MSN vs DNP: Which Nursing Degree Should You Pursue?

Graduate level nursing degree types include Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP).

When most people think about nursing, they imagine a bedside nurse caring for patients and communities.

Surprisingly, nursing offers clinical and non-clinical options after licensure is obtained. Getting a graduate level degree can open up a lot more career opportunities for nurses.

What Is A Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree?

The MSN degree is a graduate level nursing degree. It usually takes 2-4 years to complete.

MSN degree tracks differ from clinical and non-clinical options. However, both are accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

You may consider a MSN degree in nursing if you are interested in becoming a leader in healthcare. It will allow you to contribute to the nursing profession in a meaningful way.

The overall contribution from MSN-prepared nurses is felt now more than ever.

MSN Degree Types

Non-clinical options are good for BSN nurses who would like to advance their nursing careers by taking a step away from direct patient care.

MSN-prepared nurses typically go into:

  • Research
  • Academia
  • Informatics

Non-Clinical MSN Degrees

MSN degrees have clinical and non-clinical options.

The most common places for non-clinical MSN prepared nurses to work include:

  • Colleges
  • Universities
  • Professional schools
  • Hospitals
  • Emergency rooms
  • Anti-violence programs
  • Psychiatric institutions
  • Clinics
  • Residential care facilities
  • Software system companies
  • Consulting firms
  • Corporations

Non-clinical MSN nurses can transition to clinical MSN practice.

Post-masters certifications are available as a quick transition into clinical practice. This is because non-clinical and clinical MSN degrees share similar course requirements. 

Essentially, non-clinical MSN nurses are able to complete clinical rotation hours as a post-master’s certificate in order to sit for the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) license.

Non-Clinical Degree Specialities

The following are non-clinical MSN degree specialities.

Nurse Educators

Nurse educators conduct research and educate the next generation of nurses.

Forensic Nurses

Forensic nurses work with crime victims to gather medical evidence and provide expert testimony that can be used in court.

Nurse Administrators

Nurse administrators manage the nursing staff at healthcare facilities.

Nursing Informatics

Nursing informaticists facilitate data integration, information and knowledge so that they provide better support to patients, nurses and healthcare providers.

Public Health Nurses

Public health nurses help prevent disease and promote community health and safety.

Clinical MSN Degree Types

Clinical MSN degrees are considered Advanced Practice Degrees. These are good for BSN nurses who would like to advance their nursing careers by increasing autonomy with patient care. 

Advanced Practice Nurses (APNs) can:

  • Diagnose and treat patients
  • Prescribe exams
  • Interpret results
  • Prescribe medications

Some states require APNs to practice under a medical doctor. That means the medical doctor signs off and approves all prescriptions and treatment plans.

Other states offer full authority for APNs. In this case, they can practice independently without a physician.

Clinical MSN degrees require more clinical hours and are precepted by medical doctors.

The most common places for clinical MSN nurses to work include:

  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Physician offices

Clinical Degree Specialities

The following are clinical MSN degree specialities.

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners have the most flexibility with specialties. They can essentially work with every type of nursing care.

Some types of Nurse Practitioners include:

  • Acute care
  • Pediatric
  • Primary care
  • Urology
  • Cardiology
  • Pulmonology
  • Orthopedic
  • Psychiatric mental health

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)

CRNAs work mostly in surgical centers or hospital operating rooms.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical nurse specialists can help design and implement interventions.

They can also assess and evaluate the interventions to improve overall healthcare delivery.

Nurse Midwives (CNM)

Nurse midwives:

  • Aid women throughout their pregnancy
  • Assist giving birth
  • Provide prenatal and postpartum treatment

What Is A Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)?

DNP degrees are considered terminal degrees. This means they are the highest degree available in nursing practice.

Once a DNP is obtained, you may use the title “Doctor.”

Many people need to clarify that they are a Doctor in nursing practice and not a medical doctor. This can sometimes confused patients.

Otherwise, DNP nurses typically go by their first name and skip formalities among patients.

How to Obtain Your DNP

In order to become a DNP, you must first complete a BSN and MSN degree. The DNP is utilized for research and practical purposes.

A non-clinical DNP will focus on nursing research. It will also teach you how to conduct research that will benefit nursing practice.

On the other hand, a DNP with a clinical focus uses current research to influence nursing practice with patients.

DNP-prepared nurses can either work in academia or clinically with patients.

Some nurses may choose to complete a MSN degree with an APRN license, and then pursue a DNP as an added career boost. Other nurses will focus more on research and obtain a DNP but work in academia or other non-clinical areas.

Becoming a DNP can take 3 to 5 years to complete. This will depend on your course load and other factors.

DNP nurses often achieve higher positions in nursing, such as a Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) or other executive roles.

BSN and MSN-prepared nurses are less likely to obtain such status if competing against a DNP nurse.


MSN vs DNP: Which Nursing Degree Is Right For Me?

Choosing the right degree depends on your nursing professional goals. Consider the following questions when deciding:

  • Do you aspire to obtain a terminal degree, or are you happy getting a MSN with an NP degree?
  • Is your heart in academic teaching and the future of nursing education?
  • Are you more happy working with victims of crime and helping lawyers defend those victims?

Your decision all depends on your passion and how you would like to impact the future of healthcare.

A DNP is likely the right choice if:

  • You are a visionary of the nursing profession
  • Would like to lead positive changes in healthcare
  • You want to confront healthcare’s most common problems

A MSN may be a good choice if you’re not ready to fully commit to a DNP program.

Regardless of which you choose, obtaining a MSN or DNP will ensure that you become a leader in nursing practice.


Graves, B., Tomlinson, S., Handley, M. (2013). The emerging doctor of education (EdD) in instructional leadership for nurse educators. International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship. 10:1. DOI:

Morgan, D., Somera, P. (2014). The future shortage of doctoral prepared nurses and the impact on the nursing shortage. Nursing Administration Quarterly. 38:1: 22-26