Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) vs Nurse Practitioner (NP)

What is the difference between an NP and a DNP?

The main difference between a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Nurse Practitioner (NP) is that a DNP is a terminal degree in the field of nursing and an NP is a nursing occupation or career.

This can be confusing – there are a lot of acronyms in nursing! DNP programs exist to train licensed, experienced nurses (including NPs) for leadership and/or certain specialized advanced practice nursing (APRN) roles. This is to say that a DNP degree is a pathway for both experienced registered nurses (RNs) and NPs to advance their nursing careers; a DNP is not a career in and of itself.

To become an NP requires experience as an RN as well as a post-baccalaureate degree. While many RNs opt to pursue a Master’s of Science degree in Nursing (MSN) to become NPs, it is possible to enroll in some DNP programs with either a BSN or MSN.

DNP vs NP: At a Glance

OverviewNP with an MSN degreeNP with a DNP degree
Years of Education
note: certain specializations require additional coursework and/or clerical hours
BSN to MSN Path:
-2 years full-time
-3-4+ years part-time

RN/ADN to MSN Path:
-3-5 years full-time
-5+ years part-time
MSN to DNP Path:
-1-2 years full-time
-2-3+ years part-time

BSN to DNP Path:
-3-4 years full-time
-4-7+ years part-time
based on 2018 BLS data
Ranges from approximately $80,670-$182,750 depending upon specialty, work environment, experience, and education.
Ranges from approximately $80,670-$182,750 depending upon specialty, work environment, experience, and education. 

DNP may open the door to higher-level roles like Chief Nursing Officer.

-Acute care (ACNP)
-Adult care (ANP)
-Gerontology (A-GNP)
-Family care (FNP)
-Neonatal care (NNP)
-Pediatric care (PNP)
-Psychiatric and mental health care (PMHNP)
-Women’s Health (WHN)
Same as NP specializations plus other APRN specializaties including:
-Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
-Certified Nurse-Midwife

And leadership positions like:
-Chief Nursing Officer
-Nurse Administrator

What is an NP?

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are specialized professionals in the nursing field that deliver both primary and specialty healthcare to patients.This includes diagnostics, treatment, offering medical counsel, and (in some states) prescribing medication. Of particular note is the fact that NPs have the authority to carry out the majority of their medical functions without the approval of a physician.

Unlike RNs, NPs specialize in a particular discipline and must complete training and licensing requirements specific to their specialization.

NPs have expertise that is in high demand across the healthcare industry. It is common for NPs to find work in locations like:

  • hospitals
  • physicians’ offices
  • outpatient treatment facilities
  • clinics
  • schools

Nurse Practitioners fall under the category of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs). This title refers to the fact that to become an NP (or other type of APRN like a Nurse Anesthetist or Certified Nurse-Midwife), nurses must first earn a license as a Registered Nurse (RN). This requires either a diploma from a nursing program, an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree, an Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AAS) degree, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

To advance from an RN to an NP requires a post-baccalaureate degree. The most common choice is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), although DNP programs for BSN-holders are becoming more common.

What is a DNP?

The Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is a post-BSN medical practice degree that is one of two possible doctorate degrees in the nursing field. A DNP degree is a practicing degree – meaning it includes advanced training in specific nursing skills and disciplines for use in the field. The other, a Doctor of Nursing Philosophy degree (commonly referred to as a PhD in Nursing), is best suited for research and scholarly roles.

While a DNP degree is a doctoral-level degree, NPs with DNPs are not the same as physicians or other medical doctors (MDs). Instead, a DNP signifies a nurse has completed the highest degree of educational training in the nursing profession. Some NPs with DNP degrees move on to leadership roles in the healthcare field. Others remain in the field and use their qualifications to take on NP roles like those listed previously.

While these particular nursing specializations are also available to NPs with MSN degrees, a DNP degree may offer nurses a competitive edge when applying for these types of positions and negotiating their working conditions. A DNP is and will likely continue to be a strong pathway for nurses looking to advance to the highest levels of their profession.

DNP Salary vs NP Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics APRN Salary Reporting, Nurse Practitioners had a median annual salary of $107,030 in 2018. Wages were generally higher for NPs working in hospitals and outpatient care centers than those working in physicians’ offices and educational settings.

Since a DNP is a credential and not a dedicated career path, these statistics are based upon a mix of NPs with MSN degrees and DNP degrees. That said there are particular specializations that may be available to DNP-holders that may not available to NPs:

These figures illustrate an important point: a DNP does not guarantee a nurse higher pay. In some cases it is possible for a nurse with a DNP degree to work either in a specialization or setting for less pay than another NP with an MSN degree.

That said, nurses with a combination of a DNP degree and appropriate work experience would typically qualify for the higher end of the nursing pay scale than nurses without their doctorate. The difference between the highest- and lowest-paying positions can be significant. For reference, the Bureau of Labor Statistics APRN reporting shows the highest 10 percent of APRNs in 2018 earned annual salaries in excess of $182,750 while the lowest 10 percent earned less than half that amount.

Career Outlook for Nurses with DNP degrees vs. Nurses with MSN degrees

Overall, the Nurse Practitioner field is one of the fastest growing of all the healthcare professions. The NP occupation is expected to see a huge 36% increase from 2016 to 2026. This is due, in large part, to the growing demands for healthcare services and the willingness of states to allow NPs to carry out medical services (many of which were once reserved for MDs). As such, it is becoming increasingly common to see outpatient and urgent care facilities rely on NP staff to administer care to patients.

Since the majority of nurses with advanced degrees only possess a MSN, a DNP degree may be a great way for an RN or NP to advance their careers and stand out as a candidate. Furthermore, a DNP might be the key to unlocking lucrative and influential leadership positions in the nursing profession. A DNP degree can open the doors to positions like a chief nursing officer or a nurse administrator that would not be available to NPs with only an MSN degree.

Ultimately, the decision between becoming an NP versus an NP with a DNP degree is differentiated by a handful of factors:

Years of Education

A DNP requires more course and clinical hours than an MSN, which typically means more time spent in school.

Job Options

DNP-holders may qualify for several lucrative specializations that NPs with an MSN do not. Also, a DNP may an attractive credential when competing against MSN-holders for job opportunities.

Earning Potential

DNP may qualify for several higher paying specializations than NPs with MSNs qualify for. Additionally, DNP-holders can sometimes command higher salaries than MSN-holders in certain markets and specializations.