Pick The Right Graduate Degree In Nursing


By Ilana Kowarski

Graduate education is an investment of time as much as money. For nurses looking to move up in the profession, whether to earn a master's degree, or MSN, rather than a Doctorate of Nursing Practice, is a decision about both.

Nurses who want to become leaders in the profession should opt for a DNP if they can afford it, experts say. A DNP program lasts between three to four years and takes at least one year longer to complete than an MSN program, but experts say extra time spent in grad school for a DNP is worthwhile.

A DNP offers graduate nursing students deep-dive lessons on how the health system works, experts say, and these lessons give DNP graduates the tools and credentials necessary for leadership in the health sector.

"There is an advantage to having a doctoral degree whether you're teaching or in practice," says Barbara Ihrke, vice president of academic affairs for the School of Nursing at Indiana Wesleyan University. "There's a different level of respect that's provided when you have your doctorate."

A DNP offers more health policy training and scientific background compared with an MSN, experts say. The credential has been described as the "preferred pathway for those seeking preparation at the highest level of nursing practice."

Here are four factors experts say prospective students should consider:

1. An MSN offers flexibility. For students who want flexibility in how and when they attend graduate school, an MSN leaves the option open to later pursue a post-master's DNP. Getting a doctorate that way can take only a year or two.

Ruth Eby, associate dean of non-residential nursing programs at Indiana Wesleyan, says that each prospective nursing graduate school student needs to weigh his or her own time availability and personal obligations before deciding whether to enroll in a DNP program, since it requires significant commitment.

The long-term goal for students with an interest in advanced-practice nursing should be a DNP, Eby says, even if they opt to get an MSN first.

2. A DNP puts nurses on the fast track for career advancement. Robert Hunt, a DNP student at Indiana Wesleyan with an MSN from Graceland University and more than 15 years of experience as a nurse practitioner, took the plunge back into graduate school as a mid-career nurse.

Hunt, a Colorado-based clinical team manager who leads a team of 29 nurse-practitioners in a wellness program for an insurance company, says that despite his extensive experience as a nurse manager, a DNP was vital to accelerate his career.

"The MSN education is mostly clinically based with little preparation in health policy, quality improvement, evidence-based practice and outcome evaluation," Hunt said in an email.

If a nurse wants to be treated as an equal on a medical team that includes those with doctoral degrees, Hunt said, it is more likely if he or she has a DNP.

3. The DNP may be an unrealistic option for some late-career students and career switchers. Experts say an MSN may be a better choice for career-switchers who do not have the nursing background necessary for admission to DNP programs, or students late in their careers who would not reap the long-term financial rewards of a DNP.

For Vikram Patel, a 2016 graduate of the University of Illinois—Chicago College of Nursing, a DNP was "literally not an option," he said in email.

Patel chose a graduate-entry MSN program designed for students without a bachelor's degree in nursing, commonly known as BSN, or a registered nurse certification, commonly known as an RN.

"Pursuing a DNP is generally only an option for someone who already has a background in nursing (usually a bachelor's or master's), neither of which I had," Patel said.

4. A DNP offers a path to leadership positions. Leslie Ledbetter, a 2013 graduate of the DNP program at Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation, said in an email that she chose a DNP because she wanted to tackle nurse leadership roles, including health policy positions and clinical jobs that involve applying evidence-based medical research.

"At the time I decided to go to graduate school, the Affordable Care Act was coming into play in our country," said Ledbetter, a nurse practitioner for thoracic surgery at Banner University Medical Center and an adjunct professor at ASU. "I knew that major changes were on the way for both practitioners and patients and in order to maneuver through these hurdles I needed as much education as possible."


Articles in this issue:


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    Stan Kenyon
    Robyn Bowman
    Kimberly McNabb
    Lisa Gordon
    Stephanie Robinson

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    Stan Kenyon
    Liz Di Bernardo
    Cris Lobato
    Elisa Howard
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