Confused by NP terminology? Wondering if you should pursue a master’s degree or doctorate to become a Nurse Practitioner? We’ve got your back. Find definitions of the DNP & NP. Use the MSN vs. DNP chart to assess your options. Learn how to decide which degree is better for your needs. And get answers to DNP vs. NP FAQs.
DNP vs. NP: Clearing Up the Confusion
What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)?
The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a practice-focused doctorate.
- The DNP is an advanced degree. It’s not a job title.
- You can choose to earn an MSN or a DNP in order to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP).
- DNP programs are available in direct care subjects like APRN/NP specialties and indirect care subjects (e.g. Nursing Education and Executive Leadership).
- There are DNP pathways for BSN graduates (e.g. BSN to DNP) and MSN graduates (e.g. Post-Master’s DNP). Aspiring NPs often choose the BSN to DNP route, which includes clinical training for certification & licensure.
Like the PhD in Nursing, the DNP is a terminal degree—it’s the highest you can go in the nursing profession. See our guide on What is a DNP Degree? for more details.
What is a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?
Nurse Practitioner (NP) is an umbrella term for Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who choose to focus on a specific NP population (e.g. family).
- NP is a nursing role. It’s not a degree.
- RNs must earn an accredited MSN or a DNP in a Nurse Practitioner specialty (e.g. MSN-FNP or BSN to DNP-FNP), complete a specific number of clinical practicum hours, pass a national certification exam, and be licensed by their state in order to practice as an NP.
- You don’t need a DNP in order to become a Nurse Practitioner—the baseline standard is still the MSN.
Broadly speaking, there are six types of NPs:
- Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
- Adult Gerontological Nurse Practitioner (AGNP)
- Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP)
- Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)
- Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMNHP)
- Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
Explore each page to learn more about the job role and national certification requirements.
Note: Other APRN roles include the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), and Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS). Unlike other APRNs, CRNAs must earn a DNP or DNAP in order to practice.
Why are DNPs and NPs Often Confused?
The two terms are usually confused because the degree (DNP) can lead to the role (NP). But it’s important to repeat that you don’t need a doctorate in order to become a Nurse Practitioner. An accredited MSN program in an NP specialty is sufficient for national certification & state licensure.
This situation may change. There has been a push in recent years from organizations like AACN and NONPF to make the DNP the standard academic qualification for Nurse Practitioners. Whether this becomes the norm is anyone’s guess! You can read up on the debate in our guide to What is a DNP Degree?
MSN vs. DNP for Aspiring NPs
Let’s say you are an RN with a BSN who wants to become a certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP). Should you choose an MSN-PNP program or a BSN to DNP-PNP program? Here’s a summary of the differences between the two degrees. You’ll notice that both the MSN and DNP contain all the key elements needed for national certification (e.g. minimum clinical hours).
MSN vs. BSN to DNP Comparison Chart
|MSN in NP Specialties||BSN to DNP in NP Specialties|
|Purpose of Degree
||Prepare clinically-savvy NPs for national certification & state licensure||Prepare clinically-savvy NPs for national certification & state licensure and train them to be research-driven leaders & educators|
|Typical Admissions Requirements||
|Program Length||2 years (full-time)||3-4 years (full-time)|
|Credits||~42-50 credits for NP specialties||75-90 credits|
||Clinical training||Clinical training + leadership, education, research & policy|
|Typical Clinical Hours
||Depends on the NP specialty—500+ clinical hours typically required for national certification||1,000 hours: 500+ MSN clinical hours + DNP practicum hours (e.g. DNP project hours, leadership mentoring, etc.)|
||MSN Scholarly Project||DNP Capstone Project|
|Potential Job Titles||
DNP vs. NP: FAQs
Do I Need to Earn a DNP to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
No. An MSN is the minimum academic requirement for almost all APRNs. The one big exception is for Nurse Anesthetists. Aspiring CRNAs must enroll in a COA-accredited DNP or DNAP program in order to qualify for national certification.
Keep an eye on the AACN’s DNP section and national certification websites to see if this rule continues to hold true. You’ll notice that some universities have stopped offering MSN programs in NP specialties and switched to the BSN to DNP. In the future, the Doctor of Nursing Practice may become the norm for Nurse Practitioners. It’s too soon to tell.
Does Having an MSN Affect My Job Prospects as an NP?
If you’re applying for clinical NP positions, employers don’t usually care whether you have an MSN or DNP. They’ll be more interested in your previous clinical experience, your certification & state licensure, and your references. It’s rare to see a degree mentioned in job postings.
The DNP becomes more important if you’re interested in high-level teaching or leadership roles.
- Clinical Nursing Faculty: DNP and PhD graduates are eligible to teach at the master’s level in universities.
