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RN to DNP Guide

With the job outlook for all nurses expected to progress at a higher-than-average rate according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, you may be considering advancing your education with a graduate degree. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the number of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree programs have been on a steady rise since 2012, lending to the increased popularity of the degree. 

If you’re considering pursuing your DNP, this educational guide will highlight what you need to know in order to take the next big step in your nursing career.

The Benefits of Getting a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

Earning your Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is a personal decision and it can also come with additional benefits to your career, such as: 

  • Specializing in your chosen field. Advancing your education through a DNP degree is an opportunity to specialize further in your area of expertise. 
  • Efficiency. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, many Masters programs for nurses, such as Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Midwife, and Nurse Anesthesiologist actually carry the same amount of credits as most doctorate programs. So, by choosing a DNP degree, you may make an efficient decision to gain a doctorate degree with the same amount of time and credit requirements for a Master’s degree. 
  • Salary increase. According to a 2018 Medscape survey of nurses with advanced practice (APRN) degrees, on average, APRNs with doctorate degrees earned $5,000 more annually than advanced practice nurses without doctoral degrees. 
  • Tuition reimbursement. Depending on what field you choose and what policies your current workplace offers, you may be able to receive reimbursement for your DNP degree. 
  • More career opportunities. Earning your doctorate degree in nursing opens the door for further career opportunities. 
  • Ability to influence healthcare policy and reform. One primary role for many DNPs is the ability to work at the ground level in areas such as collaboration, policy, and evidence-based practice to improve healthcare in a variety of different ways. 
  • Career flexibility. For instance, DNPs can have the option to work at the bedside or work in more practice-based, academic, or broader healthcare perspective roles, or have a combination of both. 

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What is a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree?

As the American Association of College of Nurses explains, a DNP degree prepares a Registered Nurse with advanced clinical training as well as a specialized blend of leadership, economic, and organizational skills. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners statement on DNPs notes that the DNP degree more accurately reflects current clinical competencies and includes preparation for the changing future of the healthcare system. 

DNP-prepared nurses are able to work at the clinical level in traditional advanced nursing practice roles, such as an NP, CNM, or NA, but they are also experts who can evaluate nursing practices, perform data evaluation, and design programs of care from a social, economic, and practical, evidence-based level.  

The Doctor of Nursing Practice website refers to the DNP degree as the “pinnacle” of practice-focused nursing degrees, because it builds upon the clinical skills gained in a master’s program to encompass a framework of healthcare leadership and quality improvement. A DNP is really a unique healthcare professional who can not only deliver practical health care, but also has the skills and knowledge to evaluate, critique, and improve upon that healthcare mode of delivery and outcome, not just for his or her own patients, but on a larger public health and population-based scale as well. 

Career Outlook

Although an RN degree will allow you to work in a specialty field, earning your DNP broadens your educational and career scope by allowing you to choose to work in a clinical setting, a leadership setting, an academic setting, or in a public health setting—or in some combination of the different fields. DNPs are truly their own specialty field who have the ability to work in a variety of healthcare settings to fit their own needs and the needs of their healthcare population. 

DNPs can work in the same specialty as non-doctorate Nurse Practitioners, which can include: 

  • Family Nurse Practitioners
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioners
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners
  • Adult Geriatric Care Nurse Practitioners
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioners
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner 

However, while a DNP can work a traditional clinical role, earning your DNP will prepare you for a more advanced leadership role rooted in evidence-based practice. For instance, DNP graduates could expect to work in roles that expand beyond the bedside, such as: 

  • Management 
  • Quality 
  • Executive levels 
  • Directors of clinical programs,
  • Faculty positions 
  • Clinical education

As the AACN explains, a DNP degree program focuses on practice-based research, evidence evaluation, research application, and clinical innovation implementation. The DNP program, in particular, focuses on studying healthcare populations, obtaining and analyzing data on those populations, then transferring that data into practical decisions and evaluating any program implementation. Although there is a research component to the implementation and evaluation process, the AACN also notes that the DNP degree is not designed to prepare nurses for heavy research-based roles; instead, if you are a nurse looking for a more formalized research role, a Ph.D. or DNS program will be required, similar to a MD choosing to complete a PhD. 

Salary and Pay

In general, according to a 2018 Medscape survey of APRNs, nurses with a doctorate degree—whom only make up 15% of APRNs—make an average salary that is 4% higher than nurses who hold a master’s degree. The exact salary of what you can expect to earn as a DNP will vary based on: 

  • What field you specialize in, 
  • What type of setting you are employed in,
  • If you choose full-time, part-time, or per-diem employment
  • Your geographical location (for instance, Pacific-based APRNs earn more than East South-Central region nurses). 

