MSN vs. DNP: Which Nursing Degree Is Best?

Discover whether an MSN or DNP is the best option for advancing your nursing career. Articles Education

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Are you a registered nurse (RN) who has considered advancing your career with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or even a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)?

Determining which degree would be the best choice can be confusing. We have done the research and will explain the MSN and DNP degrees, their scopes of practice, how long they take to complete, potential salary earnings, and the pros and cons of each. Read on to decide which path to advanced practice nursing is best for you.

MSN Explained

The MSN is a graduate-level advanced nursing degree that requires an active RN license and builds upon the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) education to prepare nurses to become leaders in the nursing field.

Advanced practice nurses use evidence-based findings in research to advance healthcare and improve patient outcomes.

MSN programs offer clinical and non-clinical focuses depending on your specialty.

MSN Scope of Practice

There are different paths within the MSN degree to advance clinical and non-clinical nursing careers. Advanced practice nurses in the clinical areas will manage a personal panel of patients or lead a patient care team. Advanced practice nurses who work in non-clinical areas manage other healthcare providers in the leadership arena or manage coursework or students in the academic arena.

Related: Best Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs in 2023

Clinical MSN Degrees

Nurse Practitioner, including Family Nurse Practitioner, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Women's Health Nurse Practitioner, and Acute Care Nurse Practitioner.

  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Nurse Midwife
  • Non-Clinical MSN Degrees
  • Nursing Administrator
  • Healthcare Management
  • Informatics
  • Nursing Research

MSN Salary Expectations

The average salary increases with an advanced nursing degree. Average salaries vary by location, employer, experience, and certification. Below are the top five states with the highest average annual wages for clinical and non-clinical specialties.

Nurse Anesthetist

  • Oregon: $236,540
  • Wisconsin: $231,520
  • Wyoming: $231,250
  • Nevada: $223,680
  • Connecticut: $217,360

Nurse Practitioner

  • California: $145,970
  • New Jersey: $130,890
  • Washington: $126,480
  • New York: $126,440
  • Massachusetts: $126,050

Nursing Administrator

  • California: $145,090
  • Texas: $118,700
  • Florida: $119,520
  • New York: $171,620
  • Massachusetts: $152,450

Nurse Educator

  • Florida: $116,650
  • District of Columbia: $111,940
  • Massachusetts: $106,950
  • California: $106,420
  • New York: $98,850

How Long Are MSN Programs?

The MSN degree is a full-time two-year program, but some offer part-time options. Nursing students can complete most MSN programs while working as an RN. It is best to discuss these options with an admissions counselor. 

MSN courses include classroom (in-person or virtual) coursework and clinical experience with a preceptor. Studies will address each of the MSN Essentials:

  • Background for Practice in Sciences and Humanities
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Quality Improvement and Safety
  • Translating and Integrating Scholarship into Practice
  • Informatics and Healthcare Technologies
  • Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving Health
  • Master's-Level Nursing Practice

Pros of an MSN

Having an MSN degree and working as an advanced practice nurse, whatever the specialization, will result in an increased salary compared to having an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing. The MSN degree will also open doors for advancement opportunities in healthcare. Particularly in clinical settings, the MSN degree allows for more autonomous nursing practice, as some states have independent practice.

Cons of an MSN

Obtaining an MSN degree means additional education, which requires time and financial commitments. Furthermore, not all states have independent practice for advanced practice nurses. Many states still require a collaborative or supervisory agreement with a physician.

DNP Explained

The DNP is a terminal nursing degree with various pathways, including RN to DNP, BSN to DNP, and MSN to DNP programs. It is a clinical doctorate, different from the research-focused Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree.

The DNP degree is a translational research degree that aims to improve the implementation of evidence-based knowledge into practice. The Ph.D. degree focus is on conducting original research. DNP and PhD-prepared nurses often work together to create and implement evidence-based findings into practice.

DNP Scope of Practice

Nurses can obtain a DNP degree with any MSN clinical or non-clinical specialty. Nursing education has historically preferred the Ph.D.; however, many nursing educators now have a DNP degree. In the clinical setting, the DNP degree is not currently a requirement but does showcase a higher level of commitment to the nursing field.

The DNP degree does not change the scope of practice for an advanced practice nurse. This advanced nursing degree will change how nurses approach practice and arm the doctoral-prepared nurse with experience in making large and small-scale evidence-based changes in healthcare to improve patient outcomes. The DNP will not change the advanced practice rules regarding independent practice in collaborative or supervisory states.

Related: 10 Best DNP Programs in 2023

DNP Salary Expectations

Though the scope of nursing practice does not change from an MSN to a DNP degree, the salary may increase, reflecting the importance of further education.

The salary for the DNP-prepared nurse will vary significantly by specialty, with nurse anesthetists making more than other clinical advanced practice nurses. Non-clinical DNP-prepared nurses have more opportunities for increased salaries than MSN-prepared nurses. Most academic settings offer DNP-prepared educators the opportunity for a tenure track position, which is not typically offered to those with an MSN degree.

How Long Are DNP Programs?

The DNP degree program will take two to three years if you have an MSN degree and longer if you have an associate's or bachelor's degree. The DNP curriculum follows The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice, including classroom (in-person or virtual) coursework and clinical experiences with a preceptor. Studies will address each of the DNP Essentials:

  • Scientific Underpinnings for Practice
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvement and Systems Thinking
  • Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
  • Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology for the Improvement and Transformation of Health Care
  • Health Care Policy for Advocacy in Health Care
  • Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving the Nation's Health
  • Advanced Nursing Practice

Coursework in the DNP program will prepare you for implementing the DNP scholarly project. This academic project requires the DNP student to implement an evidence-based translational research project within their specialty.

Pros of a DNP

Opportunities for career advancement in clinical and non-clinical specialties are available with a DNP degree. Though the scope of practice does not change, DNP-prepared nurses often have a higher average salary compared to MSN-prepared nurses. Many employers will recognize the title of doctor and the accomplishment of this terminal degree.

Cons of a DNP

The downside to considering a DNP degree is the additional time it takes to complete it without changing the advanced practice nurse's scope of practice. With further education comes additional tuition costs. Though the DNP-prepared nurse has a higher salary than the MSN-prepared nurse, the highest-paying MSN specialties still make more than the lower-paying DNP specialties.

How to Choose Between an MSN and DNP

Choosing between an MSN and DNP degree ultimately depends on personal and career goals. If you are looking for an increased salary over an RN or BSN salary, increased autonomy in your practice, or want to advance your nursing career options, both degrees will fulfill these dreams. You should consider the cost of the degree, the time commitment required, and other personal and professional variables before choosing the MSN or DNP degree.


Q: Is a DNP or MSN better for getting hired?

A: It depends on which specialty you are considering and where you plan on working. The MSN is the minimum required degree for many clinical advanced practice nursing specialties, though some prefer the DNP degree. Other non-clinical advanced practice nursing specialties, like nurse educators, prefer the DNP degree.

Q: Is a DNP better than an MSN?

A: The DNP degree offers further education and experience in translating evidence-based knowledge into practice in any nursing area. The DNP degree can also advance your nursing career more than the MSN degree. On the other hand, most advanced practice areas do not currently require a DNP degree for hire. Ultimately, deciding which degree is better comes from personal and professional goals.

Editorial Team / Admin

Sarah Beattie has 20 years experience as a DNP, APRN and specializes in Critical Care, Endocrinology.

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