How Long Does It Take to Get a DNP?

how long does it take to get a DNP

A Guide to Understanding the Total Number of Years DNPs Invest in School and Clinical Training

Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees are available with two entry-points: 1) post-BSN and 2) post-MSN. This fact makes the DNP an extremely versatile degree, open to both RNs looking to enter advanced practice as well as existing APRNs (advanced practice registered nurses) looking to specialize and take their nursing knowledge and careers to the highest level.

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There are five scenarios in which a DNP can serve as the perfect next-step for RNs and APRNs:

Scenario 1: There are BSN-to-DNP programs with concentrations in each of the four APRN roles, all designed to put RNs on track for APRN licensure and initial certification in their role and patient population focus.

Scenario 2: There are also MSN-to-DNP programs for MSN-prepared RNs who had the ambition to earn a master’s but kept their RN credentials; and only later in their careers decide to pursue APRN licensure and role-specific certification.

Scenario 3: You’ll find MSN-to-DNP programs designed specifically for existing APRNs looking to advance and expand their scope of practice with secondary certification in an entirely new patient population, and options that drill down even further into specialized areas of care.

Scenario 4: There are DNP options for both BSN- and MSN-prepared nurses looking to transition away from patient care into administrative and executive leadership roles.

Scenario 5: You’ll even find the occasional pre-licensure, direct-entry option designed for career-changers with degrees in fields other than nursing who are interested in entering a career in healthcare with the highest practice-focused nursing degree available.

One of these scenarios describes your exact situation. A look at the various paths quickly makes it clear that pinning down an answer to the question, “how long does it take to become a DNP?” isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. The answer comes down to your unique situation, the degree you currently hold, and the point in your career you begin preparing to become a nurse.

As a nurse, or someone thinking about becoming one, you already understand that answers to most questions that arise in healthcare are highly dependent on multiple factors. Figuring out exactly how long it will take to become a DNP is no exception.

How Long Is a DNP Program? – Comparing DNP Programs with Post-BSN and Post-MSN Entry Points

By now you already understand that DNP programs come with two primary entry-points:

These two options cover the vast majority of prospective DNP students.

comparing dnp programs

Each path will result in the same level of preparation by the time you come out the other side of the program with your nursing doctorate in hand. Of course, each is uniquely suited to preparing nurses at different stages of their careers for advanced practice roles. That means they come with different requirements to meet, and different expectations for how long it will take to earn that coveted DNP.

A third, and much rarer option, is the direct-entry, pre-licensure program for career changers. You’ll also sometimes find MSN-prepared RNs who never pursued APRN licensure and want to do so through a DNP program. Sure, there are also RNs who came into the field with an Associate Degree in Nursing, before enrolling in an RN-to-MSN bridge program or completing a BSN en route to an MSN. It’s worth mentioning, though, that all of those scenarios are less common by comparison. Give or take a semester of possible perquisites when transitioning to a higher-level program, they all end up lining up with the broader rule and timeline associated with enrolling in either a post-bachelor’s or post-master’s DNP.

How Long Does a BSN-to-DNP Program Take?

Post-BSN DNP programs typically last between three and four years. It’s an intensive course of study that includes the same education that comes from a two-year MSN in addition to your training for the DNP.

Taking the entire time investment in education into account, including the four years it takes to earn a bachelor’s in nursing, BSN-to-DNP programs represent the most streamlined path to becoming a DNP.

The reason the time-to-completion falls within a range of two-to-three years is due largely to the varied backgrounds of students coming into these programs. In many cases, students have already been practicing as RNs for years, bringing all that clinical experience with them into the program. For others, it may mean transitioning to a DNP program right out of nursing school, almost immediately after earning a BSN.

As you would expect, stacking up all the clinical practicum hours and absorbing advanced concepts by putting them into practice means it’s going to take a little longer for newly minted RNs who just earned a BSN. But since most BSN-to-DNP programs are offered with part-time options specifically designed with working nurses in mind, the standard model is for practicing RNs to gain that experience on the job while enrolled in their DNP program.

How Long Does a Post-Master’s MSN-to-DNP Program Take?

A typical post-master’s DNP program provides a fast-track to a nursing doctorate that can most often be completed in just two year’s time.

The additional two years you put into earning your MSN before enrolling in a DNP program only ends up reducing the time it takes to earn a DNP by one year. That’s because the kind of curriculum streamlining that happens in BSN-to-DNP programs means students pack those two years into only a couple of semesters.

It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to earn an MSN just to go straight into a DNP program since the more streamlined option would be a BSN-to-DNP instead. Nurses who choose to earn an MSN before deciding to earn a DNP usually spend a few years in practice in between. If that’s the path you take, those are years that will need to be added to the total time you’ll spend on your journey to a DNP.

