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The Difference Between an MSN and a DNP



Nursing – a promising career field

If you are a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science in nursing, you may be looking for opportunities to expand and progress your career. The easiest way to do this is to further your studies: the question is, though, which graduate program is the best fit for you based on your unique career goals? Should you opt to study a Master of Science in nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)? Here is what you need to know in order to make an informed decision regarding your future.

What to expect when studying an MSN

A Master of Science in nursing is a popular degree amongst BSN-qualified nurses who wish to advance their career and education in the nursing field. The great news is that you will have plenty of options available to you in terms of which path you want to take and the area you want to specialize.

Generally, you will need to decide whether you want your career steered in the direction of continuing to work closely regarding the care of patients, or in a non-direct patient care role, such as educating other nurses, managing wards and healthcare teams, or handling all aspects of nursing administration and health information systems.

The path that you choose will depend largely on your unique strengths as a nurse, as well as where your passions lie, and which aspects of the job provide you with the most fulfilment.

What does an MSN-qualified nurse earn?

How much you earn following the completion of your graduate degree will depend on a variety of factors. Most notably, it will depend on your area of specialization, whether you work in a large hospital or a smaller independent practice, and whether you work on a part-time or a full-time basis. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse anesthetists tend to earn the highest salaries of all MSN-qualified nurses. Other high-paying roles include working as a nurse midwife, a nurse practitioner, and a clinical nurse specialist.

How long does it take to complete an MSN degree?

The length of time that it takes to obtain your MSN degree will depend on whether you are studying full-time. Having said that, most colleges offering MSN degrees, such as Marymount University Online, will make it possible for you to complete your degree within the space of two to three years.

What are the requirements to study an MSN degree?

Once again, requirements will vary, and they are especially dependent on the college at which you choose to enroll. However, you will always need to have your BSN and have an unencumbered Registered Nurse license. Most colleges will insist that your GPA stands at a minimum of 3.0. You will also have to submit letters of recommendation from trusted members of the healthcare industry, a submission essay, and have a certain amount of existing nursing experience (usually between one to two years’ worth).

What to expect when studying a DNP

Nurses in possession of a DNP are slightly superior in education compared to those in possession of an MSN. This is because a DNP is a doctorate degree in nursing and is the highest level of education that one can achieve within this field. DNP courses are notoriously challenging and reserved for only the most ambitious nurses who have a desire to specialize or to hold a respected position of leadership.

The majority of DNP degree courses will revolve around teaching nursing practitioners all about how to provide advanced nursing care to patients and how to conduct thorough and methodical health assessments. Other focus areas will often include highlighting the various models of care delivery, the science of public health, as well as the role of ethics and leadership in providing patients and communities with quality healthcare.

What does a DNP-qualified nurse earn?

Most DNP-qualified nurses will fill similar roles to their MSN-qualified counterparts. Having said that, DNP-qualified nurses often earn significantly more in the long run due to the fact that they will be presented with the opportunity to expand their roles to fill senior leadership positions as they move through their careers.

How much a DNP-qualified nurse earns will also depend on where they choose to work. Some will opt to practice as independent practitioners, while others will continue to operate in hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ rooms. DNP-qualified nurses who are involved in research and healthcare projects may also earn more in the long run than those nurses who are involved directly in patient care.

How long does it take to complete a DNP degree?

The great news is that the length of a DNP degree is similar to that of an MSN degree. In other words, if you opt to study full-time (most colleges offering DPN degrees will insist upon this), you can expect to complete your DNP within two to four years. You will usually be able to complete the theory portion of your DNP degree online, making it possible for you to continue working a limited number of shifts in order to carry on gaining experience leading up to your clinical placement.

What are the requirements to study a DNP degree?

You are probably under the impression that a prospective DNP candidate would need to obtain their MSN before applying for their doctorate. However, this is not the case. Many DNP degrees only require that you be in the possession of a Bachelor of Science in nursing — no MSN is necessary.

Along with this, you will most commonly need an unencumbered RN license, a BSN with a minimum 3.0 GPA, one to two years of experience working as an RN, letters of recommendation from respected members of the healthcare industry, a submission essay, and a comprehensive resume.

Keep in mind that requirements will vary significantly from college to college, so be sure to read up on what is expected of you well in advance of the application submission deadline.

What is the main difference between an MSN and DNP?

As mentioned, a Doctor of Nursing Practice is the highest level of education within the nursing field. This means that those in possession of a DNP degree will often have significantly more responsibilities, as well as earn more attractive salaries than those in possession of a BSN or an MSN.

For instance, an NP with an MSN may work in a clinic specializing in pediatrics and delivering round the clock care to infants, while an NP with a DNP will deliver the same care in the same area of specialization, while also leading and managing the team of pediatric nurses in an expanded role.

Therefore, the degree that you decide to study will depend, in large part, on where you want your career to take you. Know that along with securing different roles within the workplace, the coursework of MSN degrees looks very different to that of DNP degrees. Most colleges offering MSN degrees will offer a curriculum with a strong focus on teaching nurses the foundation of advanced nursing and how to combine that knowledge with ethics and healthcare laws.

DNP degrees, on the other hand, will commonly look at more complex areas, such as evidence-based practice, innovative healthcare systems, healthcare policies, interprofessional collaboration, quality improvement, and data research.

Finally, the other difference between the two degrees lies in the amount of time required to complete them, as well as the difference in credit hours vs. clinical hours. As highlighted above, most Master of Science in nursing degrees take two to three years to complete, while Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees take a bit longer, averaging at three to four years.

The total number of credit hours for an MSN is around 40 to 50, while the total number of credit hours for a DNP is an estimated 60 to 70. Clinical hours are approximately 700 for an MSN and usually over 1,000 for a DNP.

Making the big decision

The first question to ask yourself is, ‘where do I see my career in 10 years from now?’ Is stepping into a senior leadership position important to you? Or do you place more value on working closely with your patients and excelling in a specialized field?

If leadership and respect are important to you in your professional career, you should consider the DNP route. However, if you get most of your career fulfilment from nursing and doing what you do best, you might find that an MSN is a better fit.

Don’t forget to take the financial aspect into consideration, too. DNP degrees are costlier than MSN degrees; however, the chances are good that your long-term salary will be higher if you possess a DNP over an MSN. Can you afford to pay more and earn less right now in order to earn significantly more in the future? If the answer is yes, then don’t let the financial aspect hold you back from getting that Doctor of Nursing Practice!

Remember, if you are still feeling uncertain about which path to follow, it is always helpful to speak to a career advisor who specializes in the realm of nursing and healthcare. Good luck!

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