Whether you’re looking to advance your nursing career by pursuing an additional nursing degree or you’re interested in transitioning to nursing from another field, you might be considering MSN vs. DNP programs.
Master’s of science in nursing (MSN) and doctorate in nursing practice (DNP) programs might sound similar—both are rooted in the nursing field—but each program offers a distinct training path and unique objectives. The programs can prepare all types of nurses for slightly different roles. One program may suit you better based on your educational background, career goals, and availability to pursue a nursing degree.
To help you decide which program might be right for you, explore our detailed breakdown of DNP vs. MSN programs below.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Program Overview
Let’s start with an overview of the master’s of science in nursing (MSN) degree program. As an MSN program graduate, you’ll be uniquely prepared to pursue various job descriptions (both clinical and non-clinical). The MSN degree program also offers exceptional specialization potential—an effort that could positively impact your career prospects in nursing.
Let’s dig deeper into MSN degree programs.
Specialties and Paths
An MSN program provides graduate-level training and higher education for nurses looking to fill various specialities in the healthcare industry.1 Thus, MSN students can specialize their degree tracks to prepare them for specific roles in the nursing field, like:
- Clinical roles – MSN programs can prepare prospective clinical workers for bedside-related roles. A clinical track MSN student typically specializes in Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) training, which can help prepare them for certification as a:2
- Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP) – CNPs can practice in hospital, private practice, and concierge settings, providing primary or acute care, education, and prevention services.
- Certified Nurse Specialist (CNS) – CNSs may practice by the bedside or assume roles related to community health.
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) – CRNAs are uniquely qualified to provide anesthesia and anesthesia-related care to patients in various settings (e.g., hospitals and surgery centers). If you’re interested in nurse anesthesia, it’s important to note that after 2024, federal law will require CRNAs to hold a DNP.3
- Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) – CNMs provide a range of primary care services related to gynecology and obstetrics.
- Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) – CNLs oversee and coordinate patient care, assess and manage risks in their clinical settings, manage nursing teams, and create systematic solutions for their practices.
- Non-clinical roles – Not every MSN student pursues a clinical path. An MSN program could also prepare a student for a future career in:1
- Nursing administration – Nurse administrators serve in leadership or managerial capacities. Their nursing training and experience give them unique insight into industry challenges.
- Nursing education – Nursing educators can assume various roles in public health or higher education. MSN graduates pursuing educational roles may become instructors in nursing schools or join public health education initiatives.
- Nursing informatics – Nurse informaticists use their nursing expertise to build, troubleshoot, and manage technologies and systems related to nursing. Common systems used for daily tasks are charting software or patient portals.
MSN programs typically take between two and three years to complete. The exact timeline of your degree will depend on:
- Your background – If you don’t have a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), preparation to take the NCLEX (the national board exam for nurses) might extend your degree timeline (more on this later).
- Your specialization – Specializing in an APRN discipline could impact your timeline, but each MSN program handles specialization differently.
- Your schedule – Some (but not all) MSN programs allow part-time enrollment. Going to nursing school part-time instead of full-time can significantly extend your graduation timeline.
Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP) Program Overview
An alternative to an MSN program is a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP) program. While the programs can provide similar career outcomes, their rigor and graduation timelines differ slightly.4
Let’s explore the average DNP program in more detail.
Specialties and Paths
One of the major similarities between DNP vs. MSN is that they offer similar specialties and career opportunities. Many DNP degree programs prepare students for the same potential careers listed in the MSN program “Specialties and Paths” section.8
However, DNP graduates could also pursue careers in:
- Advanced nursing leadership – DNP graduates are often excellent candidates for major managerial or leadership positions in clinical and non-clinical settings. DNP students leave school with deep expertise in clinical practice, nursing management, and healthcare operations.
- Advanced clinical roles – In some scenarios—and with proper certifications—DNP program graduates may be able to operate independently in clinical settings, providing care to patients in hospitals, private practices, and concierge settings with limited oversight.
- Non-clinical leadership – DNP graduates looking for alternatives to clinical practice might specialize in (and pursue careers in) nursing educational leadership, public and community health management, or informatics and technology development.
