DNP vs PhD in Nursing: What's the Difference?

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When investigating advanced nursing degrees in order to begin work as a nurse practitioner (NP), prospective students will find both DNP and PhD programs. In the most general terms, the DNP, or doctor of nursing practice, is a clinical practice degree while the PhD, or doctor of philosophy, in nursing is a research-focused degree.

The scope of both the coursework and the ultimate applications of these programs can differ quite a bit, although both are terminal nursing degrees. That is to say that neither the DNP nor the PhD is considered “further” education than the other. Both DNP and PhD graduates can work as nurse practitioners once they earn the proper credentials. That said, many DNP programs incorporate an NP specialization, while PhD-prepared nurses must typically pursue a post-graduate certificate to become an NP.

In terms of completing each degree, the requirements can differ greatly. In order to obtain a DNP, students must complete a clinical project that demonstrates intimate knowledge of evidence-based practices. PhD programs, however, most often have a focus on original research and research methodology, which results in a final research project and defense of a dissertation.

DNP vs PhD: Side-By-Side Comparison

The following table outlines some of the biggest differences between DNP and PhD in nursing programs. Statistics included represent an average for graduate nursing programs across the U.S. Requirements for any individual program may vary. If you are considering pursuing a DNP or PhD, be sure to investigate requirements specific to each program of interest.

Core Curriculum
  • Translating research evidence into nursing practice
  • Healthcare policy (including budgets, financial management, leadership theory)
  • Cultivating practice expertise
  • Research methodologies
  • Theories of nursing research
  • Faculty development
Applicant Prerequisites Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) Some programs require a Master’s degree in nursing while others accept BSN candidates.
Credit Hours Usually between 70-95 for those entering with a Bachelor’s degree. Fewer credits are required for those students who have already obtained a Master’s degree. Around 60 credit hours for those with a Master’s degree, inclusive of dissertation hours.
Clinical Work Yes, sometimes up to 1000 hours Generally minimal
Research Statistics and theory In-depth, faculty-guided research projects
Online Programs Available Yes, some programs are available primarily or totally online Yes, some programs are available primarily or totally online
Final Project Often consists of a clinical paper, presentation, or other practice-based project Dissertation which contributes substantively to the field of nursing, plus dissertation defense
Typical Post-Graduate Employment
  • Leadership in nursing practice
  • Management positions
  • Healthcare policy, administration, or government positions
  • Academia in practice-based nursing programs
  • Nursing researcher
  • Health policy positions
  • Nursing faculty positions
Occupational Demand According to the AACN, demand for nurses educated at the highest levels of practice is growing. The AACN has advocated for more DNP programs and the movement of a DNP requirement (as opposed to the current Master’s degree requirement) for all nurse practitioners in the coming years. The demand for nurses with PhD-level education is high, particularly in academia where waves of retirement are expected to have a major impact on the number of nursing faculty in the next decade (AACN).

While there is no single right choice when it comes to deciding between a DNP and PhD in nursing, remember that DNP students should be committed to the highest levels of nursing practice while PhD students should have a clear focus on furthering research in nursing and health policy.