For nurses who want to reach the highest levels of study, earning your Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) may be the degree to help you utilize your background in clinical practice and advance your impact on health care.
From 2007 to 2019, the number of DNP programs increased by 800%. That means if you’re a prospective student eager to earn the terminal degree in nursing practice, you’ll have access to more academic options than ever before. Find out more about the DNP degree path and how it can help you prepare for a career in nursing.
What is a DNP degree?
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), “The DNP is designed for nurses seeking a terminal degree in nursing practice and offers an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs.”
Over the past two decades, the AACN and other industry organizations have pushed to elevate the level of education necessary for advanced nursing practice from the master’s to the doctoral level. This shift is primarily intended to raise the bar across the nursing profession, and it’s influenced by a variety of factors:
As the health care system and advancements in the medical field continue to develop and become more complex, nursing professionals will require the highest level of preparation.
There are shortages of qualified candidates to fill advanced nurse roles and health care leadership positions.
Many nurses with master’s degrees have already completed the equivalent number of course credits as doctoral students in related health care fields.
In general, the health care sector is trending toward doctoral degree options, with other professions — including psychology, pharmacology, and audiology — offering doctoral degrees (PsyD, PharmD, and AudD, respectively).
As such, a DNP program can give you the theoretical foundation, scientific knowledge, and practical skills you’ll need to ensure top-quality patient care.
Preparing for a competitive job market
Being aware of your academic options and career prospects can help you choose the right type of post-graduate nursing program.
What is the difference between a Ph.D. in nursing and a DNP?
A Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing are both doctoral degrees that can prepare you for an advanced and specialized career in nursing. However, there are some key differences to note.
A Ph.D. in Nursing emphasizes research and scholarly leadership. If you’re interested in becoming a nursing professor, researcher, or health care executive, a Ph.D. in nursing might be the right choice for you.
On the other hand, a DNP focuses more on clinical practice. It is generally considered the highest level of education you can achieve in nursing practice. This type of program may be the best option if you’re eager to become a health care leader who provides primary or specialized care, with an advanced practice certification. You’ll also be prepared to step up as a health care executive or faculty member with a DNP.
Both doctoral degrees can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. The Ph.D. track focuses on gathering external research to help advance the field, whereas the DNP track prepares nursing professionals to apply evidence-based practice in clinical and educational settings.
However, a portion of DNP candidates (13%) set out to become researchers. Additionally, some Ph.D. candidates (22%) aim to become clinicians. Given the overlap and opportunities across both types of programs, your choice of a doctoral nursing degree should be driven by your professional goals and interests.
Are DNP programs accredited?
Yes — unlike Ph.D. programs in nursing, DNP programs are accredited by professional nursing organizations such as:
Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
National League for Nursing Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA)
If you decide that a DNP degree is right for you, be sure to choose an accredited nursing program.
What are some of the top jobs for DNP graduates?
A DNP can prepare you for a variety of career paths, from clinical practice and teaching to health care leadership. Typical roles for DNP graduates include:
Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)
Health care executive
At the entry level, some of the top roles and salary averages for DNP-prepared nursing professionals include:
Postsecondary nursing instructor: $74,600
Clinical director: $82,000
Medical affairs director: $106,000
Advanced practice registered nurse: $115,800
Associate medical director: $141,000
Medical director: $142,000
Chief medical officer: $177,000
Although the average growth rate across all occupations is 5%, many nursing roles are seeing significantly faster expansion. The employment areas experiencing the highest growth rates between 2016 and 2026 are:
Health specialties teachers, postsecondary: 25.9%
Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary: 24.0%
Medical and health services managers: 20.5%
Building expertise and skills
A rigorous DNP degree program will allow you to hone your clinical skills and health care leadership abilities. You’ll graduate having significantly expanded the depth and breadth of your nursing knowledge.
