MSN vs DNP: Which Degree Is Right for You?

Nursing student studying at a desk with books and a laptop.Due to a combination of factors, including rising rates of burnout and mounting retirements, the U.S. is facing a critical shortage of physicians. According to the latest report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. could see a shortfall of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians in both primary and specialty care by 2034.As a result, an urgent need exists for advanced practice nurses, including nurse practitioners (NPs), to help fill the gaps in care that the physician shortage has created. Many of these nurses are qualified to provide a similar level of health guidance and care. A wave of nursing retirements and growing demand for health care services—stemming from heightened interest in preventive care and the medical needs of aging baby boomers—will create a greater need for skilled nurses.

Advanced nursing programs, such as a Master of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (MSNDNP), can equip the next generation of nurses and nurse leaders with the necessary skills to meet such demands. These programs help students enhance their clinical expertise and develop leadership skills that can prepare them for a wide range of roles.

Trying to decide between the MSN vs. DNP degrees can be challenging. To make an informed decision, students need to understand what each program offers and the career opportunities they present.

DNP vs. MSN: Similarities and Differences

Although DNP and MSN degrees differ in many ways, some general overlap exists in the type of education that each provides. Both programs are designed to help students advance their nursing skills and knowledge, paving the way for numerous career paths, including specialized and leadership roles. Both degrees can also give job seekers a competitive advantage in a crowded job market and may lead to positions with higher salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nursing positions that require a graduate degree, such as nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, and nurse midwife, command significantly higher wages, on average, than those that only require an undergraduate degree. Additionally, employment growth for advanced practice roles is expected to be stronger than other nursing positions, such as registered nurse.These programs often explore very similar concepts as well, including the following:

  • Evidence-based practice
  • The use of technology in a clinical environment
  • Patient care improvement
  • Systems leadership

Nurses with either of these degrees are entrusted with more responsibility and are capable of working with greater autonomy than their counterparts in other nursing roles that don’t require the same level of education.

However, despite their similarities, these two nursing degrees have key differences. An MSN typically focuses on enhancing students’ clinical skills to prepare them for specialized advanced practice roles, while a DNP builds on a master’s education and is often a pathway to administrative and leadership positions.

Another important consideration when choosing between MSN and DNP programs is their respective length. MSN programs typically take one to three years to complete—depending on certain factors, like specialization—while DNP programs can take anywhere from four to seven years. Understanding these differences can help students decide which degree is best suited to help them achieve their professional goals.

What Is an MSN?

An MSN is a popular degree for nursing students seeking to advance their careers. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), 146,403 students were enrolled in nursing master’s programs in 2019 and nearly 50,000 graduated. MSN programs build on an undergraduate nursing education and often focus on refining students’ clinical expertise. The core curriculum typically explores topics that have a direct bearing on patient care, such as patient safety, quality improvement, epidemiology, pharmacology, and health care technology. It may also examine more abstract concepts, like nursing leadership, research, and health care policy and advocacy. Students can often choose between different MSN specializations, depending on their career goals, which makes it ideal for those pursuing a specialty nursing role. A nurse practitioner (NP) concentration, for example, can prepare students for a career in various NP roles, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP) or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Other MSN concentrations include nursing education and health care systems leadership.An MSN is required for all advanced practice nursing roles. An MSN is a prerequisite for many nursing certifications as well, including clinical nurse specialist and clinical nurse leader.

What Is a DNP?

The DNP is the most advanced degree a nurse can earn. Building on the education provided in a master’s program, a DNP delves further into concepts like evidence-based practice and systems leadership and is specifically designed to prepare nursing students for leadership roles.Doctoral programs in nursing generally fall into two main types: research focused and practice focused. Though they differ in their approach to nursing study, these programs are complementary. Research-focused doctoral programs emphasize scientific content and research methodology, while practice-focused doctoral programs focus on applying research findings to clinical practice. Because of their advanced education and training, DNP graduates can pursue a wide range of professions, including clinical roles and nonpatient care positions, such as:

  • Advanced practice nurse
  • Public health nurse
  • Nurse educator
  • Nurse administrator
  • Nurse informaticist

The increasingly dynamic and complex nature of the U.S. health care environment has led multiple groups, including the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) and AACN, to advocate for shifting the education requirement for advanced nursing practice roles from a master’s degree to a DNP.Although nursing has yet to universally adopt the DNP standard, the shift from a master’s to a DNP has gained momentum in recent years and is reflected in enrollment numbers across the country. According to AACN, the number of students enrolled in DNP programs has climbed steadily for the last decade, reaching 36,069 in 2019, a 10% increase from the prior year. Over the same period, the number of graduates grew by nearly 13%.

