Nurse Practitioner Masters vs Doctorate (DNP)

Do you hope to work as a nurse? If so, you may have numerous potential avenues to take to achieve this path. Choose the degree program that is suited for your needs based on your ultimate career goals. Two key routes to consider include the DNP vs Masters NP or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Which is better?

Either option may be a good choice. These are often two very different degree paths. Which you choose usually depends on what you hope to do later.

The biggest difference is often in what people do with their nursing degree. Typically, an MSN degree helps students who wish to obtain a concentration for a clinical setting. The DNP path often focuses on students who wish to work in leadership positions. It may also help those who wish to work beyond just the bedside care of a traditional nurse. There may be ample flexibility here, though.

Nurse Practitioner Masters (MSN) vs Nurse Practitioner Doctorate (DNP)

Students may have ample options when it comes to completing their master’s degree. Going straight for a DNP is one option. It may allow students to avoid having to spend as much time in a master’s program and then applying for and qualifying for a doctoral degree separately.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recognizes both pathways to education. The coursework is often different. The type of end degree is often different. More so, both programs usually require students to complete their bachelor’s degree as a first step. A GRE may be necessary and meeting other enrollment requirements may be as well.

To help you to see your options, consider both types of degree paths and determine which may be a good fit for your needs.

What Is an MSN?

The Master of Science in Nursing degree is a type of graduate degree program. It tends to provide students with education in more comprehensive and specific areas of nursing.

Students may select several different paths to earning their master’s degree. This should be geared to the type of work that most interests you or what you wish to major in. For example, it may be possible to have a concentration on health information systems, management, or direct patient care. In this case, consider a path towards earning an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) degree. This may allow the student to earn their education to become a nurse practitioner. Those on this course path often first earn their master’s degree. They then may earn additional certificates related to the field of study or skills they have. This may allow them to have a higher level of education and skill building in a specific area of nursing.

It often takes about two years to complete this degree for students completing it full time. During that time, you may be working in clinical practice. Some students could work as a Family Nurse Practitioner (or plan to) while others may be a registered nurse (RN). Generally, students have their licensing in place at this point.

Possible Careers as an MSN

There may be a number of options and career choices to consider when going for an MSN. These careers may vary based on the type of program or group of people you are looking to work with and offered in a number of different formats.

Here are some options to consider:

Nurse Case Manager or Health Services Manager

According to the BLS, those working in this career plan and direct other people. This may be in a medical office or other type of healthcare establishment.

2022 Median Annual salary: $104,830 per year
2022 – 2032 Growth: 28%

Nurse Anesthetist and Nurse Practitioners

According to the BLS, typically, a person in this career works in a hospital, often in an emergency room providing care including diagnosing and creating treatment plans. They provide short term care for a patient while the person is within the ER department.

2022 Median Annual salary: $125,900 per year
2022 – 2032: Growth: 38%

Top Salary Metro Areas in the United States: Nurse Practitioners
Metro AreaAnnual Mean SalaryEmployment
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA$146,050680
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA$131,4302,450
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA$129,040170
Stockton-Lodi, CA$127,330110
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA$123,5704,260

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Top States for Employment for Nurse Practitioners
StateEmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
New York13,450$115,030

Bureau of Labor Statistics

How Long Does it Take to Get an MSN?

To obtain an MSN you may go a couple of different routes. This may include a BSN to MSN program or completing an MSN program once you have been practicing as a BSN for a period of time. These programs usually take anywhere from 18 to 36 months to complete.

Course of Study for an MSN

When choosing to pursue a DNP vs Master NP be sure to look at courses of study for each. In order to complete and MSN program they are often a number of courses that students need to take. Some examples that tend to be in all programs in one way or another are as follows:

1st course Population Health, Epidemiology, and Statistical Principles

Population Health, Epidemiology, and Statistical Principles

Students completing this course may study topics such as epidemiology and population health. They often examine trends and principles related to this to create solutions and conclusions. Most may use data to formulate decisions. This often allows the student to explore ways to treat patients.

2nd course Advanced Pathophysiology

Advanced Pathophysiology

This higher level of education in pathophysiology often explores analysis to pathophysiologic mechanisms and the corresponding conditions. The course typically focuses on both normal and abnormal conditions, often providing students with skills necessary to evaluate responses.

3rd Course Leadership and Role of the Advanced Practice Nurse

Leadership and Role of the Advanced Practice Nurse

Students completing this course may explore leadership and the role a nurse practitioner plays. It often discusses the responsibilities of those working in the position. It may also cover topics related to team collaboration, ethics in nursing, nursing management, and working with others in various medical settings.

