DNP vs PhD: What’s the Difference?
If you are a nurse looking to advance your career through education, a doctoral degree may be closer than you think. The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are both terminal degrees in nursing. One of the most common questions about DNP vs PhD is “what’s the difference?”
In the DNP vs PhD question, neither degree is “higher” or “better” than the other. So does it matter which path you pursue? Yes, when considering DNP vs PhD, there are some crucial differences.
While the DNP focuses on nursing practice, the PhD concentrates on research. Answering the question of which degree to pursue, a nurse should consider both professional and academic interests. This article will delve into the differences in career outlook and educational components when comparing DNP vs PhD.
What Is the Value of a Nursing Doctoral Degree?
The United States is experiencing growing needs for medical research, nursing education, advanced practice, and system leadership in health care. Accordingly, there is significantly increasing demand for nurses with advanced degrees.
Major healthcare organizations and public health initiatives emphasize this need by advocating for more doctorally prepared nurses. In the matter of DNP vs PhD, both are valuable in different ways.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the National Academies of Medicine, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are collaboratively promoting this cause. In 2011, the Institute of Medicine recommended a doubling in the number of nurses with doctorate degrees by 2020. The corresponding recommendations were detailed in The Future of Nursing, a 700-page book that explores:
- Education and medical training
- Health care quality
- Policy and public health
- Workforce considerations
However, even with these high-level calls for more advanced degrees, supply is low. Still, only about one percent of nurses in the United States have earned a doctorate. This makes a doctorally prepared nurse stand out among other candidates for the most sought-after jobs.
Evaluating DNP vs PhD is the first step.
DNP vs PhD: Differences in Career Path
When considering a DNP vs PhD, it is important to remember that both degrees represent the highest level of education in nursing. A DNP equips a nurse for practice roles, while a PhD prepares a nurse for research roles.
PhD programs emphasize scientific content and research methodology in an academic context. A PhD in nursing prepares a nurse to perform health care research that benefits nurses and other medical professionals in practice settings.
DNP programs emphasize delivery of high quality health care. A nurse with a DNP is positioned as a leader in improving health care systems and patient care, applying research to practice. The DNP-prepared nurse can meet critical practice needs in both primary care and other specialized areas of nursing and nursing education.
This is a summary of the differences when considering a DNP vs PhD:
|Emphasis||Patient outcomes and leadership||Scientific study|
|Primary Tasks||Lead in clinical practice||Conduct studies and publish findings|
|Purpose||Application in improving systems||Knowledge for improving systems|
What Does a DNP-Prepared Nurse Do?
The DNP role emphasizes leadership in nursing practice for improved patient outcomes. This may take the form of direct patient care, organizational leadership, or education.
Direct Patient Care
Nurse practitioners are increasingly recognized for delivering high-quality care as they provide many of the same services as physicians. Clinical practice may specialize in family care or other focused areas such as pediatrics, adult gerontology, or mental health. In the DNP vs PhD question, a DNP is more appropriate for these clinical roles.
A DNP-prepared nurse is also ideally positioned to lead nursing teams and interprofessional teams. Since patient care often involves numerous aspects, a nurse practitioner—especially in primary care—is prepared to coordinate the interrelated parts. An article published by the National Institutes of Health identifies teamwork as a leading factor in delivering safe, quality outcomes.
The comprehensive, high-level components of a DNP program prepare nurses for advanced care responsibilities and team leader roles. Several influential health organizations have collaboratively issued a statement noting the value of DNP education for nurse practitioners.
An MSN degree is currently the entry-level degree for nurse practitioners, but there is a movement toward higher educational requirements. Leading organizations are actively engaged in discussions about establishing the DNP as a standard for nurse practitioners.
The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties recommends that the DNP be the entry-level for nurse practitioner education by 2025.
Job and Salary Outlook for Patient Care Roles
The demand for nurse practitioners is expected to increase by 28% from 2018–2028. That means more than 50,000 new jobs in a 10-year period. This compares to a growth rate of only 12% for registered nurses without advanced education.
A DNP-prepared nurse pursuing clinical practice will be equipped with the highest level of education in the field. The DNP credential offers added value for prospective employers seeking to fill nurse practitioner positions with the most highly qualified applicants. In the DNP vs PhD question, a DNP is more valuable for these patient care roles.