- Healthcare Administration: A practice-based doctorate like the DNP can give you an extra boost when you’re applying for directorial, management, and executive roles like Chief Nursing Officer (CNO). It’s not a requirement, but it may be a plus.
- Independent Practice: If the doctoral program is a good one, the business & leadership skills you learn in the last two years of your DNP will put you in a solid position to start your own NP practice.
- Healthcare Policy: DNP programs usually explore issues surrounding healthcare systems and government decisions. So you may find you have a lot of marketable skills when you’re applying for policy positions.
Do Nurse Practitioners Get Paid More with a DNP?
It depends on a host of factors, including your level of experience, your geographic location, and the job itself. For real-world data, check out Medscape’s annual APRN Compensation Report and Clinical Advisor’s annual NP/PA Salary Survey.
On average, DNP graduates tend to earn more than MSN graduates. However, these data may reflect the fact that DNP graduates are active in more high-level leadership roles. Pay for clinical NP positions may be the same, regardless of the degree.
- Specialty matters—on average, PMHNPs earn much more than PNPs.
- Experience matters—NPs with 15+ years of experience earn much more than newly qualified NPs.
- Setting matters—NPs working in hospital settings earn more than NPs in office settings.
- Location matters—see the regional maps of Occupational Employment and Wages for Nurse Practitioners from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to get a sense of numbers in your area.
Can I Earn an MSN Now and a DNP Later?
Yes. For instance, you might decide to take 2 years of full-time study to earn your MSN, gain your certification & licensure to practice as an NP, and qualify for better jobs. Then you can choose to pursue the DNP on a part-time basis after you’ve decided on the next step in your career (e.g. teaching, clinical leadership, policy, etc.).
But bear in mind that some BSN to DNP programs will grant you the equivalent of an MSN during the program. You’ll be able to sit for your boards and start working as an NP while you complete the DNP portion of the degree. Ask the DNP program coordinator if this is a possibility.
Are MSN Programs in NP Specialties Being Phased Out?
It’s tricky to tell. No matter how loudly the AACN and NONPF call for change, universities continue to offer MSN programs in NP specialties and certification bodies & state licensing boards continue to accept the degree as an academic qualification. We cover the discussion in our guide to What is a DNP Degree? Keep checking university sites to see where things are headed.
How to Decide Between MSN and DNP Programs for Nurse Practitioners
Both the MSN and the DNP will help you become a certified & licensed NP with relevant clinical skills. The bigger question is whether you need a doctorate for other reasons. A DNP might:
- Open up more leadership opportunities and give you a stronger voice at the table.
- Provide you with opportunities to educate fellow nurses and NPs.
- Allow you to make research-led changes to healthcare systems & policies.
- Give you opportunities to explore issues surrounding NP practice.
On a full-time basis, an MSN in an NP specialty might take ~2 years. A BSN to DNP could take 3-4 years. So you’ll need to decide how you feel about the time commitment. Talk to your employer & family before you make a decision.
Keep in mind that you have some flexibility! For example:
- You could decide to pursue a BSN to DNP on a part-time basis, funded by employer tuition reimbursement.
- You would be able to complete national certification & state licensure and begin work as an NP while you are completing the remainder of your DNP.
- Schools of Nursing often give students up to seven years to finish a doctorate.
The cost of an MSN or DNP is going to depend on the school, the location, and the quality of the program. Do some comparison shopping. You may discover that a well-regarded DNP from a public university in your state is the same price as a highly-ranked online MSN from a private university.
You should also consider your Return on Investment (ROI):
- If an MSN with tuition reimbursement will help you land an NP job, you always have the option to earn a Post-Master’s DNP at a later date.
- If a DNP is going to lead to a highly paid clinical leadership or faculty position in the near future, then it might be worth the cost.
Regional Job Market
Not everyone is impressed by seeing a doctorate on a résumé!
- Chat to your work mentors & nursing peers about the NP employment market in your area.
- Examine recent postings on NP sites (e.g. AANP Job Center) and Indeed.com to learn about baseline education requirements.
- Think about where you want to work. An NP in California seeking a hospital leadership position may want a DNP. An NP in Kentucky looking at rural nursing jobs might prefer an MSN from a school like Frontier.
Quality of the Program
Quality should be the biggest factor in your decision. An MSN that doesn’t provide you with enough relevant clinical experience and has no name recognition in the job market is useless. A DNP program that’s full of “fluff” courses, no in-depth clinical training, and an irrelevant DNP project is going to be a waste of money.
So take a moment to dig into the curricula of degrees on your shortlist to see if they match up with your career goals. Ask recent alumni for their honest opinions. Consider the reputation of the nursing school and its connections to hospitals & healthcare employers. Check out our rankings section. And pick the program that works for you.