DNP or MSN: Which Degree Pathway is Better for NPs?

Last Updated/Verified: Apr 21, 2024

The path to becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP) is a rewarding journey filled with choices, one of the most significant being whether to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Both options lead to a fulfilling career as an NP, but they differ in various aspects, including the level of education, scope of practice, and career opportunities. In this article, we will explore the DNP and MSN pathways for NPs, highlighting the key differences and helping aspiring NPs make an informed decision about which route best suits their goals and aspirations.

Understanding the Basics

Before delving into the comparison, it’s essential to understand the fundamentals of each NP degree program:

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

  • MSN programs traditionally prepare NPs for advanced practice roles.
  • These programs typically take two to three years to complete.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP):

  • DNPs are the highest level of clinical practice-focused nurses.
  • DNP programs can take three to four years or longer to complete, depending on the program’s structure.
  • While DNPs can specialize in various areas like MSN-educated NPs, DNP programs emphasize leadership, evidence-based practice, healthcare policy, and quality improvement.
  • Graduates are prepared for leadership and managerial roles in healthcare, and some states mandate the DNP as the entry-level degree for NPs.

The DNP Pathway

For those aspiring to become NPs, the choice between pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a pivotal decision that shapes their future career trajectory. From honing advanced clinical skills to fostering leadership, research, and advocacy capabilities, the DNP journey equips NPs with a unique skill set and mindset that sets them apart in the world of healthcare. It’s a pathway that not only ensures excellence in patient care but also prepares NPs to lead, innovate, and advocate for transformative change in healthcare systems. Let’s explore the key advantages of pursuing a DNP for NPs in detail.

Advantages of Pursuing a DNP for NPs

Before comparing the two nurse practitioner programs in relation to each other, let’s first look at a few of the advantages of enrolling in a DNP program:

Advanced Clinical Skills

DNP programs place a strong emphasis on advanced clinical practice. As a result, DNP-educated NPs often have a more extensive skill set and a deeper understanding of complex patient care, making them well-equipped to handle challenging cases and provide the highest level of care.

Leadership and Management Skills

DNPs are prepared not only to provide clinical care but also to lead and manage healthcare teams effectively. This skill set can open doors to administrative and leadership roles within healthcare organizations.

Research and Evidence-Based Practice

DNP programs emphasize evidence-based practice and research, enabling graduates to critically evaluate healthcare research, contribute to the development of best practices, and implement evidence-based care in their clinical settings.

Policy and Advocacy

With a focus on healthcare policy and advocacy, DNPs are well-positioned to influence and shape healthcare policies, advocate for patient-centered care, and drive improvements in healthcare delivery.


Some states are moving towards requiring the DNP as the entry-level degree for NPs. Pursuing a DNP now can future-proof your career and ensure compliance with potential changes in licensure requirements.

Considerations When Pursuing a DNP

While the DNP pathway offers a broader skill set and leadership opportunities, it may not be the ideal fit for NPs seeking a specialized focus on clinical practice. Therefore, understanding the implications and aligning the pursuit of a DNP with individual career goals and interests is essential for a successful and rewarding educational journey. Let’s delve into these considerations in detail.

Time and Commitment

DNP programs are typically longer and more demanding than MSN programs. They require a significant time commitment, which can be challenging for those who want to enter the workforce sooner.


DNP programs tend to be more expensive than MSN programs due to their longer duration. Prospective students should carefully consider the financial aspect of pursuing a DNP.

Career Goals

While the DNP provides a broader skill set and more leadership opportunities, some NPs may prefer a more specialized focus on clinical practice. It’s essential to align your educational choice with your career goals and interests.

The MSN Pathway

The MSN pathway presents a compelling array of benefits that can significantly impact the career trajectory of Nurse Practitioners. From a quicker entry into the workforce to the opportunity for clinical specialization, lower costs, and immediate eligibility for national certification exams, pursuing an MSN can be an excellent choice for those with specific career goals in mind.

Advantages of Pursuing an MSN for NPs

When aspiring Nurse Practitioners (NPs) embark on their educational journey, they often find themselves at a crossroads, contemplating the path of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). In this section, we explore the MSN pathway for NPs, shedding light on the distinct advantages it offers.

Quicker Entry into the Workforce

MSN programs are typically shorter in duration, allowing NPs to enter the workforce sooner. This is advantageous for those who wish to start practicing as NPs without delay.

Clinical Specialization

MSN programs provide in-depth training in specific NP specialties, allowing graduates to become experts in their chosen fields. This specialization can be attractive to NPs who are passionate about a particular area of healthcare.

Lower Cost

Since MSN programs are generally shorter, they often come with lower tuition costs, making them a more budget-friendly option for aspiring NPs.

Certification and Practice:

MSN-educated NPs are eligible to sit for national certification exams in their chosen specialty, which is the primary requirement for NP practice. This means they can start practicing in their chosen field immediately after graduation.

Considerations When Pursuing an MSN

While the MSN pathway offers numerous advantages, it also presents considerations that can significantly impact a nurse practitioner’s professional journey. In this section, we explore three critical considerations that NPs should bear in mind when opting for an MSN education:

Advancing Your Career

While MSN-educated NPs have ample opportunities to practice as advanced clinicians, they may face limitations in pursuing leadership and administrative roles within healthcare organizations. If you aspire to hold positions that require a DNP, you may need to return to school for further education.

Evolving Requirements

Some states are moving toward requiring DNPs as the entry-level degree for NPs. As a result, MSN-educated NPs may encounter limitations in terms of licensure and career advancement in these states.

Specialization vs. Broad Skill Set

MSN programs offer more opportunities for specialization, which is ideal for NPs passionate about a specific patient population or clinical area. However, those who desire a broader skill set and leadership capabilities may find DNPs more appealing.

Making the Decision: DNP or MSN?

The decision to pursue a DNP or an MSN as an aspiring NP is a significant one and should align with your career goals and personal preferences. Here are some considerations to help you make an informed choice:

Career Goals

Consider your long-term career goals. If you aspire to leadership positions in healthcare, healthcare policy, research, or academia, a DNP may be the more suitable choice. On the other hand, if you are passionate about clinical practice and want to specialize in a particular field, an MSN may be the quicker path to achieving your clinical goals.

State Requirements

Research the licensure requirements in the state where you plan to practice. Some states mandate the DNP as the entry-level degree for NPs, while others accept MSN-educated NPs. Ensure that your chosen educational path aligns with your state’s regulations.

Personal Preferences

Consider your personal preferences and lifestyle. DNP programs are more time-consuming and may require a more significant financial investment. MSN programs, on the other hand, offer a quicker entry into the workforce and often come with lower tuition costs.

Consult with Educators and Practicing NPs

Seek advice from educators and practicing NPs who have pursued both MSN and DNP degrees. They can provide valuable insights into the pros and cons of each path and help you make an informed decision.

Evaluate Program Offerings

Research different universities and their program offerings. Some universities offer flexible options for working professionals, allowing you to earn your degree while continuing to work.

Judy Daniels, MSN, RN, AGPCNP-BC