Question: How Long Does it Take to Complete an MSN-to-DNP Program?

Answer: Registered Nurses (RNs) who enroll full-time in an MSN-to-DNP program can earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in two years or less, depending on the structure of the program, the number of practicum hours required, and the area of specialization. Graduates from MSN programs who enroll part-time in a DNP program generally take three or more years to earn their degree, depending on the number of courses they take per semester. Full-time enrollment generally equates to three or four courses per semester for five semesters. Students who enroll part-time can reduce their course load to one or two courses per semester, which generally adds at least two semesters to the completion time.

MSN-to-DNP Programs

MSN-to-DNP programs are designed to provide RNs who hold a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree with advanced graduate training in the practice of nursing and a terminal degree in nursing. While a DNP degree generally requires 1000 hours of practicum experience, most MSN-to-DNP programs will credit students with up to 500 clinical training hours earned in an MSN program. As a result, students entering a typical MSN-to-DNP program must complete the program’s coursework (usually 12 to 15 courses), 500 practicum hours, and, in some cases, a final scholarly project. This can be accomplished in five traditional semesters, or just under two years of full-time, year-round enrollment. For students who opt for part-time enrollment, it generally takes three years or more to earn a DNP.

DNP Specializations

There are three basic types of MSN-to-DNP programs. Non-APRN programs generally include training in nursing administration and executive leadership or nursing education. Advanced clinical practice DNP programs are designed for APRNs who already have training in a direct practice specialization. And there are DNP programs for MSN graduates who want training in a new APRN specialization, such Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) or other nurse practitioner (NP) specializations, Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). DNP programs that provide post-MSN training in a new APRN specialization generally take longer (at least one or two additional years) to complete compared to MSN-to-DNP programs that only include the DNP curriculum.

Factors That Determine the Time to Completion for an MSN-to-DNP Program

The main determinant of MSN-to-DNP program length is the number of courses a student takes per semester. The basic DNP curriculum includes 13 didactic courses and two practicums totaling a 500 hours of supervised clinical experience. Students in a full-time program take three to five courses per semester, depending on when their practicum hours are scheduled. Students enrolled in a part-time program take two or three courses per semester. The table below provides an overview of time to completion for students enrolled in an MSN-to-DNP program that does not include training for a new APRN specialty:

EnrollmentCourses per SemesterSemestersTime to Completion
Full-Time (accelerated)4 or 5312 months
Full-Time (standard)3 or 4518 to 24 months
Part-Time1 or 2728 to 36 months

A secondary factor impacting completion time for an MSN-to-DNP program is whether or not the program offers classes year round. Most but not all MSN-to DNP programs are structured to include a summer semester in addition to fall and spring terms, which is what allows full-time students to graduate in less than two years. There are also programs that do not adhere to the traditional 15-week semester system, instead offering shorter, eight-week terms five times a year. This allows full-time students to graduate in a year by taking two or three courses per term, while part-time students can take just one course per term and still graduate in just over two years.

Another variable that can impact the time to completion for these programs is the number of graduate-level practicum hours a student can carry into the program from their MSN program. DNP programs typically require students to have 1000 hours of formally supervised, post-baccalaureate clinical hours in order to graduate, up to half of which can be applied from an MSN program. Students who enter a DNP program with fewer than 500 transferable practicum hours will have to complete those additional hours in order to earn their DNP degree.

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