DNP vs. NP: Comparing Career Paths in Nursing

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A nursing student carrying medical textbooks is in a hospital hallway.The Association of American Medical Colleges projects the United States will have a shortage of up to 122,000 physicians by 2032. Since the U.S. population is both growing and aging, it requires a larger number of medical professionals than previous years. In response, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the employment of advanced nursing professionals will increase by 45% — a much faster rate than the 4% projected growth of all occupations.

Those who are curious about pursuing a career in advanced practice nursing can choose between Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and nurse practitioner (NP) career paths. DNP graduates and NPs in general play a vital role in healthcare delivery and can take on leadership positions in an ever-evolving nursing field. Prospective nursing students who are considering DNP vs. NP roles should explore the ways in which they can benefit from earning an online Doctor of Nursing Practice.

Defining DNP and NP

Most nurses begin their careers by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and becoming a registered nurse (RN). Those who wish to advance in the field and become nurse practitioners (NPs) then earn a Master of Science in Nursing. Most MSN programs offer concentrations that allow graduate nursing students to specialize in family practice, pediatrics, psychiatric mental health, adult-gerontology or another area.

A nurse practitioner has more autonomy than a registered nurse. In fact, 89.7% of NPs hold certification in an area of primary care, and 95.7% of NPs prescribe medications, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. While registered nurses work alongside physicians and advanced practice nurses (APNs), the majority of nurse practitioners offer primary care without a doctor’s supervision. Therefore, a nurse practitioner holds an important position in healthcare, especially during a time in which medical specialists are in high demand.

When looking at health care professional with a DNP vs. an NP, the key differences include education level and area of practice. Nurse practitioners motivated to earn the most advanced degree in their field can earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). However, earning a DNP is not limited to those who work as nurse practitioners; it is also available to clinical nurse specialists (CNS), certified nurse anesthetists and certified nurse-midwives who have their master’s degrees. Beyond working in clinical practice, DNP graduates can pursue executive and leadership positions as chief nursing officers, advanced clinical educators, public health policymakers and university nurse educators.

DNP vs. NP: Similarities

Prospective and current nurses who are interested in beginning or advancing their careers may be interested in the similarities between becoming a nurse practitioner and earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice. When looking at professionals with a DNP vs. NPs in general, a clear similarity is the requirement of a graduate degree. Whether nursing students are earning a DNP or an MSN, they must fulfill requirements pertaining to a certain number of classroom credit hours as well as clinical experience.

Another similarity is that the job opportunities for both career paths are considered advanced nursing roles. Graduate nursing students who become nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, chief nursing officers or nurse educators devote many years to their education and hands-on training. Many individuals spend time working as registered nurses and developing essential skills before moving on to more specialized positions.

DNP vs. NP: Differences

Looking at the roles of nurses with a DNP vs. NPs with only an MSN reveals many commonalities, but it also uncovers key differences. While all nurses in advanced roles have graduate degrees, DNP graduates inherently have a higher level of education than an NP with only a master’s degree. Professionals with a DNP degree can hold leadership positions in management or education as well as advanced clinical roles.

NP careers offer specializations that focus on a specific aspect of patient care, such as family practice or pediatrics, while careers that require a DNP include top-level or executive-level administrative roles that focus on shaping a facility’s care strategies.

Another difference between nursing professionals with a DNP and NPs with only a master’s degree is their annual income. Nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse specialists with an MSN earn a median annual salary of approximately $95,000, according to November 2020 PayScale data. By comparison, advanced practice nurses or medical leaders with a DNP degree earn a median annual salary of approximately $103,400. Salaries can range based on job location, medical facility, and years of experience, among other factors.

Pursue an Advanced Nursing Degree

In response to the national shortage of physicians, the demand for advanced practice nurses is growing rapidly. Individuals who are interested in helping to minimize the impact of this shortage may want to consider earning a DNP so they can take on leadership roles in primary care or specialty care.

If you’re interested in becoming an advanced practice nurse or leader of a healthcare facility, a doctoral degree program can help you achieve your goals. Learn more about Duquesne University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice program today.

Recommended Readings

Importance of Networking for DNP-Educated Nurses

Nurse Leadership During Organizational Mergers and Acquisitions

Transparency in Nursing Leadership and Healthcare


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Fact Sheet

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Quality of a Nurse Practitioner Practice

Association of American Medical Colleges, “New Findings Confirm Predictions on Physician Shortage”

CNBC, “America’s Aging Population Is Leading to a Doctor Shortage Crisis”

National Association of Neonatal Nurses, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): Entry Into Practice

PayScale, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

PayScale, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners