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?

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing writer

woman works on laptop in dimly lit office
medical worker studying on laptop computer

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.

Some other factors driving the shift, according to Hunt, are:

  • The rapid expansion of knowledge in the field of nursing
  • The increased complexity of basic patient care
  • Shortages of nursing personnel
  • Demands for a higher level of preparation for leaders who can design and assess care
  • Shortages of doctorally prepared nursing faculty

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)

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) are the only APRN-level job with a definitive change in directive. Right now, an MSN degree is sufficient, but you’ll need a doctoral degree to earn APRN licensure in the field after 2025. While a DNP is a popular option, students can also choose to earn another doctoral degree, including:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS or DNSc)
  • Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)
  • Doctor of Management Practice in Nurse Anesthesia (DMPNA)

Because of this change, all CRNA nursing programs are making the shift from MSN programs to doctorate programs starting January 1, 2021.

Nurse Practitioners

Right now, aspiring NPs can graduate with an MSN and earn their APRN license. An MSN will allow you to take a certification exam in any specialty from any licensing board and apply for licensure in any state. However, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has been advocating DNP degrees for NPs since 2004, and in 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) backed up this position and committed to DNPs as the new entry-level standard for NPs by 2025. That said, the nurse practitioner community has not taken the final step of requiring the DNP as the entry-level degree for nurse practitioners—yet.

Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical nurse specialists can still enter the field with an MSN. This could change in coming years, however, given the movement toward doctoral degrees for nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists. In fact, the National Association of Certified Nurse Specialists has recommended the DNP as an entry-level degree for CNSs by 2030.

Nurse Midwives

The MSN has been—and remains—the degree requirement for nurse midwives, with no active movement to shift to a doctorate. The American College of Nurse-Midwives does not endorse any proposal that the DNP become a requirement for entry into midwifery practice. Their position statement emphasizes that “no data are available addressing the need for additional education to practice safely as a midwife” and that “the requirement of an additional degree would result in a substantive increase in expense and time to students and educational institutions.”

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 2021 or later. All other aspiring APRNs have a choice.

APRN Degree Requirements: At a Glance

Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)

Current degree requirement: MSN or higher

Upcoming changes: A doctoral degree will be required by 2025

When you can enroll in an MSN program: Until the end of 2021

When you need to enroll in a doctoral degree program: 2021 and later

When you’ll need a doctorate to practice: 2025 and later

Nurse practitioner

Current degree requirement: MSN or higher

Upcoming changes: The DNP is recommended as the entry level standard by 2025

When you can enroll in an MSN program: Anytime

When you need to enroll in a DNP program: No date set currently

When you’ll need a DNP to practice: No date set currently; recommended by 2025

Clinical nurse specialist

Current degree requirement: MSN or higher

Upcoming changes: The DNP is recommended as the entry level standard by 2030

When you can enroll in an MSN program: Anytime

When you need to enroll in a DNP program: No date set currently

When you’ll need a DNP to practice: No date set currently; recommended by 2030

Nurse midwife

Current degree requirement: MSN or higher

Upcoming changes: No changes announced

When you can enroll in an MSN program: Anytime

When you need to enroll in a DNP program: N/A

When you’ll need a DNP to practice: N/A

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:

  • What are the requirements for APRN jobs in my area?  You can search for jobs in your local area and see what the educational requirements are. See how many jobs ask for a doctoral degree and if there is a pay difference for any jobs that do.
  • What type of APRN licensure am I interested in? Right now, CRNAs, NPs, and CNSs are part of the doctoral degrees discussion; nurse midwives aren’t.
  • What are my APRN goals? Consider if you’re interested in nursing leadership roles, in direct care, or both.
  • How much time am I willing to spend in school? The time it will take you to earn doctorate or master’s depends on the degree you start with, but in general, earning an MSN will be much faster.
  • Are there any bridge or fast-track programs in my area? There are some schools that offer a BSN-to-DNP bridge program that can help you complete your education faster.
  • What is the cost of programs in my area? Look into programs you can afford and research what financial aid is available.

“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.”

sara hunt

With professional insight from:

Sara Hunt, DNP, MSN, FNP-C, PHN

Family Nurse Practitioner

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