DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: What Are the Differences?

A smiling nurse practitioner in a hospital hallway.


With the recognition that nursing is a clinical profession in its own right, nurses who want to rise to leadership positions have several options. They may choose to stay in clinical practice and take the lead on implementing evidence-based care models, or they may go into research and academia, teaching the next generation of nurses. Both a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a PhD in Nursing can offer opportunities for significant career advancement.

Understanding the differences between the degrees can help nurses decide whether an MSN to DNP program is the best fit or if the research route would suit them better.

What Are a DNP and PhD in Nursing?

Both the DNP and the PhD in Nursing are aimed at RNs who are interested in leadership roles. Each kind of degree program educates nurses in evidence-based care and nursing best practices, with the goal of continuously improving the field of nursing as a medical science. However, the DNP and the PhD in Nursing provide very different educations.

The PhD in Nursing is research-focused. Nurses learn to conduct research and publish results designed to improve the practice of nursing. Nurses with PhDs often go on to teach in nursing colleges.

The DNP trains nurses in evidence-based applications of this research. Nurses with DNPs are focused on clinical changes to nursing practice and patient care. DNP graduates also often teach, but most focus on leadership roles within a hospital or other health care organization.

DNP vs. PhD: Differences

Looking at the curriculum, scope of practice, workplaces, and certifications associated with a DNP vs. PhD in Nursing uncover specific differences between the degrees:


In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) endorsed the need to give advanced practice nurses a terminal degree option beyond the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). The MSN remains popular, but organizations such as the AACN have called for the DNP to be required for nurse practitioners.

The DNP also provides an alternative to the research-focused PhD in Nursing. With this practice-focused doctorate in hand, nurses can rise to leadership positions in hospitals while continuing as clinicians.

What are the features of a DNP?

Education and Curriculum

While DNP programs vary by institution, they offer coursework, research projects, and practicums in evidence-based practice, improvement in quality of patient care, and health care leadership. These programs prepare students to spearhead change in health care policy and best practices in nursing. Depending on where a nurse is in their work experience and education, completing a DNP program can take two to six years.

Scope of Practice

DNP graduates often work as nursing managers and chief nursing officers. They use their knowledge of evidence-based care and best practices to support the clinical decision-making of the RNs and advanced practice nurses on their staff. Professionals with a DNP collaborate with administrators and physicians to facilitate communication and teamwork, which research has shown to promote better care quality and reduce medical errors.


DNP graduates’ background in clinical best practices and evidence-based care can lead to a variety of career options. Most commonly, they work in hospitals and other health care organizations and government health care agencies. They may also work for scientific journals as editors and writers, as consultants for health care technology companies, and as nursing program professors.


Roles that require a DNP likely also require an RN license. Nurse practitioners, who hold an MSN, must also maintain the specialized certifications for their field. These certifications must be renewed every five years with a combination of practice hours and continuing education units.

PhD in Nursing

The PhD in Nursing, known as the Doctor of Nursing Science at some universities, prepares nurses to be research scientists and nurse educators. As with typical doctoral programs, a PhD requires a research project and dissertation defense. The goal of PhD in Nursing programs is to "advance the science of nursing," according to the AACN. This degree can take anywhere from three to 10 years to earn, depending on where a student is in their experience and education.

Education and Curriculum

PhD programs focus on research that expands the boundaries of the nursing profession, with the goal of identifying new evidence-based practices that improve patient care. The curriculum provides a background and education in research practice and ethics. PhD candidates must conduct original research and defend it before receiving their doctorate.

Scope of Practice

Nurse researchers provide evidence-based data that supports new care models, such as patient-centered care, teamwork and collaboration in nursing, and the encouragement of clinical decision-making by nurses. PhD graduates are leaders in cutting-edge research that explores key issues in nursing.


Nurse scientists work in universities, research organizations, government health care programs, and technology startups. As educators, they teach, develop curriculum, and mentor graduate students. They may also work in hospitals as managers or chief nursing executives.


Nursing professionals with a PhD typically maintain their RN license. However, they are not required to maintain a certification in a specialization.

What Kinds of Jobs Do DNP and PhD Graduates Have?

After exploring a DNP vs. PhD in Nursing and learning the differences, prospective graduate students may want to consider the careers that each degree can lead to. Whether working as clinicians or conducting research, professionals with a doctorate in nursing have a variety of options. They may work for large hospitals, in private practice as nurse practitioners, or in government research. They may also write, teach, move around the country as travel nurses or locum tenens, or treat patients via telemedicine.

The following are some career paths for graduates with advanced nursing degrees.

Chief Nursing Officer: Administration

Chief nursing officers (CNOs) are health care executives who direct nursing departments within hospitals and health care systems. They ensure best practices, establish strategic decision-making, help to develop and maintain an organization’s culture, and generally oversee the nursing department. The median annual CNO salary was approximately $134,700 as of February 2022, according to salary research firm PayScale.

Chief Nursing Officer: Research and Development

Government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health look for chief nursing officers to manage their clinical nursing research programs. Corporations such as IBM, which have moved into providing health care services, hire chief nursing officers to guide their strategy. Health care startups employ nurses to develop medical products and services that improve patient care.

Nursing Informatics

Nursing informatics is a branch of health informatics that gathers health care data and identifies patient-centered issues. Nursing informatics professionals then use that data to identify better workflows and patient care processes that eliminate errors and improve care. The median annual salary for nursing informatics specialists was about $84,400 as of January 2022, according to PayScale.

Nurse Practitioner

Clinicians don’t have to move into the executive suite or into research. They can use their advanced degree to expand their options for treating patients. Nurse practitioners are advanced-practice nurses with a broader scope of clinical responsibilities. They specialize in a number of different areas, such as family care, geriatrics, or pediatrics. The median annual salary for a family nurse practitioner was approximately $98,000 in March 2022, according to PayScale.

DNP vs. PhD in Nursing: Your Choice, Your Career

Nurses with DNPs and PhDs are changing the profession, bringing cutting-edge research and new best practices to the field. Earning an advanced degree can lead to job flexibility and career growth. Explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online MSN to DNP program today and learn how you can be part of this exciting field.

Recommended Reading:

10 Effective Nursing Communication Skills for Nurse Leaders

Chief Nursing Officer Job Description

FNP vs. AGACNP: Which Nurse Practitioner Career Should I Pursue?


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