DNP VS. Ph.D. - 12 Key Differences Between DNP And Ph.D. In Nursing

Written By: Pattie Trumble, MPP, MPH

Nursing is one of the few professions that’s associated with two different terminal degrees: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.). The former degree is a clinical doctorate designed for advanced practice nurses who are actively working to improve healthcare outcomes in medical settings and who are championing the leadership role that nurses play in bringing about those outcomes. The latter degree is a research-focused doctorate designed to advance the science behind nursing practice.

As of 2019, 40,271 nurses in the U.S. held DNP degrees according to statistics generated by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing while 6,994 nurses held Ph.D.s in nursing. If you’re an advanced practice nurse who’s interested in reaching the highest echelons of your profession, the DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing quandary may be one you find yourself thinking about frequently. Keep reading to discover 12 key differences between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing.


What Is A DNP Degree?

A DNP is a degree that’s rooted in clinical practice. It represents the highest level of clinical educational training that’s available to members of the nursing profession. Coursework may include advanced training in specific, hands-on skillsets as well as leadership training and practice in applying evidence-based solutions to the real life problems that nurses may encounter in the course of their practice.

DNP degrees are a relative recent innovation in the nursing field. They were first created in 2004 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in an effort to achieve parity with the terminal degrees used by the medical profession so that the public would have the same level of confidence in nurse practitioners that it has in physicians. In 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) backed an initiative committing to DNPs as the entry-level standard for all nurse practitioners by 2025. NPs who have been previously certified through Master’s in Nursing Science (MSN) degrees and who do not want to pursue a DNP degree will be grandfathered into the system, but the message is clear: If you’re a new nurse who wants to advance in your profession, you’ll need to earn a DNP.

What Is A Ph.D. In Nursing Degree?

If you’re conflicted about the DNP vs. the Ph.D. in nursing, it helps to have more information about the nursing Ph.D.. The basic difference between a DNP and a Ph.D. in nursing is that the latter is a science-focused degree that prepares you either for a career in medical and nursing research, or for teaching nursing at the undergraduate or graduate college level. Nursing Ph.D. programs typically take five to seven years to complete. Your coursework is likely to emphasize statistics and other quantitative research methods as well as advanced study design. You will be responsible for completing an original research project, which you will use as the basis for a dissertation.

The Ph.D. in Nursing degree is sometimes called the Doctor of Nursing Science degree. In the 1920s, Columbia University and New York University became the first schools to offer doctoral degrees for nurses, but these degrees were associated with the school’s education departments and offered little if any nursing-related coursework. Boston University offered the first Nursing Ph.D. program with a curriculum that focused on nursing science. Today, 140 universities offer either a Ph.D. or a Doctor of Nursing Science degree, and another four schools offer a Doctor of Education degree with a nursing emphasis.

What Concentrations Are Offered In A DNP Degree?

A DNP degree allows you to pursue training either as an advanced practice nurse (often referred to as a nurse practitioner), or as an educator or administrator. Most nurse practitioner tracks are categorized by the population whose healthcare needs they are specially trained to serve, with a secondary classification that refers to the setting where they most often see these patients. Thus, an acute care pediatric nurse practitioner sees juvenile patients in a hospital setting while an adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner sees adult patients in a physician’s office.

The 15 DNP concentrations are:

• Family nurse practitioner (FNP):

FNPs focus on providing primary care to diverse populations of all ages in settings like physicians’ offices, community clinics and the patients’ own homes.

• Adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP):

Adult-gerontology nurse practitioners are trained to deal with health issues that arise in populations whose ages ranges from young adult to senior citizen. AGNPs can specialize either in primary or acute care.

• Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP):

PNPs deal with the health needs of children from infancy through young adulthood. Pediatric nurse practitioners can be certified either in acute or primary care.

• Neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP):

Neonatal nurse practitioners are trained to work with vulnerable infants in intensive care nurseries.

• Women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP):

Women’s health nurse practitioners provide gynecological, reproductive and other types of primary care to women aged 13 and older.

• Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP):

PMHNPs specialize in providing either primary or acute psychiatric care to patients of all ages.

• Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA):

Certified registered nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia during surgical interventions in medical centers and clinics.