4th Course Advanced Pharmacology for Care of the Family

Advanced Pharmacology for Care of the Family

This course often focuses on pharmacy applications for nursing. This typically includes how medications impact people at various ages including both the short and long term effects they have. Students may also study medications as they relate to gender, ethnicity, culture, and other factors.

5th Course Advanced Pharmacology Fundamentals

Advanced Pharmacology Fundamentals

Students taking this course usually dive deeper into pharmacology. This class typically covers the application of various drugs as well as analysis of how and why they work. It also aims to increase the amount of education students have in drug management.

6th Course Advanced Physical Assessment

Advanced Physical Assessment

This course often provides a broader level of knowledge and skill in the assessment process of patients. This usually includes using various techniques to do so. It often includes the application of medical history and exams to make diagnosis and treatment decisions.

What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a terminal degree. That means it is the last in the series of educational options for nurses. This is the highest level of education a student is likely to obtain in nursing. The material here is often different than what you may expect in a traditional master’s degree because the focus is different as well. Again, at this point, the student often has proper licensure and may or may not be working in a nursing career.

As a doctoral degree, this post master path often prepares students for a different educational path and career path than the MSN. Most often, a DNP focuses on leadership roles in the industry. Students may pursue a nursing career to work in management of healthcare systems, work as a nurse educator, or work in other areas of public health. Many are working in the nursing field in a different capacity than what one may expect as a day to day bedside nurse.

One of the keys to completing this program may be that there are some schools that allow a student to go from a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) into a DNP path. That means that they may not have to complete the master’s degree as a separate plan. This may allow the same quality and type of education with concentrations in a wide range of areas. It may also speed up the educational process. DNP graduates, then, may still hold the nursing leadership position they desire, but they may have reduced the amount of time it takes to complete their DNP.

There are a lot of factors that could play a role in this. For example, students who wish to study part time may need more time to complete their education. Also note that an online MSN program may offer the student the ability to work in a nursing profession while getting their degree. That may help them to speed up their education if they go the MSN route.

Possible Careers with a DNP

There are a number of options and career choices to consider when going for an DNP. These careers may vary based on the type of program or group of people you are looking to work with and are offered in a number of different formats.

Clinical Researcher or Medical Scientist

According to the BLS, those working in this position produce research. The goal of this research is to improve the health outcomes of a group of people. Those working in this field may develop and conduct surveys and work in the medical field. Some also work to develop new medications or treatment plans. They also gather data on how disease impacts people in various ways.

2022 Median Annual salary:  $99,930 per year
2022 – 2032 Growth rate:  10%

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

Those who work as an APRN typically manage a number of tasks. Per the BLS, this includes gathering and applying patient histories and performing diagnostic testing. Those in this field also diagnose patients coming in for care, provide prescriptions for treatments, and offer other medical solutions.

2022 Median Annual salary:  $125,900 per year
2022 – 2032 Growth rate:  38%

Health Care Executive

According to the BLS, those working in this field typically handle managerial types of roles. That includes executing strategies and planning goals for companies. They may work within health and medical companies, hospital systems, or other businesses.

2022 Median Annual salary:  $100,090 per year
2022 – 2032 Growth rate:  3%

Nursing Educator

Those working as an educator do so in a classroom setting, or other location. As per the BLS, they present patient care models and treatment to students. This may include lecture, demonstrations, or hands on learning depending on the topics.

2022 Median Annual salary:  $80,840  per year
202 – 202 Growth rate:  8%

How Long Does it Take to Get a DNP?

To obtain a DNP you may go a couple of different routes. This may include a direct program or completing an MSN program and then working towards a DNP. Below are some examples of schools and programs to consider. These programs usually take anywhere from 18 to 36 months to complete.

Courses of Study for a DNP

1st course Nursing Education

Nursing Education

Nursing education is often a path for those who wish to teach other nursing students. In this area, students may learn how to plan and execute lessons. This career path may be a good option for those who want to remain in the classroom as an educator at the end of their doctoral degree. Students may be able to work in colleges or universities after completion. Some may work in technical and trade schools or in a hospital setting.

2nd course Pediatrics


A pediatrics DNP program aims to teach students about the care infants and young adults need. Those who work in this field often learn about disease and conditions impacting children and how to properly treat them. They may then work in doctor’s offices, private practice, medical centers and clinics, as well as hospitals.

3rd Course Adult Gerontology

Adult Gerontology

Adult gerontology is often another path for DNP students. The specific area of study here is usually in the aging population. Students may examine the needs of those who are advancing in age. This program may include topics related to health assessment, diagnosis of patients, and ordering medical tests. These individuals often work in long term care locations, private practice, and medical centers.

