MSN or DNP: Which graduate nursing degree should you choose?

Consider your timing, career aspirations and the future of the nursing profession

Nurses with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) both are well prepared to provide quality patient care and serve as leaders in complex health care organizations. Both focus their graduate education and experience on a patient population and take the same exams to become certified in their specialty. Both practice with more autonomy than bachelor’s-level RNs. So, what’s the difference and which one is right for you?

What’s the difference between an MSN and a DNP?

Graduate-level nursing programs, whether a master’s or practice-focused doctorate, expand on baccalaureate nursing education to provide nurses with a fuller understanding of the profession and equip graduates with specialized knowledge and skills to lead; promote health; and evaluate, treat and manage patient care in various roles and settings. In fact, MSN and DNP degrees share the same core clinical courses and practicums.

Where do they differ? The DNP builds on master’s curricula with education in evidence-based practice, quality improvement, leadership, policy advocacy, informatics and systems leadership. Students also are required to complete a final project that demonstrates mastery of the concepts and impacts health care outcomes at a systems or population level.

The DNP represents the terminal nursing practice degree, an alternative to the research-focused PhD.

Which should you choose: MSN or DNP?

To decide which degree level is right for you, think about how much you are ready to invest in your education, your career aspirations and the future of the nursing profession.

How much time (and money) do you want to invest in your education?

Added courses and project work for the DNP result in more time and tuition dollars. On average, the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing’s MSN programs require about two years of full-time study and its DNP programs require about three years. Add more time if you plan to complete your degree as a part-time student.

Want to attain your advanced-practice certification as soon as possible? Choose the MSN. If you decide you want to earn a DNP later, you can return to complete the additional coursework through a post-MSN DNP program. UC College of Nursing’s post-MSN DNP requires about a year of full-time study.

Note: To offset the extra tuition required, university-based financial aid is more readily available for UC’s DNP students.

What are your career aspirations?

Both master’s- and doctorate-prepared advanced-practice nurses assess and diagnose patients and manage treatment plans, which includes prescribing medications. If you’re interested in taking your role a step further to include community or population health, or if you want to assume a systems leadership or university-level teaching role, choose the DNP.

DNP-prepared nurses are well-equipped to fully implement the science developed by researchers, which allows them to consider patient, community and population needs in total when providing care. In addition, nurses with a DNP can more easily move up in health care administration and access academic positions at all levels of nursing education. The DNP also serves to differentiate nurses in larger job markets.

Where is the nursing profession headed?

Overall employment of nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives is projected to grow 45% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means advanced-practice nurses at both the master’s and doctorate levels will continue to be in high demand across the U.S., making either degree a smart choice.

At the same time, the nursing profession will be challenged in new ways. As the largest health care workforce segment, nurses are expected to lead the development of effective strategies to improve the nation’s health and eliminate health disparities. This increased complexity requires more nurses educated at the highest level of practice. Other health professions – medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, psychiatry, physical therapy, audiology – require doctoral-level education, and nursing continues to move in this direction, which means the DNP could soon become the standard for advanced-practice nurses.

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