Nurses with a Doctorate in Nursing Practice take on more specialized clinical roles or move into leadership or policy. Find out if this degree is right for you.
Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree will take anywhere from three to five years and has the ability to propel you further in your career.
While it’s not required for all advanced nursing jobs, a DNP can help you move into nurse leadership roles. Different from a nursing PhD, which is necessary for teaching and research, a DNP can advance your career on the clinical side.
The DNP is the highest level of education for clinical nursing and offers an alternative to the research-focused PhD. It’s designed to give advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) a specialty and the knowledge to improve patient care with evidence-based treatment.
David G. Campbell-O’Dell, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, FAANP, president of Doctors of Nursing Practice Inc., says the DNP “is for anyone who wants to improve healthcare outcomes as a nurse.”
The doctoral degree is becoming central to conversations about nursing education, partly because healthcare is constantly changing and nurses in leadership need to constantly learn to keep up with those changes. Nurses who are experts in evidence-based practices can influence all aspects of healthcare, including patient outcomes, informatics, and more.
Nurses who are experts in evidence-based practices can influence all aspects of healthcare, including patient outcomes, informatics, and more.
“The DNP degree is important today because it helps close the research-to-practice gap,” says Daria Waszak, DNP, RN, CNE, COHN-S, CEN, associate dean and assistant professor at the Department of Graduate Nursing at Felician University in New Jersey. “The Institute of Medicine Report on the Future of Nursing (published in 2010) recommended doubling the number of nurses with a doctorate degree by 2020. Here we are in 2020—and one piece of good news—we accomplished this feat.”
“Since this recommendation was made a decade ago, hundreds of DNP programs popped up, and thousands of nurses have returned for a DNP degree—much more so than a PhD degree,” says Waszak.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the number of students enrolled in DNP programs between 2018 and 2019 increased 11%, while the number of DNP graduates increased 13%. With 375 DNP programs in the U.S. and 106 more DNP programs planned, schools are preparing for growing demand.
Choosing to pursue a DNP requires a significant commitment. We’ll help you understand what a DNP education involves and your potential career opportunities so you can confidently make informed decisions about your nursing future.
DNP to Be Required for Some Nurses
The AACN has recommended that the DNP be regarded as “the graduate degree for advanced nursing practice preparation, including but not limited to the four current APN [advanced practice nurse] roles: clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, and nurse practitioner.”
This position would align nursing with other healthcare specialties that require a doctoral degree, such as physical therapy and pharmacy.
Still, there’s no consensus among the various APRN specialties about whether a DNP should be required.
A Closer Look at DNP Roles
While all DNP programs provide a core curriculum, specialized coursework prepares you for one of two types of roles:
APRNs with a clinical focus on a specialty and a specific patient population
Nurses who specialize in clinical leadership and nurse executive positions at the organizational level
“The DNP degree in and of itself is not a role,” notes Campbell-O’Dell. “If you already have a role, such as a nurse practitioner, a DNP will enhance your capabilities. If you’re an administrator, it’s going to make you a better administrator. If you’re an informatics specialist, it will make you better at it.”
DNP programs for clinical nursing focus on the four APRN roles:
APRNs specialize in at least one of six patient populations, as defined by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing:
DNP programs that focus on nonclinical specialties include:
There are several educational pathways to earning a DNP. While the traditional pathway involves proceeding from a BSN to an MSN and then a DNP, you may benefit from a bridge program if you know that your ultimate goal is a doctorate.
Bridge programs allow you to earn your DNP at an accelerated rate. And while a traditional pathway allows you to earn your education in increments, the bridge program is an entire package.
Here’s a look at the most common pathways to a DNP.
While your timeline to earn a DNP depends on your individual circumstances, many programs have limited time frames. It’s also important to note that admission requirements and curriculum can vary by school.
Waszak describes the DNP curriculum as a continuation of a master’s education.
“It takes a deeper dive into the important subjects involving healthcare, such as informatics, policy, evidence-based practice, and research, and allows the student to start focusing on a specific topic of interest along the way,” she says. “The best part is the student can choose a specific topic they are most passionate about and really become an expert on it by the end of the program.”
While the DNP is a specialized degree at its core, the curriculum for all programs includes the following eight essentials, as set by the AACN:
The AACN also recommends that all DNP students complete a minimum of 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours, though some programs may require more.
You’ll also complete a DNP “capstone” project to meet degree requirements. This project is a culmination of your learning and could actually be used in the real world to improve patient care or leadership.
“The final DNP project can make a difference in practice—whether it is an advanced practice project or a leadership project. That is the heart of it all. We all want to make a difference in patient care. That is why we became nurses,” Waszak says.
Traditional Versus Online Programs
Depending on your educational pathway and area of specialization, you may have the option to choose an online doctoral program instead of a classroom program. Online DNP programs allow you to attend classes on a more flexible schedule, often by viewing course instruction at your convenience.
An online DNP may be a more manageable educational option if you plan to work while you study or need to schedule your studies around family life. While online programs allow you a degree of autonomy, you’ll still have to complete your clinical hours in a medical setting such as a hospital.
There are three important reasons to attend an accredited school:
Accreditation is awarded to schools and programs. To verify a school’s accreditation, check the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
You can determine whether a DNP program is accredited by checking with these groups:
Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
Some specialty nursing associations accredit DNP programs as well. These include:
American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME)
Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA)
After you find the right DNP program, you’ll have to determine how to pay for your degree. Look at your financial resources and options for additional funding and consider whether you’re willing to take on student loans.
Find out if you qualify for financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most schools use this application for awarding need-based grants, scholarships, and student loans.
If the thought of taking on student loan debt seems daunting, look into programs that forgive student loans after graduation.
If the thought of taking on student loan debt seems daunting, look into programs that forgive student loans after graduation. If you plan to work while you pursue your DNP, find out if your employer has a tuition reimbursement program and whether your studies qualify.
Licensing and Certification
Before you commit to a DNP program, make sure it meets your state board of nursing’s criteria for licensure.
When you complete your doctorate, you’ll be required to take a national certification exam. Your education, certification, and licensure must align with one of the four APRN roles and the patient population you’ve focused on in your studies.
Nurses who pursue a nonclinical DNP may want to pursue a post-DNP certificate in areas such as education or executive leadership.
Salary and Earning Potential
Determining your salary potential with a DNP can be tricky because the BLS doesn’t break out salaries for jobs with this degree. For instance, nurses with either an MSN or a DNP can be advanced practice nurses.
Like most professions, however, having the highest level of education in nursing can give you an advantage.
“The degree can help you qualify for positions that are typically paid at a higher level because they have higher levels of responsibility, and their minimum requirements are a higher level of education,” Campbell-O’Dell says.
Check out this chart to get a sense of average annual salaries for roles that require a DNP or similar education. Of course, factors like your geographic location, level of experience, and workplace can also affect your salary.
Joining general and specialty nursing organizations can give you a broader professional perspective as you make decisions about your education and career.
Here are some professional organizations relevant to nurses with DNPs:
Being a member of a group often has benefits, such as opportunities for continuing education, networking, and mentorship. Most groups maintain a presence on social media, blogs, or podcasts to help you keep up.
With professional insight from: