DNP vs. Ph.D.: What’s the difference?

Articles | Nursing Resources


Over the last few decades, the number of nurses pursuing graduate-level degrees in the U.S. has increased dramatically. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) graduates increased from 4,100 to 4,855 between 2015 and 2016. Enrollment numbers during this period were even larger, rising from 21,995 to 25,289 — an increase of about 15 percent — over 12 months.

When it comes to completing an advanced degree, nurses have not one but two graduate-level options to choose from: the DNP and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing. These two terminal nursing degrees are similar but differ mainly in the scope of their focus and curriculum, as well as the job opportunities for which they prepare students.

If you are considering enrolling in an advanced nursing degree program, exploring these two degrees can help ensure that you make the right decision for your professional goals.

Increased demand for advanced nursing degrees

A doctoral degree is not uncommon in health care. In fact, it is the norm for many positions. In addition to the four-year Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree for physicians, most health care careers either require, or at least offer, a doctorate. These fields include audiology (Aud.D.), dentistry (D.D.S.), pharmacy (Pharm.D.), physical therapy (D.P.T.) and psychology (Psy.D.).

Today, the nursing field is quickly becoming another specialty in which many professionals are earning graduate-level degrees. According to the AACN, this shift is due in large part to the demands created by the evolution of health care. “The changing demands of this nation’s complex health care environment require the highest level of scientific knowledge and practice expertise to assure quality patient outcomes,” the AACN reported. “The Institute of Medicine, Joint Commission, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other authorities have called for reconceptualizing educational programs that prepare today’s health professionals.”

A DNP degree is one answer to this demand for graduate nursing education. The scope of this graduate-level degree is focused primarily on clinical nursing practice, preparing students for careers in advanced practice roles in patient care. A DNP program is typically entered by students who already have earned either a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree and wish to continue working in a clinical setting.

As opposed to the DNP, a Ph.D. in nursing is a research-oriented degree. Nurses in Ph.D. programs learn to conduct research to add to the body of nursing knowledge. Nurses can typically enter a Ph.D. program after previously earning a BSN or MSN, but these students are generally interested in pursuing a career in research or teaching, as opposed to direct patient care.

Despite these different applications, both DNP- and Ph.D.-educated nurses ensure patients are treated effectively in health care organizations across the country.

Curriculum by degree

Neither the DNP or Ph.D. is considered more advanced than the other, but the curriculum of the degree programs reflect their differences in focus.

In a DNP program, students will typically take classes on important clinical topics, such as database management systems, evidence-based practices, health assessment, data management, health policy, decision-making and population health. Students are also required to complete a certain number of clinical hours, typically performed under the supervision of a mentor or preceptor.

Students enrolled in a Ph.D. program usually take some similar courses as the DNP student. However, the curriculum has a greater emphasis on research, including analytic methods, grant writing, quantitative design and related topics. To this end, students typically will complete and present a dissertation in addition to coursework. This final paper should, in some way, contribute to the existing body of knowledge of nursing in a significant way.

Careers with your advanced degree

One of the major reasons that nurses enroll in graduate-level degree programs is for career advancement. When choosing between a DNP and a Ph.D., a deciding factor should be the possible career outcomes. While both options will help you qualify for a number of advanced nursing roles, each degree has certain positions for which it is better suited.

A DNP can help prepare you for a number of clinical roles, including advanced practice positions such as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife and nurse anesthetist. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), demand for these roles is expected to increase by 31 percent between 2014 and 2024, adding 53,400 new positions to the market.

Other jobs frequently pursued by nurses with a DNP include nurse educator, health care lobbyist, chief nursing officer, clinical nurse specialist and other leadership roles within health care organizations.

Due to its research focus, a Ph.D. will equip you for roles that do not include direct patient care, such as nurse researcher or nurse educator. If you want to influence the quality of care in the U.S. by teaching or performing research full-time, a Ph.D. may be the choice best suited to your career goals.

If you think that a DNP could be the right next step for your career, consider enrolling in Bradley University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program. Through either the family nurse practitioner or leadership track, you will be educated for a career in advanced clinical practice through courses on topics that cover the latest trends in patient care, including health information systems, evidence-based practice and health care policy.

Recommended reading:
Five ways a doctoral degree in nursing can transform your career
What should students know about nursing loan forgiveness programs?
Enrollment guide: What you need for acceptance to Bradley University’s online DNP program