During a DNP degree program, you’ll progress through theoretical and practical concepts of the nursing field. A few course topics may include:
Advanced health informatics
Primary care across the lifespan
Health care finance and economics
After earning a DNP, employers will expect you to possess a variety of soft skills, nursing-specific competencies, and administrative abilities. Here are some of the top skills you can develop while pursuing your DNP:
Specialized medical skills
In addition to general medical competencies like having clinical experience and practicing medicine, a handful of nursing skills and specializations are increasingly sought after by employers:
Critical care nursing
Plus, the demand for nursing professionals who are qualified to treat certain health conditions has created a need in the following specializations:
Spinal cord injuries
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Teaching and research skills
DNP-prepared nurses who have a passion for teaching can find rewarding careers in postsecondary education. If this career path interests you, focus on cultivating these in-demand skills:
Whether you find a career in health care leadership, academia, or clinical practice, much of your time will be spent working with other people. Here are some of the top interpersonal skills you’ll need to thrive in these environments:
Teamwork and collaboration
Patient care and follow-up
Leadership and administration skills
As a DNP graduate, you’ll be a health care leader in your field. Therefore, it’s important to develop a robust set of business and leadership skills, including:
As you search for DNP programs, keep in mind that some will admit Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree holders, while others will require that you already have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). In both cases, you will often be required to hold a current nursing license prior to enrollment.
To get the most out of your DNP program, choose a track that aligns with your current level of education. For instance, look for a BSN to DNP track if you’ve recently finished your undergraduate degree, or an MSN to DNP program track if you already hold a master’s degree.
In addition to these different academic tracks, you may be able to choose from a selection of DNP concentrations that can prepare you for a specific type of nursing career:
Family nurse practitioner
Pediatric nurse practitioner
Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner
Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner
Online vs. on-campus: What to expect
If you’re considering an online DNP program, it’s natural to wonder about the format and outcome of a digital experience. Here are some common questions to consider as you explore your options:
Yes, in many ways. Throughout an online DNP program, you’ll follow a similar curriculum with an equivalent number of course credits and clinical hours as you would in a campus-based program. The main difference is the method through which course content will be delivered. Instead of attending classes in person, you’ll conduct much of your coursework through an online portal.
While completing an online DNP program, you’ll get to experience synchronous and asynchronous delivery of course content, through video lectures, assignments, and exams.
When it comes time to complete clinicals, labs, didactics, and practicum courses, you will typically be able to select a location in your area if you’re not required to complete these experiences on campus. If you’re completing these remotely, you will work under the supervision of a clinical preceptor. Online program administrators will be able to help you coordinate this and ensure that your clinical experiences meet all degree requirements.
Yes. Some programs don’t have any campus residency requirements and allow you to complete your DNP on a 100% remote, online basis, but others may offer a blend of online and on-campus experiences. For example, you might complete coursework online and participate in an on-campus clinical experience as part of a hybrid DNP program. Other hybrid programs may start out by bringing members of a new cohort together for a few introductory, in-person courses.
No, your diploma won’t feature the word “online.” As with traditional campus-based degree programs, your online DNP diploma will list the DNP degree name as well as other information like your graduation date and school name.
The duration of your DNP will depend on the type of program you’re enrolled in, your level of educational attainment upon enrollment, and whether you choose to study full time or part time.
If you have a master’s degree and you’re a full-time DNP student, you can complete your DNP degree in about two to three years. However, some DNP programs, especially those that allow you to enroll with just a bachelor’s degree, are designed to take four years.
Choosing a flexible part-time program means taking longer to earn your DNP. However, it will allow you to continue working full time in a nursing job or keep up with other professional and personal obligations while you study.
Professional nursing associations
Joining a professional nursing association can help you connect with other professionals, complete continuing education requirements, and keep you updated on developments in the field. Here are just a few of the many nursing organizations to explore:
The nursing field will continue to evolve — meaning nursing professionals will need to grow with it. Earning the terminal degree in clinical practice can help you build a stable career through which you’ll be able to deliver the highest level of patient care.
As the world’s learning company, we proudly partner with universities to offer a suite of online graduate degrees in nursing. Whatever your career goals are, we have a path for you.