The Medscape report also suggested that APRNs across the board had similar incomes at 10-11 years of practice and over 20 years of practice, leading to the thought that after your salary caps, income earning does remain constant instead of continually growing after around the decade mark. However, a DNP degree does carry the highest income potential among nurse practitioners. 

One of the highest areas of income potential for DNPs is at the managerial or leadership level and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of May 2017, the highest average annual wage of a medical and/or health service manager was $172,240, while the median salary was $96,540. 

Types of Programs 

The AACN lists 289 schools in the United States that offer a DNP program. There are five types of DNP programs offered both in-person, 100% online, or through hybrid programs that combine both in-person campus visits and online instruction:

  • RN-DNP Some schools offer students who have their RN license, but no other advanced degree the opportunity to earn their DNP without also earning their BSN or MSN. This option is more limited than the other type of DNP programs. 
    • Basic requirements: Applicant must either possess an RN, a diploma degree, or ADN, along with a Bachelor’s in nursing or, in certain situations, a Bachelor’s in another field outside of nursing. 
  • ADN-MSN-DNP Some schools offer students who have their Associate’s degree in nursing, but no other advanced degree the opportunity to earn their DNP while also earning an MSN degree. This option is more limited than the other type of DNP programs. 
    • Basic requirements: Applicant must either possess an RN, a diploma degree, or an Associate’s degree in nursing.  
  • BSN-DNP. For students who have already earned their BSN degree to enter into school and earn their DNP without earning their MSN degree.  
    • Basic requirements: Applicant must either possess an RN, a diploma degree, or ADN, along with a Bachelor’s in nursing.
  • MSN-DNP. One of the most common options for DNP programs, the MSN-DNP is for students who already have an MSN degree and enroll directly into the program at the graduate level. 
    • Basic requirements: Applicant must possess a MSN degree. 
  • DNP-PhD. A smaller pool of students may be interested in pursuing their Ph.D. and DNP simultaneously in a dual degree program. 
    • Basic requirements: Applicant must possess a MSN or applicable graduate-level degree. 

Online DNP Programs 

Because many nurses who are pursuing their DNP degrees are busy professionals who are generally already working, online programs are a very popular option for an advanced DNP degree. 

What type of students thrive in online DNP programs? 

Online programs are ideal for various nursing professionals with busy schedules as they allow the entirety or majority of coursework to be completed remotely. They are flexible and give students the opportunity to work around their schedules. 

While online programs are inclusive to all lifestyles, nurses with the following lifestyles may especially benefit from online programs,

  • Working nurses 
  • Nurses with families 
  • Nurses with outside responsibilities
  • Nurses with difficult and/or set schedules 

How long will it take to complete the DNP program online? 

The length of your DNP program will depend on which type of program you enroll in. For instance, if you are choosing to enter a DNP program directly from an RN degree without a Bachelor’s or Masters, your program will take longer because the coursework will include some Masters-level competencies and education. Conversely, if you are enrolling into an MSN-DNP program, you will already possess that graduate-level knowledge, so the program will be more standard. 

In general, to help you plan your education, a program of 8-9 semesters full-time as a DNP student equates to a three to four-year commitment. For students attending school part-time, the DNP degree may take as long as six years. Many students attend DNP classes year-round, through fall, winter, spring, and summer. 

Why is it important to choose an accredited and credentialed program? 

It is dire when choosing any online program, but especially an advanced degree program like a DNP, to ensure that the program you will be enrolled in is accredited and credentialed. Students who attend non-credentialed programs may run into challenges with future employment opportunities and examination eligibility. 

When it comes to the highest level of accreditation we advise choosing programs that are accredited by,

The AACN also notes that it is preferable that nursing schools work with accrediting body Alliance for Nursing Accreditation and ensure accreditation standards across all advanced nursing degree specialties that encompass nurse midwifery, nurse anesthesia, and DNP program accreditation. 

Online DNP Program Requirements & Key Differences 

In general, the requirements for an online DNP program are the same for an in-person DNP program. However, there are a few differences when it comes to taking online courses as opposed to in-person courses. Here are the most noteworthy differences, 

  • Securing your own practicum site and preceptor - Not every school has this requirement but some do not provide online students with practicum sites and preceptors. If this is important to you, make sure to ask about it before enrolling in an online program. 
  • Practicum - The practicum portion of the program is the “hands-on” learning when you are paired with an instructor in your specialty field to learn in an immersive educational environment. Generally, the practicum comes at the end of your program. 
  • Attend an in-person event - Some online programs also require you to attend at least one in-person event as part of your education at the school, such as an immersion weekend to kick off the program or different set meet-ups during the course of the program. 

While online DNP programs may be the most convenient option, depending on the program, they may also be more or even less expensive than traditional in-person programs. It is worth assessing the full scope of the savings potential when choosing an online program. 

