Skip to main content

DNP Vs. PhD — What’s the Difference?

Promoting a culture of lifelong learning has measurable benefits in every profession. In nursing, ongoing education and training is required in most states for licensure renewal. Of course, pursuing higher levels of education helps nurses keep current with best practices to improve patient outcomes — what the nursing profession is all about.

Advanced degrees are increasingly an expectation for registered nurses (RNs). RNs can achieve the highest educational standard in their profession by earning a doctorate. Unlike some professions, nursing has two options for a terminal degree: a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing. The question may be: Which doctorate is right for me?

What Is a DNP?

Multiple healthcare professions offer a practice doctorate: medicine (MD), pharmacy (PharmD), physical therapy (DPT), naturopathy (ND), psychology (PsyD) and optometry (DO) are some examples. A DNP offers a similar path for RNs.

Unlike the more research-focused Ph.D. in nursing, a DNP is a practice-based program. As the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AANC) explains, a DNP prepares nurses to implement the science developed by researchers.

The DNP is a relatively new degree. According to the AANC, the first DNP program launched in 2001. The number of DNP graduates has since reached a notable milestone. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) — now the National Academy of Medicine — called for doubling the number of DNP-prepared nurses by 2020. As of 2017, the nursing profession has surpassed that goal.

The number of schools offering a DNP continues to increase as well. For example, Northern Kentucky University (NKU) offers a post-master’s DNP that is accredited by the CCNE.

NKU’s online program prepares graduates to take leadership roles in improving patient safety and the quality of care. Common career paths include:

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) 
  • Nurse administrator
  • Public health nurse
  • Nurse informaticist
  • Nurse educator
  • Faculty and academic administrator

A DNP can also prepare RNs for work in public policy. In these leadership roles, RNs can influence healthcare reform on a larger scale.

What Is a PhD in Nursing?

A Ph.D. in nursing prepares RNs for a career in nursing research. Rather than deliver direct care, nurses with a Ph.D. advance their profession through scientific contributions.

People often picture Ph.D. holders conducting research in university labs. That is one career option for nurses with a Ph.D. But the ability to conduct high-level research opens the door to opportunities in diverse settings. Here are a few of the many results from an Indeed search for Nurse Ph.D. jobs:

  • Director of Research (health advocacy organization)
  • Nurse Director (hospital)
  • Medical Director (medical technology)
  • Clinical Affairs Manager (applied artificial intelligence)
  • Director, Research Operations (health network)
  • Director, Medical Science Liaison (pharmaceutical)

Nurses with a Ph.D. are also in demand in nursing education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs have some of the highest job growth of all occupations. Yet nursing schools are turning away qualified applicants because of a faculty shortage. An AACN survey of 872 nursing schools found 1,715 faculty vacancies. As faculty, nurses with a Ph.D. can teach nursing students at all levels — from associate programs to DNP and Ph.D.

The AACN notes that Ph.D. enrollments are increasing. However, DNP programs are a more popular choice for RNs pursuing a doctorate partly due to their versatility. As a practice doctorate, the DNP opens up higher-paying leadership opportunities in nursing practice and in healthcare administration. It also paves the way for a teaching career in a practice-based nursing program.

The nursing profession places a priority on lifelong learning. In line with that goal, RNs who aspire to high-level leadership roles can take that step by earning their doctorate.

Learn more about Northern Kentucky University’s online Post-Master’s DNP program.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing: CCNE Accredited Programs

American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Ph.D. in Nursing

American Association of Colleges of Nursing: DNP Fact Sheet

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: More Nurses Answering the Call for Higher Levels of Education

Campaign for Action: We’re Making Headway on the IOM Nursing Goals

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employment Projections – Occupations With the Most Job Growth

Request Information

Submit this form, and an Enrollment Specialist will contact you to answer your questions.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Or call 800-985-7215

Ready to Begin?

Start your application today!
Or call 800-985-7215 800-985-7215
for help with any questions you may have.

Related Articles