How Hard is a BSN-to-DNP Program – (10 Biggest Challenges & How to Overcome)

Written By: Darby Faubion, RN, BSN, MBA

Are you a registered nurse with a bachelor's degree considering a big career move? Have you thought of earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree but wonder if it is the right choice for you? Perhaps you like the idea of becoming a DNP, but you have a question: "How hard is a BSN-to-DNP program?”

Despite the challenges of DNP programs, if earning a DNP is something you genuinely want to accomplish, you can learn ways to succeed. In this article, I will share what I believe are the 10 biggest challenges you will face in a BSN-to-DNP program and how to successfully overcome them. Knowing what challenges to expect and preparing to overcome them increases your likelihood of success. You can take the steps to overcome the challenges of BSN-to-DNP programs presented in this article and develop a roadmap for success!

What Topics are Covered in a BSN-to-DNP Program?

One of the things that makes BSN-to-DNP programs hard is the rigorous curriculum. The classes you take may vary, depending on whether you choose a clinical or organizational specialty of study. All students take classes including Advanced Pharmacology, Advanced Pathophysiology, Advanced Health Assessment, Principles of Epidemiology, and Health Promotion.

Specific coursework for your specialty will reflect the organization and certifying body of your program. Your program may be aligned with the Nurse Practitioner Core Competencies (National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties), Clinical Nurse Specialist Core Competencies (American College of Nurse-Midwives), or Nurse Executive Competencies (American Organization of Nurse Executives).

All BSN-to-DNP programs cover topics including Evidence-Based Practice, Leadership in Healthcare, Health Policy & Advanced Nursing Practice, Clinical Informatics, and Interprofessional Collaboration.

Is a BSN-to-DNP Program Hard?

My friend, Jennifer, recently earned her DNP. She told me it was one of the most challenging experiences of her academic career but that, given the chance, she would do it all again.

BSN-to-DNP programs are designed to prepare nurses to practice at the highest clinical level in nursing. Therefore, the programs take a lot of work. Because every nurse has strengths and weaknesses, preferred interests, and experiences, what may be challenging for another nurse may be easier for you and vice versa. Although BSN-to-DNP programs are hard, if you work hard, dedicate time to studying and completing assigned work and clinicals, and stay on track, you can increase your chances of success and earn your DNP!

What Makes a BSN-to-DNP Program Hard?

(The following are the 10 biggest challenges you will face in BSN-to-DNP programs and ways you can successfully overcome them.)

CHALLENGE #1: Getting Into the Program

About the Challenge:

Admission to BSN-to-DNP programs can be a challenging process. For starters, you must have a minimum bachelor’s degree in nursing and a competitive GPA. Additionally, you must have relevant work experience, excellent references, and meet program-specific admission criteria.

How to Overcome:

If you truly want to earn a spot in a top BSN-to-DNP program, you must do more than meet the minimum admission requirements. Once you decide to earn your DNP, I recommend talking to admission advisors or program directors at the schools that interest you to find out what they look for in candidates.

If your current GPA is teetering on the line of the minimum needed, I suggest taking a few classes to help improve it. Also, ensure you have enough work experience in the specialty in which you plan to pursue a certification. Some specialties require a minimum of two years of experience. So, the sooner you discover the requirements and begin efforts to meet them, the better your chances of getting into one of your preferred programs.

CHALLENGE #2: Choosing a Specialty

About the Challenge:

One of the things that makes BSN-to-DNP programs hard is that you must choose a specialty concentration. Some prospective students struggle, wondering which specialty is best suited for them, and worry whether they have what it takes to succeed in a particular practice area.

How to Overcome:

There are several DNP specialty options to choose from, so taking your time to weigh your options carefully is essential. To overcome this challenge, you should first think about two things: the patient population you prefer to serve and the type of setting where you hope to work.

You may want to work with patients of all ages across the lifespan, which could make a Family Nurse Practitioner specialty a good choice. On the other hand, you may prefer working with older adults or children. So, choosing an Adult-Gerontology or Pediatric NP specialty could be a better option. There are also options to specialize your DNP in Nursing Administration, Health Policy, or Executive Leadership.

CHALLENGE #3: BSN-to-DNP Programs Are Academically Rigorous

About the Challenge:

Nursing school is demanding, and the higher the degree you pursue, the more demanding the programs become. One of the reasons BSN-to-DNP programs are hard is because of the rigorous curriculum. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare can help set you up for success.

How to Overcome:

After working with nursing students through the years, some of the best advice I feel I can give to help you overcome the challenge of a rigorous curriculum is to pace yourself, be dedicated to your studies, and know when to ask for help. Take the time to make a schedule that includes time set aside expressly for school-related needs, such as studying and working on your DNP Project. Many students find it helpful to join study groups with peers. You can set up online study sessions with classmates even if you take classes online.

CHALLENGE #4: The Programs Can Be Very Stressful

About the Challenge:

It is common for nursing students to experience stress and anxiety. In a BSN-to-DNP program, you will be transitioning from an undergraduate to a graduate degree and taking on lots of new responsibilities, which can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Unmanaged stress can affect every aspect of your life. It can cause sleep disturbances, trouble concentrating, and decreased appetite, and it can affect your academic performance. So, finding good ways to manage stress is essential.

