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DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing: What’s the Difference?

Daniel Bal, MS.Ed
Updated July 26, 2023
Explore the differences between earning an DNP and Ph.D. in nursing including their duties and responsibilities as well as salary and career outlook.
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Nurses who have already earned a masters degree and are looking to pursue the next step in their education have two options: doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing.

Both degrees offer nurses a variety of professional opportunities, allowing them to utilize their expertise to benefit the field of nursing.

This guide outlines the differences in earning a DNP vs. a Ph.D. in nursing, and what opportunities lay ahead for graduates of either program. In understanding the roles and responsibilities of each, nurses can determine which degree is right for them.

DNP and Ph.D. in Nursing Key Similarities and Differences

A DNP and Ph.D. are both terminal degrees, meaning they are the highest degree a nurse can earn. Regardless of their choice of program, interested nurses need a bachelor of science (BSN) degree in nursing, an active and unencumbered registered nurse (RN) license, and clinical experience before gaining admittance to either doctorate program.

While a DNP and Ph.D. are both advanced degrees, they prepare nurses for different roles within the nursing field. DNP programs focus on educating nurses who want to pursue leadership roles in a clinical setting. Ph.D. programs provide nurses with an education to pursue academic or research-based positions.

What is a DNP?

A DNP is an advanced degree for nurses who want to become experts in clinical nursing. The degree is an alternative to research-centric doctoral programs, and provides nurses with skills and training to work at an advanced level in the nursing field.

What is a Ph.D. in Nursing?

Earning a Ph.D. in nursing prepares graduates for work either in academia or research settings. Graduates often pursue faculty positions with academic institutions or in a career that involves performing research in a medical laboratory.

Major Comparisons
Points to ConsiderDNPPh.D in Nursing
Length of Programs2-4 years4-6 years
Certification OptionsPediatrics, Neonatal, Psychiatric-Mental Health, Clinical Nurse Midwife, Women’s HealthEducation, Public Health Policy, Healthcare Innovation
Core CompetenciesScientific Underpinnings for Practice, Organization and Systems Leadership, Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care, Healthcare Policy, Interprofessional Collaboration, Clinical Prevention, Population Health, Advanced Nursing PracticeDevelopment of Research, Critique of Theories and Literature, Designing Research, Research Ethics, Measurement and Sources of Error, Analytical Approaches, Secondary Data and Informatics, Grant and Proposal Writing, Scientific Communication, Diversity and Equity, Cross-Disciplinary Teamwork, Leadership Roles
Average Annual Salary$107,000$99,000

Source: Payscale

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Duties and Responsibilities

The roles of a nurse with a DNP vs. a Ph.D. in nursing are fundamentally different. The former focuses on clinical work, whereas the latter is geared more toward research and education.

Their duties revolve around those two major areas. As such, DNPs are more likely to work with patients, while Ph.D graduates focus on educating nurses and analyzing medical practices.

What Can You Do With a DNP?

Nurses with a DNP are considered expert clinicians who are prepared for the highest level of nursing practice.

Upon earning the degree, nurses can choose to focus on leadership and administrative roles (public health, healthcare policy, informatics, etc.) or clinical care (clinical nurse specialist, nurse practitioner, etc.).

After earning a DNP, nurses’ responsibilities may include:

  • Diagnose and treat patients
  • Prescribe medications
  • Order various diagnostic tests
  • Handle patient complains
  • Consult on complex cases
  • Implement policy changes

Keep in mind that some DNP programs are for roles (clinical nurse specialist, nurse educator) that will not have authorization to perform some of the above responsibilities.

What Can You Do With a Ph.D. in Nursing?

Nurses with a Ph.D. often focus on the areas of education and research. They may design studies and conduct research on clinical practices, nursing education, health systems, and public policy.

People with a Ph.D. in nursing often find employment in academic, business, or governmental settings. Overall, nurses with a Ph.D.can:

  • Design, conduct, and publish research
  • Develop new nursing knowledge and methods
  • Utilize research results to improve nursing outcomes
  • Write proposals and apply for grants to fund research
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Compose curriculum for nursing courses

Education Prerequisites

When looking to earn either a DNP or Ph.D., most programs require applicants to have similar prerequisites. Institutions often look for candidates who have attained an undergraduate degree, are actively able to practice nursing, and can meet certain academic requirements.

