What Nursing Degree Do You Need?: MSN vs DNP

As a registered nurse, you’ve dedicated countless hours to providing quality patient care in fast-paced environments. As a result, you’re likely contemplating the next step in your career that will offer more work-life balance and autonomy.

Whether that professional goal is to work in leadership, embark on a nursing specialty, or impact practices on a larger scale, advancing your nursing education can help. But what advanced degree is right for you: a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)? 

“This decision really depends on a nurse’s personal and/or professional career goals,” says Professor Joanna Sikkema, Director of the Nurse Practitioner Online Suite at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences School of Nursing.

Here’s an overview of what an MSN and DNP degree is, key similarities and differences between the two, and how you should choose which nursing education path is right for you.

What Is an MSN?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate-level degree for registered nurses meant to enhance their advanced knowledge, skills, competencies in specific areas of nursing. This degree aims to help prepare nurses to handle more complex clinical roles through specializations like:

  • Anesthesia
  • Mental health
  • Family practice

“Master’s degree is usually where you specialize in a particular area,” says Professor Carol Patton, a nurse educator and Program Director for the Bouvé College of Health Sciences School of Nursing. “There are common master’s-level core courses for all advanced practice nurses, but once you’ve completed those, you go into your area of specialization.”

This specialization is crucial since it opens the door to a variety of advanced nursing positions that require specific skill sets and knowledge.

What Is a DNP?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree that represents the highest level of training in the field. Its goal is to help nurses qualify for high-level leadership roles in healthcare organizations or nurse educator roles.

“DNP prepared nurses are considered nurse leaders and have a robust and diverse skill set focusing on the areas of leadership, evidence-based practice, critical thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, and fiscal responsibility,” says Sikkema. “These skills, coupled with an understanding of translational research, health policy, informatics, health care economics, implementation science, and project management are the unique competencies of nurses who obtain a DNP degree.”

If you’re struggling to decide which advanced degree will help you achieve your professional goals, here are key similarities and differences between them. 

MSN vs. DNP: Key Similarities

Advanced Practice Focus

Both MSN and DNP programs prepare nurses for advanced practice roles. These advanced practice roles include:

  • Nurse practitioners
  • Nurse anesthetists
  • Clinical nurse specialists 

Both degree paths involve extensive clinical experiences that refine the practical skills and theoretical knowledge necessary for these high-stakes roles. The core coursework is also rigorously designed to prepare nurses to tackle complex clinical challenges effectively, ensuring they are well-prepared to lead in healthcare settings and improve patient outcomes.

Leadership and Management Training

Both programs typically include education in leadership, management, and administration. This training is designed to prepare nurses to take on roles that require managing teams, leading departments, or even working with intra and interprofessional healthcare teams. 

However, it’s important to note that MSN degree programs provide a foundation needed to explore these topics more in-depth in a DNP program. As a result, these programs have a few similar core courses that cover topics such as organizational management.

This is evident in the top common skills nurses develop in both of these programs. According to our analysis of job posting data, these skills include: 

  • Management
  • Leadership
  • Communication

MSN vs. DNP: Key Differences

Curriculum

Coursework is one of the first key differences between these two programs. While some core courses may overlap in topics, the curriculum for an MSN program is primarily focused on building advanced clinical skills in specialized areas of nursing practice. As a result, common core courses consist of: 

  • Pharmacology
  • Pathology
  • Health assessments

In addition, MSN programs usually offer a significant amount of hours of clinical experience, allowing students to apply classroom knowledge in real-world healthcare settings. 

On the other hand, DNP programs are designed to blend clinical skills with leadership and policy development to prepare nurses for high-level roles in healthcare. As a result, common course topics include: 

  • Health policy
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Healthcare technologies improving patient outcomes
  • How to translate research findings into practice

Career Opportunities

While both degrees can help nurses advance their career, the opportunities can be distinctly different. While graduates of an MSN program primarily transition into roles centered around advanced clinical practice and specialties, DNP graduates can expect much higher-level roles in healthcare. 

For example, DNP graduates are well-positioned to lead health policy reforms and serve as experts in healthcare organizations. Therefore, DNP-prepared nurses often take on executive roles in a hospital, such as Chief Nursing Officer, Director of Clinical Services, or other high-level administrative positions. 

They also have the opportunity to work in academia as a nurse educator, which is incredibly influential on nursing education and best academic practices. 

Scope of Practice

The scope of practice for MSN- and DNP-educated nurses differs significantly due to the varying depths of education and training. 

For example, MSN programs typically prepare nurses for advanced clinical roles that involve direct patient care in specialized fields, such as family practice or pediatrics. In contrast, DNPs receive a broader education that includes substantial leadership, policy-making, and systems management training. 

