DNP vs. Ph.D.: What’s the Difference?

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Female Doctor in a White Coat and Stethoscope Around the Neck Discussing Patient's Results With a Colleague


A graduate education can help nurses advance their careers. While a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the current standard for certification as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), a doctoral degree can further enhance 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. a Ph.D. is that the DNP is for clinically focused nurses, while the Ph.D. is better suited for nurses who want to pursue research and academia.

As such, DNP programs and Ph.D. programs have different learning objectives and curricula. The degrees also can open doors to different jobs. Whether you want to become a nurse director for a hospital system or nursing faculty for a research institution, it’s important to understand the differences between a DNP and Ph.D. — 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.

Some DNP tracks put students with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) on an accelerated path to earning a DNP in as few as four years. Many nurses who enter DNP programs already have an MSN. This means they are already well educated in nursing theory, the principles of advanced practice, and evidence-based practice.

The DNP is what nurses pursue to build on these core areas of clinical practice. The degree also focuses on 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. In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommended making the DNP a requirement for nurse practitioner (NP) positions and other APRN roles. While that hasn’t taken effect yet, the recommendation spurred more people to seek a DNP.

In 2005, fewer than 50 accredited DNP programs existed nationwide, according to the AACN. By 2019, the nation had 357 such programs, with an additional 106 in the planning stages.

DNP vs. MD

Like the Doctor of Medicine (MD) for physicians, the DNP is one of the highest-level degrees available for nurses. Health care professionals with either of these degrees have completed extensive learning and training and have the skills to not only deliver top-quality clinical care, but to also potentially influence the field in other ways, such as in research or policymaking.

So what is a DNP in comparison to an MD? In addition to providing high-quality care, professionals with either degree typically can perform many of the same duties. Many APRNs, for example, can order and assess diagnostic tests and write prescriptions just as physicians can.

An MD typically requires four years to complete, in addition to internships and residencies. While the DNP degree generally requires clinical training, it typically takes less time to complete.

The approach to health care is another key difference between those with a DNP and those with an MD. DNPs and MDs both provide care to many ages and populations. MDs, however, often focus their care on specific symptoms and conditions. Nursing professionals with a DNP take a more holistic approach, encouraging preventive care and patient education.

DNP Curriculum

Comparing curricula is another way to understand the key differences between DNP and Ph.D. programs. The foundation of a DNP curriculum is providing education in evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and systems leadership, according to the AACN. There are eight essential learning objectives of the DNP:

  1. Scientific underpinnings for practice: Using knowledge from biophysical, psychosocial, analytical, and organizational sciences, along with nursing science, to guide the highest level of nursing practice
  2. Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking: Developing and executing approaches to care that meet the needs of current and future patient populations
  3. Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice: Applying analytical methods to develop care practices that are safe, timely, effective, efficient, equitable, and patient-centered
  4. Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of health care: Incorporating information systems concepts, ethics, and technical skills when evaluating care based on patient data
  5. Health care policy for advocacy in health care: Advocating for the nursing profession by participating on committees, boards, and task forces to educate and advise policymakers and the public
  6. Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes: Leading interprofessional teams in analyzing clinical and organizational issues
  7. Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health: Analyzing epidemiological, biostatistical, and environmental data to evaluate the health of individuals and communities
  8. Advanced nursing practice: Demonstrating advanced levels of clinical judgment, systems thinking, support, and accountability in evidence-based practice

DNP Curriculum Subject Areas

To address these learning objectives, the typical DNP curriculum offers advanced-level nursing education that incorporates hundreds of hours of clinical training. DNP programs may offer preparation for those interested in pursuing APRN roles, such as NP positions, as well as other concentrations, such as those focused on leadership.

Subjects a DNP program generally covers include:

  • Evidence-based practice
  • Health assessment
  • Nursing theories
  • Pathophysiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Statistics

DNP students interested in pursuing an NP role can choose an area of specialization for their education, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP), adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP), adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP), or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP).

DNP Careers

Another consideration when comparing DNP vs. Ph.D. programs is what careers are available to graduates.

DNP-educated nurses have the highest level of clinical preparedness. They can pursue senior positions that allow them to impact care and organizational performance. DNP careers include:

  • APRN: As an NP, nurse anesthetist, or nurse midwife, an advanced nursing professional coordinates patient care and may provide primary and specialized health care.
  • Chief nursing officer (CNO): This health care leader oversees operational, administrative, and nursing procedures.
  • Nurse executive: This high-level administrator works with department and organizational leaders and external parties to help meet health care goals.
  • Nursing director: This nursing leader oversees a nursing unit.
  • Nurse manager: This leader supervises a team of nurses.
  • Health care director: A professional in this role plans, directs, and leads the business activities of health care facilities.
  • Nursing care facility manager: In this role, a nursing professional manages the daily operations of a nursing home or other nursing care facility.
  • Nurse administrator: Also called head nurse, this nursing leader is a staff supervisor.
  • Nursing faculty: Depending on the college or university, a DNP may prepare a nursing leader for a role leading lectures, advising students, or providing lab supervision.

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.

What Is a Ph.D.?

The Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing is the terminal degree for research-focused nurses. It differs from the DNP in that the Ph.D. is what nurses typically pursue when they want to apply their skills and knowledge in nursing research or academia.

In these 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. Nurse researchers can pursue any number of topics, giving nurses with a Ph.D. a wide berth to explore and make a difference in subjects that matter to them.

In 2021, there were 137 accredited nursing Ph.D. programs enrolling 4,476 students in the U.S., according to the AACN.

Ph.D. Curriculum

Philosophy doctoral programs include coursework designed to enhance a nurse’s theoretical, methodological, and analytical skills. The Ph.D. curriculum also promotes the understanding of nursing research systems and applications.

While there may be some overlap between DNP and Ph.D. programs and the subjects they cover — such as health care policy, leadership, and clinical outcomes — the Ph.D. curriculum is 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 and qualitative research and design
  • Technical, grant, and publication writing

One major difference between DNP and Ph.D. programs is the dissertation. Both programs include non-coursework requirements, but for the philosophy doctoral degree, students must write and defend a dissertation, an intensive final project. In contrast, students pursuing the practice doctoral degree typically complete their work with clinical practice or a DNP project. The DNP project calls for the student to use evidence from literature to develop a new practice, such as a quality improvement project.

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

Ph.D. Careers

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

Nursing faculty is another Ph.D. career. As the American population ages and nurse staffing challenges emerge, the demand for more skilled nursing professionals is increasing. This has led to a greater need for faculty who are equipped to train and educate the future nursing workforce. A nursing faculty member’s 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

If you’re interested in earning a DNP, search for a program that can accommodate your work schedule and personal life. In the Bradley University online Doctor of Nursing Practice program, nurses can study with dedicated faculty and gain all the expert skill and knowledge a DNP program is designed to confer. You can choose one of Bradley’s NP specialization tracks — FNP, AGACNP, AGPCNP, or PMHNP — or select the DNP leadership track.

Whichever concentration you choose, you’ll receive a top-quality advanced nursing education, with the flexibility and convenience of online learning. Discover how Bradley’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice program can help you reach your nursing leadership goals.

Recommended Readings

How Nurse Leaders Create Effective and Fair Nurse Scheduling

Principles of Nursing Leadership: Jobs and Trends

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