FNP Programs: MSN vs DNP and What You Should Know

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If you’re a registered nurse (RN) and want to advance your career, furthering your education will help boost your future earnings and provide more job opportunities. Either a Master of Science in nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree can be a great next step for RNs who want to increase their professional competency.

Both MSN and DNP programs prepare you to be an advanced practice nurse, nurse practitioner, or nurse educator. A DNP is a more advanced degree which focuses on leadership, management, and innovation in clinical settings, whereas the MSN usually leads to a specific sub-specialty in the nurse practitioner (NP) profession.

A DNP is considered a practical degree whereas a Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS) or a PhD in nursing is more focused on academic research. Choosing one track doesn’t necessarily eliminate the others since an MSN degree can be used as a prerequisite for doctoral-level nursing education.

Master of Science in Nursing

The MSN is an advanced-level postgraduate degree for RNs. This degree is considered an entry-level requirement for a career as a nurse practitioner, nurse educator, manager, administrator, health policy expert, or clinical nurse leader.

Specialties for Nurses with an MSN Degree

An MSN allows an RN to transition from general practice into a more specific field of nursing. An MSN prepares an RN to work as a nurse practitioner in any one of the following specialties:

  • Family health (FNP)
  • Many pediatric fields (PNP)
  • Neonatology (NNP)
  • Gerontology (GNP)
  • Women’s health (WHNP)
  • Psychiatry and mental Health (PMHNP)
  • Acute care (ACNP)
  • Adult health (ANP)
  • Oncology (FNP, ACNP, ANP, PNP or ANP)
  • Emergency or trauma (as FNP or ACNP)
  • Occupational health (as ANP or FNP)

Working as a Nurse Practitioner

Not every state requires that an RN obtain a master’s degree to practice as an NP, but all states require national board certification for NPs before they are permitted to practice. The two largest certifying bodies, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), require applicants to hold a master’s degree, post-master’s certificate, or doctoral degree to be eligible for certification.

Where you live can affect your career as an NP. Some states allow NPs to work independently of physicians, while other states require practicing NPs to have a collaborative agreement with a physician. NPs who provide primary care services are in growing demand in inner city and rural areas since they offer services at a lower cost than MDs.

The Doctorate in Nursing Practice Option

Typically, an NP with a DNP or PhD has experience as a registered nurse, four years of undergraduate education, and four years of advanced practice education in a sub-specialty. Although the DNP is a doctoral degree, it does not connote the same privileges or responsibilities as an MD. A DNP is a terminal professional degree that addresses four principal areas of advanced practice nursing:

  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
  • Nurse practitioner (NP)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM)

The Accelerated Track from RN to DNP or MSN

To become a nurse practitioner with an MSN or DNP degree, RNs who initially trained at the associate degree or diploma level must first complete a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) or enter a program that offers an ADN-to-MN/MSN bridge program. Some bridge programs may award a bachelor’s degree while the candidate continues to complete their master’s degree or doctorate.

The following table illustrates the various types of programs leading to the accelerated BSN and MSN:
Various nursing degrees.

The Shortage of Nurses with Advanced Degrees

In 2006, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued a paper stating [PDF] that the nursing community was concerned about the lack of professionals with advanced degrees.

In 2006, there were only 162 nurses completing doctoral level studies in nursing. Only 22 nurses entering nursing administration were achieving the DNP. However, a total of 236 nursing students achieved a PhD in nursing science. Those numbers had not changed significantly since 2002-2003.

At present, less than one percent of nurses in the United States have a doctoral degree, despite the fact that doctoral nurses are highly desired as academic faculty members and in clinical practice settings, research institutes, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and healthcare technology manufacturers.

The AACN estimates that the vacancy rate for nursing faculty is 8.5% (or 817 positions); additionally, the average age of nursing faculty members is 57, meaning that most of the current faculty will retire in the next decade. This shortage of nurse educators, in combination with the upcoming need for new nurses to replace retirees, presents a huge opportunity for nurses who want to enter the field of nursing education. An effort is being made to increase the number of nurse educators, so that the growing need for nurses does not outpace the education system’s ability to train them.

