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

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By Staff Writer

The nursing profession offers two distinct educational paths at the doctorate level, each with its own specific criteria and career outcomes. Because of these differences, prospective students should ensure they fully understand how doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and Ph.D. in nursing programs differ before enrolling.

While a DNP degree best serves learners who want to continue working in clinical settings but earn higher salaries and take on leadership roles, the Ph.D. is more academic in focus and best serves individuals who either want to teach at the postsecondary level or engage in research. Learners can complete the DNP in as few as two years, while the Ph.D. requires 4-7 years to graduate.

The DNP emphasizes the completion of clinicals and practica, while the Ph.D. requires learners to research and write a dissertation prior to graduating. Students who want more clarity on the differences and similarities of these programs can learn more in this guide.

Comparing a DNP with a Ph.D. in Nursing

This section explores some of the major differences between online DNP and Ph.D. programs, including curriculum, graduation requirements, and career outcomes.

Core Curriculum

While both the Ph.D. in nursing and the DNP are terminal degrees, the curricula varies. Ph.D. programs emphasize the development of research and writing skills, with specific emphasis on utilizing quantitative and qualitative methods. The curriculum also devotes more time to understanding the history of the discipline alongside contemporary challenges and opportunities.

The DNP, in contrast, focuses on building advanced clinical skills that can be used in advanced practice roles. Students spend much of their time examining how topics transfer into their professional work as a nurse.

Application Requirements

General application requirements between the two paths are similar, with most requiring an accredited BSN or MSN, minimum GPA requirements, and official transcripts. Both also seek a personal statement and letters of recommendation. DNP applicants typically seek letters from practitioner supervisors, while Ph.D. programs may want letters that speak more specifically to a student's academic history.

It's not uncommon for DNP programs to require that applicants hold at least two years of nursing experience alongside an active and unencumbered RN license before applying, while the Ph.D. may ask for a writing sample to demonstrate understanding of the academic side of the discipline.

Credit Hours

One of the factors that most visibly sets DNP and Ph.D. programs apart is the number of credits required to complete the degree. A DNP usually requires 30-40 credits and can be completed in 1-4 years, depending on whether the applicant possesses a BSN or MSN upon enrollment. The Ph.D. in nursing, on the other hand, accounts for 50-70 credits and typically takes 5-7 years to complete.

Clinical Work

As part of graduation requirements, students pursuing a DNP usually engage in approximately 1,000 hours of clinical work practice in a professional setting. Ph.D. in nursing students, conversely, are not required to complete clinical hours, as their work largely takes place outside clinical settings.


Research plays a significant role in nursing Ph.D. programs. This is unsurprising given that many career outcomes for graduates focus on producing original research. The majority of programs require degree-seekers to research and produce a long-form dissertation on a unique topic in the discipline. Students also take several research methods and dissertation preparation courses to guide them through the dissertation-writing process.

Graduation Requirements

Some DNP programs may require students to submit a capstone project that serves as a review of all the theory and practical experience gained. If following a Ph.D. track, learners must successfully defend their dissertation before their committee. This involves answering questions about research and findings, including making changes to accommodate committee feedback. Once approved, the student receives clearance for graduation.

Career and Salary Outlook

Regardless of what a student decides to pursue, the majority of DNP graduates work in the highest levels of nursing practice, while Ph.D. graduates find employment in more research- or policy-focused careers.

Demand for nurses, particularly those with advanced training, is expected to grow over the next decade. Nearly 350 DNP programs now exist in all 50 states, with plans for an additional 98 in the coming years. Graduates of these programs often work as nurse practitioners or nurse leaders, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showing an annual median salary of $115,800 in 2019 for these professionals.

Ph.D. in nursing graduates often work in academia. The BLS reports that postsecondary nursing instructors and teachers earned median wages of $74,600 in 2019.

SEARCH FOR SCHOOLS is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.