Online DNP Programs

An online doctorate in nursing is perfect for nursing professionals who want to advance their career. In fact, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) identifies the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) as the degree of choice for nurse educators and advanced practice nursing professionals. The organization designated the DNP as the terminal degree for nurses who plan to fill the industry’s enormous gap in highly qualified nurse educators. Additionally, the AACN urges advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to earn their credentials with a DNP in lieu of the master’s degree, which was formerly the industry standard.

Graduates from online DNP programs can look forward to a solid return on their investment. The well-established nursing shortages is not due to a lack of interested students, but from a lack of educators to teach them. According to a 2016 ACCN report, nearly 65,000 nursing students were turned away due to inadequate resources. Qualified nurse educators can expect career opportunities to steadily increase until the industry stabilizes.

For clinical nursing professionals, APRN credentials open the doors to salary increases and an upward career trajectory. While today’s APRN can reach certification with either a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice program, the AACN plans to shift all APRN curricula into DNP programs in the near future. Aspiring advanced practice nurses who choose online DNP programs are not only ahead of the curve, but are also well qualified for executive positions that lead to higher salaries. According to Payscale, DNP graduates earn an average of $120,000 per year when employed by large organizations like hospitals, versus $96,000 per year as an independent practitioner. Applicants who already hold APRN credentials can use the doctor of nursing practice degree to move into management and administration roles.

Questions to Ask Before Applying to an Online DNP Program

No nursing professional should begin a DNP online program without carefully considering the pros and cons. An online doctorate of nursing practice program demands a significant amount of time and resources and can present challenges to students who are not prepared to succeed in a distance learning environment.

Is an Online DNP the Right Choice for Me?

As an academic discipline, nursing lends itself well to online study. But will an online DNP program meet your needs? Below, we address some of the questions you should ask yourself before applying to a DNP online program.

  • Do you want to continue working while you attend school? Distance learning offers flexibility that a campus-based doctorate in nursing program cannot. Many nursing professionals opt for DNP programs online because they can schedule study time around their regular work schedules.
  • Are you self-disciplined? Many distance learners claim that time management is the most important skill for success in this format. DNP online degree candidates must stay on track as they work through advanced nursing coursework. If you work well on your own, then a DNP online program may be a perfect fit.
  • Do you enjoy communicating through writing? All contact between your professor and your classmates takes place in a digital format, and doctorate in nursing candidates must be able to express themselves well in writing. Additionally, DNP online students must frequently complete written assignments.
  • Do you plan on teaching? Graduates of DNP online programs can easily fill faculty vacancies in BSN programs. As more educators with a nursing doctorate staff these programs, universities will continue to offer higher pay and more opportunities for professional advancement for these professionals.
  • Do you aspire to obtain a leadership role in a clinical environment? In an official position statement, the American Nurses Association stated that the DNP not only delivers the highest level of clinical training available, but also prepares graduates for executive roles in leadership, administration, and health policy development.
  • Would you like to increase your lifetime earning capability? As the table below demonstrates, earning a doctor of nursing practice degree can lead to higher earnings over the course of your career.

Are There Prerequisites for Online DNP Programs?

Doctorate in nursing programs are structured around a student’s prior educational status. This status, along with your career goals, should inform your search among the many available programs. Fortunately, an online DNP program exists for any nurse who holds at least a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) degree. Registered nurses who have two-year degrees must earn a BSN before moving on to a DNP program online.

Some schools offer BSN to DNP programs online that allow students to bypass the master’s degree, instead completing APRN credentials while earning a doctorate in nursing. APRNs who have already earned their credentials in an MSN program can complete an accelerated DNP program online. Students in these programs often have to choose between advanced practice or leadership specialization tracks. BSN graduates who hold degrees in health-related fields like public health or health administration may also complete an online DNP program. Some schools even offer these candidates an accelerated executive leadership track.

What Will I Learn in an Online DNP Program?

The curriculum for all DNP online programs vary depending on a school’s APRN credentialing status. At its core, a doctor of nursing practice curriculum always approaches the progression of disease from a clinical perspective. Each school on our list of online DNP programs delivers advanced instruction on diagnostics, disease treatment, and advanced practice technique. Further, the curricula in these programs teach students the analytic, business, and management skills that are required of nurse leaders. The following three courses should be common to all DNP programs online:

Healthcare Outcomes Assessment and Strategy

In this course, students learn about evaluation methodology for safe and efficacious care of individuals and patient populations. This class uses data to strategize sustainable change and ethical care delivery. Students must conduct practice hours in conjunction with this course.

Skills Gained:

  • Data analysis
  • Evidence-based care delivery
  • Strategic planning

Leadership Seminar

This course explores the role of nurse leaders, especially the political skills, business knowledge, and systems approach required of defined patient groups and communities. Students examine care delivery models and develop theoretical ones within these contexts. They must also conduct practice hours in conjunction with this course.

Skills Gained:

  • Organizational science
  • Quality assessment
  • Practice financial management

Population-based Health

This course has students examine epidemiological methodology in the study of disease progression and public health. It places special emphasis on health promotion, evidence-based recommendations, preventive care, environmental health, and culturally diverse impacts.

Skills Gained:
Analysis of epidemiological, environmental, and biostatistical data in development of clinical prevention and overall population health initiatives

Are There Clinicals in an Online DNP Program?

Classroom learning is always supplemented by hands-on clinical hours in all doctorate of nursing practice programs. The AACN specifies that DNP online programs must provide at least 1,000 hours of post-baccalaureate clinical experience. It’s important to note that this minimum requirement only exist for schools that perform APRN credentialing; MSN-to-DNP programs, for example, require fewer clinical hours.

Every school establishes their own clinical experience requirements independently, which means that an aspiring DNP online candidate should carefully consider each school’s policy before applying. Some schools provide placements for clinicals, while others expect the student to make arrangements. While students must assume the responsibility for commuting to their clinical, few online DNP programs expect distance learners to travel great distances away from their homes. Students typically either complete clinical experiences in their area of specialty or follow a rotation prescribed by the program.

How Do I Choose an Online DNP Program?

The educational marketplace has many doctorate of nursing practice programs to offer. As an aspiring nurse leader or educator, you should carefully weigh each school’s online DNP program against your personal situation and your long-term career goals. It is important to find DNP online programs that match your goals whether you desire to teach or work in an advanced practice. If you plan on pursuing a career in the clinical environment, you should consider limiting your search to programs that offer concentrations in your area of specialty.

DNP programs online are designed to build on a nursing professional’s prior education and often have more than one point of entrance. Therefore, you should try to refine your search parameters to only include schools that match up with your educational background. The education you have already received may also influence the length of time it takes to graduate. If you plan on working while you earn your DNP degree, then an accelerated program may be more appealing.

Finally, you’ll want to consider logistics and cost. Some online DNP programs ask students to attend occasional on-campus sessions, while others do not. You may also want to consider a school’s location if the program’s clinical placements are limited to the area around campus. Online courses can vary greatly with one university requiring weekly synchronized lecture attendance, while another may allow students to complete coursework asynchronously. In the end, cost can be a deal-breaker for some DNP online programs. If cost is a concern for you, then you may want to consider schools with generous scholarship and financial aid resources.

Concentrations Available for Online DNP Programs

Doctor of nursing practice programs typically offer concentrations that allow to customize their studies. These concentrations typically align with APRN specialty credentials, while others focus on other career goals like leadership or nursing education. While we lack the space to list all available options, here are a few examples of the most popular concentrations that you should find in any program:

Nurse Educator

The nurse educator concentration is offered either as a standalone concentration or an optional subspecialty in an APRN concentration. The curriculum prepares graduates to teach in baccalaureate nursing programs and emphasize teaching skills. Students enroll in classes on instructional design, instructional technology, curriculum design, and assessment and evaluation. Most DNP online programs that offer this concentration require practical experiences in the classroom.

Family Nurse Practitioner

This concentration emphasizes comprehensive care across the lifespan and prepares graduates for careers in primary healthcare and interdisciplinary collaborative care. Core coursework explores the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of acute and chronic illness in pediatric, adult, and gerontological patient populations. Students also examine social and cultural influences on health, population health, and public policy.

Nurse Midwifery

This concentration prepares students to work in independent practices as midwives and primary healthcare providers for women and newborns. It also commonly leads to a Certified Nurse Midwife designation. The curriculum includes courses on the management of complex health issues, high-risk labor, and births. It also emphasizes the role of the midwife in community health, preventive care, and public policy development.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

This concentration focuses on the direct care and management of complex patients. In addition to the APRN core, students receive instruction in organizational science, management theory, and healthcare delivery systems. Aspiring nurse educators may also enroll in additional coursework on instruction and curriculum design.

Nurse Anesthetist

This concentration emphasizes preoperative assessment, intraoperative care, and postoperative recovery and prepares graduates to work in independent practices as pain management experts. Students learn about advanced pharmacology, physiology, and pathophysiology while also gaining practical skills in anesthesia and anesthesia technology. There are also other courses in interprofessional collaboration, informatics, and healthcare finance that prepare students for leadership roles in the field.

Finding Accredited Online Nursing Programs

Accreditation ensures that a standard of fairness and academic rigor have been met by a school’s curriculum and admissions procedures. In the accreditation process, these aspects of a program are vetted by a neutral third party. However, one accreditation does not always equal another, and you’ll want to understand the difference. The official bodies that grant accreditation can be categorized into these three levels:

  • National accreditation is typically awarded to career, vocational, and trade schools that offer certificates and degrees. Therefore, the requirements to earn a degree from a nationally accredited school is not as standardized as at a regionally accredited school.
  • Regional accreditation is based on a school’s academic rigor. Regional accreditation is considered more prestigious than national accreditation. These accreditations are widely recognized and allow students to easily transfer their earned credits to another accredited institution.
  • Program-specific accreditation is granted by an expert body in that discipline and is the mark of a solid offering. The best doctorate in nursing programs bear accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

How Do I Enroll in an Online DNP Program?

Each doctorate in nursing degree program maintains its own admissions requirements. However, most require submission of the following documentation:

  • Official transcripts from accredited schools you have attended
  • Proof of unencumbered RN licensure
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • A personal essay detailing your interest in the program and professional goals
  • Professional letters of recommendation

Students applying to a BSN to DNP program usually do not need to submit further information, while post-master’s applicants must add proof of current APRN certification to this list. Some DNP programs online may also request proof of any clinical hours completed during an applicant’s tenure while earning their MSN degree. Occasionally, doctorate of nursing practice programs request criminal background checks and drug screenings prior to enrollment.

What Can I Do With an Online DNP Degree?

The doctorate of nursing practice is the only degree program in its field that is not linked to a specific title or rung on the career ladder. The AACN’s DNP Initiative hopes to change that, but for now the degree is not strictly required for employment in any particular role. However, employers may feel differently and prefer to hire doctoral nursing professionals as they are viewed as ahead of the curve in the industry. The table below illustrates several nursing career paths that can enhanced with a doctorate in nursing.

Career Available with a DNP Career Unavailable with a DNP

Nursing CareerAPRPediatric Nurse Practitioner

Minimum Degree Needed *

The pediatric NP is an APRN who is employed in a private practice or hospital. They are responsible for assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients from birth through adolescence. Care delivery may include well-child care, chronic illness monitoring, or treatment for acute illness or injury. Daily duties also include prescribing medication, administering therapies, collaborating with physicians, and educating patients’ families.

Average Salary: $86,553

Nursing CareerAPRPsychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Minimum Degree Needed *

Psychiatric NPs typically work in private practice or hospital facilities. These APRNs help patients manage disorders like substance abuse, mood disorders, and ADHD. Their duties include establishing open and honest communication with patients, prescribing and monitoring medications, assessing progress, exploring new solutions, and educating a patient’s family.

Average Salary: $99,426

Nursing CareerCRNNurse Anesthetist

Minimum Degree Needed *

Nurse anesthetists typically work in free-standing surgical centers or hospitals and are responsible for administering anesthesia during surgical procedures. Day-to-day tasks also involve preoperative assessment and postoperative care, with some nurse anesthetists also treat chronic pain patients in private practice. Nurse anesthetists may work independently or in collaboration with physicians.

Average Salary: $140,190

Nursing CareerDirector of Nursing

Minimum Degree Needed *

As senior nurse managers, nursing directors manage the supervision, organization, strategic planning, evaluation, and regulatory compliance of an entire department or unit. Daily tasks involve procurement, procedures development, staff training, and quality assurance. These professionals focus on providing nursing staff with the tools they need to treat patients.

Average Salary: $81,617

Nursing CareerCNOChief Nursing Officer

Minimum Degree Needed *

Chief nursing officers are employed by hospitals or other large healthcare facilities and direct nursing services and supervise nursing managers. Their duties include budgeting, purchasing, inventory maintenance, and managing staff levels on all shifts. Additional responsibilities include the development of emergency response, professional development opportunities, process improvement, and organizational strategic planning.

Average Salary: $124,104

Post-DNP Study

In most disciplines, the completion of a doctoral program does not signal the end of a professional’s academic pursuits. For example, graduates of traditional Ph.D. programs in nursing often go on to postdoctoral fellowships or residencies where they will continue their research. Since doctorate of nursing practice programs emphasize practical skills over research, DNP graduates are not eligible for postdoctoral fellowships.

Advanced practice nursing certification is often packaged with the doctorate in nursing curriculum, and these credentials qualify graduates for any advanced practice nursing role. A nurse seeking further career mobility may choose to return to school for APRN credentials in another specialty. Similarly, nursing professionals who want to obtain management roles can also pursue additional training in leadership through a healthcare management certification or an MBA.

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