Whether you are a registered nurse who has been in the game for a long time or you have just begun your nursing job, at some point, you will want to progress your career. When this happens, you will be faced with the decision of pursuing an advanced nursing degree. Unfortunately, with a huge array of degree programs to choose from, there is a lot of confusion over which is the best. Many registered nurses do not know the difference between an MSN, a DNP, and a PhD and find it difficult to choose the right one for their career. Advanced degrees cost time and money, so registered nurses should know the difference between the three main degree programs in order to make the right choice. Here is a guide to help registered nurses understand the difference between different advanced nursing degrees and how further education can advance your career.

What is an Advanced Nursing Degree?

An advanced nursing degree is a postgraduate qualification registered nurses (RNs) can achieve that will help deepen their knowledge in nursing. These degrees help prepare nursing professionals for higher-level roles within the field of nursing and can open up doors for RNs. Advanced nursing degree programs are ideal for registered nurses with either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN). They typically take between 15 months to seven years to complete. Once a registered nurse has completed an advanced nursing degree, they can begin their journey to achieve APRN status.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses

An advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) is a registered nurse who has been educated to an advanced standard and has received further training in nursing. Registered nurses who have completed postgraduate education, gained the relevant experience, and obtained the correct licensure and certification, can choose to practice in either a generalist or a specialist capacity. Depending on the route in which an APRN chooses for their career, they can provide care for different types of patients in a range of settings, they are able to make important healthcare decisions for their patients, and they have the ability to work independently without the supervision of a physician.

Why Should I Continue My Nursing Education?

The healthcare and medical industry is constantly changing, so nurses who want to stay relevant need to be open to lifelong learning. Continuously educating yourself in your field doesn’t have to involve further education. However, an advanced degree is an effective way to make sure you pick up the most relevant information and skills for the job. With never-ending developments and breakthroughs in healthcare, perpetual advances in technology, and ever-changing techniques in the field of nursing, enrolling onto a formal degree program can help you stay up to date with the latest research, technology, and clinical practice techniques. Not to mention, obtaining a qualification is a tangible way to show employers where you are at in terms of education and training. An advanced nursing degree can help you achieve that promotion in work, it will make you a better nurse, and you will be able to go for a variety of professions within the field of nursing.

Different Types of Advanced Nursing Degrees

There are three main advanced-level degree types registered nurses can choose from. These include a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, and a PhD in Nursing. Choosing a degree program will entirely depend on where you want to take your career in the future. Each advanced degree has a different focus. An MSN places focus on medical skills while a DNP focuses on leadership, management, and statistical analysis. Registered nurses with a desire to work in academia or research may prefer to enroll in a PhD program. Here is more information about the three advanced nursing degrees.


A master’s degree in nursing is typically the next educational step for a nursing professional with an ADN or a BSN. It helps prepare nurses for clinical, educational, and administration roles. MSN coursework revolves around the foundations of advanced nursing and touches on the fields of medical, behavioral, and social sciences. With an advanced nursing curriculum and further study into topics revolving around specialist subjects, like healthcare policy, MSN students can obtain unconventional positions in nursing like a nurse consultant or a nurse educator.

Become a Nurse Practitioner

MSN graduates can also go on to practice in specific fields. There are many MSN programs that enable nurses to choose from different types of nurse practitioner specialties, such as family health, psychiatric and mental health, and neonatal. For example, Wilkes University provides an RN to MSN degree program for RNs who want to become nurse practitioners. This program is taught online, and it focuses on advanced clinical skills and evidence-based practice, which gives RNs the ability to provide better care for their patients. It offers three concentrations; adult-gerontology primary care, family, and psychiatric and mental health.


A DNP is a doctoral degree that prepares students for executive nursing careers and clinical and research positions too. Although there are some degree programs that enable RNs to earn their DNP without a BSN or an MSN, earning an MSN beforehand is common. As with an MSN, DNP students can specialize their practice further. They can use a DNP qualification to take their nursing career in another direction. Within a DNP program, students should expect evidence-based practice and data research, and they are often required to take on a major research project within a specific area of study. DNP graduates will gain a deeper understanding of healthcare systems, the way they affect the modern world, and advancements in the nursing field.

Leadership and Management Positions

Many DNP programs provide nurses with the knowledge and skills to help them lead nursing teams with confidence. A DNP helps students develop efficient management skills that will enable them to make hard decisions. Ultimately, DNP students will be prepared to take up leadership and management positions in nursing. For instance, DNP graduates can progress to become chief nursing officers (CNO) of a healthcare facility or a hospital. Duties for this non-clinical administrative role include managing, training, and developing nursing teams, liaising with heads of departments, purchasing equipment, and budgeting.


As with a DNP, a PhD is also a doctoral nursing degree. However, a PhD focuses on scholarly research and academia rather than clinical practice. It is the degree that takes the longest to obtain, with some programs taking around seven years. Registered nurses who choose this nursing degree usually branch out in careers within research laboratories and educational institutions.

Which Degree is Right For Me?

Registered nurses who want to elevate their nursing knowledge yet remain in a patient-facing care role in a clinical setting will benefit from getting an MSN or a DNP. However, nurses can also use both of these degrees if they wish to take on a role away from the traditional patient-facing setting. For example, with an MSN or a DNP, an RN can apply for leadership roles within a clinical setting, such as a nursing administrator. With relevant experience and a DNP, RNs can also apply for critical leadership professions, like a nursing department director or a director of patient care services. RNs who want to pursue a career in research or education should look into getting a PhD in Nursing. You can become a nurse researcher or a nurse educator with a PhD. An MSN usually takes the least amount of time to complete, while a PhD often takes the longest time to obtain.

Earn More With an Advanced Degree

Although the amount of money you can expect to earn varies greatly depending on the job role you eventually fulfill, an advanced degree can help you earn more in general. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an advanced practice registered nurse with at least an MSN can expect to earn an average salary of $117,670 per year, while a registered nurse can expect a lesser average salary of $75,330. In addition, the 2019 Salary and Compensation Study for Nurse Leaders by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership shows that chief nursing executives with doctoral degrees can earn around $300,000 per year.

Positive Employment Outlook

Not only can nurses with an advanced degree take advantage of a higher wage, but they also have a positive employment outlook. The job growth rate for advanced nurses from 2019 to 2029 is 45 percent, which is far higher than the national average across the United States. Furthermore, the U.S News and World Report show that the role of a nurse practitioner ranks as the second best job in healthcare and the third best job overall job.

Growing Demand For Advanced Practice Nurses

Nurses play an important role in the healthcare and medical industry, with research showing that the correct number of nurses in a work setting can make a significant difference to patient care. When the ratio is off, mortality rates, patient safety, and patient outcomes are negatively affected. In the United States, supply and demand projections for the nursing workforce reveal a severe shortage of nurses. Studies suggest that by 2030 over one million registered nurses will be required in order to meet demands.

Projected Shortage of Physicians

In addition to a projected shortage for nurses, according to Statista, there will also be a projected deficit of 121,300 physicians by 2030 in the United States. With an aging U.S population, more people are seeking primary and preventative healthcare services. To alleviate the issue the shortage creates, advanced practice nurses are required to provide care. In turn, they help to make healthcare more accessible for more people. Therefore, certified nurse practitioners who can provide comprehensive care are in high demand. Not only can some advanced practice nurses provide similar care to patients as physicians, but they can also offer counseling and promote good healthcare. A nurse with advanced training can provide care that will improve the overall wellbeing and satisfaction of their patients. This means that patients can benefit more from the holistic approach of an advanced practice nurse too.

Job Autonomy

A nurse practitioner can autonomously provide primary and preventative patient care with an advanced degree, specialist training, and the right certificate and license. In some states, nurse practitioners can work independently. They can practice without the supervision of a doctor, which means they can make important healthcare decisions for their patients. Nurse practitioners have the career freedom to practice in independent clinics, and they are often the top health provider choice for millions of U.S citizens. When able to provide full practice, nurse practitioners can manage, diagnose and treat patients, provide healthcare support, and offer advice that can help prevent illnesses and disease.

Stay Competitive

According to research conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Nurses (AACN), approximately 64.2 percent of registered nurses have achieved a BSN, an MSN degree, a DNP degree, or a PhD. Although the qualification you choose to obtain will depend on your career path, trusted institutions, such as the AACN, have endorsed the requirement of a DNP over an MSN. There are a plethora of reasons to go further with your nursing education. For many nurses, staying competitive and adding another qualification to their resume is a strong benefit.

High Proficiency to Deliver Better Care

Registered nurses make a significant impact in the healthcare and medical system, and they play an integral part in patient care. RNs who are happy in their job role and simply want to do a great job can also benefit from getting an advanced nursing degree. An advanced degree will deepen your fundamental nursing understanding and enable you to add more skills and techniques to your repertoire. Picking up new knowledge can also keep you interested and motivated in your job, which can increase your productivity at work. Ultimately, gaining an advanced nursing degree can boost your proficiency as a nurse, which will allow you to provide better patient care and improve patient outcomes.