• Clinical nurse midwife (CNM):

In addition to delivering babies, clinical nurse midwives also provide antepartum and postpartum care for mothers and their newborns.

• Clinical nurse specialist (CNS):

Clinical nurse specialists lead interdisciplinary healthcare teams in acute care settings, and assist patients and families in navigating the complex healthcare delivery system.

• Nursing education:

Nurses who want to become nurse educators must consider the DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing question carefully because both are appropriate terminal degrees for this concentration.

• Executive leadership:

Nurses who want to focus on the business end of healthcare delivery must think seriously about difference between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing, too, because while this specialization is offered as a DNP concentration, it is not grounded in the delivery of clinical care per se.

• Nursing practice:

Nursing practice prepares RNs to implement health systems changes and evaluate outcomes on the basis of evidence-based research. It’s another specialty where nurses have to think about the effectiveness of DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing because it’s not clinically focused. Both degrees actually have the potential to give you the background you need to be an effective advocate here.

• Health policy:

Health policy focuses on the legal and political implementation of healthcare legislation and regulations.

• Public health:

Public health is the promotion of wellness through lifestyle education as well as the detection, prevention and response to injuries and infectious diseases.

• Nursing administration:

Nursing administration trains you to assume a role within the healthcare delivery system as a nursing leader.

What Concentrations Are Offered In A Ph.D. In Nursing Degree?

Though nursing Ph.D. programs don’t include practice specializations, many schools encourage doctoral students to focus on specific concentrations. Note that there is considerable overlap between Ph.D. areas of concentration and the non-clinical concentrations associated with the DNP. If you’re interested in one of the following concentrations, you may need to base your final decision about DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing on factors like the length of time your education will take to complete and the employment opportunities that will subsequently be open to you.

• Clinical Nursing Research:

The clinical nursing research concentration prepares graduates to be clinical investigative scientists who advance the nursing care of individuals and communities through evidence-based discovery.

• Public Health Policy:

RNs who earn nursing Ph.D.s in public health policy will be prepared to conduct research into the decisions, plans and actions undertaken to achieve specific healthcare-related goals at the societal level.

• Nursing education:

RNs who graduate with Ph.D.s in nursing education know how to conduct research into teaching and learning models as well as how to design and implement educational curricula for nurses.

• Nursing science:

The nursing science concentration prepares graduates to do research into ways of improving patient-centric care.

• Healthcare innovation:

This nursing Ph.D. specialty prepares graduates to do technology-oriented research into healthcare solutions.

How Many Years Does A DNP Degree Take To Complete?

The length of time it takes to earn a DNP degree varies according to the specialization track you choose and the amount of education you already have. BSN-to-DNP programs typically involve 65 to 95 credits, which will take full-time students three to four years to complete. On the other hand, if you already have a Master’s of Nursing Science (MSN) degree, it should only take you one to two years of fulltime study to earn the additional 35 to 45 credits you will need to earn a DNP. In addition to didactic coursework, a DNP also requires a minimum of 1,000 clinical practice hours.

How Many Years Does A Ph.D. In Nursing Degree Take To Complete?

Nursing Ph.D. programs also offer both BSN-to-Ph.D. and MSN-to-Ph.D. tracks. Most involve 45 to 70 credit hours and take five to seven years to complete, depending upon whether you pursue them fulltime or part-time, and how long it takes you to complete your dissertation. There are no clinical hour requirements for a Ph.D. in Nursing.

Where Can You Work After Earning Your DNP Degree?

As a DNP, many employment opportunities will open up to you, both within clinical nursing and within the greater healthcare delivery system. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, the demand for nurse practitioners is projected to increase by 52 percent between 2019 and 2029. At the same time, the demand for hospital-based healthcare managers such as clinical nurse specialists, nurse educators and other nurse executives is projected to increase by 32 percent within the coming decade.

DNP-APRNs who are interested in coordinating and directing healthcare delivery will find plenty of administrative opportunities in medical centers, private practices, long-term care facilities and community clinics. DNP graduates can also teach at nursing schools; work as lobbyists for insurance companies, government agencies and professional nursing organizations; or perform clinical research at universities and pharmaceutical companies.

Where Can You Work After Earning Your Ph.D. In Nursing Degree?

