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Why Get a Doctorate in Nursing (DNP)?

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated February 28, 2023
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    Graduating with a doctoral degree in nursing can advance careers, increase salaries, and lead to rewarding jobs. Learn 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.

    In 2004, 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 as of 2020, 13 states, including California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas, boast over 10 programs. Find out in this guide 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 doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing, 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 DNP students with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, most require applicants to hold a master’s degree, since 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 bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) typically complete a BSN-to-DNP program in 3-6 years, depending on the program and the student’s enrollment status. Students with MSNs can complete their DNPs in as little as 18 months to two years in an MSN-to-DNP program. Curriculum content is largely focused on statistics and data analysis, leadership skills, advanced clinical skills, and nursing philosophy.

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    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 healthcare 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 to 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.?

    Both a DNP and a nursing Ph.D. are terminal degrees, but they require different academic focuses and lead to different career opportunities. To understand the difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. in nursing, consider the following:

    Comparison of DNP and 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. A nurse with a Ph.D. seeks 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 a nursing Ph.D., but there is no clinical component to this healthcare degree.
    DNP candidates must complete a capstone project. Many DNP programs are available online, and they 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 earn advanced education. According to Payscale in February 2023, MSN-holders earn an average of $100,000 annually, and DNP-holders earn an average of $110,000 annually.

    Some DNP positions pay significantly more. Chief nursing officers earn an annual average of $138,130 and certified registered nurse anesthetists earn an average of $172,670 annually, as of February 2023 on Payscale.

    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 as a few of the most popular jobs among DNP graduates. In addition to a doctorate, the first three positions require nurse practitioner (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

    Nearly 70% of NPs surveyed by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) in 2020 held 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: $110,000 median annual base salary (Source: AANP report)

    Adult Nurse Practitioner

    The second most popular NP focus area accounted for about 11% of NPs surveyed by the AANP in 2020. Practitioners with adult nurse certification 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: $120,000 median annual base salary (Source: AANP report)

    Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

    While just 4.7% of NPs surveyed by the AANP in 2020 were certified in psychiatric nurse practice, it remains one of the highest-paying clinical focus areas. Practitioners help patients suffering from such conditions as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, behavioral and mood disorders, and substance misuse.

    Salary: $129,000 median annual base salary (Source: AANP report)

    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: $77,440 median annual base salary (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

    Page last reviewed February 24, 2023

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