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You always see nurses when you visit the doctor’s office. They might check you in for an appointment or collect diagnostic samples or data before the doctor appears. However, nurses perform many more functions in healthcare than might be commonly perceived. Nurses work in the ER to help stabilize trauma victims, they work in a wide range of surgical theaters, and their specialties are nearly as vast as doctors.

For that reason, nurses often seek graduate degrees to further their careers into specialty areas such as pediatrics, cardiology, or oncology, among many others. If you achieve a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, you can work as a nurse practitioner or advanced practice registered nurse and run a clinic, under the license of a medical doctor of course. With a doctorate, you can continue working as a clinician or you might shift into research and academic life full-time.


Difference between a Master’s and Doctorate Nursing Degree

One of the chief distinctions when you consider an MSN vs DNP degree is their relative emphasis on the clinical side of nursing. The MSN degree and its related certifications all focus on the practice of nursing, patient care, and medicine. Along the way to completing a graduate MSN program, you will spend time in the clinic, practicing skills and applying knowledge from your classes.

Once you move on to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, registered nurses and even advanced practice nurses are less likely to spend as much time in the clinic. Rather, you might move into a more administrative position full-time, where you will guide clinical practice according to your expert knowledge and assessment of research. Other DNP degree holders work in research labs to help advance patient care. However, DNP nurses tend to remain in the clinical sphere where their deep understanding of research informs their practice as a nurse practitioner.

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Requirements to enter an Online Master’s or Doctoral Nursing Degree program

To enter an MSN program or DNP program, a primary requirement is a registered nurse's license. With this credential, you can enter an RN-to-MSN program. To gain admission, you will likely need to take a certain number of undergraduate credits in nursing or related coursework. Your program might also want to see that you have completed a certain number of hours working as a nurse.

To enter a DNP program, you might assume that you need an MSN to apply, but that is not necessarily so. Some programs only require a BSN and a few graduate level courses, such as statistics and nursing research. You should also have excellent test scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and stellar academic transcripts. Your program will likely want to see that your RN license is valid for their specific state. You should also be prepared to sit for an interview and provide letters of recommendation, among other requirements.

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So, when you're considering an MSN vs DNP, requirements for prior education for the MSN degree or DNP degree are not necessarily a factor.

Important Questions to Ask

How long does it take to earn a Master’s or Doctoral Degree in Nursing?


To complete any MSN programs or DNP programs, you should anticipate spending at least three years working towards each degree. Some programs even include work over the summer, which you should not overlook. That is, even if the summer schedule only calls for one course, discuss taking multiple courses so that you're ahead for graduation.

The likelihood that you will graduate on-time largely depends on you. While government statistics for undergraduate graduation rates are not overly hopeful, with most either not graduating or taking longer than six years for a four-year program, if you are passionate and determined you can beat any odds.

While school is expensive and your family may have demands, do your best to attend classes on a full-time basis. After all, your education is a ticket to higher salaries and a happier professional life. Try to set aside momentary concerns in favor of your long-term goals.

Potential Coursework

Master of Science in Nursing Example Courses:

  • Nurse as a Scholar
  • Population Health
  • Advanced Nursing Practice

Doctoral Nursing Coursework:

  • Development of Nursing Knowledge
  • Biostatistics Methods
  • Qualitative Research Methods
  • Doctoral Seminar

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Available Master’s and Doctoral Nursing Degrees and Certificates

