth and development.


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