DNP vs. PhD: Differences and Practical Considerations

At the turn of the 21st century, a new doctoral degree for nurses emerged: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Until then, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing was the terminal degree in the nursing profession.

More than a decade after the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) launched the DNP, DNP programs are growing rapidly. The DNP has received mainstream acceptance, although the Journal of Professional Nursing acknowledges that some confusion and disagreement about the degree remains.

The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing explains that it’s important to understand the scope of practice and role of nurses who earn the DNP instead of the PhD. “The DNP degree is a desirable option for clinically oriented nurses considering doctoral education,” the journal says.

Now, a common question for nursing professionals is whether to pursue a DNP or PhD in Nursing.

DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: What’s the Difference?

The table below helps clarify some key distinctions between the DNP and PhD in Nursing, including information from the AACN. Note that the Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS/DNSc) is generally linked to and shares many similarities with the PhD.

Degree Objective Prepare nurse leaders at the highest level of nursing practice to improve patient outcomes and translate research into clinical practice. Prepare nurses at the highest level of nursing science to conduct research to advance the science of nursing.
Point of Entry BSN or MSN (or related master’s degree) BSN or MSN (or related master’s degree)
Coursework/Curriculum Translating research evidence into practice; healthcare leadership and policy; and advanced specialty practice Research methodologies and theories of nursing research
Clinical Hours 1,000 hours minimum None or minimal
Capstone Project Yes No
Dissertation No Yes
Program Outcome Healthcare improvements and contributions via clinical practice, policy change and practice scholarship. Healthcare improvements and contributions via the development of new knowledge and scholarly products that provide the foundation for the advancement of nursing science.
Employment Opportunities Management positions and positions of leadership in nursing practice; healthcare policy, administration or government positions; and clinical nurse faculty Nurse researcher/scientist; health policy positions; and nurse faculty

Practical Considerations

“The DNP is designed for nurses seeking a terminal degree in nursing practice and offers an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs,” the AACN says. “DNP-prepared nurses are well-equipped to fully implement the science developed by nurse researchers prepared in PhD, DNSc, and other research-focused nursing doctorates.”

The DNP is a terminal degree that focuses on evidence-based practice, along with quality improvement, systems leadership and other areas. Nursing professionals seeking a practice career should generally choose the DNP.

Terminal degrees like the PhD in Nursing and DNSc are research-based. Nursing professionals seeking a research career should generally choose the PhD or DNSc.

Online DNP From Rivier University

Rivier University’s online DNP helps advanced practice nurses reach the highest levels of nursing. This clinically focused degree emphasizes direct care of individual patients, care of patient populations and practice that supports patient care. The program takes place in a convenient and flexible online learning environment that accommodates students’ personal and work schedules.