Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree vs Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing – What’s the Difference?

Nurses who want to advance their education and career may consider an advanced degree beyond a master’s. Two options are available; the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Ph.D. in Nursing.

It may be helpful to understand the difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. before selecting a graduate program because these are distinct degrees that lead to different career paths.

The DNP is a practice-based degree that helps prepare nurses for clinical practice at the highest level. It may be a good choice for nurses who want to continue to treat patients.

The Ph.D. is a research-focused degree that helps prepare nurses for a career in research or teaching. It may be a better option for nurses who want to work in academia or a research role rather than as a clinician.

Sponsored Online DNP Program

Georgetown University’s Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies’ (NHS) online Post-Master’s DNP program prepares APRNs to improve outcomes in clinical settings and implement systems-level change. The 30-credit curriculum can be completed part time in 20 mos.

Sponsored Online DNP Program

Simmons’ Leadership-Focused DNP Program for APRNs

 APRNs, earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice online from Simmons School of Nursing. Become a leader in your field and improve health care through evidence-based research. Master of Science in Nursing and RN license required.

Similarities Between a DNP vs Ph.D.

DNP and Ph.D. nursing programs both focus on nursing and require applicants to have a nursing background. Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and students with a master’s degree may be able to complete the degree faster. 

In addition to previous nursing education, admission for both of these programs may require:

  • Minimum GPA.
  • Letters of Recommendation.
  • Personal Statement/Essay.

Towards the completion of the program, DNP and Ph.D. candidates may be required to submit a research project, but the similarities between the programs end there.

  • DNP students submit a scholarly project in which they examine evidence-based solutions to a practice problem, such as improving a health outcome or finding a safer, more efficient way to provide care. 
  • Ph.D. students complete a dissertation, which is an original research project. Before starting the dissertation work, students learn research methods to design studies so they’re able to carry out independent research. They also develop strong skills in statistics. 

Differences Between a DNP vs Ph.D.

The DNP vs Ph.D. comparison comes down to career goals, and that’s where the differences between the two kinds of programs are most apparent.

Possible Degree Outcomes

DNP programs may help nurses enter careers at the advanced practice level. These leadership nurses may help train nurses to understand current research and figure out how to apply it in a clinical setting. Ph.D. programs may help to prepare nurses as researchers, so students develop the skills needed to advance knowledge of healthcare. 

DNPs may be qualified for advanced practice nursing roles and may find additional opportunities in administration or teaching. Ph.D. recipients may be prepared for positions as a research nurse or university nursing faculty member.

Degree Requirements

Depending on previous nursing education, a DNP program may range from 35-90 credits. Ph.D. in Nursing programs, however, may reach up to 60+ credits.

DNP students perform clinical hours in their specialty, and they’ll conduct some research for their scholarly project during their internships. Ph.D. students don’t complete clinical hours, but the program may require a teaching internship.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

A DNP is a terminal degree for practicing nurses according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) DNP Fact Sheet. The AACN also highlights that the number of DNP programs grew from about 50 in 2007 to over 350 in 2019, with more programs in the planning stages. 

DNP programs come in a variety of formats. Nurses who already have an accredited master’s degree in nursing may be able to enter a post-master’s program. For nurses who have a bachelor’s in nursing and no master’s degree, BSN-to-DNP programs are available. These programs may help nurses earn their DNP in an accelerated format.

Students in a DNP program may choose an advanced practice specialty that aligns with nurse practitioner specialties. Depending upon the program, concentrations may be available in:

  • Family.
  • Women’s health.
  • Adult-gerontology.
  • Pediatrics.
  • Nurse midwifery.
  • Acute care.
  • Primary care.
  • Nurse anesthesiology.

Depending upon your educational background and study pace, earning a DNP may take two to six years. Courses may include topics such as evidence-based practice, ethics, leadership, biostatistics and classes in the practice specialty. You’ll also perform clinical hours and complete an evidence-based practice research project.

