Nursing is a wonderful career, where the care of people paves the way for outstanding job satisfaction - not to mention the opportunity to make real, tangible change in the world. Becoming a nurse is not easy, it requires an intense education and training process, but if you want to earn a leadership position in the nursing field, there are two pathways you can pursue.
A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) are both advanced graduate nursing degrees. Although both choices allow nurses to cultivate more specialized careers within nursing, the difference between an MSN and DNP may be the determining factor in which one you choose to study.
It’s important to understand what you’re studying so that your career path can match your intended goals. The following is a guide to the similarities, differences, and opportunities available to the MSN and DNP qualifications.
The similarities between these two courses are what you might expect. They are both nursing qualifications with a focus on preparing nursing staff for advanced career opportunities. They are both graduate degrees, meaning that to pursue them you will need a pre-earned qualification such as a bachelor’s degree.
Both courses are highly specialized and designed to prepare you with skills you will be expected to draw from daily in an advanced nursing career. Many of these skills are relevant to a typical nurse, such as patient triage, problem-solving, and leadership skills. However, where a nurse’s bachelor is more generalized, both the MSN and DNP have a far more focused scope of education.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in nursing, most programs may also require you to have an active Registered Nurse (RN) license to be admitted for these courses. However, after completing either of these, you will have further education in the nursing field, and be able to put your career on a more specific trajectory, such as clinical nursing, family nursing, nurse midwife, and more.
The Master’s in Nursing program varies considerably according to speciality. The course is designed to prepare nurses for more advanced careers, usually in administration, teaching, research, leadership, and direct patient care. Several of the potential roles available to MSN graduates have been outlined by The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
Due to this focus on specialization, an MSN degree can usually have its course divided into a three-category framework. The categories are:
Fundamental Courses | The base knowledge required to obtain an MSN:
Pharmacology, pathophysiology, physical assessment, and microbiology and biology.
Clinical Courses | Acquiring insight into the knowledge and practices necessary for advanced practice nursing:
Prescribing and synthesizing medications, patient communication, diagnosis of acute and chronic illnesses/conditions, and treatment plan development.
Research Courses | Teaches students how to approach new information and research projects:
Creating high-quality improvement proposals, critical literature analysis, and conducting a research project with institutional review board approval.
The DNP is the highest nursing qualification attainable. Although it stands for “Doctorate of Nursing Practice”, the DNP is not a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), for which you would need to attain a PhD in Nursing. Due to the likeness of their titles, there is often some confusion around this, however, the difference between them is really quite significant.
A PhD in Nursing allows graduates to fulfill leadership positions in medical research. Students pursuing the PhD will gain knowledge of leading research teams and how to carry out research and studies in the nursing field. They will also learn about developing theories and how to contribute their research to the existing literature.
The DNP program, on the other hand, is far more focused on practical nursing. The DNP is designed to prepare students for careers as nurse leaders and administrators in either a clinical or non-clinical setting. The graduates of this program will likely be responsible for translating the research of PhD graduates into practical application in a healthcare environment.
In the same way that a PhD student will have to defend their dissertation, a DNP student will have to present a practical scholarly project. It should be noted, however, that despite the inherent differences graduates of either course will be called on to lead teams that consist of experts across the range of medical disciplines to address healthcare issues.
As you can see, despite similarity in vocation there are some inherent and significant differences between the DNP and MSN. The MSN is a degree for those who hold a Bachelor's in Nursing that focuses on providing students with specialized expertise and skills to pursue more advanced nursing careers. These positions include leadership roles such as nurse educator, and advanced roles such as clinical nurse specialist.
On the other hand, the DNP is a doctoral program aiming to prepare students specifically to be the head of healthcare teams, as well as advanced nursing careers. The DNP’s main difference is that it is a “terminal” degree, and is undertaken to provide the student with the highest degree of practice-oriented knowledge.
The DNP also offers more versatility than the MSN. While studying a DNP, you may specialize in a particular area of nursing, however, it also provides the opportunity to study for and obtain more varied nursing roles like a clinical researcher or health care lobbyist.
There is also a difference in the time required to complete either undertaking. Students under an MSN program can generally expect their studies to take around two years, while DNP students will usually be studying for three.
Regardless of which course you choose, either one will allow you to grow your nursing career to its fullest. Nursing is one of the most essential and under-appreciated jobs in the world, and the altruism and self-sacrifice inherent in the position are nothing short of miraculous. If you want to make a difference - not just for patients, but for nurses and the nursing industry - then either an MSN or DNP will serve you well. Which one you choose just depends on whether you want to focus your career on a particular area of nursing, or whether you want to focus on leadership and reshaping nursing practice.
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