Registered nurses (RNs) and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have already earned a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) have several options when it comes to pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree online. The post-master’s DNP programs listed on this page are for RNs or APRNs interested in earning their DNP without adding an advanced practice nursing specialty. Commonly referred to as traditional MSN to DNP programs, these programs can typically be classified into three categories:
- MSN to DNP General/Leadership: These programs are for nurses who want to focus their doctoral studies on indirect care and systems-level leadership. Some paths require APRN certification for admission, while others do not.
- MSN to DNP Advanced Clinical Practice: These programs are designed for current APRNs who want to pursue their DNP in direct patient care, but do not want to earn certification in a second APRN specialty.
- MSN to DNP Same Specialty: These programs are not as common as the two listed above, and require students to possess an MSN and national certification in the same APRN specialty as the DNP program.
It is important to note that all three of the above DNP degree paths do not prepare students for APRN licensure. To learn more about pursuing an MSN to DNP General/Leadership, Advanced Clinical Practice, or Same Specialty program online, check out the information below.
Admissions Criteria for Traditional MSN to DNP Programs
As noted above, the admission requirements for traditional MSN to DNP programs vary according to their particular curricular focus. Within the General/Leadership concentration, there are also two different types of online programs: those that require APRN certification, and those that do not. Programs that do not require APRN certification are typically open to any licensed RN who has earned an MSN. This could mean either an MSN in an advanced practice specialty, or a master’s degree in an area such as nursing administration, nursing informatics, nursing education, public health nursing, or clinical nurse leader. Some schools may even consider nurses who possess a BSN and a master’s degree in a non-nursing field, such as a Master’s of Business Administration or Master’s of Public Health. For MSN to DNP General/Leadership programs that require APRN certification, applicants must hold an MSN in an advanced practice role, such as family nurse practitioner, adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, certified nurse midwife, clinical nurse specialist, neonatal nurse practitioner, pediatric nurse practitioner or psychiatric-mental health nursing, and be nationally certified in that specialty.
MSN to DNP Advanced Clinical Practice programs almost always require current APRN certification for admission. This means applicants must be nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives, or certified registered nurse anesthetists who earned their MSN in an advanced practice specialty from a nationally accredited program. The same is true for MSN to DNP Same Specialty programs; however, in these particular cases, students are required to possess an MSN in the same specialty as the DNP being pursued. Same Specialty programs can be difficult to identify, as there are no specific naming conventions for these degree paths, and they might appear to be New or Second Specialty programs at first glance (which are for nurses looking to earn APRN certification alongside their DNP). In most cases, if an MSN to DNP program explicitly includes an APRN specialty in its title (for example, MSN to DNP Family Nurse Practitioner), there is a high percentage chance that it requires an MSN and certification in that same specialty for admission. Students should make sure to carefully review the admission requirements for any MSN to DNP program with a specialization in its name in order to discern if it is a Same Specialty or New/Second Specialty program.
Traditional MSN to DNP Programs: Full-Time vs. Part-Time
There are full- and part-time options available for students interested in pursuing a traditional post-master’s DNP program online, and while many schools offer both, some only offer one or the other. Students may want to take that into consideration when looking for a program that fits their scheduling needs. Typically, an MSN to DNP program will require one to two years of full-time study to complete. Post-master’s students pursuing their DNP on a part-time basis can generally finish in around two to three years of study. While full-time programs give students the chance to earn their DNP in fewer years, they require a larger time commitment, as students are typically required to take more classes per term compared to those enrolled part time. With that in mind, nurses who intend to maintain full-time employment while pursuing the degree, as well as those with significant family obligations, should consider enrolling in a part-time program to allow for greater flexibility. Most schools advise against pursuing a full-time MSN to DNP program while also working full time.
Online MSN to DNP Curriculum Details
Most online MSN to DNP programs require the completion of approximately 35 to 45 course credits. Students pursuing a General/Leadership track can expect to focus slightly more on issues pertaining to health care at a systems-level, such as administration, policy, and health informatics. In comparison, Advanced Clinical Practice programs tend to emphasize delivery of direct patient care, focusing more on clinical theories and skills. Despite this difference, the curricula in these two types of programs tend to have significant overlap, and generally only differ by one or two courses.