How to Overcome:

It is possible to overcome the stress and anxiety that makes BSN-to-DNP programs hard. The best tip I can give you to help overcome the stress of BSN-to-DNP programs is to be prepared. By preparing yourself to meet program expectations and setting reasonable goals and deadlines, you will have better focus to take on the challenges of the program.

Read the syllabus for each class thoroughly to know what the class involves, which can help you understand and prepare for the expectations. Use available resources such as academic counseling, peer study groups, and study coaching, if necessary. Finally, one of the most critical steps in reducing or overcoming stress is to stay on track. Study, practice, review, and repeat.

CHALLENGE #5: Identifying Appropriate Preceptors

About the Challenge:

Although some schools offer clinical placement assistance, most BSN-to-DNP programs require you to find your own clinical preceptors and have them approved by the school. If your professional network is not extensive, you may discover finding your preceptors challenging.

How to Overcome:

I have had students ask me how to find good preceptors, and my answer is, start your search with the people you already know. Even if you do not have many professional connections, when you stop to think about it, you probably know more people than you think. Talk to your nurse manager or Director of Nursing. Also, ask your own doctor or nurse practitioner if they know someone they could recommend being a preceptor. When you ask, do not be surprised if they offer to precept for you.

One thing you should remember while searching for a preceptor is the specialty you plan to pursue. You need to look for preceptors who are experienced in the specialty that interests you, as these are the people who will teach you the ins and outs of your future role.

CHALLENGE #6: Locating Clinical Sites

About the Challenge:

Besides finding preceptors, you may also be responsible for locating clinical sites to complete your practicums. While your school may have clinical contracts with some sites, if you are an online student, the search for sites may be left up to you.

How to Overcome:

The best way to overcome this challenge is to think about the work you plan to do with your DNP. Then, look for healthcare facilities that offer the specialty that you plan to pursue. For example, if you want to become a public health nurse practitioner, check out public health facilities near you and talk to their directors to see if using their site to complete your clinical requirements is an option. Even if you are an online student, you should have access to a clinical coordinator at your school who can help you connect with clinical sites in your area. So, be sure to utilize them.

CHALLENGE #7: Maintaining a Healthy Work/School/Home Balance

About the Challenge:

The time commitment and rigorous curriculum are a few things that make BSN-to-DNP programs hard. Maintaining a healthy work/school/home balance is essential for success. You may feel that you have so many things to do for school that other things must be postponed or altogether avoided. Although your schedule and priorities may change, making time for yourself and balancing school, work, and your personal life is still important.

How to Overcome:

Good time management skills and planning help create and maintain balance in your life. While dedicating sufficient time to studying is essential if you want to pass your program, you also need time for yourself and your loved ones.

In all my years of nursing, one thing I have learned is how important the need for nurses to practice self-care truly is. Self-care does not have to be difficult. I practice self-care by getting up early enough to read daily affirmations and enjoy a cup of coffee while the house is still quiet and going for evening walks to clear my mind. When developing a self-care plan, keep in mind that eating a well-balanced diet, getting plenty of rest, and exercising are essential.

Do not sell yourself short on the importance of self-care. After all, it is impossible to care for others if we are not well, and that means physically, mentally, and emotionally. Be intentional about scheduling time for rest, relaxation, and time with family and friends. If you work, you may need to discuss scheduling options with your employer to ensure you have sufficient time to complete school requirements without jeopardizing your job or work-related responsibilities.

CHALLENGE #8: Completing the DNP Project

About the Challenge:

The DNP Project is one of the most dreaded assignments in a Doctor of Nursing Project program. The Project represents the culmination of your studies and is your opportunity to translate evidence of what you learned in the program into practice. Students face several challenges with the DNP Scholarly Project, starting with choosing an appropriate topic upon which to focus the Project.

How to Overcome:

You can overcome the challenge of completing the DNP Project by understanding the program’s requirements and the process for completing the Project.

One of my former faculty colleagues who now teaches at the doctoral level told me that, despite the challenges, students who keep open communication with their faculty advisors are more successful in completing their DNP Projects. Georgia advises that it is crucial to develop a good rapport with your DNP Project Advisor and to maintain contact with them throughout the whole process of completing your Project. Your project advisor can help you stay on track and make sure you meet the competencies required to successfully complete the DNP Project.

CHALLENGE #9: The Programs Can Be Quite Expensive

About the Challenge:

Something else that makes BSN-to-DNP programs hard is that they can be expensive. While some programs cost as little as $25,000, others cost as much as $250,000 or more. Meeting the financial demands of the program can be challenging, especially if you feel you must take time off from work or reduce the hours you work to accommodate the time commitment of studying.

