Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs

A DNP degree can help nurses become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). APRNs perform advanced medical duties under the supervision of a physician, such as analyzing blood work, diagnosing diseases, and administering anesthetics during surgery or childbirth.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 45% occupational growth for APRN positions from 2019 to 2029, far outpacing the 4% average growth for all jobs.

DNP programs are ideal for nursing professionals seeking to obtain the credentials necessary for APRN or healthcare leadership roles. DNP graduates enjoy strong employment prospects. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 45% occupational growth for APRN positions from 2019 to 2029, far outpacing the 4% average growth for all jobs.

This guide reviews the program requirements, costs, and career tracks for DNP programs.

What to Expect From DNP Programs

DNP programs focus on cultivating advanced medical service skills necessary for APRN and leadership roles. A typical DNP curriculum comprises core courses in anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology, advanced classes in students’ focus areas, plus clinical hours. Popular concentrations include neonatal nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, and nurse midwife.

The credit load for a DNP degree varies with specialization and prior academic credentials. Learners with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) typically complete 65-95 graduate credits and at least 1,000 clinical practice hours. Most students studying full time finish in 3-4 years.

The cost of earning a DNP degree varies with school type, school location, delivery format, and specialization. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the cost of graduate tuition and fees averaged $19,314 annually for the 2018-19 academic year.

Admission Requirements and Prerequisites

Most clinical DNP programs require applicants to hold at least a BSN. Many schools offer accelerated tracks for students with a master of science in nursing (MSN). DNP leadership tracks may also accept students with a master’s in healthcare leadership and nursing experience.

GPA requirements vary by program. However, many schools require a minimum 2.75-3.5 GPA. Some DNP programs require students with a GPA below 3.5 to submit standardized scores. Prior nursing experience and a GPA higher than 3.5 may increase admission chances.

Applying to a BSN-to-DNP program typically requires submitting an online application and materials such as a resume, official BSN transcripts, proof of registered nurse licensure, a statement of purpose, responses to essay prompts, recommendation letters, and a nonrefundable application fee.

Applying to an MSN-to-DNP program requires submitting materials such as a CV, official MSN transcripts, proof of registered nurse licensure, proof of APRN national board certification, recommendation letters, a statement of purpose, responses to essay prompts, and a nonrefundable admission fee.

After initial review, admission committees may contact applicants for interviews.

Degree and Specialization Options

All DNP foundational courses must cover the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s eight core competencies, which include healthcare policy, organizational leadership, analytical methods for evidence-based practice, and advanced nursing practice.

Prospective DNP students can pursue a DNP program after completing a BSN or an MSN. However, the two program types differ in length, credit load, and specialization requirements.

BSN-to-DNP Programs


BSN-to-DNP programs typically require 65-95 graduate credits and at least 1,000 practice hours. Most learners finish this type of DNP program in 3-4 years of full-time study.

In addition to the core requirements, BSN-to-DNP students must complete advanced practice courses in specialty areas. Popular advanced practice areas include family nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner.

MSN-to-DNP Programs


MSN-to-DNP programs usually require 33-43 graduate credits and at least 500 practice hours. Most students finish these programs in 1-2 years of full-time study, though this timeline assumes students completed at least 500 practice hours during their MSN studies. MSN-to-DNP programs do not typically require completing additional APRN concentration courses.

MSN-to-DNP students can usually choose between two specialty areas: clinical practice or healthcare leadership. A clinical practice concentration requires completing additional advanced clinical courses, whereas a healthcare leadership specialization requires additional training in organizational leadership.

Types of DNP Degrees

Comparing Similar Degrees

Prospective students may wonder whether to pursue a traditional degree through a BSN-to-DNP program or complete their DNP through a different path. Alternatives to the traditional DNP degree include an MSN, a Ph.D. in nursing, or a DNP from an MSN-to-DNP bridge program.

All four degree types provide the skill set needed to practice in an APRN specialty area. Ph.D.s in nursing and DNPs from MSN-to-DNP bridge programs both provide training in healthcare leadership, making them ideal for learners seeking careers in medical or healthcare management.

Each degree differs in length, credit load, and costs — factors that may determine which program is most suited to students’ needs. Below, we compare these four nursing degrees:

Length Credit Load Average Cost Typical Careers Details
BSN-to-DNP 3-4 years full time 65-95 credits $80,000 on campus APRN (e.g., pediatric nurse practitioner) or healthcare manager Learn More
MSN 1-2 years full time At least 30 credits $20,000 on campus APRN (e.g., family nurse practitioner) Learn More
MSN-to-DNP Bridge 1-2 years full time 33-43 credits $40,000 on campus APRN (e.g., surgical nurse practitioner) or healthcare manager Learn More
Ph.D. in Nursing Around five years full time 75-150 credits $100,000 on campus Healthcare manager or researcher Learn More

All four nursing degrees can lead to APRN careers in a specific advanced practice area. Ultimately, students’ goals and previous experience, along with factors like available financial aid, will determine which program is the best fit.

A DNP and a Ph.D. in nursing both provide advanced training in organizational leadership, so either option may appeal to aspiring healthcare managers. A Ph.D. in nursing allows graduates to specialize in healthcare research, making this degree an excellent choice for individuals seeking a research position in academia or the private sector.