What Can You Do With an MSN?

While both MSNs and DNPs can prepare nurses for more advanced roles, MSN programs typically prepare graduates to excel in various nursing careers, including clinical positions, as well as those less focused on direct patient care.

MSN Salary

The average MSN salary is typically much higher than earnings for those who only hold an undergraduate degree. According to Payscale, the average base salary for someone with an MSN is $98,000 annually. MSN graduates often become NPs, who generally earn even higher salaries. The BLS reports that the median annual wage for NPs was $120,680 in May 2021. Salaries vary based on certain factors, including location, specialty, and experience.

Robust employment growth is expected for NPs in the coming years. BLS projections show that employment of NPs will grow by 46% between 2021 and 2031, adding nearly 113,000 new jobs during the period.Both MSNs and DNPs can lead to NP roles, but a master’s degree is required for all advanced practice nursing roles, while a doctoral degree isn’t. For this reason, NPs represent one of the most common MSN careers. MSN graduates can choose from several specialties in the NP discipline.

Family Nurse Practitioner

FNPs provide a wide range of medical services to patients of all ages, from infants to seniors. Their responsibilities include the following:

  • Conducting physical exams
  • Ordering and performing diagnostic tests
  • Prescribing medication
  • Developing treatment plans for chronic conditions (diabetes, high blood pressure) and acute illnesses (flu)

NPs are capable of providing many of the same services as physicians, which is why they’re a main source of primary care, particularly in areas with a physician shortage. They may do this independently or collaboratively with other health care professionals in various settings, including private practice, hospitals, and community health centers. According to Payscale, the salary range for FNPs was between $82,000 and $122,000, with an average base salary of $98,739, in November 2022.FNPs have an extremely broad scope of practice, providing a host of primary care services. As overall demand for health care services grows—stemming from a heightened emphasis on preventive care and the medical needs of the country’s aging population—there’ll be an even greater need for FNPs.

Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Adult gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AGACNPs) provide care to patients with complex, acute conditions, like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. AGACNPs specifically treat adult patients, from young adults to geriatric patients. The scope of care they provide includes disease prevention and acute care management, focusing on reducing the risk of future complications while improving overall patient health. AGACNPs can work in various settings, including intensive care, acute care, or trauma units, as well as clinics and long-term care facilities. AGACNPs earned between $88,000 and $113,000, with an average base salary of $96,063, in November 2022, according to Payscale. According to the Administration for Community Living (ACL), adults 65 and older represent nearly 20% of the total U.S. population. As the population continues to age, rates of chronic and acute conditions will rise, and there’ll be an increasing need for AGACNPs to care for these patients.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

PMHNPs, including registered nurses (RNs) and NPs, are the second largest group of behavioral health professionals in the country, according to a report in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.

These NPs assess, diagnose, and treat patients with mental and behavioral health issues, including substance abuse problems. They may provide therapy and/or prescribe medications, as well as promote well-being through education, including teaching patients self-care activities.Payscale reports that PMHNPs earned between $92,000 and $145,000, with an average base salary of $113,927, in November 2022. Factors such as experience and location can influence the salary for this role.

Given the nation’s heightened interest in mental and behavioral health, along with improved access to such services, employment growth for PMHNPs is expected to be strong in the coming years.

What Can You Do With a DNP?

Both MSNs and DNPs demonstrate a heightened commitment to nursing, which is why graduates with either of these degrees tend to have better job prospects than those with only an undergraduate nursing education. As the U.S. health care system becomes increasingly complex, it will need individuals with a high level of expertise to ensure quality patient outcomes.

DNP Salary

The DNP is among the highest degrees a nurse can earn, and as the level of education increases, earnings tend to rise as well. According to Payscale, the average base salary for DNP graduates was $108,000 in November 2022. Though employers may not require a DNP, it presents numerous career opportunities and may qualify individuals for leadership positions. In addition to advanced practice nurses, some of the most common careers for DNP graduates include nurse educator, nurse administrator, and advanced practice registered nurse.

