Do I Need to Get a Master’s Degree If I Want to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Ready to start your journey? is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

For many registered nurses (RN) today, the idea of advanced education is both exciting and achievable. Today, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) continues to make positive recommendations related to RNs continuing their educations. Many work places also offer tuition reimbursement to their existing staff. Many academic institutions offer advanced degree programs entirely online, allowing actively working RNs to maintain their career and pursue additional education.

There are many RNs interested in pursuing a nurse practitioner (NP) degree. If this is you, good! Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) like nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners average $114,000/year with a job outlook increasing at an astounding rate of 26%. These numbers are exceptional, especially compared to the (also positive) statistics of an RN career ($72,000/year and 12 % growth).

If you have decided to pursue your NP degree, there are still some things you need to decide. Perhaps one of your biggest choices is this: will you be pursuing a master’s degree or a doctoral degree? is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Advanced Degrees for a Nurse Practitioner

There are two degrees one can pursue if they desire to be an NP. The first is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Upon completion of a MSN program and passing of the NP boards, one would be a certified NP. The second degree option is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Upon completion of this program and passing of boards, one would be a DNP.

RELATED: The Best-Paying Jobs in Health Care: Top 15 Highest-Paying Medical Specialties

Master of Science in Nursing

Typical candidates for an MSN program have a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) and an active unencumbered RN license. However, there are also MSN programs that will accept any bachelor’s degree for admittance, whether or not the candidates have an RN license. For those unlicensed candidates, the program includes 18 months of work towards a BSN license before the MSN can be achieved. For those who hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN), there are also “bridge” MSN programs, in which students get both a BSN and a MSN upon completion.

MSN programs typically desire at least one year of professional nursing practice. Depending on the program, there may be more years of work experience required for admittance. Length of MSN programs is usually two years (with a bachelor’s degree) and three years for a bridge program. Many programs, both online and on-campus, offer the option of slowing the program down, though there is often a limit on how many years you have to complete the degree.

Your MSN education will focus on nursing theories and principles. Typical course work may include advanced pathophysiology, statistics and research methods, health promotion, and acute disease management. You will have the option to choose a specialization from a variety of options, like gerontology, family practice, neonatal, or women’s health (not an all-inclusive list).

Doctor of Nursing Practice

A DNP is considered a terminal degree for a nurse. This means that it is the highest level of academic training one can achieve in the nursing field. It also prepares one for the highest level of nursing jobs. Candidates to DNP programs usually need a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree; there are a few programs that accept associate degrees. Some programs also require candidates to have APRN certifications, professional work experience and references and perform multiple interviews during the application process.

Most DNP programs typically take between 2-5 years to complete. Length of program often depends on the working experiences of the nurse, especially as it pertains to their chosen DNP specialization. Common specialties include adult gerontology care, family care, women’s health care, neonatal care, and psychiatric-mental health care.

DNP courses will include clinical ethics and theory, informatics, epidemiology principles, healthcare quality improvement, and research. DNP students must complete at least 1000 hours of clinical experience; this is a requirement from the American Academy of Colleges of Nursing.

Tracks to Achieve a DNP

There are four ways to potentially earn a DNP, regardless of your educational background.

  • RN – to – DNP program: This track will take the longest, typically 4 – 6 years.
  • BSN – to – DNP program: This track takes between 3 – 6 years, depending on full time or part time status. Sometimes, an MSN is achieved as well.
  • MSN – to – DNP program: These programs build upon an MSN education, with courses like nursing informatics, leadership development, and data analytics.
  • Direct-Entry DNP program: These programs are available to students with a non-nursing bachelor’s or master’s degree. The first year is usually rigorous course work designed to prepare students for RN licensure.

Should I Get an MSN or a DNP Degree?

As with most educational choices, there are pros and cons to both an MSN degree and a DNP degree. If you desire to be an NP, MSN programs are typically cheaper and take less time to complete. And as mentioned per the BLS, both the income earning potential and job outlook is excellent. However, a DNP degree has greater income earning potential and is a better choice for one potentially desiring a future leadership position. reports that an RN with an MSN earned $91,000 in 2018, while a RN with a DNP earned $100,000.

It is also important to consider what the IOM is considering related to certifications and education in your desired field. Though changes to current APRN requirements aren’t always imminent, it is possible that the IOM could one day require a DNP degree for all or some types of APRNs. You may find that an MSN is enough to get your NP career started today, but there is a possibility of being required to return to school in the future.

To be an NP today, you do need an advanced degree. However, an MSN is not your only option. Both MSN programs and DNP programs can help you achieve your NP goals. Both degrees have excellent income earning potential and a strong job outlook. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide which program is the best choice as it relates to your current professional experiences, finances, time commitments, and future career dreams.

Laura Mansfield

Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) | Sacred Heart University

Associate’s Degree of Nursing (ADN) | North Seattle Community College

Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.), Marketing, Sales | University of Washington (Seattle)

November  2019

More Articles of Interest: