For ambitious, working nurses seeking the terminal degree in their field, there are two options: a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a doctor of philosophy (PhD). Johns Hopkins University created an elegant breakdown of the differences between the two degrees, stating that while a DNP prepares these healthcare professionals for the highest level of clinical practice, a PhD is more research-focused, squaring in on the “theoretical, methodological, and analytic approaches to the discovery and application of knowledge in nursing and health care.” Overall, the two advanced nursing degrees are complementary; PhD candidates focus their academic and professional lives on advancing the research and DNP candidates apply those evidence-based findings in patient care settings. To learn more about the core distinctions, please visit the main DNP vs PhD page.
PhD programs prepare nurses for various leadership positions in healthcare policy analysis, research, high-level facility administration, and university instruction. There’s an especially high need for qualified nursing faculty according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2015); in fact, US nursing schools had to turn away 68,938 qualified applicants to nursing programs between 2014 and 2015 due to the lack of professors. The faculty shortage has resulted from budget constraints, competition for talent from high-paying private sector jobs, and the aging of current professors. In short, the demand for nursing PhD recipients has outgrown the supply, and for interested nurses, getting an advanced degree is more convenient than ever with the ascendancy of online PhD programs in nursing.
The AACN (2016) reported that in 2015, there were 133 nursing PhD programs across the US; among these, a growing number of institutions are offering distance-based degrees comprising two elements: rigorous online instruction and in-person supervision at a qualifying facility close to a student’s home to complete one’s dissertation. Online PhD programs may be especially attractive to working professionals who want to keep their current jobs or those who live in rural regions far away from brick-and-mortar colleges of nursing.
This guide explores the wealth of online nursing PhD programs, including the admissions requirements, coursework, state authorization and accreditation information, and varying points of academic entry.
While admissions requirements and application procedures vary widely by institution, a majority of online PhD programs at colleges of nursing require the following:
Please note that some programs have additional requirements, including completing a criminal background check, other entrance exams, or interviews (in-person or video). Also, it behooves candidates to have a specific faculty mentor in mind with similar research interests.
Online PhD programs generally involve two elements: a supervised dissertation (i.e., original research project) and distance-based classes in areas such as:
Additionally, PhD candidates must choose a specific focus for their research, one which typically aligns with the work of a supervising faculty mentor. Some possible research foci include:
Prior to seeking entry into any online PhD in nursing program, students are advised to verify two features: its accreditation and state authorization statuses.
First, accreditation is a process where a recognized approval body evaluates a program or institution to ensure that it is of appropriate rigor and effectiveness. Students are encouraged to seek out accredited nursing programs to ensure eligibility for later credentialing. There are two main programmatic accreditation bodies—the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN)—and six regional institutional accreditation entities:
Second, due to the differing legislation on the delivery of distance-based education, it’s important to verify a school’s state authorization status (i.e., the ability of a school in one state to offer online education to a student residing in another state). For example, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) currently has the authority to offer its online graduate nursing programs to students from all 50 states, but not to students in Puerto Rico. Mizzou Online, by contrast, cannot enroll any students from Alabama or from several states which require in-state clinical experiences such as Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and Oregon. Luckily, nursing PhD programs do not require in-state clinical experiences (unlike DNP programs), so students from those states may still qualify for the PhD. State authorization information is generally readily available on program websites or can be retrieved from program coordinators.
The University of Colorado, Denver provides an online nursing PhD comprising 102 semester credits of post-BSN coursework. Awarding a master of science (MS) en route, this program has coursework in the metatheory of nursing; the role of the scientist; diverse theories of care; advanced quantitative research; evaluating the healthcare delivery system; intrapersonal determinants & phenomena; interventions & outcomes in biobehavioral research; systems thinking; and more. For non-residents, this program costs $1,020 per credit hour and for residents, it’s $575. Please note that all 14 members of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) are eligible for in-state tuition. These include AK, AZ, CO, HI, ID, MT, NV, NM, ND, OR, SD, UT, WA, and WY.
The University of Missouri (“Mizzou Online”) based in Columbia offers a blended PhD program in nursing with limited campus visits required. It includes 77 units of instruction in areas such as research design, methods & statistics; and responsible conduct of research, among others. Additionally, PhD students must select one area of focus for their research. These include innovation science; managing symptoms & promoting healthy behaviors; and prevention & treatment of trauma across the lifespan. This hybrid program costs approximately $34,545.28 total.
The University of North Dakota based in Grand Forks provides an online 90-credit PhD program which only requires only one-to-two in-person intensives annually, either on the UND campus or for Regional Nursing Conferences. Courses include research funding; qualitative nursing methods; nursing theory; rural populations & rural health; rural healthcare ethics; essentials of epidemiology; and research design, among others. Notably, all students pay in-state tuition, which costs $400.12 per credit of graduate coursework.
The University of Texas, Tyler has an online PhD in nursing program which requires only one on-campus intensive session annually. Classes include healthcare informatics; philosophy of science; mixed methods research; scholarship in nursing; and health policy & population health. It costs $2,507 per semester (spring/fall) for Texas residents and $4,995 for non-residents.
Please note that all of the above BSN-to-PhD schools also offer their online PhD programs in a post-MSN format.
The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee offers an online MSN-to-PhD program requiring only two campus visits: one for the initial orientation and another two-week visit preceding the launch of the second half of the program. This 49-credit PhD includes instruction in scholarly inquiry; theory & practice of nursing; policy & leadership; research in communities, populations & systems; contemporary practices in nursing; health promotion & disease prevention in diverse communities; and nursing education, among others. As part of the program, students can pursue various certificates to fulfill a program minor requirement in areas such as bioinformatics; gerontology; global health; patient safety, and other areas. Since tuition varies by varied factors, interested students are encouraged to contact a UWM advisor.
The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) of Charleston also provides an online PhD program in nursing with four campus visits total. MUSC has coursework in advanced statistical methods for nursing research; advanced measurement strategies for vulnerable populations; advanced study design & methods; and application of theory to research. The program costs $835 (in-state) or $985 (out-of-state) per credit hour.
Vanderbilt University of Nashville has an online PhD program with two tracks: clinical research or health services research. Ther faculty research covers varied fields such as stress & coping, health promotion, oncology, life transitions, symptom management, and other areas. Vanderbilt requires three on-campus visits per academic year and the program costs $1854 per credit hour.