MSN vs DNP: Comparing Salaries, Job Outlook and More

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Nursing professionals are in high demand. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the United States is expected to endure a shortage of registered nurses in the next 10 to 15 years, as 1 million nurses reach retirement age and baby boomers’ health care needs increase.

Students interested in advanced-practice nursing careers such as nurse practitioner must attain a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, but their education doesn’t have to end there. Nurses can continue building specialized knowledge and skills by attaining a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, opening up even more jobs and leadership opportunities.

Nursing students must understand the differences between MSN vs. DNP degrees to choose the right education track.

Similarities Between MSN and DNP Degrees

An MSN degree prepares nurses for advanced careers as practitioners in specialty roles, such as family nurse practitioner and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner. An MSN program covers subjects such as health care policy, nursing theory and health assessment, which can all be used to provide advanced patient care.

A DNP degree builds on an MSN degree by covering more advanced skills and subjects, such as evidence-based practice, health care informatics, quality improvement and nurse education. A DNP degree prepares registered nurses for leadership roles, in which they can develop, critique and influence health policies and manage patient care operations.

Both MSN and DNP degrees are advanced degrees that allow registered nurses to become advanced-practice registered nurses or nurse practitioners, with the ultimate goal of improving health care and patient outcomes. Both programs can also prepare students to sit for certification exams in clinical specialties.

Registered nurses can enroll in an MSN program after completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, and they can enroll in a post-master’s DNP program after earning a master’s degree.

MSN vs. DNP: Different Options for Nurses

An MSN program is aimed at preparing nurse practitioners to develop specialized competencies in various areas of clinical nursing, such as family, adult gerontology and mental health. MSN degree programs cover the foundations of advanced nursing and direct practice skills, such as administering anesthesia and conducting health care assessments.

In contrast, DNP degrees are terminal degrees in the field, preparing nurses for work in higher leadership and administrative positions. Students in DNP programs go beyond direct practice skills to develop skills for managing health care systems by conducting research and evidence-based practice. DNP graduates may go on to become directors, executives or educators in the nursing field.

Careers, Salaries and Job Growth

Jobs in advanced nursing careers, such as nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife and nurse practitioner, are expected to grow by 26% — much faster than the average for all occupations — between 2018 and 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Students who earn an MSN degree can pursue a range of specialty nursing careers, including the following:

Family Nurse Practitioner

Family nurse practitioners treat patients of all ages and perform functions similar to physicians, including treating and diagnosing diseases, prescribing medication, and providing referrals. These registered nurses may also develop treatment plans for patients, taking into account diet, exercise and home environment.

The median annual salary for family nurse practitioners is about $94,000, according to March 2020 data from PayScale.

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners treat patients across the life span, from adolescence to adulthood and advanced age, offering health assessments, illness prevention solutions and customized treatment plans. These nursing professionals commonly work in private practice and specialize in certain areas, such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS.

The median annual salary for adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners is about $90,000, according to March 2020 data from PayScale.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners help patients to manage and treat psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia. These nursing professionals are trained in evaluating disorders, communicating with patients, monitoring progress and administering customized care based on medical history.

The median annual salary for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners is about $106,000, according to March 2020 data from PayScale.

When weighing the career options offered by an MSN vs. a DNP, consider these opportunities for DNP degree holders:

Nursing Director

Nursing directors are responsible for organizing, managing and optimizing the performance of a nursing team. They must have the skills to evaluate health systems, adhere to compliance measures, procure resources and lead day-to-day operations. Nursing directors may also manage training and educational opportunities to keep teams up-to-date on new procedures and technologies.

The median annual salary for nursing directors is about $87,000, according to March 2020 data from PayScale.

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists are responsible for preparing and administering anesthesia to patients. They must also choose the proper anesthetic based on each patient’s surgery, medical history and physical needs. By 2025, nurses will be required to earn a DNP before being eligible for advanced practice as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA).

The median annual salary for nurse anesthetists is about $144,000, according to March 2020 data from PayScale.

Chief Nursing Officer

Chief nursing officers (CNOs) are in charge of directing nursing services, supervising managers, and evaluating and improving health care services. CNOs work with other executives and administrators at their facilities to develop patient care strategies, policies and operational procedures that provide optimal care. CNOs must possess strong leadership and communication skills to educate employees on new procedures and uphold legal and safety regulations.

The median annual salary for CNOs is about $128,000, according to March 2020 data from PayScale.

Pursue an Advanced Practice Nursing Caree

Nursing professionals should prepare for a future where DNP degrees are required for advanced-practice registered nursing careers. University of North Dakota’s online Post-Master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program is designed to provide nursing students with the leadership skills, knowledge and experience they need to influence health care policy and manage nursing organizations at the highest levels.

Learn more about how University of North Dakota’s online Post-Master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program can help you to pursue your professional goals today.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, AACN Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing 

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Shortage

Forbes, “Why Our Healthcare Conversation Must Consider How We Care for Nurses” 

PayScale, Average Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP) Salary

PayScale, Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Salary 

PayScale, Average Director, Nursing Salary

PayScale, Average Family Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

PayScale, Average Nurse Anesthetist Salary

PayScale, Average Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

University of North Dakota, Online Post-Master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, How to Become a Nurse Anesthetist, Nurse Midwife, or Nurse Practitioner