How to Earn a DNP

To apply for a DNP degree program, candidates need a BSN or master of science in nursing (MSN) from an accredited institution, a GPA of at least 3.0, and an active nursing license.

Once enrolled, students can choose an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) role such as clinical nurse practitioner (CNP), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified nurse-midwife (CNM), or certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

CNPs and CNSs then choose a population focus (i.e., neonatal, pediatrics, womens health, psychiatric-mental health). DNP candidates often focus on a research or capstone project throughout their entire program.

The program can last 2-4 years, and full-time students are able to earn their degree faster than their part-time counterparts. Students participate in courses on informatics, health policy, healthcare delivery systems, evidence-based practice, and project management.

Learners must also complete a total of 1,000 clinical hours, 500 of which can stem from a previous masters program that resulted in national certification. Learners with previous hours may become more common as some programs, like CRNA, transition from MSN to DNP-only.

How to Earn a Ph.D. in Nursing

To get accepted to a Ph.D. program, candidates need a BSN or MSN from an accredited program, a 3.0 to 3.5 minimum GPA, and an active nursing license. Applicants must also provide a CV or resume, professional references, and a personal statement.

The length of a Ph.D. program ranges from 4-6 years depending on the status of the student (full-time vs. part-time). The curriculum revolves around theory, analysis, and statistics, with students taking classes in grant writing, research design, and research methods. Since their work takes place within education and research, Ph.D. candidates are not required to complete clinical hours.

Salary and Career Outlook

Upon program completion, DNP and Ph.D. graduates may benefit from a higher earning potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a steady need over the next decade for nurses with advanced training.

Ultimately, degree type, specialization, and population focus dictate the average annual salary and the type of demand nurses should anticipate.

Average Annual DNP Salary

Average Annual Ph.D. in Nursing Salary

DNP in Nursing Salary and Career Outlook

While the average salary ofnurses with DNPs is approximately $107,000, their chosen specialization impacts their earning potential and demand. DNP-holders working a CRNAs average $164,340 per year, according to July 2022 Payscale data, while those who work in pediatrics earn $92,030.

Not only do CRNAs earn the highest average salary, but they are also one of the most in-demand specializations; the BLS projects a job growth rate of 45%, significantly higher than the 9% average for all other professions.

Another main factor that influences DNP earning potential is years of experience. Entry-level nurses earn an average annual salary of approximately $87,000, according to July 2022 Payscale data. Whereas those with more than 20 years of experience can earn upwards of $187,000 depending upon the specialization.

Ph.D. in Nursing Salary and Career Outlook

Much like nurses with a DNP, the salary of one with a Ph.D. varies based on focus. According to the BLS, nurse educators with a Ph.D. can receive upwards of $125,930 annually.

While all nurses with advanced degrees continue to be in demand, Ph.D. graduates who choose to become educators can especially benefit from this need. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools had to turn away over 80,000 qualified applicants in 2019 due to the shortage of educators.

Many states are looking to provide incentives to nurses who choose to become educators, thereby increasing the benefit of selecting this role.

DNP vs. Ph.D. in Nursing: Which Degree is Right For Me?

Deciding which degree works best depends upon a nurse’s personal and professional goals. The degrees lead nurses down two fairly distinct paths – one clinical and one research-oriented.

DNP and Ph.D. graduates are both in high demand and have above-average earning potential. The degrees differ in time commitment and responsibilities.

Nurses who prefer to work in a clinical capacity either directly with patients or in a nursing leadership role should pursue a DNP. Graduates often find themselves in a variety of clinical settings, such as hospitals, specialty practices, or public health offices.

Learners more interested in preparing future nurses or conducting research that aids in the development of new and effective nursing methods should pursue a Ph.D. Nurse Ph.D. graduates often use their expertise in settings such as colleges and universities, research facilities, medical laboratories, and government agencies.

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Page last reviewed: May 6, 2022

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