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DNP Program Requirements 

The specifics for your DNP program will depend on which type you enter into and whether you’re beginning at a post-baccalaureate or post-master’s level. Post-Baccalaureate DNP applicants will need a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing, while a post-master’s degree will require an MSN or another applicable graduate-level nursing degree. 

Outside of your beginning degree requirement, you will need the following to enroll in a DNP program: 

  • Active RN license in the state your clinicals will take place in
  • Minimum 1-year nursing experience (preferred); some clinical focuses may require a minimum of 2 years of experience 
  • Completed school application with the applicable fee
  • CV/resume
  • Original goal statement or personal essay 
  • Official transcripts sent to the school
  • Prerequisite courses that generally include statistics and natural sciences (some schools also stipulate certain courses must be taken within the last 5 years)
  • Minimum 3.0-grade point average 
  • 3 personal letters of recommendation, with at least one from a current supervisor 
  • In-person or phone interview may be required
  • Additional testing may be required for international students 
  • GRE scores may be required
  • Some schools require pre-statistics course within the last 10 years with a minimum 3.0 GPA

Do nurses need to have an RN license in the state they are applying to attend DNP school? 

You must have an active RN license in the state that your clinicals will be taking place. If you are attending an online DNP program, it is possible that the school’s state will be different than the state you will actually perform your clinical hours in; you may, for example, attend an online school that is technically located in Maryland but arrange your clinical hours locally in your home state, so your license will be appropriate.  

What are the core competencies of a DNP program? 

The AACN explains that the essential competencies of a DNP program are built upon the content outlined in the organization’s Essentials of Master’s Education for Advanced Practice Nursing (1996), and the subsequence Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing (2011).

The DNP program will provide graduates with the core competencies outlined in the Master’s program along with additional competences that include the following:  with the additional competencies and knowledge needed to practice at the highest level.

  • Practice skills 
  • Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  • Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of health care
  • Health care policy for advocacy 
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  • Advanced nursing practice

Nurse Practitioner Licensure

To qualify to be licensed by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners through your DNP program, applicants must meet the following requirements:

  • Complete an education program with national competencies in the graduate core NP role geared towards adult-gerontology, primary care, or family/ across the life span in accordance with the 2016 Criteria for Evaluation of Nurse Practitioner Programs, 5th edition.
  • Complete APRN core courses of advanced physical assessment, advanced pharmacology, and advanced pathophysiology
  • Complete a minimum of 500 faculty-supervised direct patient care clinical hours 
  • Adhere to the organization’s rule of not taking the certifying exam more than twice in one calendar year 

Classes and Clinical Hours 

The exact classes, curriculum, and clinical hours specifications will vary based on your specific type of program, but in general, a DNP program requires a minimum of at least 500 clinical hours. DNP students can often choose different tracks for their program, from clinical practice-focused programs to executive level programs, which will have different courses and applications depending on your track. 

A sample course of classes and clinicals for a DNP program may look like:

  • Semester 1 & 2: Evidence-Based Practice, Informatics, Statistics, Quality Improvement, Patient Safety, Scholarly Writing 
  • Semester 3 & 4: Epidemiology, Health Care Economics, DNP Application I & II, Systems Management, Informatics II
  • Semesters 5 & 6: Healthy Policy, Legalities, and Ethics, DNP Application III, Electives, & Completion of DNP Project 

DNP Program Cost

The costs of a DNP program will depend on which type of school you decide to attend. Public schools are generally less expensive than private schools and in-state schools will be less expensive than out-of-state schools. 

The cost of a DNP program will also be higher if you plan on living on-campus or taking part in a residential meal program. In general, the cost per tuition hour for a DNP degree is the same as any graduate-level credit hours, so you will be paying the same amount per credit hour for a DNP as you would a Masters-level degree. However, a DNP program may take more time than a Master’s degree in nursing. 

According to a report by New America Education Policy Program, the average undergraduate and graduate debt for a student receiving a Masters in Science degree as of 2012 was $50,400. A March 2019 estimate by U.S. News & World Report also notes that the average cost of a graduate degree ranges from $30,000 to $40,000 per year. As just one example of tuition costs for a DNP program, the University of Iowa estimates a total tuition 2018-2019 cost for an out-of-resident DNP student at 56,442.50 per year. Other schools list a post-master’s DNP for as little as a total program cost of $16,240. 

However, if you are passionate about your career goals, the benefits will definitely outweigh the cost in the long run. With a DNP degree, you’ll enjoy more autonomy, more expansive variety of career options, higher pay, and the opportunity to advance into more leadership roles. 

How to Pay for the DNP Program 

Deciding how to pay for a DNP degree can seem like a daunting task, and that’s ok. Luckily, there are many options to help offset or lessen the burden of the cost. Program cost shouldn’t deter you from following your career goals, the benefits will outweigh the cost.  

