Choosing Your Career Pathway: DNP vs. Ph.D.

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A graduate education can help nurses advance their careers. While a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the current standard for being certified as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), a doctoral degree can further increase the skills, knowledge and expertise needed to improve patient care, advocate for nurses and lead at the highest levels.

Looking past the MSN, nurses have two options for a doctoral degree: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.). The crucial difference to understand in weighing earning a DNP vs. Ph.D. is that the DNP is for clinically focused nurses, while the Ph.D. is more suited for nurses who want to pursue research and academia.

As such, DNP programs and Ph.D. programs will have different learning objectives and curricula, as well as open the door to different jobs. Whether you want to become a nurse director for a hospital system or nurse educator in a research institution, it’s important to understand the differences of the DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing — and how to choose the right degree program for you.

What is a DNP?

The Doctor of Nursing Practice is the terminal degree for nurses in clinical practice. Nurses who enter DNP programs generally already have an MSN (although some tracks put students with a  Bachelor of Science in Nursing on an accelerated path to earning a DNP in as few as four years). This means they are already well-educated in nursing theory, principles of advanced practice and evidence-based practice. The DNP builds on these core areas of clinical practice, as well as other nursing competencies including:

  • Health care policy
  • Organizational management and leadership
  • Health care economics and finance
  • Advanced health care informatics

Enrollment in DNP programs has grown considerably in the 21st century. This is due in part to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommending in 2004 that the practice doctorate be made the standard for advanced nursing practice. While that change hasn’t happened yet, it’s spurred more to seek a DNP. In 2005, fewer than 50 accredited DNP programs existed nationwide, according to the AACN. That number was more than 300 in 2018.

What to Expect from DNP Program Curricula

The foundation of a DNP program is based on providing education in evidence-based practice, quality improvement and systems leadership, according to the AACN. There are eight essential learning objectives of the practice doctorate:

  1. Scientific underpinnings for practice: Using knowledge from biophysical, psychosocial, analytical and organizational sciences in conjunction with nursing science to inform the highest level of nursing practice. Developing and evaluating new practice approaches to improve patient care, safety care delivery or organizational metrics.
  2. Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking: Conceptualizing and executing delivery approaches that meet current and future patient populations’ needs. Leveraging insight into medical, organizational, political and economic sciences. Ensuring accountability by conducting cost analyses, raising awareness over cultural sensitivity and communicating ethics.
  3. Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice: Applying analytical methods to evaluating patterns and then synthesizing those insights foruse in nursing practice. Designing, directing and evaluating quality improvement methodologies that promote safe, timely, effective, efficient, equitable and patient-centered care.
  4. Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of health care: Deploying the conceptual ability and technical skills to develop and execute an evaluation plan that leverages data from practice information systems. Providing leadership on ethical and legal issues within health care systems related to the use of information technology, patient data, communication networks and patient care technology.
  5. Health care policy for advocacy in health care: Advocating for the nursing profession by educating and advising policymakers. Taking an active part in the discourse through participation on committees, boards or task forces. Educating the public on nursing, health policy and patient care outcomes.
  6. Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes: Leading interprofessional teams in analyzing clinical and organizational issues. Deploying effective interprofessional communication and collaboration skills when designing, implementing, managing and measuring new policies.
  7. Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health: Analyzing epidemiological, biostatistical and environmental data related to individual and population health. Evaluating care delivery models and/or strategies using concepts related to community, environmental and occupational health, and cultural and socioeconomic dimensions of health.
  8. Advanced nursing practice: Demonstrating advanced levels of clinical judgment, systems thinking and accountability in evidence-based practice. Guiding, mentoring and supporting other nurses to achieve excellence in nursing practice.

What Careers Can DNP Graduates Pursue?

DNP-prepared nurses have the highest level of clinical preparedness and can use their degrees to impact care and organizational performance from senior positions. Some of the career pathways possible with a DNP include:

  • APRN — such as family nurse practitioner, certified nurse midwife, certified registered nurse anesthetist or clinical nurse specialist
  • Chief nursing officer
  • Nurse executive
  • Nursing director
  • Nurse manager
  • Health care director
  • Nursing care facility manager
  • Nurse administrator
  • Nursing faculty (depending on college/university requirements)

Common work environments for DNP-prepared nurses include hospitals (general medical and surgical), private doctor’s offices, health systems, outpatient care centers and community health agencies.

