Choosing the right FNP degree—and then succeeding in school

For more information about Bradley University’s Online Nursing Degrees or to sign up for information about the MSN-FNP or DNP-FNP programs, please click here.

Catherine Spader, RN

Are you a nurse who loves clinical work but is getting the itch to do more? Perhaps you’ve considered becoming a family nurse practitioner (FNP). Two options to reach your goal include earning a master of science in nursing—family nurse practitioner (MSN-FNP) or a doctor of nursing practice—family nurse practitioner (DNP-FNP) degree.

So, what’s the difference between the two degrees, and how can you decide which is best for you? Once you pick a program, how can you be successful? Here are some suggestions on how to make the best choice and advance your career at the same time.

Assess your goals

Before investing time and money in an FNP program, it’s important to assess your long-term goals. Ask yourself, “Do I love clinical practice and want to remain there, or does climbing the ladder in a healthcare organization or system appeal more to me?” In other words, do you prefer a hands-on approach to patient care and leadership or leading through executive administration?

As you think about it, consider the similarities in the MSN-FNP and the DNP-FNP degrees. For example, here’s what’s included in both degrees offered by Bradley University in Peoria, IL:

  • Advanced classes in pathophysiology, pharmacology, and health assessment prepare you to practice clinically, including
    • diagnosing and managing health care for individuals of all genders and families throughout the lifespan
    • performing health histories, physical exams, and assessments
    • prescribing medications
    • promoting patient health
    • providing patient education.
  • The same number of clinical hours. This includes 750 clinical practice hours spread over five different population-specific courses.
  • Qualification to sit for either of the FNP national certification exams given by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
  • The ability to practice in many clinical settings, including
    • acute and long-term care facilities
    • urgent care clinics
    • primary care offices.

“As an FNP, you are considered a generalist, and therefore you have the ability to work with any age group or gender,” says Rachel Borton, PhD(c), RN, FNP-BC, director of the family nurse practitioner online program and assistant professor of nursing at Bradley University. “The ideal candidate for either program is someone who wants to provide primary care for patients across the life span and also take the time and energy required to complete their degree.”

So, what’s the difference?

Although both the MSN-FNP and the DNP-FNP degrees can prepare you to work clinically, the doctoral track provides additional advanced knowledge that give nurses an edge in the leadership executive job market.

DNP-FNP students learn how to implement system-wide change using evidence-based practice. Upon graduation, they are ready to step into academic, policy-making, or high-level health care system positions.

For example, DNP-FNP courses at Bradley University cover

  • data management systems
  • decision-making
  • economic markets
  • health care policy
  • health promotion
  • management in healthcare organizations
  • performance measurement
  • planning

“The MSN-FNP is an entry level nurse practitioner who is qualified to care for patients across the life span, as well as teach at the undergraduate and master’s level,” Borton says. “The depth of the courses at the doctoral level is deeper than at the master’s level, with additional education in business, leadership, and systems management. The DNP-FNP is also qualified to teach at the doctoral level.”

Another difference between the MSN-FNP and the DNP-FNP is the time needed to complete the degrees. MSN programs take about 3-3.6 years to complete, and doctorate programs take about 4 years.

What are the requirements for entry into each program?

Bradley University’s MSN-FNP degree requires a minimum of an associate degree in nursing or a diploma, and an unencumbered RN license. The DNP-FNP requires at least a bachelor of science in nursing and an unencumbered RN license.

Getting it done online

Online options for earning your MSN-FNP or DNP-FNP degree offer much needed flexibility for students, especially those who are working and/or have families.

“You aren’t forced to go to class and attend class at a certain time every day, so you have the whole week to figure out when to fit in your classwork,” Borton says.

Flexibility, however, does not make the work any easier.

“Students are often surprised at the rigor of our program,” Borton says. “Sometimes they think that if it’s online, it’s going to be easy, and they are surprised when they find out it’s not. There are due dates for assignments, and you have to be ready to do the work.”

Digital clinical experiences

Online FNP students are often a little nervous about how they’re going to learn physical assessment online, according to Borton, but it can be done. For Bradley’s advanced health assessment class, for instance, students use Shadow Health for Digital Clinical Experiences. The program allows students to practice and perfect communication and assessments with online digital patients. They also perform tests and use instruments to gather and record patient data. Then, they compare their work to an example model, engage in a debriefing, and receive feedback.

“I compare it to the 3D games that kids play,” Borton says. “The patients look lifelike, and students can listen to heart sounds, for example. Students can also hover over the patient’s eyeball on the computer, and it will show you the background of a real human eye. It can take years of real practice to identify what you’re looking at, but you can see it right away with this digital experience.”

The Bradley University program also uses many interactive multimedia case studies. These include discussions to help with the learning process and simulation projects and case studies within each of the courses.

Real-life clinical experiences

Not everything you do in an online FNP program involves your computer. Students must participate in clinicals or practicums and work with live patients and preceptors. One of the challenges of this is finding student preceptors, especially in rural areas of the country, according to Borton. Preceptors must be licensed in the state they are precepting in. They also must have liability insurance and national certification.

To increase your chances of finding good preceptors, start your search early—before you need them. Keep your options open and consider anyone who might be of assistance. Even someone who may not be a qualified preceptor for you may have contacts who are ideal and willing to help out an FNP student.

“Reach out ahead of time and step out of your comfort zone,” says Borton. “You will have to approach people you don’t know and ask them, ‘Would you consider taking on a student?’”

In addition, students need to understand and communicate clearly what is expected from a preceptor. “It really helps to have a plan when you approach them,” says Borton.

Do work and study mix?

For many students, working while they continue their education is a necessity, but it can be a long, tough road of juggling work with study and family. Despite the challenges, many students complete their degree while working.

“If I had to guess, I would say that 80% of students in the program are working,” Borton says.

Students should consider all the demands they have to balance when going back to school. How many hours they can work and how many classes they can handle varies between individuals. What works for one student many not be right for another student.

If you have to work, Borton advises you to be flexible in how you reach your goal. “I always encourage students to start and see how the first semester goes,” she says. “If you have to work, you may not be able to carry a full load of classes or you may have to work prn.”

Tips to success when getting your online degree

Get tech savvy. Be sure you are comfortable using a computer before you start a program. Take a class or get tutoring if necessary to get up to speed. Also, ensure you have a computer that meets the online program’s IT requirements.

Set up electronic storage. Protect your work by putting an electronic backup system in place. Options might include a campus server or a cloud-based service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive.

Stay on top of the work. With online courses, much of your contact with professors will be via email, and communication is critical when you need support or have questions. Because of this, procrastinating can quickly snowball into a major problem with finishing a project on time.

Give yourself extra time with group projects. Online group projects can be challenging when you have to communicate and coordinate with people who may live across the country. Be sure to build in extra time.

Consider getting clinical experience before you start. It’s an advantage to be a seasoned nurse before you start an FNP program because classes can build off of the knowledge you have. Inexperienced nurses can be successful, but they have a steeper learning curve.


“Will more experience help you in the program? Sure,” Borton says. “Do we have students in our program fresh out of school with their bachelor’s degree? Absolutely. I think it depends on you as the individual and whether you want to start right away, but I’m not going to downplay that clinical experience helps students be stronger by having more experiences to draw from.”

For more information about Bradley University’s Online Nursing Degrees or to sign up for information about the MSN-FNP or DNP-FNP programs, please click here.


Catherine Spader, RN is a medical and healthcare writer based in Littleton, CO.