To assist you in learning more about your options for financing your DNP, here are the most popular financial aid and other monetary options:

  • Grants. Grants are financial aid granted to you for your education that you do not have to pay back. They may be based on need, availability, and merit. There are three main ways you can receive grants for a graduate degree: 
    1. Through the school you will be attending: you will have to fill out the FAFSA, which will then automatically tell you what kind of federal grants you are eligible for. 
    2. Through the school’s financial aid office: you can inquire about any additional grants you can apply for. 
    3. Through your field: for instance, there may be DNP-specific grants or grants specifically related to your specialty field. You could check governing associations related to your field or speak with your program director for guidance on available grants.   
  • Scholarships. There are thousands of scholarships available for DNP students. Scholarships range in amount, from a monetary value all the way up to full-tuition and are funds that you do not have to pay back. 

Here are a few suggestions to start your scholarship search,

  • Check with your school - your school will provide a full list of scholarships available through the school. Many have private scholarships that are funded with different qualifications, so you can browse scholarships you may be eligible for. 
  • Search online - many corporations, organizations and private individuals will list their scholarships online, especially in your chosen field. You can also do a search locally and online for graduate nursing scholarships and programs, especially in your chosen field.
  • Loans. A student loan is a type of financial aid you receive to pay for your education that you are required to pay back, with interest. 
  •  

There are two types of loans, 

  1. Federal student loans are provided through the government and usually carry much more generous terms and lower interest. 
  2. Private loans are funded through a financial institution such as a bank or credit union. Most federal loans require that you be enrolled at least half-time in your degree program and allow you to borrow up to $20,500 per school year. 

How to apply for student loans, 

  1. Fill out your FAFSA - the best course of action when pursuing loans is to first fill out your FAFSA and see which federal loan options you qualify. 
  2. Search for private student loans - once you’ve determined the number of federal loans you are eligible for then search for private student loans as needed to finance the rest of your education. 

You will need to be careful when choosing private loans, all loans are not created equal. Here is a list of items to research when choosing a private loan, 

  • Loan terms
  • Interest rates
  • Additional fees, such as origination fees, early payoff fees, and late payment penalties. 

Your school’s financial aid office can generally help guide you through choosing private education loans as well. 

Deferring undergraduate student loans while in DNP school

If you already have student loans from your undergraduate degree, you may also be able to defer payment on those loans while you’re enrolled in your DNP program, so you’ll be able to stop making payments and your loan will still continue to accrue interest. 

Other options and paths to consider include:

  • Savings. One option for pursuing your DNP is to save up money before you enroll in your program to offset some of the financial costs as well as ease your burden of continuing to work while you’re in the program. It may also be helpful to explore your current workplace policy on tuition reimbursement for furthering your education, as some facilities offer partial or full tuition reimbursement. 
  • Cash Payment. If you plan on paying for your DNP program directly out-of-pocket, it may be best to set up a meeting with the financial aid office to see what type of payment plans they offer and what option will be right for you. Some schools may also offer the availability of a semester deferment in times of financial duress, so check on your school’s policy.
  • Tuition Reimbursement. Some employers will either front the cost of a DNP program for certain employees who are pursuing an education that has been designated a high need for the company or organization or offers full or partial tuition reimbursement upon completion of the degree. You should check with your current place of employment for policies on tuition coverage and/or reimbursement. 
  • Loan Forgiveness. Although your DNP degree may not be eligible for loan forgiveness, a nurse practitioner degree may be eligible for student loan forgiveness in certain selection conditions. Your chances for getting your loan forgiven increase if you work for a governmental agency, a qualifying area or school of need, or work for a National Health Service Corp. site for at least two years

You can check with the Department of Education to see the full summary of what type of conditions apply for the loan forgiveness program and for details on how to apply for loan forgiveness or cancellation. 

Is a DNP Degree Right for Me? 

As a nurse considering a DNP degree, the truth is, only you can answer the question if the degree is right for you.

Earning your DNP may be the best path for you if you are a nurse who, 

  • Has the desire to gain more knowledge and additional skill sets in a specialty field 
  • Are drawn to a practice-based advanced degree 
  • Dreams of serving in a leadership role
  • Feels led to influence healthcare policy, reform, or organization practices
  • Is interested in pursuing more academic settings
  • Wants to advance beyond the bedside
  • Would like the flexibility of serving in a variety of different nursing positions

There has been a lot of talk with the AACN over the past decade of transitioning all advanced practice nursing degrees to DNP degrees, so the demand for a DNP may only continue to grow in the coming years. 

Earning your degree as a DNP may be the opportunity to advance your career, practice more organizational and/or leadership-based roles, and improve the healthcare industry as a whole. If you do decide to further your education with a DNP degree, you can be assured that it’s a proven employment path that provides the ability to practice both clinical and beyond-the-bedside roles.  

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