For example, The Ohio State University offers both a Nurse Executive and a Clinical Expert MSN to DNP track, which have entirely the same curriculum besides two courses. The Nurse Executive track includes courses in “Nurse Executive Leadership” and “Organizational Culture,” while students in the Clinical Expert track take “Health Promotion in the Age of Personalized Health and Health Care” in addition to an elective. MSN to DNP Same Specialty programs also include much of the same coursework, except they typically have one or two courses focused on their particular APRN specialization.
All DNP programs, no matter their focus, contain coursework designed to prepare graduates in eight core competencies outlined by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in the Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice. These include fundamentals such as organizational and systems leadership, analytical methods for evidence-based practice, health care policy, interprofessional collaboration, and clinical prevention and population health. The depth at which programs address each of these topics will, however, vary slightly based on degree concentration.
Along with the requisite coursework and clinical practice hours, MSN to DNP students must complete a final DNP capstone project in order to earn their doctorate. This original work, developed over several semesters, is meant to showcase their understanding of the theories and practices covered in the DNP curriculum, and represents the culmination of their doctoral studies. Students begin by identifying a problem currently affecting nursing practice on a patient care or leadership level, then pull from evidence-based research and their own clinical experience to come up with a thesis that addresses the issue. This could take the form of a pilot study, practice change initiative, quality improvement project, program evaluation, evaluation of a new practice model, or other scholarly endeavor. Once completed, the DNP Project typically must be presented to a panel for evaluation, which may require online students to travel to campus. However, some schools allow students to conduct these oral presentations over phone or by video conference.
Traditional Online MSN to DNP Programs: Clinical Placements and Practicum Hours
While online MSN to DNP students can expect to complete coursework, view lectures, and participate in classroom discussions over the web through synchronous or asynchronous instruction, they are still required to fulfill clinical practice hours at a brick-and-mortar health care facility. A minimum of 1,000 post-baccalaureate supervised clinical hours are needed to earn the DNP, as mandated by the AACN. Typically, students are able to transfer up to 500 of their MSN-level hours towards this total, and must complete the additional 500 or more hours as part of their MSN to DNP program. The number of required DNP-level hours will vary by school and program. It is important that students examine all requirements regarding clinical practice hours before enrolling in any online post-master’s DNP program, both to determine the total needed for graduation, and if the school allows clinical placements to occur in their state or area.
Online MSN to DNP students generally complete their clinical hours at a local hospital or clinic under the supervision of a preceptor. In some cases, schools will help match students with approved placement sites and preceptors in their area; however, others require students to find these on their own. . Depending on the program, students may be able to fulfill certain clinical hours at their current workplace, although restrictions typically apply in this situation.
Often, traditional MSN to DNP programs also require online students to visit campus one or more times during their studies, to participate in orientation events or clinical immersions that may take place over several days. The number and length of these mandatory on-campus residencies varies by program. In order to help students better understand the necessary travel requirements before enrolling, OnlineFNPPrograms.com defines an online program as one that entails three or fewer campus visits per year.
Traditional MSN to DNP Programs: Sample Courses
Unlike MSN to DNP with a New or Second Specialty APRN programs, which include master’s-level specialization courses meant to prepare students for APRN certification, traditional MSN to DNP programs only contain DNP-level coursework. As explained earlier, the core DNP curriculum is comprised of courses intended to train students in the AACN’s eight DNP Essentials. According to the AACN, all DNP graduates, no matter their concentration, must be trained for a variety of advanced practice nursing roles. This means students in General/Leadership, Advance Clinical Practice, and Same Specialty MSN to DNP tracks often complete very similar curricula.
While exact course titles will vary by school, here are some examples of topics traditional MSN to DNP students can expect to encounter as part of their program:
- Clinical Leadership in Complex Systems: In this course, students look at how to best lead teams of medical professionals and implement patient care in a variety of health care settings. Strategies for problem-solving at a systems-level, current and emerging theories and methods for effective leadership, interdisciplinary collaboration, and health care economics are all typically covered.
- Health Informatics: This course examines the different data management and information systems utilized by health care providers today. Students learn about electronic health records and the databases that hold them, as well as data analytics tools and the security and privacy concerns that come with storing sensitive patient information.
- Health Care Policy and Advocacy: This course covers laws and regulations in the U.S. health care system, and how these policies are created. Students explore the political, social, ethical, and economic factors influencing how medical professionals care for patients, as well as strategies for affecting policy change at the local, state, national, and international levels.