DNP vs PhD in Nursing - What is the Difference?

11 Min Read Published November 7, 2023
Doctor smiling while looking over charts and notes

What's the Difference Between a DNP vs a PhD?

Nurses who have earned a master’s degree and are ready for the next step may be choosing between a DNP vs PhD. Both are considered terminal degrees for advanced practice nurses but are rooted in very different practices. In the most general terms, a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) is a clinical practice degree, while a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD) is a research-focused degree. 

Nurse Practitioners have the option to earn either degree, but a DNP is preferred. Individuals with a Master’s degree in Nursing Education will generally earn their PhD.

Popular Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs

Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

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Enrollment: Nationwide

Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
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Liberty University
At Liberty, you’ll benefit from 30+ years of learning, growing, adapting, and innovating for the distance learner — and more than a decade of researching the needs of the online student. You can be confident that we’ve taken the time to learn what’s important to you.
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Simmons University

RNs with an associate degree: Advance your nursing career with a supportive online RN to BSN program for women. Simmons University has been empowering nursing leaders for more than 100 years and offering innovative online degree programs since 2013. Up to 96 transfer credits accepted. Request information now.

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DNP vs PhD Compared

Program Length

  • PhD Degree: 
    • BSN to PhD: 5-10 years
    • MSN to PhD: 3-7 years
  • DNP Degree: 
    • ADN-to-DNP: 5-6 years
    • BSN-to-DNP: 3-4 years
    • MSN-to-DNP: 2 years

Average Salary

  • PhD Degree: 
    • PhD nurse educators had a median annual wage of $78,580, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2018.
    • According to Payscale, nurse researchers earned an average salary of $81,500.
  • DNP Degree: 
    • Healthcare salary trends suspect DNPs average $94,500to $134,500 per year. This ultimately depends on the place of employment. This ultimately depends on the place of employment.

Job Opportunities

  • PhD Degree: 
    • The greatest need for PhD prepared nurses is in academia. According to 2018, Special Survey on Vacant Faculty Positions 1,715 faculty vacancies was identified. There is also a need for 138 additional positions to fit the current demand. 
  • DNP Degree: 
    • According to the AACN, the biggest opportunity for DNP individuals is also in academia. The data show a national nurse faculty vacancy rate of 7.9%. Most of the vacancies (90.7%) were faculty positions requiring or preferring a doctoral degree.


  • PhD Degree: 
    • Renewal: None
  • DNP Degree: 
    • Renewal: 5 years. Retake the exam or provide proof of at least 1,000 clinical practice hours and 75 CE unit

Work Environments

  • PhD Degree: 
    • Colleges & Universities
    • Research facility
    • Hospital
    • Medical laboratory
    • Government agency
  • DNP Degree: 
    • Universities
    • Public Health Offices
    • Hospitals
    • Specialty Practices
    • Autonomous Practices
    • Health Care Administration Settings
    • Health Care Policy Advocacy Organizations

Career Options after Graduation

  • PhD Degree:
    • Nursing researcher
    • Health policy positions
    • Nursing faculty positions
  • DNP Degree:
    • Leadership in nursing practice
    • Management positions
    • Healthcare policy, administration, or government positions
    • Academia in practice-based nursing programs

Deep Dive into DNP vs PhD

What is a DNP?

Doctors of Nursing Practice (DNP) deliver high-quality advanced nursing care in a clinical setting, similarly to an NP; however, these individuals have taken their careers a step further.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) states that transitioning from advanced practice NP degrees to the doctoral level is a “…response to changes in health care delivery and emerging healthcare needs, and additional knowledge or content areas have been identified by practicing nurses. In addition, the knowledge required to provide leadership in the discipline of nursing is so complex and rapidly changing that additional or doctoral level education is needed.”

Essentially, DNP graduates are leaders in advanced nursing practice who bring evidence-based knowledge into the clinical setting to help improve healthcare outcomes and strengthen the leadership role of nurses in both clinical and academic settings. 

Want to know more? Check out our guide to learn everything you need to know about the DNP meaning.

