What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree?

As a nurse, you focus on the health and well-being of your patients. Maybe your commitment to helping others has you contemplating a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. What is a DNP? Is it worth pursuing? Can a doctorate in nursing offer career advancement and additional opportunities to practice your nursing skills? Let’s start by defining what exactly a DNP degree is.

The practice-focused DNP degree is the highest level of clinical nursing education. DNP programs may focus on advanced clinical care, evidence-based practice, leadership and quality improvement.

The purpose of this guide is to help you determine whether obtaining a DNP is right for you. We highlight DNP program options, school and career opportunities and what you may want to consider when earning a DNP degree.  

Doctorate in Nursing Degree Options

What is a DNP—and what are common DNP degree program options? Although there are many routes available to earn a DNP, some students hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) upon DNP program entry. Registered nurses who possess an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) are able to enter a doctorate in nursing bridge program. Program formats may vary, especially when comparing practice-focused and research-focused programs.

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Traditional Programs

Traditional DNP nursing programs are available on campus, online or in a hybrid format. There are also full-time, accelerated and part-time programs. Online and part-time programs may provide flexibility that allows students to maintain their current responsibilities at work and home. For example, online DNP programs may require students to complete coursework and assignments online while pursuing any additional clinical hours in local hospitals or clinical settings. How long it takes you to complete a DNP depends on your enrollment type (full or part time), specialization and program structure. From 2006 to 2015, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that full-time DNP nursing students took an average 2.4 years to complete their studies, while part-time students took an average 2.9 years to finish their degree.

Dual Degrees

Another pathway to a doctorate in nursing is a dual degree program. Dual degree programs allow you to combine your DNP studies with another discipline. Some possible degree combinations may include a DNP/MPH (Master of Public Health), DNP/MBA (Master of Business Administration) and DNP/PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Nursing. While a dual degree requires fewer credits than if you had earned the two degrees separately, its concentrated curriculum is demanding and may take three to seven years to complete.

Bridge Programs

For students who hold a bachelor’s, master’s or associate degree in nursing, you might be interested in bridge programs such as a BSN-to-DNP, MSN-to-DNP or RN-to-DNP program. These highly concentrated programs help you complete any missing nursing or degree curriculum requirements. Bridge programs may include a combination of on-campus and online coursework along with extensive clinical hours.

Specializations

If you’re interested in a certain type of nursing, you may be able to find a specialization that suits your DNP nursing goals. Some specializations to consider include: nurse midwifery programs, acute care nurse practitioner programs, pediatrics, women’s health nurse practitioner programs, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner programs and family nurse practitioner programs. Specializations enable you to gain unique knowledge while you earn a doctorate in nursing.

Is a Doctoral Nursing Degree Worth it?

A doctorate in nursing may be worth it if you’re ready to advance your nursing career or gain specific knowledge. You may be weighing how rewarding a DNP is compared to an MSN degree. What’s the difference between the two degrees? In general, an MSN and DNP both have the same goal: to provide optimal patient care as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). The difference between them is how that goal is achieved. 

A doctorate in nursing typically has a stronger focus on leadership and administrative components, as well as on the clinical aspects of the APRN. In contrast, an MSN degree may focus on clinical skills. The value of a DNP degree largely depends on your nursing career goals.

If you aspire to become a nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, nurse practitioner or another type of APRN, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that these APRN positions typically require at least a master’s degree. However, the BLS notes that some APRNs may choose to pursue a DNP degree. 

How Much Does a Nurse with a DNP Make? 

As with any career, your DNP nurse salary may vary as a result of many factors, including your experience, employer and geographical location. The BLS does not break down annual wages for DNP nurses; however, it does break down annual wages for APRNs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, APRNs had a median annual salary of $115,800 in 2019.

Employment of APRNs is expected to grow 45% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average for all other occupations, the BLS reports. With the need to care for aging baby boomers and the increased focus on preventive care, APRNs will be in high demand in various settings including hospitals and clinics.

What Can I Do With a DNP Degree?

With a DNP degree, graduates may choose to work as health care professionals in a variety of settings. Below are some careers you may consider pursuing with a DNP degree.

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, some other advanced practice nursing roles include: clinical nurse specialist (CNS), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) and certified nurse-midwife (CNM). 

Things to Consider When Earning a DNP Degree

Furthering your education is a big decision. Before you pursue a DNP degree, there are several factors worth considering. We outlined some of these below:

  • Time: Pursuing a doctorate in nursing degree requires a significant time commitment. Do you have the time to be a full- or part-time student? This is a crucial consideration.
  • Dedication: Earning your DNP degree may challenge your level of dedication. Are you prepared to put in the work required to be accepted into a DNP program and complete your studies? The more committed you are, the better.
  • Cost: Of course, secondary education comes with financial costs. A Doctor of Nursing Practice degree may be expensive. However, if you’re committed to earning this advanced degree, look into scholarships and financial aid resources offered through schools and organizations. How much are you able to spend on your DNP nursing education?
  • Specialization: What area of nursing most interests you? If you’re passionate about a certain area, search for a DNP degree program with a specialization that caters to your interests. 

Ultimately the decision is yours to make. Whether a DNP is right for you is likely dependent on your specific goals. In addition to considering the above factors, it may be beneficial to talk with current or graduate DNP students to learn about their experiences.

FAQs

What pathway should I take to earn a DNP?

If you’re ready to pursue a DNP degree, you have several program options available—whether you need the flexibility of online classes, the structure of on-campus classes or the convenience of a bridge program to help you fill any educational gaps. 

What does a nurse with a DNP do?

A nurse with a DNP degree may be able to work in various clinical and non-clinical environments. They may provide direct patient care or take on a leadership role that focuses on education or healthcare policy.  

How long is a doctorate in nursing program? 

Depending on your current level of education (MSN, BSN or ADN with RN licensure) and the type of program format (full or part time) you choose, a doctorate in nursing program may take three to seven years to complete.

DNP vs. NP, what’s the difference?

The difference between a DNP and NP is that a DNP is an advanced nursing degree while an NP is a type of nursing career. NPs may choose to pursue a DNP degree.

MSN vs. DNP in nursing—what’s the difference?

Although both degrees focus on ensuring quality patient care, the DNP focuses more on the administrative and leadership roles in the patient care process. An MSN degree concentrates on clinical aspects of treatment.

DNP vs. PhD in nursing—what’s the difference?

Both the DNP and PhD in Nursing are doctorate-level degrees. They are referred to as terminal degrees, the highest level of education in the field of nursing. The difference between them is that a DNP focuses on clinical practice while a PhD is research based.

Information last updated January 2021.