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Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree (DNP)


What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a terminal degree in nursing, the highest level of education available in the field. Though some schools will accept students with a bachelor’s degree, most require applicants to hold a master’s, as the doctoral degree builds on the MSN curricula. Most programs emphasize areas that support nursing leadership, such as systems management, quality improvement and data-driven decision making. It’s important to distinguish the DNP from other terminal degrees available to nursing professionals, including the PhD, Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc) and Nurse Doctorate (ND). The Doctor of Nursing Practice delivers practice-based training on the clinical applications of higher-level nursing knowledge; other terminal degrees focus on research skills, scholarly inquiry or high-level specialty skills.

The DNP can be completed in three to six years of study, depending on the program and your schedule. Doctor of Nursing Practice programs allowing BSNs usually take much longer. Course content is largely focused on statistics and data analysis, leadership skills, advanced clinical skills and nursing philosophy.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Nursing?

Career Available with a DNP

  • Registered Nurse
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Travel Nurse
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • School Nurse
  • Psychiatric Nurse
  • Nurse Educator
  • Flight Nurse
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse

Should I Get a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

Nurse leaders must be familiar with a constantly growing base of medical knowledge, and staying current on these evolving best practices requires mastery of the subject matter. Not only is patient care complex, but industry-wide developments in healthcare are shifting more responsibility onto nurses than in the past. Anticipated shortages in physician staff and nursing faculty further place challenging intellectual demands on nursing leadership. Expectations for nurse leaders are lofty; in this high-stakes environment, the Doctor of Nursing Practice program offers excellent preparation for advanced clinical practice.

As the U.S. healthcare system continues to evolve, DNPs in clinical practice are expected to take on larger roles in problem solving and advocacy, as well as liaison with other areas of medicine and other medical professionals. This heightened responsibility comes with higher pay rates and opportunities for advancement, especially as current DNP holders start to retire.

Advantages to a DNP

  • Marketability, while already superior for doctorally educated nursing professionals, will only improve as our healthcare system makes way for nurses to assume roles previously held by physicians.
  • Certified Nurse-Midwives, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Practitioners and Clinical Nurse Specialists (advanced practice nursing specialties) will eventually require the DNP, as opposed to the MSN, which is currently required for credentialing.
  • Intensive clinical practicum requirements in the DNP program provide ample opportunity for advanced training in a clinical environment.

Disadvantages to a DNP

  • Lengthy time to completion, particularly if the student continues working full time.
  • May lead to positions in academia, but tenure-track positions are generally reserved for PhDs.
  • Division within the nursing industry around the ethical nature, necessity and staying power of the DNP degree.

Need to Know: What is the Difference Between a DNP and a Nursing PhD?

In response to the IOM’s call for better-educated nurses, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) is shifting the focus of the DNP. Until now, advanced practice nurses have qualified for specialty credentialing with the MSN. However, a master’s degree credit load that prepares nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse-midwives and certified nurse anesthetists is comparable to that of doctoral degrees in other healthcare professions. Recognizing this, the AACN now recommends the DNP as a minimum standard of education for all advanced practice specialties.

To understand the difference between a Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing, consider the following:


  • The DNP emphasizes higher-level skills in the practice of nursing and DNPs strive to improve patient outcomes.
  • The curriculum in a DNP program centers on leadership in healthcare, evidence-based practice decisions and advanced specialty practice nursing. Coursework covers statistics, evidentiary diagnosis, management, budget planning and admin, healthcare policy and the transformation of our healthcare system.
  • Teaching is optional for DNP students; DNP candidates, however, must complete up to 1,000 clinical hours of practical experience requirements.
  • The DNP requires students to complete a capstone project. DNP programs are commonly found online, and can often be completed by working nurses.
  • A DNP is generally employed in leadership in large healthcare organizations or healthcare facilities. Other roles might be expert clinicians or academic positions that emphasize clinical practice and education.

Nursing PhD

  • The PhD in Nursing is focused on scholarly inquiry and research: PhDs seek to enlarge and further the body of nursing knowledge.
  • Nursing PhD students study illness trajectories and the care systems we use to treat them. PhD in Nursing coursework includes advanced theory, research methodology, data analysis, chronic illness issues and care systems.
  • Teaching is required for nursing PhDs, but there is no clinical component to the PhD degree.
  • PhD candidates are expected to write a senior thesis and PhD in Nursing programs are generally based in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms and are not geared toward working students.
  • The PhD in Nursing graduate most commonly moves into academic tenure-track positions or serves in management roles at one of various organizations conducting research.

In summary: scholarship is key in both degree programs, and they are equally academically rigorous, but the degrees provide different training and serve different purposes.

How Much Will I Make With a DNP?

Hourly: $47.38

Monthly: $7,580

Annually: $90,967

PayScale, accessed October 2015

How Do I Get a DNP?

  1. Decide Type of DNP Program
  2. Find DNP Programs
  3. Apply to DNP Programs
  4. Secure Funding for DNP Programs
  5. Attend DNP Classes
  6. Graduate with a DNP

What Kind of Classes Will I Take?

  • Advanced Evidence-Based Nursing Concepts
  • Human Capital Management
  • Health Care Finance
  • Quality Improvement and Patient Safety
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