Why Get a Doctorate in Nursing (DNP)?


Updated November 22, 2022 · 4 Min Read

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Graduating with a doctoral degree in nursing advances careers, increases salaries, and leads to rewarding careers. Read on for information about why and how to become a DNP.
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A doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree can help nurses increase their salary potential, while also opening up career opportunities only available to those with advanced training.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing endorsed shifting the minimum education level for advanced nursing practice from a master of science in nursing (MSN) to a DNP. As more nurses pursue DNPs than ever before, the rise in the number of DNP-holders has made doctorate-level education necessary to compete in the job market.

The number of DNP programs has also grown. Nursing schools in all 50 states offer DNPs, and some states, such as California, Florida, and Illinois, boast 10 or more programs. This guide offers information on the advantages of earning a DNP, along with salary data and career path advice.

What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

The doctor of nursing practice is a terminal nursing degree, the highest level of education available in the field. It is important to distinguish the DNP from other terminal degrees available to nursing professionals, including the Ph.D., the doctor of nursing science (DNSc), and the nurse doctorate (ND). The DNP delivers practice-based training, while other terminal degrees focus on research skills, scholarly inquiry, or high-level specialty skills.

While some schools accept students with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, most require applicants to hold a master’s degree, as doctoral programs build on MSN curricula. Most doctor of nursing practice programs emphasize areas that support nursing leadership, such as systems management, quality improvement and data-driven decision making.

Students already possessing a BSN typically complete a DNP in 3-6 years of study, depending on the program and the student's enrollment status. Students with MSNs can complete their DNPs in as little as 18 months to 2 years. Curriculum content is largely focused on statistics and data analysis, leadership skills, advanced clinical skills and nursing philosophy.

Advantages to Getting a DNP

As the U.S. healthcare system evolves, DNPs in clinical practice are expected to take on larger roles in problem solving and advocacy, acting as liaisons with other medical professionals. This heightened responsibility comes with higher pay rates and opportunities for advancement, especially as current DNP holders start to retire.

Nurse leaders must be familiar with a constantly growing base of medical knowledge, and they must stay current on evolving best practices. Patient care is complex, and industry-wide developments are shifting more responsibility onto nurses. Anticipated shortages in physician staff and nursing faculty also place challenging intellectual demands on nurse leaders.

Expectations for nurse leaders are lofty, and a doctor of nursing practice program offers excellent preparation for advanced clinical practice.

What is the Difference Between a DNP and a Nursing Ph.D.?

In response to the IOM’s call for better-educated nurses, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) is shifting the DNP's focus. Until now, advanced practice nurses with an MSN have qualified for specialty credentialing. However, a master’s degree credit load that prepares nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse-midwives and certified nurse anesthetists is comparable to that of doctoral degrees in other healthcare professions.

Recognizing this, the AACN now recommends the DNP as a minimum standard of education for all advanced practice specialties.

To understand the difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. in nursing, consider the following:

DNP Nursing Ph.D.
The DNP emphasizes higher-level skills in nursing practice. DNPs strive to improve patient outcomes. The Ph.D. in nursing focuses on scholarly inquiry and research. Ph.D.s seek to enlarge and further the body of nursing knowledge.
A DNP curriculum centers on leadership in healthcare, evidence-based practice, and advanced practice nursing. Coursework covers statistics, clinical diagnosis, disease management, budget planning and administration, healthcare policy and the transformation of our healthcare system. Nursing Ph.D. candidates study illness trajectories and the care systems we use to treat them. Ph.D. coursework includes advanced theory, research methodology, data analysis, chronic illness issues and care systems.
While teaching is optional for DNP students, candidates must complete up to 1,000 clinical hours of practical experience requirements. Teaching is required for nursing Ph.D.s, but there is no clinical component to the degree.
DNP candidates must complete a capstone project. Many programs are available online, and can often be completed by working nurses. Ph.D. candidates are expected to write a senior thesis. Ph.D. in nursing programs are generally based in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms and are not geared toward working students.
DNP-holders often take leadership positions in large healthcare organizations or facilities. Some work as expert clinicians or secure academic positions that emphasize clinical practice and education. Individuals with a Ph.D. in nursing tend to land academic tenure-track positions or serve in management roles at research organizations.

How Much Can You Earn with a DNP?

DNP-holders enjoy higher salaries than nurses with BSNs and MSNs, making it well worth it for practitioners with nursing bachelor's and master's degrees to obtain advanced education. A 2019 nurse practitioner compensation report found that MSN-holders can increase their pay from a median annual base salary of $108,000 to $113,000 with a DNP. Five years of experience raises the total annual income of nurse practitioners by roughly $8,000, with increases of an estimated $2,000-$4,000 every five years or so after that.

Compared with nursing Ph.D.-holders' median annual base pay of $120,000, DNPs earn ,000 less per year on average. But, some DNP positions pay significantly more, including: chief nursing officers, who earn an average annual salary of $151,000; certified registered nurse anesthetists, who make $162,000 a year; and clinical directors, who bring in $178,000 annually.

Featured Online DNP Programs

Popular Careers for DNP Graduates

DNP graduates take on many different roles. Some become advanced clinicians, working with specific patient populations. Others work as high-level nursing administrators and focus on decision-making, policy, and education in areas like clinical training, executive leadership, and nursing informatics.

The career options listed below rank are a few of the most popular jobs among DNP graduates. In addition to a doctorate, the first three positions require NP certification in the applicable specialization area, whether family nurse practice, adult care, or psychiatric nursing. University nursing professors usually need a Ph.D.

Family Nurse Practitioner:

More than 65% of NPs surveyed by the AANP pursued certification in family nurse practice. These professionals typically work alongside physicians as primary care providers, seeing patients of all ages for annual checkups and addressing illnesses or injuries. Family nurse practitioners also advise on wellness issues like diet and exercise.
Salary: $107,000 median annual base salary

Adult Nurse Practitioner:

The AANP reports that 12% of NPs select the second most popular certification, adult nurse practice. Practitioners in this specialty provide acute and chronic adult primary care in collaboration or consultation with physicians. They conduct exams and assessments, order tests, and formulate treatment and health maintenance plans.
Salary: $115,500 median annual base salary

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner:

While just 1.4% of NPs surveyed by the AANP chose to become certified in psychiatric nurse practice in 2019, the events of 2020 may lead to more nurses entering this specialty. Practitioners help patients suffering from such conditions as ADHD, anxiety, behavioral and mood disorders, and substance abuse.
Salary: $120,000 median annual base salary

University Nursing Professor:

University nursing professors usually hold a Ph.D. They educate future nurses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, develop nursing science innovations, and publish their research. Nursing professors typically specialize in an area of clinical practice.
Salary: $120,000 median annual base salary

Reviewed by:

Anna-Lise Krippaehne

Anna-Lise Krippaehne, DNP, FNP-BC

Anna-Lise Krippaehne is a recent graduate from University of Portland’s doctor of nursing practice program. She received her bachelor's in nursing science from University of Portland in 2012, and worked in acute care providing bedside nursing care on a general surgical unit for eight years at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington before pursuing her doctorate.

There, she also assisted in teaching new graduate nurses through simulation experiences with Swedish’s Nurse Residency Program, in addition to contributing to several quality improvement projects during her tenure. She will soon begin her first position on faculty as a board-certified family nurse practitioner at Oregon Health & Science University’s Family Practice Department in Portland, Oregon.

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