Nurse Researcher vs. Nurse Scientist: What’s the Difference?

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Published December 23, 2022 · 4 Min Read

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Learn about the similarities and differences between nurse researcher vs. nurse scientist positions and discover the best path for meeting your career goals.
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Two scientists working in a lab with a microscope wearing scrubs Credit: Solskin / DigitalVision / Getty Images

If you're interested in finding solutions to better patient care, consider a career as a nurse researcher or nurse scientist. While the two job titles can sound interchangeable, there are some differences between them.

This guide covers the similarities and differences between the nurse researcher vs. nurse scientist roles, the duties and responsibilities, how to enter the fields, and salary and career growth information. Discover which career may be the best choice for you.

Nurse Researcher and Nurse Scientist Key Similarities and Differences

Both nurse researchers and nurse scientists are involved in clinical research studies. But, nurse researchers typically carry out research, write reports, and present their findings.

In contrast, nurse scientists take on leadership roles in designing studies, supervising research, and publishing findings. Nurse researchers can enter the field with a master's degree in nursing, while nurse scientists must hold a nursing doctorate.

What is a Nurse Researcher?

Nurse researchers conduct research at hospitals, government agencies, and healthcare organizations. They typically earn a master of science in nursing (MSN) but may also pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree or Ph.D. in nursing. Nurse researchers often start out as research assistants.

What is a Nurse Scientist?

Nurse scientists are highly skilled in both the clinical and academic aspects of nursing. They fill leadership roles in health sciences research studies and contribute to the overall healthcare knowledge base through publication. They often hold Ph.D.s and teach at hospitals within university health systems or other academic settings.

Both nurse researchers and nurse scientists work to improve patient outcomes, advance evidence-based practice, and disseminate their findings. Nurse scientists tend to have more responsibility than nurse researchers.

Nurse scientists formulate, design, develop, and manage research projects and serve as faculty members at teaching hospitals. Nurse researchers also take on leadership roles but conduct research on topics directed by their employers.

Nurse Researcher and Nurse Scientist Overview
Points to Consider Nurse Researcher Nurse Scientist
Degree Required MSN DNP or Ph.D.
Certification Options Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP) Certification; Certified Clinical Research Nurses (CRN-BC) Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) certifications
Duties and Responsibilities Conducts research to improve patient outcomes and safe practices Leads research studies and contributes to the healthcare knowledge base
Average Annual Salary $73,700 according to Payscale, December 2022 $107,690 according to ZipRecruiter, December 2022

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Duties and Responsibilities

There may be overlapping job functions for nurse researchers and nurse scientists. Generally, nurse researchers collect and analyze patient information and data for clinical research studies. They may also provide patient care. Nurse scientists develop and implement studies and programming and serve as leaders, mentors, and educators.

What Does a Nurse Researcher Do?

  • Conducts clinical trials and research as directed
  • Supervises and provides patient care, procedures, and treatment
  • Collects and analyzes patient data
  • Compiles research findings into reports and presentations
  • Recruits participants for studies

What Does a Nurse Scientist Do?

  • Leads the development, coordination, and management of clinical research studies and evidence-based programming
  • Serves as a research mentor and educator
  • Provides leadership for evaluation of patient outcome improvement activities
  • Contributes to health sciences knowledge
  • Builds relationships with other healthcare facilities

Education and Certification

Nurse researchers and nurse scientists start their careers as registered nurses (RNs). They may hold a nursing diploma, associate degree in nursing (ADN), or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

A BSN is required to enter graduate nursing programs, and RNs with ADNs can earn their BSNs by completing RN-to-MSN bridge programs in about 2-3 years. To become licensed RNs, nurses take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

How to Become a Nurse Researcher

Nurse researchers need a minimum of a master's in nursing, but employers may prefer or require a doctorate degree – either a DNP or Ph.D. MSNs take 2-3 years to earn, while Ph.D. programs can take 4-6 years to complete. DNPs usually require 2-4 years to finish.

MSN curriculums emphasize advanced research methods and evidence-based studies. DNP programs hone clinical leadership and advanced nursing practice skills. Ph.D. students focus on research development and ethics, theoretical critique, and analytical approaches.

Nurse researchers earn certification via examination from organizations that include the Society for Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA) and the Clinical Research Nurse Certification Council (CRNCC).

SOCRA's requirements include two years of clinical research experience as a full-time, practicing RN. CRNCC eligibility includes two years of RN experience with a minimum of 4,000 practice hours in clinical research.

How to Become a Nurse Scientist

Nurse scientists must earn a DNP or Ph.D. Ph.D. programs cover research methods, design, and management, bridging the gap between advanced nursing practice and research. These programs also focus on academia and teaching. DNP curriculums emphasize practice and research but focus more on the clinical aspects. Ph.D.s complete dissertations, while DNPs do not.

The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) offers several certifications for nurse scientists, including Certified Clinical Research Associate, Certified Clinical Research Coordinator, and Certified Principal Investigator. Eligibility for ACRP certification exams requires 1,500 hours of human subject research work experience and a clinical research degree or 3,000 hours of work experience.

Salary and Career Outlook

Because nurse scientists need a doctoral nursing degree, their average salary tends to be higher than nurse researchers.

Nurse Researcher Salary and Career Outlook

$73,700
Average Annual Nurse Researcher Salary

Source: Payscale, December 2022

Clinical nurse researchers earn an average annual salary of $73,700, with earnings ranging from $68,350-$70,180 as they gain experience.

The salary for nurse researchers also varies by employer, supervisory responsibilities, specializations, and advanced degrees. Geography makes a difference too. For example, clinical nurse researchers in New York City earn an average of 39% more than the national average, according to Payscale.

Nurse Scientist Salary and Career Outlook

$107,690
Average Annual Nurse Scientist Salary

Source: Glassdoor, December 2022

Glassdoor reports average yearly salaries of $107,690 for nurse scientists. Specific job titles, including associate and assistant professors, pay average salaries of $83,300- $119,000.

High-level leaders earn even more, with directors of nursing wages earning an average annual salary of $95,784 as of December 2022, reports Payscale. Similar to nurse researcher salaries, income can vary by employer, geographic location, and experience level.

Nurse Researcher vs. Nurse Scientist: Which Career is Right For Me?

Both nurse researchers and scientists focus on expanding the knowledge base of patient care, evidence-based practice, and improved patient outcomes. When considering which path to follow, take into account how much time and money to spend on your education.

RNs with BSNs can earn their nursing master's degrees in as soon as two years (sometimes even sooner) and begin their new careers earlier. The additional time to earn a doctorate may be worth it if you're interested in advanced leadership roles and teaching in a university hospital setting.

The higher income potential for Ph.D. in nursing science holders may justify the additional 4-6 years to earn the degree.

Determine whether you're interested more in an academic or clinical focus and publishing research. Nurse researchers may work more closely with patients in clinical trials, while nurse scientists lead and educate teams of researchers and students.


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Page Last Reviewed on December 13, 2022


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