Nurse Educator

Nurse educators apply their clinical expertise to teaching other nurses. They typically work at universities or as nursing educators at hospitals, developing curricula and lesson plans and supervising students in clinical settings. Nurse educators often maintain their skills and knowledge by continuing to work as nurses and treat patients while teaching. Several different types of nurse educators exist, including the following:

  • Professor of nursing. Teaches nursing classes at the university level, including MSN and DNP
  • Clinical nursing educator. Teaches nurses in a clinical setting, typically in hospitals.
  • Nursing education consultant. Develops educational objectives and requirements for nursing students in classes and training programs.
  • Clinical lab instructor. Teaches students in a laboratory setting.

The median annual wage for nursing instructors and teachers was $77,440 in May 2021, according to the BLS. This can vary based on location, education level, and specific role.

The employment outlook for nurse educators is encouraging, mirroring the overall growth in the nursing profession. The BLS projects that the employment of nursing instructors and teachers in postsecondary institutions will grow by 22% by 2031, adding more than 18,000 new jobs.

Nurse Administrator

Nurse administrators serve in various managerial and leadership capacities across all different practice environments, including hospitals, clinics, and even government agencies. They typically direct and coordinate patient care and manage teams of nurses.The types of nurse administrators include nurse executives, nurse leaders, and chief nursing officers, who all have very similar responsibilities. They generally oversee every aspect of nursing operations, developing strategies and policies to improve staff performance and patient care. They also act as advocates for nursing staff, ensuring that they have the necessary resources to do their jobs.

Salaries for nurse administrator positions vary widely depending on the specific role they fill, as well as other factors, like experience and location. Payscale reports that the salary range for a nurse administrator was between $64,000 and $133,000, with an average base salary of $89,527, in October 2022. While the BLS doesn’t provide specific projections for nurse administrators, it projects employment of medical and health services managers—a very similar role—to grow significantly this decade, increasing by 28% by 2031. As more nurses enter the workforce, hospitals and health systems will need more nurse administrators to lead them.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have extensive training and certification that qualifies them to take on greater responsibilities in providing primary, specialty, and preventative care. The scope of practice for APRNs varies from state to state, but they can generally diagnose diseases, prescribe medications, and order diagnostic tests. APRN specializations include certified nurse midwife (CNM), nurse practitioner (NP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), and nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

According to Payscale, APRNs earn between $81,000 and $122,000, with an average base salary of $98,287, in November 2022.

While a doctorate degree is not required to become an APRN, some nursing organizations, including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), have called for the practice-focused DNP (as opposed to a research-focused PhD) to be the required credential for nurse practitioners.

Advance Your Nursing Career With the MSN or DNP

Demand for well-educated, highly skilled nurses will continue to increase for the foreseeable future, as the health care industry deals with shortages of both physicians and nurses and growing demand for medical services. MSN and DNP graduates possess the clinical expertise and leadership skills that health care organizations need to help them overcome these challenges.Picking between these two degrees often depends on a student’s preferred career path. Those interested in a specialized practice role may want to pursue an MSN, while individuals looking to get into leadership may find that a DNP is the right choice. Both degrees can help students advance their nursing careers in various directions.

HPU’s Master of Science in  Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice program can prepare graduates for a wide range of roles. Explore the program and find out how it can help you achieve excellence in the field of nursing.

Recommended Readings

Autonomy in Nursing: Why It Matters

Chief Nursing Officer vs. Director of Nursing

How Leadership Qualities in Nursing Affect Health Care  


Administration for Community Living, 2020 Profile of Older Americans

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2020 Annual Report: Building on the Past, Envisioning the Future

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Master’s Education

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as an Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner?

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

American Nurse Journal, Primary Care Shortages and the Role of Family Nurse Practitioners

Association of American Medical Colleges, AAMC Report Reinforces Mounting Physician Shortage

Indeed, How to Become a Nursing EducatorIndeed, MSN vs. DNP: Definitions, Differences and Tips

Indeed, What Is a Chief Nursing Officer and What Do They Do?

Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, The Current Psychiatric Mental Health Registered Nurse Workforce

Minority Nurse, 4 Reasons Why There Is a High Demand for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

Nursing Outlook, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree in the United States: Reflecting, Readjusting, and Getting Back on Track

Payscale, Average Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Salary

Payscale, Average Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) Salary

Payscale, Average Family Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

Payscale, Average Nurse Administrator Salary

Payscale, Average Nursing Informatics Specialist Salary

Payscale, Average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

Payscale, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

Payscale, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, The Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree: Entry to Nurse Practitioner Practice by 2025U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Careers for Nurses: Opportunities and Options

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services ManagersU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Teachers