The benefits of a DNP program, according to the AACN, are:

  • enhanced knowledge to improve nursing practice and patient outcomes
  • enhanced leadership skills 
  • increased supply of faculty for clinical instruction
  • development of needed advanced competencies for increasingly complex clinical, faculty, and leadership role

>> Show Me DNP Programs

DNP Scope of Practice

An individual with a DNP can function in a provider capacity but most also work to generate new scientific and clinical knowledge in nursing and healthcare. A nurse practitioner with a doctorate does not change the scope of practice. DNPs that work in the clinical setting can, 

  • Order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Diagnose and treat acute and chronic conditions
  • Record and examine medical history, diagnoses, and symptoms
  • Prescribe medications
  • Manage patients’ overall care
  • Counsel patients and their families
  • Educate patients and families on disease prevention and plan of care
  • Monitor and operate medical equipment
  • Perform physical examinations and patient observations
  • Collaborate with other healthcare professionals
  • Detect changes in a patient’s health and change the treatment plan if necessary

DNPs that work solely in the clinical setting will rarely conduct scientific research or teach. For this reason, most DNPs also work in academia, as administrators, and/or researchers. 

The duties of a nurse with a DNP, outside of the clinical setting, can include the following:

  • Use informatics to lead improvements in healthcare outcomes.
  • Develop or update policies and procedures.
  • Educate patients and public about healthcare.
  • Innovate new healthcare strategies to improve patient health outcomes.

In 23 states, DNPs have “full practice authority” which means they do not have to work under the supervision of a doctor. Full practice states include,

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • North Dakota
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Oklahoma
  • New Mexico

In states with reduced practice (Alabama, Wisconsin, and New York) and restricted practice (Virgina, Massachusetts, and California), DNPs must have a medical doctor sign certain medical patient care decisions. DNPs have prescriptive privileges in all 50 states and can administer controlled substances in 49 states.

>> Show Me DNP Programs

Map of practice authority for nurse practitioners by state

DNP Salary

BLS's May 2022 data shows NPs made an annual median salary of $121,6100; interestingly, there is minimal concrete data on the average annual salary of a DNP.  Healthcare salary trends suspect DNPs average $94,500 to $134,500 per year. This ultimately depends on the place of employment.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has very limited data on DNP salaries, but the reported average is $135,830. This average is based on only a small number of reported salaries. The key determining factor for DNP salary is the career nurses pursue after obtaining an advanced degree. A Chief Nursing Officer will earn more than a Nursing Professor. Ultimately, additional advanced education is reflective of higher annual salary earnings.

It is impossible to determine which DNP specialty has the highest salary but hospital administrators, DNP-prepared certified nurse midwives, and DNP-prepared certified nurse anesthetists are at the top. 

According to the 2022 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, certified midwives can earn on average $191,470 in the San Francisco, California.

DNP Programs, Length of Time, & Classes

According to the 2023 U.S. News & World Report, the top five DNP programs in the country are,   

  1. Johns Hopkins University
  2. Columbia University, Duke University and Rush University, and University of Washington (TIE)

Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Rush have consistently been in the top 5 DNP schools the last several years. Rush University has the largest DNP program with over 765 enrolled students, while Johns Hopkins has 624 students enrolled, and Duke has 337 DNP students.

DNP programs can be completed both online and in class. To pursue a DNP, individuals already would have completed a traditional or accelerated BSN program and have an MSN. There are only a handful of programs that accept students into the DNP program without an MSN. 

A DNP program completion can take roughly one to four years. This will depend on the program and whether it is being completed on a full-time or part-time basis. Programs are typically between 30-40 credit hours and 1,000 clinical hours. A percentage of clinical hours earned during an MSN program can transfer in some programs. 

Individuals should expect to take the following classes:

  • Advance Leadership
  • Advance Healthcare Policy
  • Clinical Information Systems
  • Research
  • Evidence Appraisal
  • Project Development
  • Clinical Information Systems
  • Statistics
  • Clinical Reasoning
  • Clinical Pharmacology
  • Advanced Health Assessment and Measurement
  • Health Promotion and Risk Reduction Across the Lifespan
  • Epidemiology
  • Ethics for advanced nursing practice

>> Show Me DNP Programs

DNP Admission Requirements

Requirements for DNP programs will vary but most will require the following:

  • MSN degree from a regionally accredited higher education institution and a nationally accredited school of nursing
  • GPA of at least 3.0 or higher in the Master’s program
  • Current, unencumbered nursing license
  • RN experience 
  • Letters of Recommendation (both academic and professional references)
  • Official Transcripts (from all previous colleges/universities)
  • Current Resume/CV
  • Goal statement
  • Personal essay
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nursing license
  • Interview with faculty (if moved forward by admissions committee)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) if applicable 
  • Application fee

What is a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD)?

A Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD in Nursing), is a research-focused doctorate in which students conduct research to advance the science and practice of nursing. PhDs are considered the gold standard for terminal degrees in nursing and at one time was the only doctorate option. 

Individuals must have a strong desire to conduct research or teach students as this is generally what this degree is used for. 

PhD Scope of Practice 

The scope of practice for a nurse with a PhD is tricky. Individuals can work as a bedside nurse, but unless they are a CRNP, they do not have any advance responsibilities or roles beyond a normal bedside nurse. 

Nurses who earn a PhD typically fall into two employment categories: nurse researcher and nurse educator. 

For a nurse researcher, typical duties may include:

  • Identify research questions, and design and conduct scientific research
  • Collect and analyze scientific data and publish reports detailing findings
  • Write proposals and apply for grants to help fund their research
  • Establish and maintain quality assurance programs to ensure the validity of their data findings
  • Writing articles and research reports in nursing or medical professional journals or other publications
  • Presenting findings at conferences, meetings, and other professional speaking engagements
  • Train and supervise laboratory staff and other nurses or scientists

For a nurse educator who has chosen to pursue a faculty position at a university or college, typical duties may include:

  • Plan, prepare and revise curriculum and study materials for nursing courses
  • Deliver lectures to undergraduate and graduate-level nursing students
  • Design curricula and develop programs of study
  • Evaluate program outcomes
  • Research and publication of scholarly work
  • Participating in professional associations
  • Speaking engagements at a nursing conference
  • Writing grant proposals
  • Writing or reviewing textbooks and other educational material
  • Seek continuous improvement in the nurse educator role
  • Advise students and perform many of the tasks associated with academic careers
  • Grade students’ classwork, laboratory and clinical performance
  • Mentor and advise students’ regarding their future work in the nursing industry

PhD Programs, Length of Time, & Classes

A PhD program takes a minimum of three years if taking classes full time. Most individuals complete the programs in five to seven years. The curriculum is between 45 and 70 credit hours. There is no direct patient care practicum but there is a dissertation. 

A dissertation is a requirement of all PhD programs, and individuals must defend their manuscript during a presentation at the end of their program. The dissertation is a technical paper that is intended to show the growth of the student throughout the program. It includes theory, research, and experimentation.

>> Related: What Are the Best Nursing Research Topics?

Individuals should expect to take the following classes:

  • Philosophical Perspectives in Health
  • Scientific Perspectives
  • Quantitative Research Design and Methods
  • Qualitative Research Design and Methods
  • Mixed Methods Research Design
  • Grant Writing
  • Measurement in Health Care Research
  • Responsibilities and Activities of the Nurse Scientist 
  • Leadership in Science: The Role of the Nurse Scientist
  • Statistical Methods
  • Dissertation
  • Longitudinal Methods
  • Integrated Interdisciplinary Research Practicum
  • Intervention Research Methods in Health Care

PhD Admission Requirements

Requirements for PhD programs will vary but most will require the following:

  • Graduate of an accredited Master’s in Nursing Program 
  • A written statement of research goals 
  • Research interests that match faculty expertise and School resources
  • GRE scores are accepted but not required
  • GPA of at least 3.0 or higher in the Master’s program
  • Interview with faculty (if moved forward by admissions committee)
  • Writing sample (publication or graded paper)
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Letters of recommendation (both academic and professional references)
  • Copy of official RN license(s) 
  • Nursing experience
  • Application fee
  • Official Transcripts (from all post-secondary schools)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) if applicable 

Earn Your Nursing Degree Online


  • What is a DNP?

    • A DNP is a terminal nursing degree rooted in clinical practice and intended for advanced practice nurse practitioners.
  • What is a PhD?

    • A PhD is a terminal nursing degree rooted in research and intended for individuals wishing to work as nurse educators or nurse researchers. 
  • What is the difference between DNP vs PhD salary? 

  • Does it take longer to become a DNP or PhD? 

    • It takes about twice as long to earn a PhD DNPs can be earned in as little as one year or full-time study while a PhD takes a minimum of three years.
  • How long does certification last?

    • DNP’s must renew their certification every five years either through examination or practice hours and continuing education hours. PhD prepared nurses do not have a certification to renew other than their advanced practice degree. 
  • Are DNPs and PhDs in demand?

    • With an ongoing nursing shortage, an aging population, and retirement of a large percentage of nurse educators, nurses with terminal degrees are in high demand.
Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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