Popular DNP Courses

Most DNP curricula include core requirements, electives, concentration courses, and clinical practice hours. MSN-to-DNP students can typically apply previously earned advanced practice credits to opt out of clinical specialization coursework.

Foundational curricular requirements explore topics like microbiology, physiology, and pharmacology. Electives and concentration courses focus on healthcare policy, population health, and organizational leadership. Below, we provide sample course descriptions for five courses in a DNP program:

Anatomy
This core class develops an in-depth understanding of the human bone structure, tissues, and organs. Learners also delve into subjects such as growth and development, nutrition and metabolism, and the aging body.
Pharmacology
This class familiarizes learners with basic pharmacology principles, including hormones and receptor mechanisms, drug metabolism and their distribution, and pharmacokinetics. Students also learn to track and analyze the interactions between biological systems and different drug regimens.
Physiology
Usually a core requirement, this class develops comprehensive knowledge of human biological function at the molecular, cellular, and tissue levels. Through hands-on assignments, enrollees learn about key physiological systems such as the musculoskeletal, immune, reproductive, and endocrine systems.
Clinical Prevention and Population Health
This elective explores the quantitative and analytic skills needed to monitor, probe, and assess population health and address health issues. Learners study how to improve population health, rectify health inequities, and mitigate the spread of communicable diseases.
Seminar in Organizational Leadership
This seminar covers theories, concepts, and practices in organizational leadership in healthcare. Enrollees emerge with a robust understanding of how to communicate effectively, mitigate conflicts, and supervise nurses in high-stress environments.

How Much Will a DNP Cost?

According to data from NCES, the average rate of tuition and fees in graduate school was $19,314 for the 2018-19 year. In-state public institutions tend to charge less than private and out-of-state public universities. Many schools offer lower tuition for distance learning programs, which can make online degrees more cost-effective than their on-campus counterparts.

However, DNPs normally require at least 1,000 clinical practice hours, so no institutions offer 100% online DNP programs. Many schools permit attendees to complete their coursework virtually while they pursue clinical training at local healthcare facilities.

Students looking to finance their DNP should investigate options like scholarships, grants, fellowships, and loans. Review the links below for more information.

Explore Financial Aid Options:

Why Get a DNP Degree?

Earning a DNP degree offers many advantages. This credential can lead to a variety of rewarding, lucrative APRN careers and healthcare leadership positions.

Many seasoned nursing professionals pursue DNPs to deepen their knowledge and qualify for advanced positions. Others choose a DNP program because they want to help make a difference in the lives of vulnerable populations.

Below, we list some of the benefits of earning a DNP degree:

  • High Demand: Healthcare managers and nurse practitioners are among the advanced nursing occupations with the highest projected growth. From 2019 to 2029, the BLS projects the medical industry will add more than 100,000 nurse practitioner jobs and over 100,000 healthcare manager jobs.
  • Increased Earnings: A DNP degree offers strong salary opportunities for graduates entering the APRN or healthcare management sectors. As of May 2020, the BLS reported median annual earnings of $104,280 for healthcare administrators and $117,670 for nurse practitioners.
  • Meaningful Employment: DNPs qualify graduates for a variety of careers with many opportunities to make a difference for others. Some career examples include intensive care unit nurse practitioners and hospital nurse supervisors.

How to Select Your DNP Program

Rankings are an excellent starting point when searching for the right DNP program. However, before finalizing your school choice, you should also factor in regional and field-specific accreditation, state authorization, and school location.

  • Regional Accreditation: Six regional accreditors confer accreditation on postsecondary institutions in the U.S. This stamp of approval qualifies students for federal funding, allows easier credit transfer across schools, and ensures licensure and certification eligibility for graduates.
  • Field-Specific Accreditation: Another factor to consider is programmatic accreditation. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing ensure a school’s DNP program satisfies the academic prerequisites for APRN licensure and certification.
  • Location: School location is also a crucial consideration. If you choose an online program in another state, ensure the school allows students to complete mandatory clinical practice hours at local healthcare facilities.
  • State Authorization: If you enroll in an online DNP program in a different state from where you want to practice, make sure that the school holds state authorization. State authorization allows an institution in one state to educate distance learners who reside in another.


Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a DNP degree?

    A DNP is among the most advanced nurse degrees available in the U.S. DNP graduates often pursue careers in healthcare leadership or advanced clinical practice.

  • What is a doctor of nursing salary?

    Many doctors of nursing practice pursue careers as APRNs or healthcare managers. As of 2020, the BLS reported median annual salaries of $117,670 for APRNs and $104,280 for healthcare managers.

  • Is a DNP the same as a nurse practitioner?

    No, a DNP is a degree, whereas a nurse practitioner is a role. Many DNP graduates work as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, or nurse midwives. Other DNP-holders work in healthcare leadership roles or research positions.

  • How hard is DNP school?

    Earning a DNP requires a significant academic commitment. A typical curriculum comprises courses in pharmacology, physiology, and statistics.


Featured Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

September 7, 2021   |   NursePractitionerSchools.com Staff

Interested in a nurse practitioner career? Explore this guide to discover the steps to become an NP, including required education and credentials.

Best Online RN-to-MSN Programs 2021

Best Online RN-to-MSN Programs 2021

August 5, 2021   |   NursePractitionerSchools.com Staff

Check out this guide to find the best online RN-to-MSN programs, including tips on applying to these programs.

Take care of your future.

Find the right program for you and advance your education with an online degree.