MSN vs. DNP: Your Degree Questions Answered

Nurses have many options for pursuing graduate degrees. Learn more about MSN and DNP programs, and find answers to common questions about degree options.

Nurses with advanced training and skills are in high demand, and those looking to grow professionally and advance their careers have many graduate degree options. However, the best path forward isn’t always clear.

Getting answers to some of the common questions people have about Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees can make the decision-making process easier.


MSN vs. DNP Program and Curriculum Questions

Prospective graduate-level nursing students often have questions about the differences between MSN and DNP programs and curricula.

What is the main difference between an MSN and a DNP?

MSN and DNP programs both provide students with advanced nursing skills and leadership capabilities. However, the DNP is a terminal degree that prepares students for the highest level of nursing practice. 

What will I learn in an MSN program? A DNP program?

Graduate degree programs provide the training that nurses need to deliver patient care at an advanced level and expand their knowledge in the areas of research, education, policy, and leadership. 

MSN degree programs develop a wide variety of competencies and professional skills:

  • Clinical leadership
  • Communication and team building
  • Critical thinking
  • Evidence-based practice 
  • Healthcare economics 
  • Healthcare informatics
  • Nurse education

DNP degree programs build on those areas and further develop nurses for leadership roles that require extensive knowledge of healthcare ethics, policy, and practice.

Are there different types of master’s and doctorate in nursing degrees?

Yes. Both types of programs offer multiple degree options. Master’s degree nursing programs include options for students and nurses with different experience levels and interests.

Entry-level master’s degree programs are designed for students who have a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a discipline other than nursing. Registered nurse (RN) to MSN programs suit nurses with associate degrees. A bachelor’s to master’s degree is the standard post-baccalaureate program.

Doctoral nursing degrees include DNP, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS). While PhD and DNS degrees are research focused, DNP degree programs are practice focused.

How long does it take to get an MSN? A DNP?

Some MSN programs can be completed in as little as 18 months, but most take two to three years. DNP programs typically take three years to complete, although nurses who already have a master’s degree can earn their DNP in 18 months. 

MSN vs. DNP Career Questions

Students considering an MSN or a DNP degree also have questions about how the programs align with their professional goals.

What can you do with an MSN? What can you do with a DNP?

MSN and DNP degrees prepare nurses for many of the same types of nursing careers. For example, both MSN and DNP degree holders can qualify for roles such as nurse administrator, nurse educator, public health nurse, and nurse informaticists However, a nurse with a DNP degree qualifies for more advanced roles within those fields.

For example, a DNP degree can be an advantage for professionals who wish to serve as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). While a master’s degree is the minimum educational preparation for APRNs, the DNP degree is becoming the standard in the field, according to the American Association of Colleges and Nursing (AACN).

Advanced education prepares APRNs to perform duties such as diagnosing diseases, ordering diagnostic tests, performing minor procedures, and prescribing medications. The AACN recognizes four different APRN roles:

  • Certified nurse-midwife (CNM)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
  • Nurse practitioner (NP)

How much does an MSN holder make? How much does a DNP holder make?

Wages for MSN and DNP degree holders vary widely depending on their roles, but nurses who qualify for jobs requiring advanced degrees typically increase their earning potential significantly. For example, the median annual salary for an RN with a bachelor’s degree is $73,300, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While an RN salary is well above the average for all occupations, the BLS reports much higher average salaries for more advanced nursing roles:

  • Nurse anesthetists: $174,790
  • Nurse-midwives: $105,030
  • Nurse practitioners: $109,820

Salaries also vary depending on setting. For example, nurses who work for hospitals typically earn more than nurses involved in educational services.

Exploring Your Nursing Options

Once you determine what kind of degree to pursue, you can find a school with a program that fits your needs. The nursing department at St. Catherine University features a nationally recognized faculty and strong partnerships with health organizations. In addition to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs, it offers a wide variety of graduate-level nursing degrees:

Visit St. Catherine University to learn why its highly ranked program provides a perfect environment for students who are committed to innovation, ethical leadership, and social justice.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Master’s Education

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, History of APRN

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses