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 in nursing, most require applicants to hold a master’s degree in nursing, as the doctoral degree builds on the MSN curricula.

Most Doctor of Nursing Practice 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 (DNP) 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.

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What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Nursing?

Career Available with a DNP Career Unavailable with a DNP

Nursing CareerADN +Registered Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; but a BSN is recommended because of higher salary and better job outlook

Required ADN Degree | Alternative BSN Route | Become a Registered Nurse

Nursing CareerMSNNurse Practitioner

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required MSN Degree | Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nursing CareerADN +Travel Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; certifications in specialty area recommended

Required ADN Degree | Become a Travel Nurse

Nursing CareerBSNNurse Anesthetist

Minimum Degree Needed *

BSN (or bachelor’s in related field) and MSN

Required BSN Degree | Alternative MSN Route | Become a Nurse Anesthetist

Nursing CareerADN +School Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

ADN; BSN recommended as industry standard

Required ADN Degree | Alternative BSN Route | Become a School Nurse

Nursing CareerBSN +Psychiatric Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *

BSN; MSN required for Advanced Practice Nursing certification

Required BSN Degree | Alternative MSN Route | Become a Psychiatric Nurse

Nursing CareerMSN +Nurse Educator

Minimum Degree Needed *

MSN; DNP to teach at BSN-granting institutions

Required MSN Degree

Nursing CareerBSNFlight Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required BSN Degree | Alternative MSN Route

Nursing CareerMSNClinical Nurse Specialist

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required MSN Degree

Nursing CareerBSNNeonatal Intensive Care Nurse

Minimum Degree Needed *


Required BSN Degree | Alternative MSN Route

*Key: ADN = Associate Degree in Nursing; BSN = Bachelor of Science in Nursing; MSN = Master of Science in Nursing; DNP = Doctorate of Nursing Practice

Should I Get a Doctor of Nursing 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.

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.

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 (DNP) 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 doctor of nursing practice 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; doctor of nursing practice candidates, however, must complete up to 1,000 clinical hours of practical experience requirements.
  • The DNP requires students to complete a capstone project. Doctor of Nursing Practice 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.
  • Nursing 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 nursing 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?


PayScale, accessed October 2015

How Do I Get a DNP?

  • Decide Type of DNP Program

  • Find DNP Programs

  • Apply to DNP Programs

  • Secure Funding for DNP Programs

  • Attend DNP Classes

  • Graduate with a DNP

What Kind of Classes Will I Take?

Advanced Evidence-Based Nursing Concepts

Students explore evidence-based nursing implementation, including literature review, evidence analysis, practice critique, research synthesis and patient preferences. Medical informatics issues are introduced, as are barriers to evidence-based practice.

Human Capital Management

The practical management of human resources, this course explores best practices in recruiting, performance evaluation, talent development, staff reductions and conflict resolution.

Health Care Finance

An examination of the economic, financial and business skills expected of a leader and financial decision-maker in the healthcare environment. Special emphasis on entrepreneurial practice and culture. Students perform financial modeling for healthcare system delivery improvements, considering market-driven needs and ethical practice.

Quality Improvement and Patient Safety

Students design and implement health care practices in home and community settings. Process includes assessment of organizational culture, safety assessment and data analysis to identify necessary changes. Initiatives for improvement include finance, economic and health policy factors, as well as micro-systems theory and cost effectiveness.

Online DNP Programs

The doctor of nursing practice is the terminal degree in the field. DNP candidates should already hold a master’s degree, and should be seasoned researchers with a defined specialty and an interest in contributing to nursing and medical research. While much less common than ADN, BSN, and MSN programs, you can earn your DNP at an accredited online school. While DNP graduates often work in research or academia, many also seek employment in executive-level positions in nursing or healthcare.

Online DNP programs typically take between three and six years to complete. Most of the work students do will be in research, or semi-independent study, although you will take at least a few traditional classes. Coursework covers statistical tools and methodology, evidence-based practice, and a global view of healthcare systems in the United States.

If you’d like to learn more about what to expect in an online DNP program, please visit our Online Nursing Programs page. Before enrolling, be sure to double-check that the online associate degree in nursing program is accredited, offered online during your period of study, and all eligibility and licensing requirements meet your situation.

Before enrolling, please be sure to double-check that the online DNP program is accredited, offered online during your period of study, and all eligibility and licensing requirements meet your situation.

If you are an accredited, not-for-profit institution that offers DNP programs online and aren’t listed, please contact us with details about your program, a link to your program page and proof of accreditation.

Use our customizable database to find the best DNP programs for your needs.

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