DNP or PhD? A Guide For Nurses Considering Further Study


Are you a practicing nurse? It’s a rewarding career, even with the associated stress and vicarious trauma you can experience. You get to care for people at their most vulnerable – when they’re recovering from surgery, in palliative care, or otherwise are ill or unwell. Nurses have excellent job security, a decent wage, good workplace benefits, and are also well-respected roles in the broader community. So, if you’re a nurse – congratulations! You chose one of the best healthcare careers.

But what if you’re considering further study in nursing? You might wonder what you should study to embark on the next career phase, such as a DNP vs. PhD. There are advantages to specific postgraduate nursing courses, which this helpful article will discuss. By the time you’ve finished reading, you should be ready to decide. So, let’s get into it without further introduction.

What Do They Stand For?

Before comparing, let’s first discuss what these particular acronyms mean. DNP stands for Doctor of Nursing Practice, and PhD in the nursing context stands for Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing. It is worth noting that both qualifications require a deep understanding of the nursing field and offer excellent career development opportunities.

DNP – What it Requires and Benefits

A DNP is a postgraduate doctoral degree, the most common advanced qualification for nurse practitioners in the United States. Nurses who earn a DNP will primarily focus on working in clinical practice rather than in an academic or research capacity. This qualification will usually allow a nurse to pursue leadership roles in primary healthcare and clinical settings to ensure a high standard of care.

It’s also the highest advanced nursing degree, sitting a level about a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Nurses who obtain a DNP might work in unit manager roles, ward team leader roles, or senior administrative roles in various settings.

Time to Complete a DNP

The average duration of a DNP program is between two to four years. Two years is if you commit to this degree full-time, whereas four is if you pursue it part-time and remain working. You will also have to complete certain clinical practice hours (between 500-1000) overseen by a qualified supervisor, who communicates with the college to ensure you achieve your goals and tasks.

Subjects You Will Study

When obtaining your DNP, you might study specific subjects, including healthcare policy, healthcare delivery systems, project management, evidence-based treatment and informatics.

Responsibilities for a DNP Qualified Nurse

Once you’ve obtained your DNP, you may find yourself completing certain tasks in a primary healthcare setting, such as:

  • Diagnosing and treating patients
  • Prescribing medications
  • Performing diagnostic tests
  • Handling patient feedback and complaints
  • Consulting on complex case presentations
  • Working on policy development and review.

A PhD in Nursing

Now let’s discuss what a PhD in Nursing requires and what roles it can open up to Nurse Practitioners. A PhD is a postgraduate doctoral degree that will prepare you for work in academic or research settings. This qualification is the highest available for nurses who want to step away from direct clinical practice and into roles with colleges or research institutions. Once qualified, nurses who obtain their PhD may work as faculty for an academic institution and spend their days teaching or marking assignments. Or, those who pursue a research role may wind up working in a laboratory or a healthcare research setting.

Time Requirement for a PhD

A PhD program will usually take longer than a DNP to complete. A student may spend four to six years earning a PhD in Nursing. However, in most cases, a student won’t have to complete a clinical practice placement or hours as a PhD is often research or thesis-based. Instead, it may require a research project or dissertation on a specialized topic.

Subjects You’ll Study to Earn a PhD

Nursing PhD students will study a variety of different subjects as they obtain their PhD, including research development, theory and literature critique, research design and ethics, analytic approaches to nursing practice, data and informatics, grant and funding submission writing, diversity and equity and risk and error management and mitigation.

What You Can Do with a PhD in Nursing

Now, let’s discuss some of a PhD qualified Nurse Practitioner’s responsibilities.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Design, conducting and publishing research
  • Developing new nursing methods and knowledge
  • Utilizing research to improve healthcare outcomes
  • Writing proposals and applying for grants to fund research
  • Mentoring, teaching and advising nursing students
  • Creating curriculum for nursing courses.

Salary Ranges and Career Prospects

Both qualifications will allow you to earn more than a registered or master’s qualified Nurse Practioner. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an increased need for specialized nurses over the next decade.

A nurse with a DNP can expect a salary of approximately $107,000, while a PhD-qualified nurse can expect slightly less, with an average salary of $99,000. The types of roles available will also offer employment perks and benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, pension plans and various other benefits depending on the employer.

Which is Right for Me?

This will depend on your personal goals, career goals, and professional aims. As mentioned above, a DNP will often lead to leadership roles in direct clinical practice, whereas a PhD is more aligned with those seeking a career in academia or research.

A Study Summary

This informative article has covered the key differences between a DNP and a PhD for those considering further study as a nurse. Both have different outcomes and focuses, so pick the one that best aligns with your goals and needs.


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