As you move up the ladder in nursing, you’ll be faced with a lot of choices. Should you specialize or keep your options open? Will you pursue advanced practice nursing, or remain an RN? Should you go into management or remain a hands-on clinician?
Many of those decisions will point you back to school in pursuit of an advanced degree in nursing. Eventually, if you advance far enough and set your sights high enough, you’ll be faced with another choice: pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD in Nursing?
What is the Difference Between DNP and PhD in Nursing Degrees?
There is one big difference that sets these programs apart by design:
- The Doctor of Nursing Practice is a practice-oriented, professional education in nursing
- The PhD in Nursing is an academic and research-oriented study of nursing
That difference between a PhD and DNP translates into the intended role for graduates of each program:
- DNP graduates in various tracks are prepared to become advanced practice registered nurses, clinical leaders, or administrators and executive leaders
- PhD graduates are best equipped for positions in nursing research or to teach nursing skills at the college level
Although these roles are specifically what each degree is designed to prepare you for, they aren’t set in stone. You will still find many DNP graduates teaching or performing advanced research work. You will also find many PhDs in nursing working in clinical practice and licensed in one of the four advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) roles as nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse leaders.
What is a PhD in Nursing?
The traditional PhD degree, or Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing, takes you through a heavily research-based, academic study of the principles and theory of nursing. The degree programs take between four and six years to complete.
The coursework offered in these programs revolves around research and theories of nursing.
You will find PhD courses to be uniquely student-driven. In fact, much of the coursework will consist of seminar programs in which students are expected to help design their own course of study. The degree plan is shaped by their goals and interests.
PhD programs are considered strong preparation for teaching roles. They often involve taking on some instructional and research assistant roles even during the program.
A nursing PhD, like most doctoral programs, is completed by finishing and defending a doctoral dissertation. These are dense academic papers, detailing original research and thinking, and can take as much as half of your total program time to complete.
What is a DNP?
A Doctor of Nursing Practice degree is a two-to-three-year program that emphasizes advanced practice studies in nursing. Basic coursework has to meet licensing requirements and typically includes:
- Research and statistical skills
- Advanced pharmacology
- Advanced physiology and pathophysiology
- Medical procedures and disease and injury management
- Role-specific skills
Even as a practice-focused degree, there are many DNP programs aimed at teaching advanced leadership and executive management skills rather than a specific clinical focus.
Depending on the track you select, the degree can serve as a qualification for licensing to become an APRN. It can also prepare you to advance in an existing APRN role and take on more specialized aspects of patient care and clinical leadership. If your goal is to move out of direct patient care entirely and into administration and executive leadership, you’ll find DNP tracks to help you do that too.
For that reason, DNP programs typically offer a concentration in either one of the four APRN practice areas or have what is called an aggregate/systems/organizational-focus, including everything from administration and executive leadership to nursing informatics.
Naturally, DNP programs designed for BSN-prepared RNs that lead to initial APRN licensure and certification would also typically include a patient population focus, such as:
- Family and Individuals across the lifespan
- Adult/Gerontology (either acute or primary care)
- Women’s/gender-related health
- Pediatrics (either acute or primary care)
- Psychiatric/Mental Health
While DNP programs will include some research work, they strongly favor practical applications of nursing principles. For the same reason, while some DNPs can be completed with a doctoral dissertation, they are more likely to have a capstone project completion option. This allows you to spend less time writing up your findings and more time demonstrating real expertise in nursing practice.
You can learn more about both kinds of degrees in our Nursing Doctorate Frequently Asked Questions.
Differences in Admissions Policies You’ll Find in DNP and PhD Programs
Getting into either type of advanced nursing program isn’t easy. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing keeps track of the numbers of graduates from both types of doctoral nursing program.
In 2020, there were only 759 PhD in Nursing graduates, and 9,158 DNP graduates.
Part of the reason for the relatively limited number of graduates is that there are relatively few programs in the United States that offer those degrees as compared to a master’s in nursing. The big push over the past decade to credential more APRNs with a DNP has resulted in just over 350 programs being offered for that degree. Each of those may accommodate a few dozen students. PhD programs are even more rare. There can be stiff competition for those slots, and often stringent admissions requirements.
You’ll find a lot of similarities between DNP and PhD in Nursing degree admissions requirements:
- Minimum of a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) from an accredited nursing program
- An impressive CV with real-world work experience
- A written statement of career goals and essay describing your motivations
- A number of professional references
The differences, however, add up quickly.