As an RN with a Ph.D. in nursing, you can teach at a university nursing school. According to the AACN, one of the reasons the U.S. is facing such an acute nursing shortage is because nursing schools across the nation are dealing with severe faculty shortages. While you may be able to work at a university nursing school with a DNP, it’s unlikely you’ll be offered a tenured faculty position.

Other employment that’s open to Ph.D.-prepared nurses include executive opportunities in pharmaceutic or medical device-manufacturing companies, government agencies, scientific research facilities and healthcare delivery centers.

How Much Does A DNP Graduate Make?

DNP salaries vary by specialization, but all that academic work does pay off: The average salary for a DNP-prepared nurse is $103,719, which breaks down to $8,640 a month or nearly $50 an hour. The highest paying DNP salary is earned by certified nurse anesthetists who take home $144,000 a year on average. Other nurse practitioners have the potential to take home high salaries as well, but a lot depends upon the place where they decide to work. Nurse educators with DNPs see the most salary variation; their pay can range from $50,000 to $125,000 annually.

Per Hour $49.86
Per Month $8,640
Per Year $103,719
(Source: Payscale.Com)

How Much Does A Ph.D. In Nursing Graduate Make?

Nurses with Ph.D.s typically earn significantly less than nurses with DNPs, and this is one of the reasons why it’s so important to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing when you’re making a decision about future schooling. On average, Ph.D.-prepared nurses earn approximately $90,000 a year, which breaks down to $7,400 a month or nearly $43 an hour. This is only 85 percent of the average salary that DNP-prepared nurses make.

Per Hour $42.72
Per Month $7,400
Per Year $88,849
(Source: Payscale.Com)


(Following are the 12 key differences between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing.)

1. The DNP focuses on clinical practice while the Ph.D. focuses on academic research.

DNPs prepare nurses to work in clinical environments, most often as leaders of interdisciplinary healthcare teams. To that end, the coursework associated with Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees reflects evidence-based solutions to patient care issues you are likely to run across in a practice setting as well as specific hands-on skills you will need as an advanced practice nurse.

Nursing Ph.D.s, on the other hand, prepare nurses to conduct research. That research can be quantitative or qualitative. It has been observed that nursing Ph.D.s pioneer the scientific breakthroughs that DNPs then go on to implement. This may be the key difference between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing.

2. The Ph.D. includes a dissertation project; the DNP includes a capstone project.

All Ph.D. programs, be they in nursing, mathematics, English literature or political science, require the completion of a dissertation, which is a long piece of academic writing based upon original research. A dissertation, in other words, involves the quest for new knowledge. Dissertations can take several years to complete, and it is this requirement that accounts for the longer length of time it takes most students to finish a Ph.D..

In contrast, the capstone project that’s required for DNP graduation entails the application of existing knowledge to a real-time issue the DNP candidate has encountered in a clinical setting. The solution you’re proposing does not have to be a new one, in other words.

3. Nursing Ph.D. programs often involve a mentored teaching experience.

Teaching is an important part of most Nursing Ph.D. tracks. Ph.D. students typically begin teaching in their second year. Ph.D. students are seldom responsible for delivering lectures; rather, they are charged with demonstrating and teaching the various clinical skills that undergraduate and master’s-level students are responsible for learning.

In contrast, DNP are seldom required to teach although a few may teach as a way of earning extra money.

4. Ph.D. programs prefer letters of recommendation that speak to the applicant’s academic history while DNP programs prefer letters of recommendation that speak to the applicant’s clinical experiences.

Another one of the significant differences between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing pertains to the reference letters that applicants are typically asked to submit as part of their admission packet. Letters of recommendation can make or break an application to a professional nursing program. Since the DNP is a clinical track, DNP programs are more likely to prize letters from supervisors and others who are familiar with your work in a clinical capacity. A Nursing Ph.D. program is more likely to value recommendations from professors who can speak to your academic qualifications.

5. It takes longer to earn a Nursing Ph.D..

On average, BSN-to-DNP takes three to four years to finish while the analogous BSN-to-Ph.D. degree can take anywhere between five to seven years to finish, depending upon how long it takes you to complete your original research and write it up as a dissertation. This is another DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing factor that you should think about carefully while you’re considering which type of program to enroll in.