There is a big benefit to those extra years. With real-world experience behind you, you get something more out of your DNP studies. You already know many of the basics, not just from textbooks, but because you’ve actually been doing the work. This time in practice also gives you a chance to reflect on both your strengths and the areas of practice where you could benefit from a little extra study.

With an MSN and some years of advanced practice behind you, you might not graduate as fast as someone who went for the more streamlined BSN-to-DNP track earlier in their career, but you will graduate with more experiential knowledge overall.

Residency and Fellowship Programs Could Add a Year or Two to the Total Timeline

residency and fellowship programsResidencies and fellowships are not yet a common part of the APRN training cycle. Where doctors typically spend three to four years in residency after graduation from medical school, APRNs are eligible to pursue full licensure right away.

There is a push in the broader healthcare community to start emphasizing post-graduate residency and fellowship programs for nurses, with the Institute of Medicine publishing a report discussing the potential impact on recruitment and retention, and the additional costs that could be expected.

Within the nursing community itself, the idea is already becoming a reality. The American Nurses Credentialing Center has even gone so far as to accredit a number of voluntary fellowship programs specifically designed for newly certified APRNs.

These programs build experience in a particular specialization through paid, supervised placements that allow APRNs to transition to the field confidently and well-prepared to practice autonomously.

A residency or fellowship would be supervised training you receive in addition to your DNP program. If you decide to pursue that path, you can expect to add about a year to your training before you actually enter independent practice.

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How Long Does a DNP Take When You Factor In Previous College and Work Experience?

university doctor and student

With either post-bachelor’s or post-master’s DNP pathways, there’s still a bit more involved in determining exactly how much time you can expect to spend preparing for professional practice. If you look at the walk you took up to the podium to collect your high school diploma as the starting line, then the total journey includes all the years between high school graduation and the day you graduate with a DNP.

You can expect it take eight or nine years from the time you leave high school till you complete a DNP.

If you’re looking strictly at the number of years you spend in school, it’s simple math…

BSN (4 years) + MSN (2 years) + MSN-to-DNP (2 years) = 8 years


BSN (4 years) + BSN-to-DNP (3 years) = 7 years

In both cases, you also need to factor in the time you spend working as a nurse, helping patients, gaining experience, immersing yourself in the field and establishing clearer sight-lines into your future before you ultimately make the decision to enroll in a DNP program.

Online DNP Degrees Aren’t Always Faster, but They Make Life a Whole Lot Easier For Working Nurses

dnp using laptopAlthough online programs don’t affect how long it takes to get a DNP, they do make it a whole lot easier to fit the whole process into your schedule.

Online courses are built to be flexible, allowing you to time-shift around your existing schedule. They accommodate working nurses and anyone with a life that doesn’t fit a traditional 9 to 5 campus schedule. You can often even increase or decrease your course-load from semester to semester as your availability changes.

Online DNP programs may be the one exception to the rule, allowing you just enough flexibility to push yourself, without compromising depth, breadth, and rigor.

Don’t Forget to Consider the Time You’ll Spend on the APRN Licensing and Certification Process

licensing certification processYou aren’t allowed to start seeing patients right after you walk down the aisle on commencement day with your DNP in hand. You need to become licensed and nationally certified first.

Assuming you aren’t already established in your APRN role when you started your DNP program or before going into residency, you’ve got one last major step to take – becoming state-licensed and board-certified.

The most time-intensive requirement for licensure and certification are already out of the way by the time you earn your DNP: the supervised clinical practice hours – 1000 if you’re coming in with a BSN and 500 if you hold a nursing master’s when you enroll.

That means that the only thing left to do is apply and test into both a state-issued APRN license, and the national certification that denotes your APRN role and patient population focus, in addition to any other specialty certifications you may decide to test for before going into practice.

States have different variations on licensure exams based on different scope-of-practice rules for the various APRN roles – nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist, and nurse-midwife. Some states also require an additional exam on state-specific laws and regulations in addition to the standard APRN exam for your role.

Although state-licensing and board-certification exams won’t take you more than a few hours to sit for and complete, scheduling, studying, and arranging to take them may add a few more months to your total timeline.

DNPs with an Executive Leadership Track Offer a Bit of a Shortcut Compared to Programs Designed for APRNs

dnp executive leadershipNot all DNPs are destined for advanced practice. You’ll find specialized tracks available in some DNP training programs, usually post-MSN DNPs, which concentrate on nursing leadership and executive roles.

Classified as Aggregate/Systems/Organizational programs, these DNPs don’t include as much clinical coursework but take up just as many hours in management and leadership training instead.

On the other hand, they typically skip the clinical experience hour requirements. At some schools, this can cut an entire semester out of your studies.

On top of that, although there are voluntary executive leadership certifications you can test for, unlike the APRN roles involved in direct patient care, national certification isn’t mandatory for administrators and execs.


Ready to learn how to become a DNP? Learn more about its benefits, how to obtain a degree, licensure and certifications, and career opportunities.