MSN, DNP, or PhD -- Which is right for you?

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are advanced level degrees for nurses. This article will simply clarify the differences between the three to help you figure out which is right for you. Nursing Students Post Graduate Knowledge


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MSN, DNP, or PhD -- Which is right for you?

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

First, we will start with the Master of Science in Nursing degree. Students who want to start their graduate studies in an MSN role will choose to specialize in a field of nursing or another educational type of track, typically after earning a baccalaureate degree in nursing.

Many MSN students go on to become certified nurse practitioners, specialize in information systems or instruct in a classroom or clinical setting. Some MSN prepared nurses lead their department as a nurse director or become part of the nursing faculty at a University.

MSN nurses who specialize in patient care usually go to a primary practice setting, using their knowledge to help in treatment regimens for patients, under the direction of a physician. For example, Family Nurse Practitioners focus on caring for patients of diverse ages via a clinical setting.

There are MSN tracks for virtually every specialty in nursing, from midwifery to an informatics specialist.

The length of time to complete: After completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, an MSN degree is around 2 years. Though, there are a variety of programs that offer a BSN degree track straight to a DNP, which may shorten the duration of the program.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Next, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. The DNP degree is a terminal degree for clinical nursing education as well as the graduate degree for advanced nursing practice preparation, as envisioned by r the AACN.

The DNP nursing degree focuses more on the practice competencies versus the PhD which is focused on academic research. The DNP degree prepares nurses who perfect the skills, based on evidence-based practice to improve the health outcomes of patients. If more nurses obtain a DNP, there will be more nursing faculty to help prepare nursing students of all levels.

A DNP is a degree which has responsibilities beyond an MSN role. DNP graduates have clinical responsibilities, but also have roles within the administrative and leadership areas of nursing, such as education, public health, public policy, informatics or administration. Many DNPs work within universities or scientific areas conducting research.

In most cases, to obtain a DNP, you must obtain a Master of Science In Nursing, though, there are programs that are a BSN-DNP, skipping an MSN degree. If you desire to have a terminal degree in the advanced practice role, have clinical responsibilities as well as administrative duties, focused on leadership at the business, educational, or government levels, then a DNP degree is the right choice.

The length of time to complete: In most nursing programs, after obtaining an MSN degree, a DNP degree takes three to four years to complete, although, some programs have tracks that lead to a DNP faster by selecting a BSN-DNP track

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The third level of an advanced degree program for nurses is a PhD. A PhD focuses solely on research. Many PhD graduates are researchers, nurse scientists or scholars.

MSN prepared nurses and DNP prepared nurses work alongside physicians within their specialty field. PhD prepared nurses work with physicians as well, but on a research level, almost always in clinical studies rather than providing patient care.

The length of time to complete: In most cases, after obtaining an MSN degree, a PhD program is four to six years. Most do not complete it as a full-time student because many nurses work in the hospital, classroom, or clinic. There are also programs available that are BSN-PhD, without earning an MSN degree.

How to choose?

Overall, MSN, DNP, and PhD programs collectively have an increasing demand for advanced practice nurses who wish to go on with their education. So, whichever you choose, you are going to aid in decreasing the shortage. When deciding which degree is right for you, it is best to think about your goals for the future. Another factor to consider is time. It can take up to six years to complete a PhD in Nursing. If you are willing to dedicate that amount a time is up to you. The programs are intense in research and require hours of study time.

MSN prepared nurses are eligible to sit for their national certification exam for their specialty to become certified to practice. If you are able to obtain your certificate and would like your terminal APRN degree, a DNP is a great choice for your next step.

Universities offer a variety of specializations from Midwifery, Neonatology, Family Nurse Practitioner, leadership tracks, informatics or education. A DNP works within patient care settings, but can also have an administrative role, directing leadership from a director's standpoint, as well as hands-on patient care. If your goal is to lead your healthcare organization, then this may be the path for you. If you like to research, enjoy the scientific side of nursing and want to be part of upcoming clinical trials or academic research, a PhD might be the best choice for you.

Janine has been an RN since 2006, specializing in labor and delivery.

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Specializes in DNP, NNP-BC, RNC-NIC, C-ELBW, DCSD.

Great article! About to start my BSN to DNP, specializing in NNP in bout 4 months! Love what I do and am so happy that there are options available to pursue higher education.

I am about to start my MSN in informatics. very excited.

The EdD (Doctor of Education) is also another terminal degree for nurses who want to work in academia. Columbia University and Grand Canyon University offer this degree online.

Thank you for the informative article.

When I see articles like this I'm always tempted to think about getting my DNP. Finishing MSN next year.......

Specializes in ICU + Infection Prevention.
A DNP is a degree which has responsibilities beyond an MSN role. DNP graduates have clinical responsibilities, but also have roles within the administrative and leadership areas of nursing, such as education, public health, public policy, informatics or administration.

This statement is poorly explained and I'm not sure it is borne out in the real world. There is no difference in responsibility or function in the clinical realm and only very rarely is there are position that demands a DNP over MSN except in academia.