MSN vs. DNP Programs — Which Degree Is Right for Me?

The MSN to DNP program is designed for nurses that hold a master’s degree and are specialists in such subfields as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, certified nurse specialist, or nurse anesthetist. An MSN and DNP both require nursing skills a student may develop through an RN or BSN degree program, the MSN is easier to achieve in less time than the DNP, and it offers more options. Students questioning this choice between the MSN or DNP might want answers to the differences between the two degrees — and listed below are several differences.

The MSN Track

When getting a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), students are asked to choose one of four routes: Nurse Practitioner (NP), Certified Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), and Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM). These specializations allow nurses to work on different skill sets that can benefit them in obtaining the exact occupation they desire upon graduation.

  • Students choose a specialty from the start, which gives them the advantage of getting specialized training in their field even before they complete their BSN.
  • MSN degree emphasizes interrelated academic preparation in areas of leadership, education, administration, and global health care.
  • Coursework focuses on the management and leadership roles assigned to a medical practitioner, areas of health policy, and included in the program is a capstone, or thesis project.
  • The curriculum recognizes prior academic course work, continuing education and clinical expertise.
  • MSN programs typically require at least two years of advanced studies and by the time students complete their BSN degree, they may know which field they choose to specialize in an MSN program.

Steps to Obtain an MSN Degree

  1. Earn an associate degree or a BSN degree in nursing.
  2. Receive a registered nurse certification.
  3. Enroll and complete an MSN program.
  4. Obtain certification and proper licensure, which varies by state.

The MSN to DNP Track

The MSN to DNP program is designed for nurses that hold a master’s degree and are specialists in such subfields as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, certified nurse specialist, or nurse anesthetist. It prepares nurses to create and lead new models of care delivery for communities and different populations.

  • Students prepare to be future clinical leaders who design models of health care delivery, evaluate clinical outcomes, identify and manage health care needs of populations, and use technology and information to transform health care systems.
  • The curriculum incorporates nursing science with ethics, as well as the biophysical, psychosocial, analytical, and organizational science to develop and evaluate nursing practice and delivery models.
  • Coursework teaches students how to use analytic methods to design, implement, and evaluate best practice models for healthcare delivery; and effectively develop, implement and evaluate evidence-based approaches to advance nursing and health care.
  • Field work targets specialized experience, both on academic and clinical levels.
  • Admission to these programs are contingent on official transcripts that verify a bachelor’s or master’s degree, a minimum GPA, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and sometimes a GRE score.

Steps to Obtain an MSN to DNP Degree

  1. Earn an associate degree or a BSN degree in nursing.
  2. Receive a registered nurse certification.
  3. Enroll and complete an MSN to DNP program.
  4. Obtain DNP certification and proper licensure, which varies by state.

The DNP Track

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs provide the skills necessary for advanced nursing practices in primary health care. DNP degree programs pick up where MSN programs leave off, teaching students advanced clinical skills, as well as leadership skills in their field.

  • Students learn to incorporate theories, knowledge and concepts to create ethical systems and new ways of nursing practices that address disparities, and they study research methods and results to produce an evidence base for nursing practices and delivery systems.
  • The DNP program addresses important skills that are needed to covert evidence-based care into practice, enhance systems of care and measure the outs of patients, communities and populations.
  • The curricula features the fundamentals of advanced care as well as specialty courses and instruction in nursing theories and nursing research.
  • With having prior advanced clinical practice, students work as mentors to colleagues to improve nursing practice and systems of health care.
  • Program requirements are to have an baccalaureate degree from accredited university, diploma or associate degree from accredited RN program and baccalaureate degree in non-nursing field or a Master of Nursing degree from accredited nursing program.

Steps to Obtain a DNP Degree

  1. Earn a Master’s of Science in Nursing.
  2. Receive a registered nurse certification.
  3. Enroll and complete a DNP program.
  4. Obtain DNP certification and proper licensure, which varies by state.

Salary and Career Information

Salaries vary depending on the type of care, experience and expertise. States have different pay ranges as well, but the best way to obtain a high paying job is to become an expert at the highest level of education. Nurses that decide to further their education in nursing by earning a DNP degree make the higher end of a nurse practitioner’s pay. Below is the median salary and most common work environments:

  • Estimated Salary: $95,070 (determined by place of employment and area of specialty), according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Job Setting: Private practices, outpatient care centers, nursing homes, hospitals (intensive care unit), neonatal unit, internal medicine clinics, ambulatory care, family practice offices.
  • Job Prospects: Excellent, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Academic Goals with a DNP

If students choose to obtain an MSN degree now and want to complete a DNP program later, they might need an additional year of school beyond the MSN. The RN to MSN programs probably remains in place, but students may see BSN to DNP programs emerging. But, since this emergence may not occur during their school years, the best option is to find a current DNP program to determine an academic path by examining those DNP requirements.

If students cannot find a DNP program that suits their career goals, the RN to MSN option remains viable and probably remains so until students have hands-on experience under their belt. At that time, students may reconsider future DNP options to make a change in mid-career. By that time, the DNP option may become a vital component in career advancement.

Although it may seem that doctoral degrees in nursing are fairly new programs, practice-focused doctoral degree programs in nursing are not a recent development. However, the DNP is new and it is now offered in nursing schools, thanks to an initiative launched by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The AACN will begin requiring all nurse practitioners to have a DNP to practice as an APN starting in 2015. So, although nurses who earn a master’s degree before then are allowed to continue practicing, they might want to consider not just an MSN, but also an advance DNP program.

Currently, the only professional association that has formally adopted the DNP program is the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA). Nursing schools across the country are gearing up for DNP programs as the initiative grows for a degree title chosen to represent practice-focused doctoral programs to prepare graduates for the highest level of nursing practice.

One of the most rewarding and flexible careers today is that of a nurse practitioner. In order to pursue a nurse practitioner degree, one should have either an associates or a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Below are a list of schools offering high-quality programs that can help you on your way to becoming a nurse practitioner.

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