6. DNP programs require a greater number of credits for completion of the degree.

Most DNP programs actually entail more classroom credits than Nursing Ph.D. programs. This is because you are actively learning techniques and solutions that you will be expected to apply once you are certified in your specialty.

The reason it takes significantly longer to earn a Nursing Ph.D. is because you’re expected to perform original research, which is a time-consuming endeavor. Once your research is complete, you will be writing it up as a dissertation, and that can also be a slow process.

7. DNPs typically earn higher salaries than Nursing Ph.D.s.

This is a big one for many nurses weighing the DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing question: Pursuing a career in the clinical healthcare environment is usually far more lucrative than pursuing a career in academia, which is what a Ph.D. is designed to prepare you for. DNPs make nearly $104,000 a year while Nursing Ph.D.s make approximately $90,000. Of course, some Nursing Ph.D.s go on to work in the healthcare industry as well, most often as research scientists associated with pharmacological firms, and these Ph.D.-prepared nurses earn more on the whole than their colleagues who stay in academia.

8. DNPs have a greater assortment of employment opportunities than Nursing Ph.D.s.

Another big difference between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing is that DNP holders have far more employment opportunities. In fact, there is enough overlap between the DNP specializations and Nursing Ph.D. concentrations so that many of the work options that are open to Ph.D.s are open to DNPs, too.

9. Unless a Nursing Ph.D. is a certified nurse practitioner, his or her scope of practice is limited to bedside nursing.

Once you graduate from an accredited DNP program, you are qualified to sit for a certifying examination that will greatly expand your nursing scope of practice. This isn’t true for nurses who complete a Ph.D. in Nursing. Obtaining a Ph.D. will not expand a nurse’s professional responsibilities beyond those stipulated in his or her RN state licensure. This is a significant difference between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing.

10. Nursing Ph.D. graduates do not have to go through a periodic recertification process.

Advanced practice nurses with DNPs who’ve been certified by the AANP must recertify every five years in order to maintain their professional status. Recertification requires 75 or more continuing education hours as well as at least one other activity such as earning academic credits, publishing an article in a peer-reviewed journal, providing 120 hours as a preceptor or performing volunteer services at a healthcare-related organization. Ph.D.-prepared nurses don’t have to go through a similar periodic review process.

11. Most universities will not offer tenure track teaching positions to DNPs.

Academia is one area where a Ph.D. offers a clear employment advantage when you’re weighing a DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing. While community colleges and smaller nursing schools may hire DNPs to teach, most universities will not offer tenure-track positions to nursing faculty unless they have a Ph.D..

12. Nursing Ph.D. students are not responsible for completing a minimum number of clinical hours.

Clinical hour requirements are the final significant difference for nurses who are weighing the advantages and disadvantages of DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing. When the AACN formalized DNP requirements in 2006, the organization stipulated that DNP programs had to complete a minimum of 1,000 supervised post-baccalaureate practice hours. Since Nursing Ph.D. students are being prepared to work outside of clinical settings, they do not have a clinical practicum requirement.

Conclusion - DNP VS. Ph.D. In Nursing: Which One Should You Pursue?

Though the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and the Nursing Ph.D. are both terminal degrees associated with the nursing profession, they are rooted in very different ideas of practice: The former degree is designed to expand the clinical scope of practice within a healthcare delivery environment while the latter is a research-oriented degree.

For most advanced practice nurses who are interested in taking their hands-on skill sets to the next level, the choice will be a relatively easy one: The DNP is the degree that will best enhance their professional growth. For advanced practice nurses who are interested in nursing education, public policy and certain other types of research, however, the question of DNP vs. Ph.D. in nursing will be more challenging since earning either a DNP or Ph.D. degree may meet their goals. These nurses would be well advised to study the 12 key differences between DNP and Ph.D. in nursing since their decisions may need to consider factors other than the two programs’ main objectives.

Pattie Trumble, MPP, MPH
Pattie Trumble is a nurse who worked in both California and New York for many years as an emergency room nurse. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Associate Degree in Nursing from the Samuel Merritt Hospital School of Nursing. After 10 years of providing direct care, she went back to school and earned concurrent Master’s degrees in both public policy and public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Thereafter, she worked for various public health agencies in California at both the community and state levels providing economic and legislative analysis.