How to Overcome:

I have worked with nursing students for years and counseled with prospective students who struggled trying to meet the financial obligations of their programs. I understand from personal experience how stressful the financial aspect of earning a higher degree is. While you cannot change the cost of a DNP program, you can overcome the financial challenges by taking advantage of available resources. First, I recommend applying for federal student aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There are also several scholarships and fellowships available. Consider making an appointment with your school’s financial aid advisor, as well, to discuss all your financial assistance options. Remember, the earlier you apply, the better!

CHALLENGE #10: You Must Commit A Lot of Time to Earning Your Degree

About the Challenge:

One of the main reasons a BSN-to-DNP program is hard is that it requires a significant time commitment. Depending on whether you enroll part-time or full-time, it could take you three to four years (or longer) to earn your post-baccalaureate DNP. While enrolled, you must keep up with lectures, take tests, complete a DNP Scholarly Project, and earn at least 1,000 post-bachelor's clinical hours.

How to Overcome:

As a nurse educator, I can tell you, the best way to overcome this challenge is to be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to earning a DNP. The first thing I recommend if you have a lot of responsibilities outside of school, such as a family, children, and a job, is to consider whether pursuing your degree part-time is a better option than studying full-time.

Once you decide whether to go to school part-time or full-time, create a schedule that outlines time for school, work, and personal activities. Also, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a strong support system. If you have a spouse or family who make up a willing support network, you can ask them to help with household chores and childcare. Talk to your boss about your plans to earn your degree and discuss scheduling options for work and school. You can overcome the challenges of the strenuous time commitment of BSN-to-DNP programs by being proactive.

My Final Thoughts

If you are a registered nurse with a BSN degree and are considering earning a doctorate in nursing, you know there are many options for pursuing the degree. You may have heard of post-baccalaureate DNP programs but wondered, "How hard is a BSN-to-DNP program?"

In this article, I addressed that question by sharing what I feel are the 10 biggest challenges you will face in a BSN-to-DNP program and how to successfully overcome them. Although the programs come with challenges, your goals are certainly worth pursuing and achieving. If you genuinely want to become a Doctor of Nursing Practice, I encourage you to research your program options and get started today!

Frequently Asked Questions Answered by Our Expert

1. How Long Does A BSN-To-DNP Program Take?

If you enroll full-time, BSN-to-DNP programs can take three to four years. Part-time students typically take five years or longer to complete the program.

2. Is It Normal To Struggle In A BSN-To-DNP Program?

Several factors make a BSN-to-DNP program hard, making students feel like they are struggling. It is normal to struggle, but you can succeed with hard work and determination!

3. Which Year Of A BSN-To-DNP Program Is The Hardest?

It is a matter of opinion regarding which year of a BSN-to-DNP program is hard. Many students feel the first year is hard because it involves transitioning from undergraduate to graduate studies.

4. What Are The Hardest Classes In A BSN-To-DNP Program?

DNP students have various interests, strengths, and weaknesses, which means the classes that you feel are difficult may be easier for others and vice versa. While opinions vary, according to my colleagues who teach DNP programs, some of the most challenging classes that make BSN-to-DNP programs hard are Advanced Pathophysiology, Graduate Statistics, and Research for Evidence-Based Practice.

5. How Many Hours Do I Need To Study In A BSN-To-DNP Program?

Most DNP instructors recommend students spend at least four hours per week for each credit hour they are enrolled in studying. For example, if you are enrolled in five credit hours, you should prepare to spend a minimum of 20 hours each week studying and completing assignments. Keep in mind that this time is in addition to your time in lectures, labs, and clinicals.

6. Is It Hard To Work During A BSN-To-DNP Program?

While many students in DNP programs work, doing so poses some challenges, making it difficult. I recommend weighing your options of reducing your work hours or taking time off work while in the program. If you must work or do not want to give up your job while in school, work with your academic advisor and employer to find a way to balance your school and work schedules.

7. What Percent Of BSN-To-DNP Students Drop Out?

On average, about 15% of students in BSN-to-DNP programs drop out.

8. Is It Common To Fail A BSN-To-DNP Program?

BSN-to-DNP programs are academically challenging. Because of the academic rigor of the programs, it is common for some students to fail BSN-to-DNP programs. However, I encourage you not to compare yourself or your likelihood of success to others. Although the BSN-to-DNP programs are hard, you CAN succeed!

9. What Next After Failing A BSN-To-DNP Program?

If you fail in a BSN-to-DNP program, it is not the end of the world. Take some time to reevaluate your goals and decide if trying again is something you want to do. If you truly want to earn your DNP, talk to your academic advisor and program director and discuss a plan for success. Then, try again! If you are at a point after failing a BSN-to-DNP program that you think would be better suited with a different option, there are unlimited options in the nursing field.

Darby Faubion, RN, BSN, MBA
Darby Faubion is a nurse and allied health instructor with over 20 years of clinical experience. Her work history includes clinical experience in pediatrics, mental health, addiction and behavioral disorders, geriatrics, wound management, and communicable disease. Darby has worked in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and home health and hospice agencies. Darby also has experience as a nursing and allied health educator at both community college and university levels. Her love for nursing and nursing education led to her becoming a test-taking strategist and NCLEX prep coach.