Is a DNP the New MSN?
A doctorate may be replacing the master’s as the go-to degree for some advanced nursing programs. Is yours one of them?
Working toward advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) licensure is a common goal for many nurses looking for an elevated position that offers increased autonomy, more opportunities to advance, and potentially better pay. For years, the Master of Science in Nursing—or MSN— has been the go-to degree for nurses seeking these advanced roles.
But change is in the air. A doctoral degree will be the entry-level degree mandated for nurse anesthetists (one of several APRN nursing roles) by 2025. Requirements for nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists may not be far behind: while the MSN is currently the standard, many nursing associations are recommending a move to a doctorate as the entry-level degree requirement for these advanced nursing roles.
What’s a Doctorate and Why the Shift?
A doctoral degree—most often, the Doctorate of Nursing Practice in the nursing profession—is an advanced degree that allows nurses to broaden their scope of practice. The degree takes a few years longer to earn than an MSN, but it also goes more in depth than an MSN degree. A doctorate will build on the nursing knowledge you already have and can prepare you for high-level and leadership roles.
The move to a DNP and other doctoral degrees reflects both the increasingly complex knowledge APRNs need and the increased role of nurses in healthcare leadership.
The move to a DNP and other doctoral degrees reflects both the increasingly complex knowledge APRNs need and the increased role of nurses in healthcare leadership. Because of this, “it makes sense for nursing to have its own practice doctorate, especially for those who are working in advanced practice, leadership levels, and teaching,” says Sara Hunt, DNP, MSN, FNP-C, PHN, a family nurse practitioner who holds a doctorate.
Patient safety and quality of care are other huge factors in the push toward doctorates, especially following an influential report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) back in 1999 that highlighted the significant physical and monetary cost of errors made in hospitals and suggested ways to mitigate them. Hunt believes the IOM recommendations have made a significant impact on the growing push toward doctoral degrees.
What APRN Roles Are Affected?
Nursing association recommendations that encourage nurses pursuing an advanced practice role consider a doctorate instead of a master’s can be confusing. Is a doctoral degree required or not? The answer depends on the nursing role you’re seeking.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)
Clinical Nurse Specialists
What if I’m Already Enrolled in an MSN Program?
Don’t worry: You can finish any MSN program you’re already in, earn your APRN license, and be able to practice. This includes students currently enrolled in MSN-level CRNA programs. Your program meets the current standards, and you’ll be able to apply for licensure with your state as well as certification when you graduate. Both an MSN and a doctoral degree will prepare you to work as an APRN.
However, keep in mind that if your goal is to be a CRNA, you’ll only be able to start an MSN program through the end of 2021. You’ll need to enroll in a doctoral degree program if you start your CRNA program in 2022 or later. All other aspiring APRNs have a choice.
What If I Just Earned My MSN?
You should be all set if you’ve already earned your MSN. The coming degree changes won’t affect the license you already have. Even current MSN-level educated CRNAs will be able to keep practicing, but all CRNAs who apply for licensure in 2025 or later will need a doctorate.
Firm doctorate requirements for other APRN professions haven’t yet been announced, but it’s a good idea to keep up-to-date in your specialty to keep an eye on the rules and recommendations. There are many ways to make sure you know what’s happening currently, including joining nursing organizations, staying in touch with your alumni association, and following nursing news on social media. You can check out our resources guide for more ideas.
So…Should I Earn an MSN or a Doctorate?
It’s up to you. Right now, you can complete an MSN program and earn the same APRN licensure as if you’d completed a DNP. You may want to consider cost, time, and future goals as you make your decision.
“There are a lot of factors for a student to consider when choosing a healthcare program,” says Hunt. “The role needs to align with (a student’s) personal needs and wants, and the education needs to be realistic for the personal circumstances and finances. Getting an MSN or a DNP can be very expensive, both with time and money, so they need to decide what works best for them.”
Hunt, who earned a DNP as a family nurse practitioner, explains she decided what was best for her career by looking at the current market and trends in nursing.
“I saw the trends early on and the DNP looked like it would quickly saturate the market. So, to remain competitive in a competitive market, I knew I would get my DNP,” she says. “The education was in alignment with my personal goals. I have a passion for health policy, teaching, and advocacy and prefer taking a more global perspective on topics. [Plus], I knew a doctorate would open doors for me.”
So, what’s best for you? Only you can decide, but there a few questions to ask yourself that might help you choose:
“Ultimately, each nurse will have (to) assess what they want and what works for them,” Hunt says. However, in her opinion, if you can make earning a DNP work for your budget, life, and goals, now might be a great time to go for it.
“The longer you wait to go back and get it, the rustier you’ll be as a student, and you may enter a hyper-competitive market when it becomes a mandate.”