How an Online DNP Degree Program Works

Explore the difference between online and on-campus doctor of nursing programs.

female doctor of nursing discussing case with another doctor online
male and female nurses video chatting about patients

Earning an online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) allows you to achieve the highest academic degree in the nursing profession while having the flexibility to arrange your education around your schedule. An online DNP typically allows you to work through theory-based coursework in virtual online classrooms while you fulfill clinical requirements in person at a local approved clinical site. The approach is often a good choice for busy parents, people who live far from an educational institution, and those who want to keep working while earning an advanced degree.

Having a DNP can help position you as a clinical expert who has achieved the highest level of knowledge and expertise in the nursing field, and it can prepare you to qualify for advanced roles in direct patient care and administration positions that involve improving nursing practice and patient outcomes.

However, taking the online option does differ in many ways from the traditional brick-and-mortar educational approach. We’ll help you understand what’s involved, what to consider when choosing a program, and how to determine if an online DNP is the right educational path for you.

What Online DNP Programs Are Available?

At the doctoral level, the practice-focused DNP is an alternative to the research-focused Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing. Online DNP degrees are intended to expand upon previous nursing education and experience. You can begin your studies at different levels of experience.

  • A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)-to-DNP program, also called a post-master’s DNP, is a program designed for nurses who have a Master’s degree and want to take the next step in their nursing education.
  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)-to-DNP bridge program helps you achieve a DNP at a faster pace than following a two-step traditional route to DNP, which involves following an educational path from BSN to MSN, then MSN to DNP. A bridge program bridges the gap between the two degrees by giving you credit for the knowledge you already have.
  • A Registered Nurse (RN)-to-DNP bridge program is another type of bridge program. While program criteria vary, this type of program typically allows a Registered Nurse with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or diploma certificate to bridge to a DNP without earning a separate BSN and MSN. Coursework typically allows an RN to complete BSN qualifications, then move toward graduate work.

Overall, enrollment in DNP programs is on the rise. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the number of students enrolled in DNP programs between 2017 and 2018 increased 12%, while the number of DNP graduates increased 15% during that same period. The program’s popularity is likely fueled by the release of a position statement in 2018 by the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties that called for the DNP to replace the MSN as the mandatory minimum by 2025. No decision has been made at this time, and the issue remains under consideration.

Despite increasing popularity of the degree, having a DNP still sets you apart and gives you a competitive edge. “After years of trying to get nurses to pursue doctoral-level education, less than 2% of nurses have a doctoral degree,” says Lisa Smith, PhD, RN, CNE, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions at Grand Canyon University.

How Do Online and On-Campus DNP Programs Differ?

While both online and campus-based DNP programs help students achieve the same academic goals, online doctorate programs provide more options for how and when students learn.

Class schedules are typically more flexible online because many programs aren’t limited to the traditional time frames of fall and spring semesters or quarters. This can allow you the freedom to proceed at a rate that meets your needs.

As an alternative to one-size-fits-all courses that are paced by the beginning and end of a semester, some online DNP programs offer competency-based education, in which students move through individual lesson modules as they master specific competencies, or skills. This type of program allows you to complete the modules at your own pace to achieve your goals, says Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB, associate dean for the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global.

Who are These Programs Best For?

An online DNP program can help you pursue your degree while still giving you the flexibility to meet other responsibilities that prevent you from attending a brick-and-mortar school.

With fewer scheduling restrictions than on-campus programs, an online doctorate program can be an ideal solution for people working full time, busy parents or other caregivers who have time constraints but are ready to commit to an advanced degree. While you’ll have flexibility in scheduling your time, you’ll still be responsible for making sure you meet required milestones, assignments, and activities, Burdi says.

An online program may be for you if you can manage the demands of advanced-level coursework without the structure that on-campus classes provides.

Some students who opt for an online approach towards earning their degree are nurses who know they need a doctorate to reach their career goals. Pursuing this education in an RN or BSN bridge program can save time and money if you know that the DNP is your ultimate goal. For programs that can take years to complete, having the flexibility to work while you study in an online program can help offset expenses over this period.

An online approach can also benefit nursing students who live in rural areas far in proximity from classroom-based programs. These students can gain access to a wide range of educational opportunities and specializations without being limited by geography.

An online DNP program may be right for you if you can manage the responsibilities and demands of this advanced-level coursework without the accountability and structure that attending on-campus classes provides.

How Long Does it Take to Complete a DNP Online?

The time it takes to complete this degree depends on the program you choose, your education level when you begin the program, the specific requirements you must meet, and the educational pathway you choose. General timeframes:

The MSN-to-DNP program takes about one-and-a-half to two years to complete.

A BSN-to-DNP requires between three and four years.

An RN-to-DNP takes around four to six years.

Online DNP programs that offer year-round education and allow you to progress through classes at your own pace can further reduce the time it takes to earn your degree.

What Will I Study?

The curriculum for an online DNP program aligns with the curriculum for the same degree taught in a classroom. Entering a DNP bridge program requires taking classes to make up for the BSN and/or MSN degree that you’re bridging on your way to the DNP.

The core curriculum for a DNP program concentrates on students achieving eight competencies that match the area of specialization they’re pursuing. Accredited DNP programs align with curriculum recommendations from the ACCN.

Specialty areas of the DNP degree can emphasize one of the following advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) degrees:

Non-clinical specializations in a DNP typically have an organizational focus and vary in title by school. Common non-clinical specializations include:

  • Organizational and professional leadership
  • Management health policy
  • Nursing/health informatics
  • Nurse leadership

A DNP program also requires the completion of a formal DNP project that shows ways you sought to improve either practice or patient outcomes.

Do I Need to Be Physically Present for Anything?

Requirements to appear in person at a specific place and time vary by program. In a hybrid program, you typically travel to campus or another central location for labs or instruction while you also complete a portion of your classwork online. Clinical hours typically require hands-on, in-person assignments.

Hands-On Clinical Hour Requirements

Clinical hour requirements vary for each DNP program, so make sure you understand a program’s policies before you apply. The American Academy of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that DNP students complete a minimum of 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours. Some programs may require more.

If you’re a post-MSN student, your program determines how many of your graduate hours apply to the 1,000-hour minimum and how many additional clinical hours you need to complete the degree.

Most online programs allow you to fulfill clinical requirements at a hospital or clinical site that’s convenient to your home. However, the program will have to approve the site and the qualifications of the supervisors who will oversee your clinical hours.

Will an Online Degree Make a Difference with Employers?

DNP students typically have progressed to a point in their careers in which they’re holding demanding positions as BSN or MSN-educated nurses, making the prospect of on-campus education a challenge. The availability of online DNP programs allows DNP students to achieve their degrees while also maintaining full-time employment. In addition, the opportunity to increase your salary is the same whether you take classes online or in person.

As a result, whether you receive your degree online, in a classroom, or a combination of both, isn’t as important to employers as the fact that you attended an accredited program.

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