The career you aspire to may also affect what kind of DNP program you enter, even if you know you want to earn a DNP instead of a Ph.D.. For instance, Bradley offers two different DNP programs: One for nurses who want to specialize as an FNP and another for nurses who want to improve their leadership skills and become executives or directors. It’s important to research the differences in curricula between these tracks so you can find the degree most suited to your needs and goals.

What is a Ph.D.?

The Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing is the terminal degree for research-focused nurses. It’s differentiated from the DNP in that the Ph.D. is primarily earned by nurses who want to apply their skills and knowledge in nursing research or academia. In such roles, nurses can pursue the same care improvements that clinical nurses would but from a different perspective. Research nurses may examine a particular trend in population health promotion, for instance, and make and test recommendations for improving rural access to care through telehealth. There are any number of topics for nurse researchers to pursue, giving nurses with a Ph.D. a wide berth to explore and make a difference in subjects that matter to them.

Overall, there are 135 accredited nursing Ph.D. programs in America, according to the AACN. Enrollment in Ph.D. programs was just under 4,700 in 2018, which is quite steady growth from nearly a decade before, when 4,177 were enrolled in such programs. Ph.D. graduations have increased 29% since 2009, and student populations are more diverse than ever.

What to Expect from Ph.D. Program Curricula

Philosophy doctorate programs include coursework meant to bring a nurse’s theoretical, methodological and analytical skills to the highest level, as well as their understanding of nursing research systems and applications. While there may be some overlap between Ph.D. programs and DNP programs — like in health care policy, leadership and clinical outcomes —  the former are designed to prepare nurse scientists, scholars, researchers and educators. Some common Ph.D. program areas of study include:

  • Statistical methods and models in health
  • Data collection, organization and analysis
  • Quantitative research and design; qualitative research and design
  • Technical, grant and publication writing

One major difference between DNP and Ph.D. programs is the dissertation. Both DNP and Ph.D. programs include non-coursework requirements, but for the philosophy doctorate, students must write and defend their dissertation, an intensive final project. In contrast, students pursuing the practice doctorate will need to complete a DNP project, where the student uses evidence from the literature to develop a new practice, such as a quality improvement project.

Like DNP programs, Ph.D. programs often require a master’s, like an MSN. Yet there are also BSN-Ph.D. tracks that allow students to complete a master’s education as part of the overall philosophy doctorate program.

What Careers Can Ph.D. Nurses Pursue?

The most common type of work for Ph.D.-prepared nurses is post-doctoral research. Nurse researchers conduct scientific research or reviews, collect data and publish findings, peer review other articles, supervise lab staff and collaborate with other stakeholders. Nurse scientists have similar job duties.

Nurse educator is another career pathway for those who’ve earned a Ph.D.. As the American population ages and new challenges emerge, the demand for skilled nursing increases — along with the need for professionals equipped to train and educate the future nursing workforce. Some of their core job duties include:

  • Assessing learning outcomes in educational programs
  • Developing programs for student/faculty improvement
  • Advising students/faculty on goals and performance
  • Engaging in professional organizations or research

Earn Your DNP at Bradley

Once you know which degree is right for you, it’s time to research the specifics of DNP vs. Ph.D. programs, such as  the time to completion, admission requirements and format.

When looking at Ph.D. programs, the AACN recommends asking questions like:

  • Are there opportunities to present research findings at professional meetings?
  • Is scholarship of faculty, alumni and students presented at regional and national nursing meetings and published?
  • Has the body of research done at a university enhanced the knowledge of nursing and health care?
  • Does the university consider research a priority?
  • Does the university have adequate funding for student research?

If you’re interested in earning a DNP, search for a program that can accommodate your working and personal life. At Bradley, nurses can study online with dedicated faculty and gain all the expert skill and knowledge a DNP program is designed to confer. The BSN-DNP track for nurses specializing as an FNP can be completed 100% online in four years, while the DNP leadership track is offered 100% online and can be completed in three years.

Want to find out more about learning at Bradley and what courses are included in our DNP programs? Contact an enrollment advisor today.


Recommended Reading

Why Pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree?

Which Nursing Career Is Best for You — Nurse Educator or Nurse Administrator?

Bradley University Online DNP Program



American Association of Colleges of Nursing – DNP Fact Sheet

AACN – Position Statement

AACN – Research Data Center, PhD

AACN – PhD Education