MSN vs. DNP: Where Does This Path Lead?

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Nurses who continue their education can take their professional experience to the next level, where they can make a bigger impact on their patients’ lives. They also gain an opportunity for upward mobility within the health care industry. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a brave step in a nurse’s career and a step in the direction of earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which has the potential to lead to executive and leadership positions. Whether nursing professionals choose to earn an MSN, a DNP, or both degrees, understanding the MSN vs. DNP distinction is an important first step.

Five nurses standing side-by-side

MSN vs. DNP: What Is an MSN Degree?

The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is an advanced degree for practicing registered nurses (RNs) looking to take on greater responsibilities and boost their careers. The MSN path provides students with a core curriculum focused on imparting professional skills and nursing theory combined with the tenets of evidence-based practice in advanced nursing. Nurse practitioners with an MSN have the opportunity to become certified in one or more of the many available specializations. One example is a family nurse practitioner (FNP), a position that ensures that quality health care is given to adults and children throughout their lives. Another example is a nurse educator, which involves creating and implementing educational courses for nursing students. Other concentration areas include mental health, women’s health, gerontology, and pediatrics. The potential for continued growth within the nursing profession is a major benefit of earning an MSN, as this degree paves the way for graduates to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice.

MSN vs. DNP: What Is a DNP degree?

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) provides working nurse practitioners with higher-level education and experience to move their careers a step further by attaining executive leadership positions. DNP students develop clinical expertise in epidemiology, health policy and informatics, and other complex clinical areas. Nurse practitioners with an MSN have the opportunity to continue their education in a DNP program, which will give them advanced clinical knowledge, experience in leading nurse faculty, and often higher salaries and benefits.

Career Opportunities

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners (NPs) provide quality primary and secondary care to patients and their families. They often work within several specializations under varying titles, such as family nurse practitioner, nurse educator, adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, and pediatric nurse practitioner. Their central duties include recording the symptoms and medical histories of patients, using evidence-based practice for making decisions and solving clinical challenges, giving patients treatments and medicines, and promoting health strategies to prolong the lives of their patients. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nurse practitioner profession is expected to see a 36 percent increase in employment from 2016 to 2026. The median annual salary for nurse practitioners in May 2016 was $100,910.

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists work with physicians and surgeons before, during, and after a range of medical procedures. For example, they may be involved in a patient’s diagnosis, therapy, surgery, pain management, and emergency procedures. Nurse anesthetists are often responsible for discussing patient health histories to ensure the safe administration of anesthesia prior to a procedure and then monitoring vital signs throughout. The BLS states that nurse anesthetists earned a median annual wage of $160,270 in May 2016.

Nurse Educator

As a generation of nurses prepares for retirement, the role of a nurse educator is a critical component in the future of health care and the nursing profession. Nurse educators utilize their clinical expertise and workplace experience to teach and mentor future nurses. They are responsible for designing and evaluating nursing curricula, assessing current programs, and adapting new courses of study to the changing health care landscape, among many other leadership duties. These professionals may work in several settings, such as universities and colleges, nursing schools, and hospitals. According to the BLS, nurse educators working in colleges, universities, and professional schools earned an annual median wage of $79,640 in May 2017, and those working in general medical and surgical hospitals earned $89,390.

Chief Nursing Officer

The chief nursing officer (CNO) is an executive position within the nursing profession. A CNO is responsible for leading personnel, overseeing administrative operations, improving the quality of care, and ensuring patient safety. This is a top-level career path for nurse executives with strong medical expertise, business acumen, professionalism, and leadership skills. CNOs have a wide variety of duties, including managing senior staff, recruiting nurses, and assessing staff performance. The 2015 salary and compensation survey conducted by the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) found that the majority of non-system CNOs earned between $100,00 and $199,999, while over 50 percent of the system CNOs earned $250,000 or more.

Once you understand the MSN vs. DNP distinction, it’s clear that earning either degree—or both—can lead to many exciting possibilities in the nursing profession. Attaining an MSN is the jumping-off point for taking a leadership role within the health care industry while earning a DNP can bring new opportunities for the upward trajectory of an advanced nursing career.

Learn More:

For students who aspire to an advanced career in nursing, Ohio University’s online MSN program helps students gain the skills and experience necessary to take their nursing careers to the next level. Learn more about Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing.

Recommended Reading

Ohio University Blog, “The Physical Effects of Stress”
Ohio University Blog, “3 Important Communication Practices for Nurses Caring for Older People”
Ohio University, “The Importance of Patient Education and Prescription Drug Abuse”


Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners”
Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow, “Nurse Educator”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Nursing Instructors and Teachers
American Organization for Nursing Leadership