Understanding DNP vs. NP: What do the terms mean?

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Nursing Resources

DNP vs. NP is a tricky distinction to make, as some nurse practitioners (NP) hold a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.

The high degree of overlap between the terms can cause confusion when career planning. One refers to the professional, clinical role of nurse practitioner, while the other refers to the highest level of clinical nursing education.

There are many benefits to earning a DNP, as well as becoming a nurse practitioner. Let’s explore the case of DNP vs. NP further and how interested students can earn a DNP online.

What is a DNP?

The doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is the terminal degree for clinical nurses and is one step above the master of science in nursing (MSN). However, it’s not the only terminal degree in nursing. The other is the Ph.D., geared toward nurses involved in research. The DNP, on the other hand, is for nursing practice as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), nursing leader, nurse educator, nurse executive or nurse director.

The doctorate can open many doors to new careers in administration, management, education and advanced nursing practice. The DNP is able to participate in assuring the evidence based practice is applied to patient care. The DNP-FNP is able to look at patient data through computer analytics and discern whether certain processes may be improved to ultimately improve patient outcomes.

What is an NP?

NP is the title for a nurse practitioner, a medical professional who is educated to:

  • Assess and diagnose patients
  • Administer and evaluate diagnostic tests
  • Prescribe and manage medications
  • Focus on disease prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion
  • Advise, counsel, and guide patients and their families in making care-related decisions

The scope of practice of NPs is wide and will depend on their specialization and state in which they reside. For instance, many NPs become certified in providing primary care to specific patient populations, such as families, women, seniors or patients with chronic or acute conditions. They can do this in a number of different job settings, including:

  • Hospitals (state, local or private)
  • Community clinics
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Urgent care clinics
  • Primary care offices

It’s important to note that as APRNs, NPs are required to hold a master’s degree, just as certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) and certified nurse midwives (CNM) must do.

One advantage to becoming an NP is practice autonomy. More than half of U.S. states extend full practice authority to NPs, allowing them to see patients, evaluate tests and prescribe medications without a supervising physician or physician assistant.

What does a DNP program look like?

Now that the differences between DNP vs. NP are cleared up, we can examine what makes NPs and the DNP degree unique.

Doctoral programs dive deep into nursing theory, evidence-based practice and the principles of advanced practice. Curricula also cover health policy, nurse and patient advocacy, nursing leadership and organizational management. In terms of learning objectives, DNP programs focus on achieving these eight core outcomes, as outlined by the AACN (American Association of Colleges of Nursing):

  1. Integrating nursing science with ethical, psychological, analytical and organizational knowledge
  2. Developing and evaluating care delivery and cost-effectiveness of initiatives, while also applying principles of budgeting and finance
  3. Using information technology to inform quality of care improvements and further tracking, analyzing, and interpreting data and outcome results
  4. Designing and maintaining systems of evaluation that monitor everything from care outcomes to how patients engage with consumer materials and technologies
  5. Grasping policy formulation and dissemination; acting as an advocate and providing leadership to all levels
  6. Ensuring effective communication and collaboration between departments
  7. Analyzing cultural diversity and epidemiological, environmental and biostatistical records as a function of managing population health
  8. Consistently demonstrating advanced knowledge of clinical judgment, accountability, evaluation and improving patient outcomes

What are the steps for becoming an NP?

NPs are in high demand across the country: The government projects employment for the career to grow 26% between 2018-2028. The job can be personally and professionally rewarding, so interested nursing students or medical professionals should take heed of these five steps to becoming an NP, as laid out by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP):

  1. Earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree
  2. Pass the certification exam to become a registered nurse
  3. Earn either a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree
  4. Secure national board certification in a specialty
  5. Become registered in or licensed by the state in which you practice

Why should NPs earn a DNP?

Although an MSN is the minimum degree needed for practice as an APRN, a DNP will satisfy the education requirements. There are two main reasons why NPs should consider doctoral studies:

  • DNP graduates can compete for higher-paying and more influential jobs.
  • The education requirements for becoming an APRN may change in the future.

As to the first reason, experience and education are factors in determining a nurse’s salary. Those who are prepared with a DNP may be compensated for it: DNP-prepared nurses earned $102,000 a year on average in 2019, according to PayScale.com. Nurses with an MSN can earn $92,000 annually on average. Leadership roles and jobs in the executive suite also pay more, and are frequently sought by DNP graduates.

Regarding the change in certification requirements, in 2004 the AACN recommended the DNP replace the MSN as the preferred degree for APRNs. While the change has not been enacted, it is still possible for the requirements to become more stringent. In that case, earning a doctorate could grant future benefits.

Earn your DNP online at Bradley

Doctoral programs may seem intense given their subject matter, but interested nurses can earn their DNPs online without hassle. Bradley offers two DNP tracks, one for family nurse practitioners and one designed for leadership roles. Both can be completed online when nurses have the time, even if personal and professional obligations demand their attention.

Want to learn more about completing your DNP education at Bradley? Contact an enrollment advisor for more information today.

Recommended reading:

Should I Move from an MSN to DNP?

What is a DNP Degree?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

American Association of Nurse Practitioners