This foundational difference significantly shapes the skills development outcomes of each program. According to our analysis of job posting data the most common specialized skills for MSN graduate nurses are: 

  • Nursing
  • Primary care
  • Medical records
  • Patient education
  • Treatment planning
Top Specialized Skills of MSN-Educated Nurses: Nursing, Primary Care, Medical Records, Patient Education, Treatment Planning.
Top Specialized Skills of MSN-Educated Nurses: Nursing, Primary Care, Medical Records, Patient Education, Treatment Planning.

In contrast, the top specialized skills of DNP graduate nurses are: 

  • Primary care
  • Nursing
  • Family medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Mental health
Top Specialized Skills for DNP-Educated Nurses: Primary Care, Nursing, Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Mental Health
Top Specialized Skills for DNP-Educated Nurses: Primary Care, Nursing, Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Mental Health

Salary Expectations

The earning potential for MSN and DNP graduates typically varies due to the differing levels of responsibility, the scope of practice each program qualifies nurses for, and geographic location. 

In fact, data shows that nurse practitioners can expect a bump in annual earnings with a doctoral degree. According to our analysis of job posting data, nurse practitioners with a master’s degree earn a median salary of $129,400 per year, while those with a doctoral degree earn a median annual salary of $135,000.

MSN vs DNP annual salary

Job Market Outlook

Even though a DNP degree can offer a higher salary, the demand for MSN-educated nurses is high in today’s job market.

According to our analysis of job posting data, there are significantly more unique postings for graduates of an MSN program vs. a DNP program. For example, in January 2024 there were almost 6,000 unique job postings for MSN-educated nurses. On the other hand, only 130 DNP-related jobs were posted that same month.

There are a few reasons for this discrepancy. For one, many hospitals are starting to require current and prospective nurses to hold more advanced education. Another market trend that contributes to this shift is the current nursing shortage. This has left a sizable gap in direct patient care roles as more seasoned nurses are promoted to leadership roles and fewer novice nurses entering the field. 

How to Choose Between an MSN and DNP

Advancing your education is critical to your long-term success as a nurse, but with so many options choosing which path is right for you can be challenging. Here are a few things you should consider before applying to either program.

Identify Your Career Interests

When planning a long-term career in nursing, it’s vital to decide whether you prefer direct patient care or leadership roles. 

For example, an MSN degree is ideal for those focused on advanced clinical practice areas like pediatrics or mental health. Alternatively, a DNP is suitable for nurses who want to make an impact on healthcare at a managerial or policy level. This choice between developing clinical specialization or leadership capabilities greatly influences whether an MSN or a DNP is right for you.

Check Prerequisites

Checking prerequisites is crucial when deciding whether you should apply to an MSN and DNP program. This is largely because nurses need an MSN degree before they can apply to a DNP program. 

So if you’re interested in becoming a leader in nursing, but only have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, make sure you research your options. There are several tracks that can help you obtain a DNP, including a BSN to DNP program.

For an MSN degree program, the most common prerequisites include: 

  • BSN degree from an accredited institution
  • Valid registered nurse license
  • Clinical experience

Academic prerequisites also often include a minimum GPA and the completion of certain undergraduate courses such as statistics, health assessment, and anatomy. Some programs may also require letters of recommendation and a personal statement, depending on the program.

Financial Considerations

Financial considerations play a crucial role when nurses are deciding between pursuing an MSN or a DNP degree. 

Typically, MSN programs are less expensive and shorter in duration than DNP programs, which can translate into a lower immediate financial burden and quicker return to the workforce. However, a DNP could potentially offer a higher long-term financial return due to the advanced leadership positions and higher salaries that the degree targets. 

Nurses should also evaluate the direct costs of tuition as well as the potential income loss during extended periods of study. 

Balancing these financial aspects with career goals and personal circumstances will help in making a well-informed decision.

Advance Your Education in Nursing

Whether you decide to pursue an MSN or a DNP, advancing your education equips you with the latest knowledge and skills to meet the evolving demands of healthcare.

“It’s a life commitment to maintain education,” Sikkema says. “What you’ve learned through one degree is great, but it doesn’t stop at that point. It’s a continuous process because the healthcare system, the management strategies, the pharmacology, and the societal changes are happening so frequently that, as a nurse practitioner, you have to keep up with that and re-educate.”

For those considering an MSN or DNP degree, Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences offers programs that stand out for their comprehensive approach to advanced nursing education. These programs prepare graduates for direct clinical roles and offer robust training in leadership and policy-making to prepare nurses for a successful nursing career.