4th Course Psychiatric Mental Health

Psychiatric Mental Health

A psychiatry mental health specialty often focuses on providing care to patients who may already have a primary care provider, but are seeking mental health support. This type of focus may be on children or adults, or both. Students who complete this educational path may be able to diagnose and treat patients. They may also be able to prescribe medications for patients. These individuals often work in private practices, hospitals, and other medical services.

5th Course Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

The family DNP typically provides care to a group of people in a private practice or medical care center. They follow the patient from the time they are infants through adulthood, typically. Many may work primarily with a large age group and provide primary care services to them. They typically work with other doctors and specialists to meet the needs of the individual.

6th Course Women’s Health

Women’s Health

In the women’s health concentration a DNP often focuses on women’s health needs. This usually includes pre-natal care, postpartum care, and care surrounding the natural aging process. Those who take on this field typically find positions in private practices, hospitals, and clinics.

Is the DNP Route the More Beneficial Route for Some Nurse Practitioner Students?

If you wish to work as a clinical nurse specialist or a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), which path should you take? Both educational paths may prepare students for nursing careers that are similar, depending on the coursework completed. However, there are often advantages to completing the DNP for many.

A BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice path may be a good option for some students who are looking for a faster way to obtain their education and skills in the field of nursing. It may be important to note that there may be numerous reasons to obtain a doctoral degree in itself. Some organizations are looking for people with these degree paths and certifications. It also may be important to you to complete your education so you may provide a different level of service and support to the community. If advocacy and healthcare policy are important to you, you should continue to pursue this type of education through the various nursing programs available.

A DNP may provide a broader number of career options for a student. This may include positions in areas such as nurse researcher, clinical nurse specialist, and nurse practitioner. Working in advanced practice nursing may allow students to focus on other areas than just patient outcomes on a one on one basis. For example, some may work to change healthcare policy. Their goal may be to help support improvements in local populations.

It is also important to consider the learning path for students who wish to complete this degree path. For example, for those who are already a licensed nurse and working in the field, going back to school for a master’s is a noble decision. However, a BSN to DNP direct path may be faster and provide students with the same number of opportunities and potential benefits just in a shorter timeframe.

You may want to consider the value of what you wish to learn, too. Doctoral programs are usually challenging. They often require a significant amount of research and dissertations. They may even require students to spend a lot of time working independently. For those who want to be in leadership positions, these skills may prove to be critical.

Take a look at a few of the benefits of a DNP program:

  • Have access to more career opportunities. This path often prepares students with skills needed for different career paths than what an MSN provides.
  • Students may be able to complete their education in a BSN to DNP in a faster amount of time. Various factors could matter here including whether a student completes their education part time or full time.
  • Students may be able to work in positions that provide more influence over the general public by shaping policy and change. For some students, being able to play a role in changing healthcare is important to them.

Take the time to check out a few nursing schools. Learn more about the various types of programs available. Some offer certifications in areas such as informatics and anesthetist, or a wide range of other fields. If those interest you, you may want to pursue a path as a BSN to DNP program.

Should You Get a DNP Degree or an MSN Degree, Then?

It may be hard to say if a DNP vs Masters NP is a better choice for you. This is ultimately a personal decision based on what your goals and needs are.

To be clear, an MSN path may be a desirable and beneficial degree path for many people. Some students may not want to aim for leadership positions now. They may want to work in the field. They could enjoy clinical hours more than research, for example. If you do not plan to move into leadership positions, then you may do well in a MSN path.

For those who wish to do more, though, a BSN to DNP may be the correct option because of the amount of time it may save you in completing your educational goals. It may provide you with the same type of education and coursework, depending on the courses you take. You may qualify for the DNP positions you desire. The difference here is in the length of time (and the associated costs with that) that a BSN to DNP may offer.

It is also important to note that some students complete their master’s degree (MSN) and then go into the field to work. They may then choose to complete their DNP at a later time. If that works for you in your life now, it may be a choice for moving your education forward. The key to remember is that this is your education, and it should meet both your interests and the career goals that you have.

Take the time to consider a few different nursing schools. Take a closer look at what you wish to do as well. Do you want to work as a certified registered nurse anesthetist? Possibly, you want to work as a certified nurse midwife? Or, you may want to take on leadership positions within your local hospital system. When you take the time to consider what your desired goals are, you may then determine the educational path to get you there.

Remember too that there is a lot of work that goes into this process. Some of that comes from the clinical hours you may spend working within the field and with patients. Some of it comes from the work you do in managerial tasks within the day to day job you complete as well. The good news is there are many educational paths available to you. So, choosing one for you may be the hardest part of the process.

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