  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
    An MSN is a degree that opens up your nursing practice and takes your career to the next level. During your graduate work, you can choose a major focus from a wide range of fields including Psychiatry, Nursing Education, Healthcare Informatics, and Gerontology, among others. Along the way you will need to take the core curriculum as required by your program. You will likely need to complete clinical hours to put your academic knowledge into action. Many programs allow you to add specialized certificates to your degree.
  • Post-Master’s Nurse Practitioner Certificate
    Since rural areas are losing access to hospitals and doctors are moving away, nurse practitioners are in high demand. After you graduate with your MSN, you can return to gain certification as a Nurse Practitioner. You can choose areas such as Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology, Emergency Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatry, or Pediatrics, among many other options. There are several certification boards, one of which will have the certification you need. These boards include, but are not limited to:
    • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Board (AANPCB)
    • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
    • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)
    • Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
    • National Certification Corporation (NCC)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
    This degree choice will likely be the last nursing degree you pursue. The DNP is a degree that is focused on practice. You will be steeped in theory and research, but your goal will be to put that knowledge into practice in the clinical sphere. Thus, you might work on how to put scientific knowledge into effect by creating the procedures and policies that account for the scientific advances while also being mindful of practical realities. After all, who better than a nurse to understand what patients need and how to best introduce treatments to them.
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc)
    The DNSc is a degree that enables you to take a leadership role in your local hospital or clinic. Once you your DNP program, you will help shape how your nurses implement treatments. IN this way, the degree bridges the gaps between scientific research, clinical application, and administrative oversight and regulation. Your wisdom will be shown time and time again when patients emerge from care intact and on the road to 100% recovery. You can even take your degree into the classroom where you can teach nursing students on how to implement research.
  • Nursing PhD
    This degree is a more of a purely academic credential in that it focuses on theory and research above clinical applications. You will become expert at creating studies that help design and test various nursing interventions. That is, your work will be in the laboratory, but the results of your efforts will go to create cutting-edge applications in the clinic. Most nurses who attain this degree remain in academia where they pursue research or teaching, or both. Keep in mind that the degree will not exclude you from clinical work but be aware that this academic path is intended to create researchers.

What options do you have for employment with an MSN?

Your online Master of Science in Nursing degree will help you pave the way to a bright future. You can tailor your education so that your resume opens the doors that interest you the most. You might choose one of the many Nurse Practitioner options including Pediatrics, Family Nursing, Adult-Gerontology, or Mental Health.

Your MSN can also focus in non-NP fields. You might have a head for numbers, computers, and analysis. Thus, you can go into Healthcare Informatics. You could also focus on nursing education as a nurse educator and build a career dedicated to creating future generations of nursing professionals. Another option, among many, is Nursing or Healthcare Leadership, which would propel you into healthcare management.

Your graduate degree naturally prepares you for advanced practice nursing. Depending on your program, you could delve into areas such as cardiology, endocrinology, HIV, Pediatric Mental Health, Oncology, or Orthopedics. If you don't find your passion in the options above, there is sure to be a program out there that will provide you with the training and accredited credentials on which to build a strong career. Make sure to look for accreditation from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Job Outlook

If you are a nurse with a higher-level degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctoral nursing degree, your job prospects are quite strong indeed. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nurses at the master's degree level, particularly those who work in anesthesiology, midwifery, or as Nurse Practitioners, should expect their field to grow by 31% through 2026. This is much faster than the average occupational growth rate. Additionally, the median salary for these advance practice nurses was $113,930 in 2018. You should expect a similar or greater salary if you are in a different specialty area or if you have special experience upon being hired.

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What are Your Options to Advance?

When you have an advanced degree in nursing, you can grow your career in a variety of ways. For instance, you might decide to delve deep into your clinical practice and gain status through your experience. Another way to advance is to move into healthcare administration or management.

Nurse Practitioners might take the opportunity to operate a clinic of their very own. While the laws of your state might require that you work under the licensure of a medical doctor, you could perhaps have a vested business interest in the establishment. In fact, this may be more and more prevalent in rural areas that have been all but abandoned by the large hospital corporations who have sought higher profits elsewhere.

If you pursue a Ph.D., your career can move in the direction of research, which can mean that you work for a private healthcare concern or an educational institution. It might pay more to work for a private concern, but it's important to weigh the options. For instance, if you work in higher education, you could pursue a tenure track position that not only pays well but which offers long-term job stability.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common job for those with an MSN degree?

Some sources say that the most common type of employment for those who have completed an advanced practice registered nurse MSN degree is as nurse practitioners and nurse-midwives. However, there are a huge number of open positions all across the country, so if you are looking to work in a specific niche, you are likely to be able to find a job, though you might need to move to make it work. In fact, if you are willing to travel, you might consider working as a travel nurse, going where you are most needed when you are most needed and making a good paycheck along the way.

Why would I ever need a DNP degree?

Let’s say that you already have an MSN degree, but now you would like to work in a specific specialization that you are not currently trained for. In that case, one of the best ways to gain that training and improve your education and pay expectations along the way is to gain a DNP degree. With this degree, you could find yourself in one of the most prestigious roles in nursing. For example, you might work as a top-level administrator (maybe for a whole hospital) or you could work in research or in training new nursing workers. No matter your interests, a DNP could help you to reach your goals.

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