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MSN vs. DNP: Evaluating nurse practitioner education options

Aug 1, 2022
5 min Read
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You’re an experienced registered nurse (RN) who has spent years on the front lines. Perhaps you’ve always had your sights set on eventually becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) or maybe you started considering it more recently. Either way, you’re ready to start planning your next steps.

When it comes to nurse practitioner education requirements, there are a couple of routes to choose from: a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). Before you head back to the classroom, you’ll need to do your research regarding MSN vs. DNP programs.

To help compare these advanced nursing degrees, we spoke with Creighton University Assistant Professor Dr. Trina K. Walker, DNP, APRN, FNP-C. Keep reading to find out which nurse practitioner education path you should pursue.

A closer look at the nurse practitioner role

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), what sets NPs apart from other providers is their unique emphasis on the overall well-being of their patients. NPs focus on health promotion and education, disease prevention and counseling. They bring a holistic perspective and personal approach to healthcare.

To become an NP, you must complete extensive clinical hours, graduate from an accredited master’s or doctoral degree program and pass board exams for the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) license. As an APRN, you can specialize in one or several populations. Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are by far the most common and make up nearly 70 percent of all registered NPs.

APRNs of all kinds are needed in huge numbers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners is expected to grow by 45 percent from 2020 to 2030. As of 2021, there were more than 355,000 nurse practitioners (NPs) licensed in the United States.

Nurse practitioner education options

There are two main pathways for becoming a nurse practitioner: MSN or DNP. It’s worth taking the time to research both options to determine the best route for you. Consider the following factors:

MSN vs. DNP: The basics

A Master of Science in Nursing degree is designed to prepare nurses for careers in administration, education or clinical practice. Emphasis is placed on preparing graduates with advanced competencies in nursing practice and knowledge that meets the demands of the changing healthcare environment. An MSN also establishes a foundation for future doctoral study in nursing.

A Doctor of Nursing Practice, on the other hand, is a terminal degree, meaning it’s the highest level of education in the field. A DNP program deepens your knowledge of both natural and social sciences, plus the ability to transform theory into best practices for the benefit of patients. Graduates are skilled at promoting patient safety and work to eliminate health disparities with the use of doctoral-level knowledge about organizational, systems-based policy and leadership.

MSN vs. DNP: Specialties

Both of these advanced nursing degrees typically offer opportunities for students to emphasize in an area that aligns with their professional goals. Specific options will vary based on the school, but if you have a particular specialty in mind, it’s worth researching to find a program that focuses on your desired career path.

The Creighton University MSN program, for example, offers two specialty tracks: Nursing Administration and Leadership, and Nursing Education. Other common options include Nursing Research, Nursing Informatics and Public Health Nursing. You can find MSN programs that offer advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) specialties, but they are more typically offered at the doctorate level.

To get an idea of some common specialty tracks available in DNP programs, here’s a look at what Creighton offers:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Primary and Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (Dual)
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Across the Lifespan Nurse Practitioner
  • Nursing Administration and Leadership

MSN vs. DNP: Program length

The time to completion of any graduate nursing program will vary based on several factors, such as the degree type, area of specialty and the amount of time you can commit to educational responsibilities. The Creighton University MSN program, for example, typically takes between two and three years to complete.

It should come as no surprise that a doctorate program will take longer than a master’s program, and that extra knowledge and training can put you on track to becoming a successful nurse practitioner. Time to completion will depend largely on your current level of education, as there are often multiple entry points.

Creighton University offers several options for nurses to build on their existing education and experience. For those who have completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, the BSN to DNP track is an ideal choice. Students typically complete this program in four years, but can be finished in as little as three. Part-time options are also available to accommodate for working nurses’ schedules.

MSN vs. DNP: Other considerations

For aspiring nurse practitioners with a BSN, the obvious advantage of choosing the MSN route is it comes with a shorter time to completion. But if you’re truly hoping to build a career with as much impact as possible, your decision shouldn’t be based on convenience. A little extra knowledge and training can only improve your practice and career potential.

DNP graduates are ready to become leaders, whether this is clinically or administratively. Creighton’s program requires students to complete 1,200 clinical hours — equivalent to an entire year of work — under the supervision of expert faculty. This enriching learning experience creates a more solid foundation of skills to help bedside nurses transition into leadership roles.

Another important reason nurse practitioners should consider earning a DNP versus an MSN is the upcoming change in minimum education requirements for the profession. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has been supporting the shift toward DNP since 2004, and the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) endorsed this stance by committing to DNP as the new entry-level nurse practitioner education standard by 2025.

Is a DNP worth it?

“Any advanced nursing credential can create new career opportunities as you become an expert in your area of focus,” Dr. Walker says. “But the ability to apply your leadership skills, improve patient outcomes and acquire increased clinical experience set the DNP degree apart.”

One recent study found that interviewed employers and academic leaders indicated that DNP graduates have a larger and more diverse skill set — particularly in the areas of leadership, evidence-based practice, critical thinking and quality improvement — and greater knowledge of policy, economics and the business side of nursing.

MSN programs require far fewer clinical hours and experience than DNP programs, which provide another whole year of clinical experience as a nurse practitioner or nursing administration and leadership student. The DNP degree will provide a stronger foundation for transitioning from a bedside nurse into a leading provider or administrator.

Level up your nursing career

This breakdown of MSN versus DNP should give you a better idea of your nurse practitioner education options. If you’re ready to elevate your nursing career and enhance your impact, our experienced faculty members are ready to help you get there.

Creighton University has a history as a leading nursing education provider — in fact, we launched the very first DNP program in the state of Nebraska. For nearly 60 years, our College of Nursing has trained highly skilled professionals at all levels: from bachelor’s to master’s to doctorates.

To join the ranks of our distinguished grads, find out which Creighton Nursing Program is right for you.

Have questions? Click here to speak with an admissions counselor about your desired nursing program.