Sponsored Online DNP Program

Georgetown University’s Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies’ (NHS) online Post-Master’s DNP program prepares APRNs to improve outcomes in clinical settings and implement systems-level change. The 30-credit curriculum can be completed part time in 20 mos.

Sponsored Online DNP Program

Simmons’ Leadership-Focused DNP Program for APRNs

 APRNs, earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice online from Simmons School of Nursing. Become a leader in your field and improve health care through evidence-based research. Master of Science in Nursing and RN license required.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing

A nursing Ph.D. may be for nurses who want to expand the science of nursing through scholarly research. With a Ph.D. in nursing, nurses may be able to work with an interdisciplinary team that researches interventions to improve patient care. As a Ph.D. student, you may conduct dissertation research under a faculty mentor. You may also get training and hands-on experience in teaching, should you desire to join a nursing faculty after earning your degree.There are more than 135 Ph.D. nursing programs in the United States. More than 4,500 students are enrolled in these programs, with about 800 students graduating each year.

Education Requirements

The curriculum for a Ph.D. in nursing is heavy on science and math. Expect to take several courses on statistical methods, as well as classes covering measurement in healthcare research. You’ll learn techniques to design quantitative and qualitative research projects.

Other foundational classes may cover philosophical and scientific perspectives in nursing and responsibilities of the nurse scientist. You’ll also learn how to write grant applications to find funds for your work.

The curriculum may include courses in a specialized area or electives that allow you to choose topics you’re interested in. Examples might include health policy, nursing education, translational research or writing for publication.

A Ph.D. in nursing also generally includes a dissertation. Once you finish the dissertation, you may have to present your findings and defend them.

Salary

The salary you may earn with a nursing Ph.D. depends on what sort of a career you pursue.

Advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners and nurse midwives, earned a median salary of $115,800 annually in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Nurses who earn a DNP may continue to work in a nurse practitioner role, and the BLS doesn’t separate out salaries for nurses with a DNP.

The BLS also doesn’t break out salaries for nurses with a Ph.D. However, Ph.D. nurses may become involved in medical research, which the BLS includes in its medical scientists category. The median salary of medical scientists was $88,790 per year in 2019.

Graduates with a nursing Ph.D. may choose to teach at a university. The median pay for postsecondary teachers was $79,540 per year in 2019, the BLS reports.Learn more about nursing salaries.

What Can You Do With a Ph.D. in Nursing? 

A Ph.D. in nursing is a research-focused degree that may help open the doors to a career in research. As a nurse researcher, you may help look for ways to improve patient outcomes or deliver healthcare services. The work of nurse researchers expands the foundational science that underlies nursing practice and has real-life consequences for patients. Just as DNP nurses are experts in an advanced practice specialty, nurse researchers develop expertise in their research area.

Specific tasks for researchers may include:

  • Deciding what questions to research.
  • Designing the research study.
  • Conducting tests.
  • Analyzing the data.
  • Sharing the findings.
  • Locating funding for research.

Nurse researchers may begin their careers in research assistant or clinical data coordinator roles before assuming a lead researcher position. A nursing doctorate may also help prepare graduates to teach students preparing for a nursing career or seeking an advanced nursing education. Four-year colleges and universities generally expect nursing faculty to have a doctoral degree, according to the AACN on DNP Education.

Should I Consider a DNP or Ph.D. in Nursing?

Enrolling in a DNP or nursing Ph.D. program is a big step, and it may be helpful to have a clear idea of your career goals when considering a DNP vs Ph.D.

If you want to continue working with patients and provide care at the highest level, a DNP helps prepare you for that career. You may develop leadership skills to manage interdisciplinary healthcare teams and grow in your ability to translate nursing research into actions and policies that improve the patient care you and your team provide.

If you’re excited about the science that informs the nursing practice, a Ph.D. may help prepare you for a research role. As a researcher, you may uncover new knowledge related to disease prevention, or at least expand your understanding of certain diseases. By communicating your findings in research journals and other mediums, clinicians may apply your discoveries in real-life settings. 

Information on this page was updated in January 2021.