NP vs DNP Degree Differences + Online Options!

Healthcare reform and the aging of the US population is leading to many options for registered nurses who want to elevate their career prospects in healthcare organizations. There is much higher demand today for advanced practice nurse professionals, including nurse practitioners or NPs. These nursing professionals will experience more than 30% increase in job demand by 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The need for more nurse practitioners has led to more need for higher nurse education. If you want to become an NP, you must earn a graduate degree, but there are two options to consider.

Depending upon your long term goals you can become an NP by earning your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Both advanced degrees can lead to becoming a nurse practitioner. And if you already have your MSN, you can obtain a post-master’s certificate to become an NP.

Which you earn depends upon your long term career goals and other factors we detail later in this article.

Option 1: MSN Degree to Become an NP

Nurse practitioners most often work in family practices and offer primary care to patients across the lifespan. Earning your MSN degree builds upon your bachelor of science in nursing and your nursing experience to give you the skills to become an NP.

If you do not have a BSN or nursing experience, there are some MSN ‘direct entry’ programs that will allow you to earn your BSN and MSN in one program. When you complete your BSN, you typically need to obtain one or two years of clinical nursing experience, and then you proceed with earning the MSN. Jump to List of Direct Entry MSN Nursing Programs.

An MSN NP degree program features topics such as evidence-based practice, healthcare policy, ethical and legal nursing issues, and fundamentals of primary care for people of all ages.

A good overview of the typical curriculum for an MSN-FNP program can be found at Simmons University. This online MSN-FNP program consists of the following areas:

FNP Foundation

  • Pharmacology, pathophysiology, physical assessment
  • Learn how to think critically as required by advanced practice nurses
  • Which medications to prescribe and why
  • Cover basic and advanced anatomy and physiology

Critique and Analysis

  • Complete a scholarly research project that teaches you how to do qualitative and quantitative research. Teaches you how to translate critical thinking into patient care.
  • Research projects can include quality improvement proposals, critique of medical literature, of your own research

Clinical Practice

  • Clinical courses provide you with the skills to work as an FNP
  • Clinical rotations allow you to practice what you learned in foundational and research courses.
  • Increase knowledge of prescribing drugs, and become familiar with acute and chronic illnesses

An MSN degree to become an NP is a the standard choice today for those who want to become a nurse practitioner. If your end goal is to work in clinical care, this may be the choice for you.

Option 2: DNP Degree to Become an NP

The MSN degree will in most cases qualify you to work as a nurse practitioner, but you also can earn your DNP to become an NP. The Doctor of Nursing practice takes what is learned in an MSN program a step further. This doctoral degree goes deeper into the nursing and healthcare leadership roles that are involved in advanced nursing practice.

In addition to NP courses and practicums, you will also complete courses in things such as decision making, data management systems, performance measurement, health care policy, healthcare management, health promotion and other leadership and administrative topics. Jump to DNP Nursing Practice Programs + Online No GRE!.

A sample curriculum for a DNP NP program is below (Baylor University):

  • NUR 5209 Theoretical Concepts for APN
  • NUR 5232 Advanced Human Pathophysiology I
  • NUR 5349 Global Healthcare & Missions
  • NUR 5351 Advanced Pharmacology
  • NUR 5233 Advanced Human Pathophysiology II
  • NUR 5314 Scientific Inquiry
  • NUR 5452 Advanced Health Assessment
  • NUR 5316 Transforming Health Care Organizations & Changing Outcomes
  • NUR 5355 Family Healthcare Management I
  • NUR 5153 Advanced Family Practice I
  • NUR 5356 Family Healthcare Management II
  • NUR 5359 Advanced Family Practice II

It is important to know that in 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommended that the DNP degree become the standard for nursing professionals who want to work in advanced nursing practice, including the NP role. At this time, the MSN will still meet the necessary qualifications to work as an NP in most healthcare settings. Eventually however, the DNP will be the required degree to work in advanced practice nursing.

This fact can be seen in the number of DNP programs today. There were just three universities with DNP programs in 2004. As of 2015, there were 264, and 60 more were planned. And not just colleges are preparing for a DNP future. From 2013 to 2014, the number of students earning their DNP rose from 14,688 to 18,352, and the number of graduates from the doctoral program rose from 2,443 to 3,065.

For now, having a DNP instead of an MSN could give you a competitive edge in the nursing job market. You also will have more options in terms of administrative and leadership positions in healthcare organizations.

For example, many nursing professionals with a DNP degree eventually become a healthcare executive or healthcare administrator. They possess both the clinical and administrative leadership experience and skills to effectively manage small, medium and large healthcare facilities – from doctor’s offices to entire healthcare systems. An MSN degree does not typically provide you with the advanced leadership, legal and administrative background to work in this role.


As you are thinking about earning an MSN or DNP degree to become an NP, it is important to consider your career goals. Both degrees as of today will allow you to practice as a nurse practitioner. But it is recommended to think about where you want to be in your career in 10 or even 20 years. If your long term goal is to work in a healthcare facility treating patients, earning the MSN could be the best choice.

But if you know that you want to move up in a healthcare facility over the years and attain an executive leadership position, getting your DNP to become an NP. Another option is to get your MSN now, work as an NP for several years, and earn your doctorate later.

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