What Does DNP Stand for in Nursing?

DNP stands for Doctor of Nursing Practice. But unlike some of the more well-known abbreviations in nursing (like RN or CNA), a DNP is not a type of nurse. It’s an advanced nursing degree focused on enabling nurses to provide more robust, technical, and research-backed patient care. In fact, a DNP is one of the highest degrees a nurse can earn.

Nurses with DNPs often become healthcare administrators, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, or other types of highly-specialized nurses. In some states, nurses with DNPs can even run their own medical practices without physician oversight.

If you’re ready to expand your nursing career to new horizons, earning a DNP can help you do that. But first, it’s important to learn what a DNP actually teaches, the doors it opens, and how you can set yourself up to earn this advanced yet practical degree.


What Does a DNP Program Teach?
How Is a DNP Different From a PhD In Nursing?
What Can A Nurse With a DNP Actually Do?
How To Earn a DNP — A Five-step Path
Find Out If Earning a DNP Is Right For You


By Sam Medley

What Does a DNP Program Teach?

Doctor of Nursing Practice programs aim to transform nursing staff members into nursing staff leaders. To do this, most programs require students to complete about 1,000 clinical hours and attend classes that focus on applying medical research to every-day patient care.

Through this combination of hands-on learning and academic instruction, DNP programs prepare nurses to:

  • Apply research on ethics, safety, infection control, and other relevant issues to their practices
  • Lead and educate other healthcare professionals
  • Become informed advocates for positive organizational change in their work environments
  • Work independently of doctors and physicians when needed and appropriate
  • Spearhead patient health education initiatives
  • Become advanced specialists in their chosen field of medicine (anaesthesiology, hospice care, acute and critical care, etc.)
  • Manage, interpret, and communicate data effectively

Along with teaching these core principles, DNP programs are often focused on one specific field of healthcare. This helps nurses who are already experienced in providing patient care become experts in crafting care plans for their particular patient populations.

How Is a DNP Different From a PhD In Nursing?

Like a PhD in Nursing, a Doctor of Nursing Practice is a terminal doctorate-level degree. This means they’re both the highest level of degree in their respective tracks, but that’s about where the similarities end.

young nurse helping seniorA PhD is a research degree. Instead of working in hospitals or clinics, nurses with PhDs usually work in laboratories, nursing schools, universities, and medical research facilities. A PhD-level nurse’s focus on patient care can help researchers identify how new medicines and procedures actually affect patients.

By contrast, a DNP is a practice degree: a type of degree focused on bolstering one’s practical working knowledge of a subject. As the American Association of Colleges of Nurses puts it, “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs prepare nurse leaders at the highest level of nursing practice to improve patient outcomes and translate research into practice.”

So while a nurse with a PhD conducts research, nurses with DNPs actually put it to use in their patients’ lives. As highly-educated nurses, they’re often also responsible for informing their teams and patients about new advanced patient care techniques.

What Can A Nurse With a DNP Actually Do?

Doctor of Nursing Practice programs don’t just enhance nurses’ existing skills. They can enable nurses to fill higher-level nursing roles. Generally, these types of nurses are referred to as ARNPs, an acronym for advanced registered nurse practitioner.

Each type of ARNP has its own licensing requirements, duties, and field of focus. Here are five of the most common types of ARNPs a nurse with a DNP can become.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

NPs are advanced nurses that can order and interpret medical tests, prescribe medications, and offer patients other primary care services. In some states, they can operate their own independent practices, but many NPs work in clinics, hospitals, and doctor’s offices with other professionals.

Despite being one of the most highly-trained types of nurses, NPs do not need PhDs, but they do require advanced education. Currently, many states only require nurse practitioners to have Master’s degrees, but the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties is moving to make DNPs a requirement for all new nurse practitioners by 2025.

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

A CNS can do many of the same things a nurse practitioner can do, but their roles are usually more collaborative. They often work with other healthcare professionals to create patient care plans, educate patients and families about ongoing treatments, and promote interdisciplinary cooperation.

But unlike nurse practitioners, CNSs can’t write prescriptions in all 50 states according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. They can write prescriptions without doctor oversight in some states, but other states either don’t give them this authority at all or require physician oversight.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)

crna in operating roomCRNAs are experts in providing pain management during surgery. They physically assess patients to determine the right kind and dosage of anesthesia, administer medication during surgery, and are often instrumental in managing post-surgery recovery.

Because of their training in how pain medications affect the body, certified registered nurse anesthetists often help surgeons monitor and manage patients’ breathing patterns during surgery. This makes them critical to planning for and responding to surgical complications.

Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

While an OBGYN is a doctor that specializes in everything surrounding all kinds of births, a CNM is a nurse that has become an expert in providing natural birthing experiences for low-risk mothers. CNMs typically advocate for medication-free births, but they can in fact prescribe pain medications when needed. Along with being instrumental to the actual birth, CNMs can also provide pregnancy screenings, family planning services, and postnatal care.

Certified Nurse Executive

Large healthcare communities need informed executives to make decisions about staffing, training, scheduling, and anything that affects staff’s ability to carry out patient care efficiently and ethically. Though a nurse executive isn’t a type of ARNP, a nurse with a DNP could be the perfect candidate for filling such a vital high-level role.

Find out more about what career options are available to nurses with DNP degrees and potential salary ranges.

How To Earn a DNP — A Five-step Path

Doctor of Nursing Practice programs can take up to four or five years to complete, but because they’re doctorate programs, students need to meet certain educational and professional requirements before applying. Though there are many paths to earning a DNP, there are five basic steps to follow.

Become an RN

The first step to earning a DNP is becoming a registered nurse (RN). This can be done by earning either an associate’s degree or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). However, most DNP programs require students to have a BSN, so if you think becoming an ARNP is likely in your career, it may be wise to choose a BSN over an associate’s degree program.

On top of that, you will also need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs and meet all state licensure requirements.

Choose a Field and Gain Hands-on Experience

RNs can work just about anywhere that needs nurses. Depending on your career goals, you may want to explore a career working in a hospital, primary care physician’s office, specialty clinic, or healthcare community. This way, by the time you enroll in a DNP program, you’ll already have years of experience and a healthy toolkit to work with.

Keep An Eye Out for Education and Certification Opportunities

As an RN, you’ll probably have the chance to get some on-the-job training and pursue specialty nursing certifications. Some certifications only require clinical practice hours while others require applying to specialty nursing programs.

For example, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses says that to become a certified critical care nurse, RNs need to complete 1,750 hours of verified care hours for critically ill patients over a two-year period. There are no extra classes to take.

Earn Your DNP

With a BSN and a few years of experience, you’re ready to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice in most cases. Some DNP programs require students to have a master’s degree in nursing, but many only require a BSN.

Get Licensed To Practice In Your Field

Along with having a DNP, most types of advanced nursing professionals must also have state and/or national certifications. Midwives must be certified by the American Midwife Certification Board, nurse practitioners must be certified by the NP certification board that aligns with their specialty, and so on. Working with DNP program administrators is a great way to learn what licenses you need to actually practice in your field.

Find Out If Earning a DNP Is Right For You

The American healthcare system needs highly-trained nurses — nurses that don’t just provide round-the-clock care, but know how to improve the patient experience with informed decision-making and science-backed care methods. No matter what specialty they choose, nurses with Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees are equipped to fill that role and make accessible healthcare a reality for potentially millions of Americans.

To find out how to potentially take your nursing career to the next level, read more about what earning a DNP degree entails and how to weigh the pros and cons of investing in your nursing education. Then, you can become the kind of highly-skilled nurse doctors need in their practices and patients need in their lives.