What is an MSN to DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)?

An MSN-to-DNP (also often written MSN-DNP), is the Doctor of Nurse Practice degree entry-point for nurses who already hold an MSN. It represents the standard post-master’s doctorate, and is distinct from the BSN-DNP which provides an entry-point for bachelor’s-educated nurses.

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If you’ve already earned the MSN in the process of becoming an APRN or to advance to upper-level positions in administration, health policy, informatics, education, or nursing leadership, you are keenly aware of the value of education in the nursing profession. Now you’ve got your sights set on the DNP, the highest practice-focused degree in the nursing profession, and for good reason.

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The MSN to DNP, also referred to as the post-master’s DNP, is the pinnacle of practice-focused nursing education. Focused on applying scholarship to improve patient outcomes, the MSN to DNP degree is where you’ll develop the skills needed to advance direct clinical nursing practice to create a positive, lasting impact on healthcare outcomes and delivery. Whether you choose to focus on direct care or a systems-focused role, the DNP is how dedicated nurses like you are making a significant and lasting impact in any of the nation’s diverse healthcare systems.

What is the Purpose of the MSN to DNP?

There’s plenty to accomplish through the post-master’s DNP.

The post-master’s DNP is where you’ll build upon the MSN, assembling the skills you’ll need to translate evidence (research) into practice. In other words, as a DNP nurse, you’ll serve as the link between the new knowledge that comes from research and how it’s applied in the real world.

If you already hold the MSN, you’ve already acquired the clinical expertise and/or leadership skills you’ll need at the DNP level. So, you can begin building upon those skills with additional content designed to enhance your clinical expertise in areas like quality improvement, how to translate evidence derived from research into clinical practice improvements, and how to identify systemic issues in healthcare so as to improve upon the systems of care currently in place. It’s a lot to take on, but a DNP will help you develop the confidence and skill needed to pull it off.

This advanced-level DNP content will arm you with the complex clinical skills and advanced knowledge needed to transform systems of care, improve patient outcomes, and meet the needs of today’s increasingly complex healthcare system, whether you’re in the boardroom or at the bedside.

Which MSN-DNP Program is Right for Me?

While the goal of the DNP is the same across the board—to develop the clinical, organizational and leaderships skills necessary to design and implement care with the best possible outcomes – you’ll find that DNP offerings and design tend to be vastly different from one school to the next.

For example, while some schools offer a host of clinical population focus options (pediatrics/family/psychiatric mental health/women’s health, etc.) that would allow you to add additional patient population certifications to your current APRN license, others tend to have a generalist approach with curriculum focused on improving expertise in areas like leadership, health policy, and public health, but without the additional certs.

In short, the MSN to DNP program you choose will be determined by (1) your current certification and other qualifications and (2) the area in which you want to focus your career going forward.

As a rule,  you’ll choose a DNP program to either get the specialty skills you need to achieve a new APRN role or population focus, expand your expertise in your current role, or achieve advanced skills outside of direct patient care in areas like health policy, quality improvement, leadership, management, and  informatics.

With this in mind, you’ll find post-master’s DNP programs aimed at either:

  • A clinical track/population
  • An aggregate/systems/organizational focus (executive leadership, administration, informatics)

While the MSN is usually required, some schools also accept students with master’s degrees in other areas, including degrees like the MBA or MPH, provided the student also has a current RN license and a BSN.

Direct entry programs for non-nursing professionals are an entirely different option and would require the completion of the following courses, either prior to admission or as part of the DNP as a way to bring students up to speed with the fundamentals of advanced practice nursing:

  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Advanced Health Assessment

What Does the Post Master’s DNP Include?

Given that the DNP is a specialized degree and that graduates of this degree can assume any number of nursing roles upon graduation, you’ll find the design of the DNP to be quite different from one program to the next. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), all DNP programs must prepare students to demonstrate competencies in eight, specific areas (DNP Essentials) including:

  • Scientific underpinnings of practice
  • Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  • Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of healthcare
  • Healthcare policy for advocacy in healthcare
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  • Advanced nursing practice

However, beyond this DNP foundation, DNP programs can and are designed quite differently depending on the advanced practice nurse focus or aggregate/systems/ organizational focus.

In addition, the depth and focus of the above competencies can vary significantly from one program to the next based on the particular role for which the program is designed. For example, if you’re completing a DNP focused on organizational leadership, you’ll find more in-depth study in organizational and system’s leadership. Similarly, if the DNP you’re completing is focused on an APRN role or focus, you can be sure that the advanced practice nursing competency is emphasized.

What remains fairly constant, however, is that most MSN to DNP programs are about 65 to 95 credit hours, with more than half of those credits focused on core coursework. Also, if you use the DNP to earn initial APRN certification or an additional population focus, the program will prepare you to sit for the appropriate national examination.

To achieve the DNP competencies and specialty competencies of your chosen focus, you must complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice experiences as part of your degree. These experiences can be best viewed as opportunities for in-depth work with nursing experts and experts from other disciplines.

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These immersion experiences are often directly related to the final DNP project, another requirement of most DNP programs. Because the DNP is focused on mastering an advanced specialty within nursing, these practice application-oriented final projects are an important component of the DNP. Final projects, all of which are focused on improving nursing practice or patient outcomes, may include the completion of a practice portfolio, practice change initiative, pilot study, program evaluation, or consulting project, just to name a few.

How Do I Qualify for a Post-Master’s DNP?

While some post-master’s DNP programs accept students without an MSN or current APRN license, the vast majority require the following:

  • RN and APRN licenses (current and encumbered)
  • Minimum MSN GPA (usually 3.0)
  • Current CV or resume (many have specific experience/clinical requirements for admission)
  • Professional references (should include pros who have in-depth knowledge of your clinical skills)
  • Verification of post-baccalaureate clinical hours
  • A personal statement
  • GRE scores (not always required)
  • Faculty interview

What Should I Look for in an MSN to DNP Degree?

It’s generally agreed that the best MSN to DNP programs hold accreditation through either the Accreditation Commission for Nursing Education (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).  This is no different from the accreditation that the best MSN programs hold.

Once you’ve found an accredited post-master’s DNP that aligns well with your current qualifications and future professional goals, you’ll want to ensure the program comes with everything you need to succeed. Some points to consider include:

  • University/program reputation
  • Campus and clinical resources
  • Faculty of prominent scholars and clinicians
  • Flexible format (e.g., part-time, hybrid, or online study options)
  • Partnerships with local hospitals for clinical placement; online programs may have partnerships with healthcare providers throughout a region or even nationwide
  • Strong student outcomes and other program statistics (e.g., impressive employment stats, low attrition rate, low student-to-faculty ratio)