DNP vs. NP: What Are Your Nursing Career Options?

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A smiling DNP holding a stack of books.

The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that the United States will have a shortage of 37,800 to 124,000 physicians by 2034. Since the U.S. population is growing and aging, it requires a larger number of medical professionals than in previous years. In response, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the employment of advanced nursing professionals will increase by 45% by 2030 — a much faster rate than the 8% 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 health care 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.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

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

Along with treating patients, nurse practitioners lead and participate in health care forums and conduct research in clinical practice. What distinguishes NPs from other health care professionals is their emphasis on a holistic approach to health care. NPs often guide patients in making smarter health and lifestyle choices, disease prevention, and health education and counseling.

A nurse practitioner has more autonomy than a registered nurse. In fact, 88.9% of NPs hold certification in an area of primary care, and 96.2% 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 health care, especially during a time in which medical specialists are in high demand.

What Is a DNP Degree?

When looking at health care professionals with a DNP versus 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). The National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) originally proposed the degree as a response to the growing need for expert nursing leadership as care became more complex and required higher standards. A DNP holds prestige similar to a Ph.D. but with a focus on clinical work as opposed to academic research.

However, earning a DNP is not limited to those who work as nurse practitioners; it is also available to clinical nurse specialists (CNSs), 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.

Similarities Between DNP and NP

Prospective and current nurses who wish to begin or advance in 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 DNPs versus 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.

NP vs. DNP

Looking at the roles of nurses with a DNP versus 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 particular 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 and nurse specialists with an MSN earn a median annual salary of approximately $98,000, according to July 2022 PayScale data. By comparison, advanced practice nurses or medical leaders with a DNP degree earn a median annual salary of approximately $107,000. Salaries can vary based on job location, medical facility and years of experience, among other factors.

Pursue an Advanced Nursing Degree

Nurses who are interested in acting as mentors, educators, researchers, and administrators in addition to health care practitioners should consider becoming nurse practitioners. An advanced degree certifies a nurse’s education and standards and separates them from RNs.

DNP graduates are the highest ranking in their field, and their expertise makes them highly sought-after candidates for policymaking and administrative roles. For current and aspiring leaders looking to innovate and shape the field of nursing itself, a DNP is an excellent option.

If you’re interested in becoming an advanced practice nurse or leader of a health care 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 Reading

Importance of Networking for DNP-Educated Nurses

Nurse Leadership During Organizational Mergers and Acquisitions

Why Get a DNP Degree?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Fact Sheet

Association of American Medical Colleges, “The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections From 2019 to 2034”

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

Nursing Outlook, “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree in the United States: Reflecting, Readjusting, and Getting Back on Track”

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