NP vs DNP: What’s the Difference?

Registered nurses have more options than ever when it comes to advancing their careers, but it’s not always clear which path to take and which degree to pursue.  RNs who hold a bachelor’s degree and are seeking career advancement may aspire to become a nurse practitioner (NP) or may wish to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.


Knowing the difference between an NP and DNP is critical to making the right choice about your education.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners have more responsibility and authority than RNs, including the ability to write prescriptions, diagnose patients, and even provide treatment depending on scope of practice in the state where they practice. While many of these responsibilities once fell solely on physicians, the physician shortage is growing, creating a potential crisis in patient care. As such, NPs are becoming increasingly important to healthcare. In fact, “studies show that NPs can manage 80-90% of care provided by primary care physicians,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

To serve as the primary care provider for patients, nurse practitioners need additional education and training beyond the requirements for RNs. A nurse practitioner must earn a master’s degree, including clinical experience, from an accredited institution. Depending on the state, there may also be a certification process required.

What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice?

NPs seeking to achieve the highest level of nursing practice can earn a DNP. The Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing report says, “As patient needs and care environments have become more complex, nurses need to attain requisite competencies to deliver high-quality care.” Nurse practitioners who complete a DNP program have the scientific knowledge and expertise in practice to deliver high-quality care with consistent excellence and accuracy. The DNP is a terminal degree for a nursing professional and is differentiated from a PhD in nursing by its emphasis on clinical practice.

“A DNP provides a foundation in evidenced-based practice and improving patient outcomes,” according to Dr. Marilyn Daley of Rivier University. “PhD nurses are expected to be researchers and teach; a DNP is a clinical doctorate who serves as an NP with expertise.”

“The DNP is a clinical doctorate,” Daley continues. “It makes you a leader, allowing you to train NPs coming up the ranks. You have reached the highest level of nursing. DNPs look at trends in healthcare and what can be changed to improve outcomes.”

NP vs DNP: Breakdown

The following table, based on information from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), can help you understand the key differences.

Nurse Practitioner Doctor of Nursing Practice
Objective Serve as primary care provider for patients, filling many of the same roles as physicians Act as a leader in nursing and a provider of clinical expertise and excellence
Point of Entry ASN or BSN (or related bachelor’s degree) BSN or MSN (or related master’s degree)
Coursework/Curriculum Clinical practice; direct patient care and advocacy Nursing leadership; advanced nursing practice; evidence- and research-based approaches to practice
Clinical Hours 500 hours minimum 1,000 hours minimum
Program Outcome High degree of clinical expertise Policy change, healthcare improvement, and leadership
Employment Opportunities Primary care provider; patient advocate Management and leadership positions in nursing; policy and administration positions; clinical nurse faculty

Pursue Your Degree in Nursing Practice

With an online nurse practitioner degree or online DNP from Rivier University, you can pursue clinical expertise and learn the skills you need to provide excellence in patient care. Learn in a program with a convenient, flexible schedule that accommodates your busy life.