Financial Incentives for Nurses in Understaffed Fields

In fiscal year 2007, The Bureau of Health Professions (BHP) within The Health Research and Services Administration (HRSA) awarded $37 million to basic nursing education programs through a total of 134 education, practice, and retention grants. In 2010, the BHP allotted $30 million in funding for Federal fiscal years 2010-2014. It was anticipated that HRSA would fund approximately 40 schools to increase the number of students enrolled full time in accredited primary care nurse practitioner and nurse midwifery programs, and to accelerate the graduation of part-time students in such programs by encouraging full-time enrollment.

Additionally, in 2010 HRSA reported that between 2002 and 2007,nursing schools in the U.S. turned away over 30,000 qualified applications from entry-level baccalaureate programs due to insufficient faculty, clinical sites, classroom spaces, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints. However, HRSA has stepped up to help provide incentives for nursing students to reach either the MSN or the DNP option to help build a stronger foundation for future nurse educators. The graph below depicts the slow increase in nurses with doctoral level education since 1980.

How to Decide Which Degree is Right for You

Although the MSN takes less time to achieve than the DNP, more employers look for nurse practitioners who can meet DNP requirements. When deciding between the two, it is crucial to consider whether you want to enter nurse education or clinical practice, or some combination, where you want to live, and how long you are willing to spend in school. Additionally, knowing the path you want to take allows you to select a degree program that offers scholarships or HRSA funds for your desired specialty. The government has provided education funding in several fields of nursing where workers are in short supply.

Applying for a Degree Program and Financial Assistance

Even if you aren’t planning to begin your MSN or DNP soon, it is a good idea to request information from universities about their programs and financial aid. Getting your name into a university’s online system can make applying for degree programs and scholarships easier later on, and many schools will send you updates when their programs change or new programs become available. Additionally, filling out a one-time online registration with HRSA offers easier access to information on the services and financing they provide.

These incentives, along with money granted through programs like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), can help you reach your educational and professional goals. Choosing a specialty while maintaining career mobility is important, and there is a wealth of information and resources available to help you find and pursue a degree program that meets your needs.

It was not always possible to earn a family nurse practitioner degree online, but shifts in education have allowed more accredited schools these programs entirely online. While online FNP programs are still relatively new, dozens of master and doctoral nurse programs are available. To see if a school offers the right program for you, use the links below to contact a school to learn more.

Georgetown University
MSN in FNP Specialization
Georgetown University — Georgetown University is one of the few schools offering an online program for student pursuing a career as a family nurse practitioner. Established in 1789, Georgetown is one of America's oldest institutions for higher education and now offers over 100 programs through its eight schools from business to medicine and healthcare.
Kaplan University
MSN to DNP in Family Nurse Practitioner
Kaplan University — In addition to its several online nursing programs, Kaplan University has a MSN to DNP in Family Nurse Practitioner. Originally the American Institute of Commerce founded in 1937, Kaplan is one of the largest online schools with 70 campuses across the country and offers almost 200 online programs at the associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral levels.
University of Cincinnati
MSN in Women's Health Nurse Practitioner
MSN in Nurse Midwifery
University of Cincinnati — If you want to advance your career in nursing, the University of Cincinnati offers online degrees for nursing professionals including an MSN in Women's Health or Nursing Midwifery. UC was founded in 1819 and while the school now has over 42,000 students, the student to faculty ratio is only 15 to one, so you get the support and attention you need as you pursue your degree.
South University
MSN in Nurse Practitioner
South University — South University has an impressive online division that is convenient for working professionals trying to earn their MSN. A Georgia-based school, South U was founded in 1889 and now offers almost 30 online programs and has schools in eight states.

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