Explore a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree

Doctoral Degrees in Nursing

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.

DNP Overview

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.

DNP Requirement for Advanced Practice Nurses

As of late 2020, here’s where the DNP requirement stands with the APRN roles. It’s a good idea to track education requirements for these programs in case there are other changes.

Role

DNP Requirement


Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)

The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) will require CRNA students to earn a DNP or another doctoral degree to enter practice, starting in 2025. An MSN is sufficient until then, and there’s no retroactive DNP requirement for current CRNAs.


Nurse practitioner (NP)

  • Provides primary patient care, including diagnosing and treating patients, in some states with no supervision.

The AACN advocates for DNP degrees and the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) is committed to the DNP as the entry-level degree by 2025. There’s been no action to formalize the requirement.


Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)

  • Diagnoses and treats patients in a specialized area of nursing at the bedside and in other healthcare settings

The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) recommends the DNP as the entry-level degree for CNSs by 2030.


Certified nurse midwife (CNM)

  • Provides pregnancy, labor, delivery, and post-partum patient care; also provides primary care for women

The American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) doesn’t endorse requiring a DNP for midwives.

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:

  • Certified nurse practitioner
  • Certified nurse midwife
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist
  • Clinical nurse specialist

APRNs specialize in at least one of six patient populations, as defined by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing:

  • Family/individual across the lifespan
  • Adult-gerontology
  • Neonatal
  • Women’s health/gender-related
  • Psych/mental health
  • Pediatrics

DNP programs that focus on nonclinical specialties include:

  • Patient populations
  • Systems (including information systems)
  • Organizations
  • Healthcare policy

Benefits of a DNP

Earning a DNP can elevate your practice and position you for a broad range of career opportunities. Here are some reasons to consider this educational path:

  • Support is growing to make the DNP the entry-level degree for APRNs.

As the number of DNP graduates increases, even if the degree isn’t required, you could find yourself left out without this baseline of education.

  • A DNP is the pinnacle of nursing education.

“I see more students going back for the DNP degree because they are personally motivated to achieve that highest-level degree and to make a difference in care—not because they were nudged to do so by their workplace” says Waszak.

Waszak said she also sees a trend of executive nurse leaders becoming DNPs to keep up with current trends and changes in healthcare.

  • A DNP has the potential for more earning power.

Having an advanced degree can help you qualify for positions with more responsibility and decision-making duties, which typically translate into better salaries throughout your career.

Education

nurse talking in hallway with colleague

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.

MSN to DNP

Considered the traditional pathway. Nurses in these programs may also be working as APRNs based on their MSN credentials.

  • 1-2 years full time
  • 3-4 years part time

Curriculum Details

  • Concentration on specialized coursework
  • Post-baccalaureate clinical hours may be applied toward clinical hour requirements, depending on the institution

BSN to DNP (Bridge)

Combines the curriculum of an MSN and DNP. Some programs have an “MSN exit” option that allows you to leave the program when you’ve completed requirements for a master’s.

  • 3-4 years full time
  • 4-6 years part time

Curriculum Details

  • Combines MSN and DNP curriculum to avoid duplication
  • May offer an MSN exit before DNP curriculum begins or award both MSN and DNP upon graduation

RN to DNP (Bridge)

While not as common as other pathways, this route allows RNs without a bachelor’s degree to work toward a DNP without duplicating coursework.

  • 3-6 years full time
  • 6+ years part time

Curriculum Details

  • May require taking prerequisites to complete baccalaureate-level coursework before graduate courses
  • May offer an MSN degree before DNP curriculum begins or award both MSN and DNP upon graduation

Direct-entry DNP

Similar to the BSN-to-DNP route but for students with a bachelor’s degree in an area outside nursing.

  • 4-6 years full time
  • Part time typically not available

Curriculum Details

  • Initial coursework usually requires becoming a registered nurse before taking graduate coursework
  • Rigorous programs that typically don’t offer part-time options

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.

Curriculum

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:

  • Scientific underpinnings for practice
  • Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  • Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of healthcare
  • Healthcare policy for advocacy in healthcare
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  • Advanced nursing practice

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.

School Accreditation

There are three important reasons to attend an accredited school:

It’s a requirement to qualify for federal financial aid.

Some certifications require a degree from an accredited school.

Credits from an unaccredited school won’t transfer to 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)

DNP Versus MD/DO

A nurse with a DNP and an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathy) have accomplished the highest level of education in their respective fields. While all have earned the title “doctor,” their preparation, roles, and salaries are different.


DNP Nurse
Education

MD/DO
Education

  • BSN (4 years)
  • MSN (2 years)
  • DNP (2 years; may be longer if MSN is skipped)
  • Minimum of 1,000 clinical hours
  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Internship (1 year)
  • Residency (1-7 years, depending on the specialty)
  • 15,000-16,000 clinical hours

DNP Nurse
Duties

MD/DO
Duties

  • Independent practitioner or employee at a health facility
  • Diagnosing and treating patients; some states allow nurses to do this on their own while others require supervision
  • Independent practitioner or employee at a health facility
  • Diagnosing and treating patients

DNP Nurse
Average annual salaries*

MD/DO
Sample average annual salaries*

  • Nurse anesthetists: $181,040
  • Nurse midwives: $108,810
  • Nurse practitioners: $111,840

*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019; BLS does not differentiate MSN vs. DNP salaries for these roles

  • Anesthesiologist: $261,730
  • Obstetricians and gynecologists: $233,610
  • Family medicine physicians: $213,270

*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Financial Aid

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.

Career

Average /
Top Annual Salary


Certified registered nurse anesthetist

$181,040 / $208,000


Medical and health services managers

$115,160 / $189,000


Certified nurse practitioner

$111,840 / $152,160


Certified nurse midwife

$108,810 / $158,990


Postsecondary nursing instructors and teachers

$83,160 / $133,460

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Stay Informed

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:

  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA)
  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
  • American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM)
  • Doctors of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS)

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.


anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

David Campbell-O’Dell, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, FAANP

President, Doctors of Nursing Practice, Inc.

Daria Waszak, DNP, RN, CNE, COHN-S, CEN

Associate Dean and Assistant Professor
Department of Graduate Nursing
Felician University


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