MSN vs. DNP: Degree Options for a Family Nurse Practitioner

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Doctor of Nursing Practice

An FNP explains a bottle of medication to a patient.In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) identified the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) as the highest clinical practice degree for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Unlike the research-focused Ph.D., the DNP focuses on using evidence-based outcomes to improve systems of care through direct patient contact, education, policy, and leadership.

Since this identification, there has been an increased push from other groups such as The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) toward making the DNP the benchmark education requirement for APRNs. This would be a shift from its current benchmark of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. In fact, groups like NONPF endorse having this shift in place by 2025.

This push comes at a crucial time for APRNs. Those in the role are in a unique position to help lighten the healthcare burden caused by the lack of sufficient care delivery in rural areas and the ongoing physician shortage that has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Add the steady stream of technology-driven care delivery innovations, regulatory and compliance shifts, and the complexities associated with caring for an aging population into the mix — a situation that also includes nurses and physicians reaching retirement age — and it becomes clear that APRNs are needed to help guide healthcare through its current and projected changes.

Because of these many challenges, many healthcare leaders believe that earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree better prepares nurses for the future of the field. To understand why it’s important to explore the differences when it comes to MSN vs. DNP degrees.

Nurse Practitioner MSN vs. DNP

While an MSN and a DNP can both prepare individuals to become APRNs, there are distinct differences between the degrees that those pursuing an advanced nursing career should understand. Both prepare nurses for advanced clinical roles, but the DNP also emphasizes the business and administrative sides of healthcare by covering topics such as leadership and management or statistical analysis.

This fundamental difference is evident in the coursework of the two degrees. An MSN degree program incorporates foundational concepts that are directly associated with patient care, such as physical assessments and pharmacology. A DNP curriculum focuses on the systems that support patient care, such as the intricacies of healthcare systems and how to integrate technical innovations.

For individuals who are contemplating a transition to the administrative side of care delivery, a DNP prepares them to address the issues faced by healthcare organizations as they change and evolve.

Earning an Online DNP While Working as an FNP

When Lindsay Searle became a registered nurse, she was just at the beginning of her healthcare education. After working almost two years as a family nurse practitioner (FNP), she decided to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.

As an FNP, Searle enjoys working autonomously in a primary care practice in Connecticut, building bonds with patients to create healthy outcomes. At the same time, she is enrolled in Duquesne University’s prestigious online DNP program with an eye on broadening her nursing perspective.

“My goal is to be a leader in the community where I work to enable positive changes in the healthcare community,” she said. “I am interested in the DNP versus the Ph.D. since the DNP is more clinically based, which is more applicable to my current practice as a nurse practitioner.”

For Searle, a DNP also means greater autonomy while continuing in clinical practice and an opportunity for more administrative roles.

Searle worked for five years as a travel nurse before earning an FNP degree through Duquesne University’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. Now, as an FNP in Connecticut, she is working in a primary care practice.

In pursuing her ultimate dream — a DNP — Searle is also expanding her career options, each of which can allow her to impact healthcare in a different way.

“My goal is to have the greatest autonomy in practice while working in the clinical arena but to also have options to work in academia, which I enjoy,” she said. “The best way to do this is to broaden my perspective by attaining the DNP, which opens up many options for my future.”

When considering her choices for earning the DNP degree, Searle once again looked to Duquesne University. While earning her online FNP, she learned essential time management skills and had positive experiences with a caring faculty.

In earning a DNP, Searle is once again testing her time management skills but is continually encouraged by her supportive instructors and classmates.

“They help to make the coursework manageable. Being a distance learner can be difficult at times, but overall it is rewarding,” she said. “Everyone involved in the DNP program truly wants the students to be successful, and they dedicate their time and effort into making completion a reality.”

Searle’s experience as an FNP and as a DNP student has been so positive that she urges anyone considering a DNP to move forward “so we can promote and evolve our profession toward becoming leaders and impact change in the healthcare arena.”

“I chose the DNP program due to the clinical focus and ultimately would like to provide better care for all my patients through implementing evidence-based practice guidelines into clinical practice,” she said. “In addition, I will be in the leadership role where I can share this knowledge and experience with other practitioners.”

Build Toward a Future That Makes a Difference

While earning a DNP isn’t a requirement for an APRN role, it can put you in a position to grow your career in any of a number of ways. It can get you ready to be a prime mover in making the decisions that ultimately influence the direction of healthcare systems and facilities, and have an impact on care delivery and patient outcomes. This can make earning a DNP degree a satisfying achievement as well as a career-shaping one.

Duquesne University’s online DNP program offers you the opportunity to sharpen the skills and gain the knowledge required to excel in a high-level healthcare role. The program is designed to give you the tools to be able to make the smart decisions that will lead others through healthcare’s shifting complexities and positively impact patient care. Learn how Duquesne University can help get you ready to make a difference. 


Students from Duquesne University’s online nursing programs speak to the individualized attention they’ve experienced, the attributions that drew them to enroll at Duquesne, and the expertise of the faculty members who teach within the nursing programs.


0:00 – Duquesne is special in the sense that it gets to know its students, I would never feel like I was just a number here. This program in particular, being a distance learning for some students, the clinical faculty really go out of their way to engage with each student and learn about them and what they need.

0:27- You’re not a number here, you’re actually – you’re a part of a family. Everybody seems to know everybody else. The faculty is always willing to help the student. We’re currently for the 2018 graduates have a one hundred percent pass rate for both our post-master’s certificate students and our master’s students. Something else that is different with Duquesne is we have this predictor exam. It’s an exam that helps prepare them for their national certification exam. So after each of these exams, I meet with the students by phone and we go through what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are, and then I stay in touch with them as their preparing. So even after they finish, I’ll still meet with them and say “Okay, so what have you done now?” or “Before you test, make sure you have this score on your next predictor exam.”

1:15 – What distinguishes Duquesne among other schools I’ve seen, really is the faculty. Many of them are still here, they have longevity, they are so dedicated to their craft, so dedicated to their students. They really bring to the job and the career a level of commitment that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

1:36 – I chose this program because I know Duquesne is a very credible school, the online piece really drew me here. Getting up into the adult years and having my own life, being independent and autonomous in my learning was very important to me – and Duquesne’s online program allowed me that independent learning. The instructors have been great, they’re so helpful. Whenever I have a question, within a day I have an answer. If I have a problem, I have no problems going and talking to them about it.

2:08 –  I chose this program based on academics, the mission statement of the university, also the program itself. It is a rigorous program, but you will know what you need to do when you get out. Meaning you are fully prepared when you take boards and when you’re taking that first position, you’re not going to feel that you’re not confident to do this job. The support is there, if you have problems, questions, concerns, you can reach out to anyone and you get an answer right away. If you’re having a bad day, you can call them and they’re helping you get through that. They’re also there at your high points and encouraging you, so it’s a great support system.

2:50 – The expertise of our clinicians is phenomenal; we have the experts in their field come. In women’s health, in men’s health, family practice, internal medicine, some specialty, retail clinics, and they’re experts who have been seasoned clinicians, 24 or 25 years. They’ve worked in a variety of settings and venues and they offer all of that expertise to the students. All of that history and richness of the clinical faculty that come to help, I think that’s our key.