A typical DNP program takes slightly longer than an average MSN program. While MSN students can earn degrees within two to three years, DNP students should expect to spend three to five years in school.8
However, there are two essential things to note about DNP program timelines:
- Since DNP nurse programs typically only admit students with existing state nursing credentials and at least a year of experience in the nursing field, this timeline doesn’t include preparation for the NCLEX (an important distinction from MSN programs).
- Since DNP students must complete a capstone project, the length of this project can influence students’ degree timelines.
MSN vs. DNP: Which Is Right for You?
If you’re considering MSN vs. DNP programs, how can you decide which program will help you best meet your career goals? Let’s break down some considerations for prospective applicants.
What Are Your Career Goals?
Before choosing a plan, you should consider your long-term career goals. Which degree should you pursue based on the following occupational tracks?
- Clinical practice – Either program would suit a career in clinical practice. Both should prepare students for licensing exams, and both will provide the in-depth clinical knowledge students need to provide quality care.
- Non-clinical practice – If you’re interested in nursing education, informatics, or non-clinical management, either program might suit you. But DNP credentials could afford you access to leadership roles higher in the chain of command.
Since both programs could suit both clinical and non-clinical careers, students should consider how an individual program will allow them to specialize. If an MSN program offers a curriculum more suited to your specific track, then it may be the right choice.
What’s Your Ideal Career Timeline?
While you’ll need an undergraduate degree to gain admission into an MSN or DNP program, you should consider your desired career timeline. Let’s explore some hypotheticals:
- You might be eligible for either program if you’ve been a practicing nurse for a few years. How quickly are you looking to advance to a new position? If you want to expedite your career advancement, an MSN program might be the right choice. You should consider a DNP tracker if you’re willing to tack on extra time.
- Suppose you haven’t started undergrad yet but are interested in an advanced nursing field (like midwifery). In that case, you have two distinct timelines to consider: your BSN track and your post-secondary track. If you’re trying to advance quickly, consider the program that will shorten your educational timeline.
Don’t forget about how a degree track could impact your lifestyle. If you’re in nursing school, you may have less time for recreation, family time, or even work. In many cases, an MSN program might be the quickest route to the position of your choice.
What’s Your Educational Background?
If you’re interested in transitioning into nursing from another field, an MSN program—specifically, a direct entry program—will be the best option. This is because master’s of science in nursing direct entry programs (MSN-DE) is designed for students who’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, like public health or biology.
Most MSN and DNP programs require a BSN. However, if you choose an MSN-DE program, you can start your nursing education without returning to earn a BSN.
So, rather than spending approximately four years earning a new bachelor’s degree, then approximately two to three in a master’s program, MSN-DE students can enter the field of nursing in just two to three years. It’s the ideal option for those who’ve already spent time and money earning a bachelor’s degree.
Work Toward a Master’s of Science in Nursing at Alliant International University
The decision between MSN vs. DNP is important, and the best choice for you will depend on your career goals, timeline, and educational background. If you’re looking for an advanced nursing program, you can complete in a shorter amount of time by applying to the master’s of science in nursing direct entry program at Alliant International University.
Built for the modern, career-driven professional, the MSN-DE program can provide you with the knowledge and nursing skills you need to transition into a career in nursing. Plus, with in-person campuses, as well as online classes, our program allows for both schedule flexibility and convenience.
To learn more about jumpstarting your nursing career, request information about our MSN-DE program today.
- “Master’s Education.” American Association of Colleges of Nursing. https://www.aacnnursing.org/Nursing-Education-Programs/Masters-Education. Accessed February 14, 2023.
- “APRNs in the US.” National Council of State Boards of Nursing. https://www.ncsbn.org/nursing-regulation/practice/aprn.page. Accessed February 14, 2023.
- “CRNAs Will Need a Doctorate Degree by 2025.” n.d. Nurse.org. March 04, 2020. https://nurse.org/education/crna-doctorate-degree-2025/. Accessed February 23, 2023.
- “DNP Fact Sheet.” American Association of Colleges of Nursing. July 2022. https://www.aacnnursing.org/News-Information/Fact-Sheets/DNP-Fact-Sheet. Accessed February 14, 2023.