Admissions to a DNP program will depend on whether it caters to BSN-prepared RNs, or those who already hold a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Both entry-points typically require that you to hold an RN before applying. Post-master’s (MSN-to-DNP) degrees usually require that you have a certain number of hours of clinical practice or a current APRN license.
Admissions to a PhD in Nursing program might not even require that you hold a registered nursing license. Your background in academic and scholastic subjects will draw more attention—you’d better have held a GPA between 3.0 and 4.0 if you want a shot at admission. Undergraduate statistical studies are often considered a prerequisite too.
Which Offers the Best Career Opportunities – a DNP or PhD in Nursing?
Although there’s no rule about what kind of nursing or administrative healthcare positions you can pursue with either one of the two doctoral-level nursing degrees, the intended career focus for each is clear:
A Doctor of Nursing Practice degree leads to hands-on positions in nursing care and clinical leadership or administrative and executive leadership. With advanced clinical skills training and experience, a DNP delivers the perfect preparation for clinical leadership roles in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare settings. With the treatment and diagnostic expertise to handle even the most complex cases, APRNs with a DNP are in-demand across the range of advanced practice nursing roles. Because of the unique combination of advanced education and practical nursing experience it provides, a DNP is also excellent preparation for roles in executive leadership or administration.
A PhD in Nursing degree leads to jobs in teaching and research. Your training prepares you with an exhaustive understanding of the theory of nursing models and knowledge. That lets you unpack those concepts and explain them with ease to new nursing students coming into the profession. You’ll also have a strong background in research and investigative processes. Those skills can be applied either in academic settings, bringing together new ideas and evaluating treatments and practices, or in cutting edge lab and scientific settings. PhD in Nursing graduates also have a strong statistical and basic science grounding. Combined with the methodical testing and research training they receive, PhDs make ideal candidates for medical research positions.
If you take a look at the difference between a DNP and PhD in terms of where those career tracks lead, you get a pretty clear picture. If a quiet, academic life or working in a lab or product development settings is for you, a PhD gives you the best shot at getting there… If either the high-stakes world of hands-on treatment or the idea of making facility- and system-impacting decisions at the executive level appeal to you, then a DNP will be the clear choice.
DNP vs PhD Nursing Salary Comparison
Of course, most people make their career choices based on more than just the daily tasks they’ll be performing. You probably also want to know the difference between DNP vs PhD salaries before you choose one or the other.
There’s no hard and fast rule about how to figure out what PhD vs DNP salary levels look like in the real world. After all, even though the programs differ by design and intent, graduates from either program can ultimately qualify for many of the same kinds of jobs.
Because they are generally aimed at different types of positions, though, we can make some educated guesses about DNP vs PhD in Nursing salaries.
The gold standard for this kind of data is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although they don’t specifically track salary levels by academic degree, they do collect information for specific job types. So, it’s possible to compare high-level practical nursing positions against nursing jobs in academia and research.
DNP graduates are most likely to fall into the BLS category for Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners. Since they have the most advanced professional degree to qualify for those roles, it’s fair to say they land in the top ten percent of that category. For 2021, that puts the salary for DNP graduates at more than $200,540 per year.
PhD graduates usually pick up jobs in the BLS category for Medical Scientists. In 2021, that makes the average salary for PhD in Nursing graduates more than $95,310 per year. Some, however, will also become educators and college professors. For those individuals, the average salary was $79,640 per year.
DNP or PhD, Which is Right for You?
It’s always worth keeping in mind that there are plenty of similarities between DNP and PhD in Nursing training programs. By choosing one over the other, you are not necessarily limiting yourself to follow only one professional path.
In general, though, you’ll probably find that a PhD is a better fit for you if you enjoy study and research, or have the skills to pass along your knowledge to others as a nurse educator. If you are interested in a role that won’t involve a lot of direct patient contact, and prefer the theoretical study of disease and treatment, then a PhD will be your degree path.
On the other hand, you’ll do well in a DNP in nursing program if you enjoy working with people and like the challenge of diagnosing and treating real-world injuries. If you see yourself consulting with other clinicians, ordering lab tests, and poring over patient histories to find and fix what ails people, a DNP is the way to go.
You can expect a long and lucrative career in front of you with either kind of advanced nursing degree. As the most advanced practice-focused option available, though, a DNP is what you want if your career goals include working in direct patient care or higher level administrative leadership and executive roles.
Ready to learn how to become a DNP? Learn more about its benefits, how to obtain a degree, licensure and certifications, and career opportunities.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, Postsecondary Teachers, and Medical Scientists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed in May 2022.