Reviewed by Dr. Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., RN, CRNA
This page provides a useful guide for nurses interested in earning doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degrees. The DNP, as the highest level of clinical nursing education, prepares registered nurses (RNs) for broader career and earning prospects in advanced practice nursing, healthcare administration, and nursing education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects advanced practice nursing employment to increase by 26% from 2018-2028.
DNP degrees have grown rapidly since the American Association of Colleges of Nursing issued a statement in 2015 calling for raising the level of required training for advanced practice nursing licensure from the master’s to the doctoral level. All 50 states currently offer campus-based or online DNP programs that hold accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Earning a DNP can take 1-6 years, depending on the program format, type of specialization, and educational background.
A DNP prepares graduates for lucrative advanced practice nursing positions and leadership roles. Although a master of science in nursing (MSN) leads to advanced practice nursing careers and licensure, nurses with DNPs earn higher salaries, according to a recent Medscape APRN compensation report. Many healthcare organizations now require advanced practice nurses to hold DNP degrees.
Do Nurse Practitioners Need a DNP?
The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, which promotes nurse practitioner (NP) training in the U.S., has announced that all entry-level NP programs would move from the master’s level to the DNP by 2025. This shift reflects the need for NPs to acquire practice-based doctoral degrees that focus on clinical approaches to healthcare treatment and prevention.
Where Can You Work With a DNP?
Nurses who have earned DNPs find employment in clinical, management, research, and education roles in surgical and general hospitals, public health and policy-focused organizations, and medical offices and clinics. DNPs may also establish independent practices, delivering many of the same patient services as physicians, diagnosing and treating illnesses, and prescribing medications.
How Long Does it Take to Complete a DNP Program?
The length of time needed to earn a DNP degree depends on program structure, specialization, and enrollment type. An MSN-to-DNP degree may take 1-2 years, while a student with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree can complete a BSN-to-DNP in four years of full-time study.
Can You Complete a DNP Program Online?
Online DNP programs offer convenient scheduling and flexible formats that allow nurses to earn their degrees while maintaining work and personal responsibilities. While all accredited online DNP degrees require students to complete in-person clinical hours, many programs let enrollees fulfill these clinical requirements at hospitals or other nearby sites.
Types of DNP Programs
Depending on their educational background, prospective DNP students may choose from multiple program tracks to earn their degrees. The RN-to-DNP track enables RNs to advance their career and earning potential. BSN-to-DNP and MSN-to-DNP degrees work best for nurses who seek graduate degrees that prepare them for advanced practice nursing specializations and licensure.
The RN-to-DNP track provides an appealing option for licensed RNs who want to advance their career potential. This degree builds on the competency areas obtained during already completed nursing programs while providing the training to develop or expand a population area or specialty focus.
Depending on the degree they hold when entering the program, students can expect to complete their requirements in 3-6 years. Accredited RN-to-DNP programs require at least 1,000 clinical hours, comprehensive examinations, and a culminating capstone project. Graduates must also meet specific state licensing requirements for advanced practice nursing.
Students who have completed their bachelor of science in nursing may pursue a BSN-to-DNP degree. The curriculum for these programs offers courses in assessment, evidence-based practice, pathophysiology, and diagnostics and therapeutics. The best accredited programs meet state requirements for advanced practice nursing licensure that qualifies graduates to perform many of the services provided by physicians, including diagnosing patients and prescribing medication.
While each BSN-to-DNP program features a unique curriculum, candidates in all doctoral programs focus their training in specialty areas such as acute care, adult-gerontology, neonatal care, women’s health, and oncology. These programs require 65-90 credits completed in 3-6 years, including required clinical practice hours and research projects.
Traditional DNP programs offer RNs and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with MSNs a pathway for career and salary advancement. This MSN-to-DNP track admits master’s-level nurses with active licenses and work experience. The degree generally requires 30-40 credits and 500 clinical practice hours. Students often complete the program in one year.
Because many candidates who enter MSN-to-DNP programs already have acquired national certification in APRN roles as NPs, nurse midwives, and nurse specialists, these programs offer an advanced practice nurse specialty or patient population focus.
Advanced practice nurses who hold DNP degrees can expect employment and earnings to grow much faster than other nursing professions through the next decade. Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and NPs earn median salaries well above $100,000 annually.
The growing acceptance of the DNP as the terminal nursing degree has resulted in the expansion of online programs. These distance learning opportunities allow licensed nurses to continue working while completing their degrees through accredited doctoral programs unavailable where they live and work.
Curriculum in DNP Programs
Each DNP degree features a distinct curriculum, depending on education and experience levels. Most degrees build on the core competencies acquired in ADN, BSN, or MSN programs, supplemented by clinical experiences and advanced coursework in healthcare practices, policy, and management.
These areas may comprise 40% or more of primary program requirements. The balance of the curriculum focuses on electives and concentrations that align with APRN specialty roles and population areas.
Specialities in DNP Programs
Students enrolled in DNP programs may choose concentrations to acquire advanced practice nursing direct-care specialty certifications. Many programs prepare students for healthcare leadership, policy and public health, nursing informatics, or nursing education roles.
The most popular DNP direct-care concentrations prepare graduates for APRN certifications as NPs, nurse midwives, and nurse specialists to deliver comprehensive patient care in healthcare organizations and independent practice. The nurse anesthetist concentration trains graduates for independent practice providing pain management in hospitals and clinical settings.
Salary and Job Outlook for DNP Degree Holders
Graduates of DNP programs certified in APRN roles as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and NPs can expect a favorable employment outlook through the next decade. According to BLS data, almost half of these APRNs work in physician’s offices, while over 25% find positions in state, local, and private hospitals.
Employment and salary projections for APRNs will continue to outpace other nursing occupations, although variations exist across specialties. BLS data indicates a 27% growth projection for NPs from 2018-2028. These professionals earn a median salary of $110,000, with the top salaries reaching over $150,000.
NPs find the highest salaries in California, Washington, Hawaii, and New Jersey, with the most employment opportunities in the metropolitan areas surrounding New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Dr. Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., RN, CRNA, is an advanced practice nurse. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She is currently a university nursing educator and has authored multiple publications. She has also presented at national and international levels about medical and leadership issues. She enjoys walking, reading, traveling to new places, and spending time with her family.
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Nurses pursuing their doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degrees attain the highest level of education in the profession. DNP degree-holders become nurse practitioners (NPs), healthcare administrators, nurse educators, and researchers.