The median annual salary for a nurse practitioner is currently $109,820, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. News & World Report reports that the top 25% of nurse practitioners earn more than $125,000 annually.
Advanced education is one factor that helps a nurse achieve top positions and salaries in nursing practice. One recent survey indicated that having a doctoral degree led to nurses earning about $9,000 more, on average, than those with only a master’s degree.
Factors Affecting the Job Market
Many areas across the country are experiencing critical needs for health care providers. The Association of American Medical Colleges expects a shortage of more than 55,000 primary care physicians in the next decade. Nurse practitioners are recognized as an important part of meeting the demand and will need to be equipped with optimal education and training.
Nurse practitioners have full practice authority in 22 states and Washington, DC. In other states, NPs deliver patient care in collaboration with or under the supervision of physicians.
Leading nursing advocates such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have launched campaigns to remove restrictions for nurse practitioners. With increased freedom to practice, demand for nurse practitioners is expected to increase even more, expanding quality care to more people.
Beyond direct patient care, a nurse practitioner often pursues administrative leadership roles in a clinical setting. When choosing between a DNP vs PhD, a DNP is optimal preparation for these roles.
A DNP-prepared nurse is prepared to be an agent of change in health care systems, extending influence in a broader context. Providing a unique viewpoint, the nurse leader can introduce strategic innovation and serve as a critical part of solving major challenges.
Earning a DNP also enhances a nurse’s credibility as a thought leader and influencer. With the highest credential in nursing clinical practice, a DNP-prepared nurse is positioned to contribute to strategic development and organizational growth.
Job and Salary Outlook for Organizational Leadership Roles
Nurse Journal projects a 23% growth rate in nursing leadership and management jobs. A doctorally prepared nurse will discover a wide range of career opportunities with a system focus. Evaluating a DNP vs PhD will depend primarily on the organizational emphasis. These are some examples:
- Health care administration
- Clinical care coordination
- Nursing education
- Systems project management
- Public policy
A recent study by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership explored the job titles, workplace settings, and compensation for today’s nurse leaders. According to a survey of thousands of nurse leaders, the most common job titles are:
- Director: 35%
- Manager: 21%
- Chief Nursing Officer (CNO)/Chief Nursing Executive (CNE): 18%
The AON study also identified these primary types of employers for nurse leaders:
- Acute care hospital
- Academic medical center
- Academic institution
- Corporate system
- Ambulatory care facility
- Consulting firm
- Critical access hospital
Salaries for nurse leaders vary by title and level of responsibility. Across the board, however, salary potential for nurse leaders is strong, with more than half earning between $90,000 and $169,999 annually. Salaries for top positions such as chief nursing officers can exceed $300,000 annually.
Changing Trends in the Job Market
With shifting dynamics in today’s health care, nurse leaders are positioned for strategic impact. Issues like nursing shortages, technological changes, and new developments in medical treatments call for unprecedented expertise. Doctorally prepared nurses will be on the forefront of leadership and innovation. Choosing a DNP vs PhD depends on the context.
When considering a DNP vs PhD for nursing education careers, a prospective student should primarily consider areas of interest in teaching. A DNP degree will best prepare nurse educators for clinical teaching roles and leadership roles in clinical programs. A PhD will more effectively prepare nurse educators for teaching or administrative positions in programs geared toward research.
For a DNP-prepared nurse with a passion for shaping the next generation of nurses, nursing education is a significant opportunity. To grow the current workforce of clinical nurses, the health care industry will need more nursing programs. This calls for a new influx of nurse educators and academic administrators.
The doctorally prepared nurse will be ready at the highest level of nursing to influence the growth of nursing education programs. In thinking about a DNP vs PhD, the aspiring nurse educator will again consider professional interests. A DNP-prepared nurse is specially equipped to influence education from a clinical perspective.
Job and Salary Outlook for DNP Nursing Education Roles
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 20% increase in jobs for nursing instructors from 2018-2028. Areas for the highest expected increase are:
- Private colleges, universities, and professional schools: 30.8%
- State community colleges: 24.9%
- State colleges, universities, and professional schools: 19.6%
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing advises doctorate-level education for nursespursuing faculty positions in four-year colleges and universities. Higher-level teaching roles put nurse educators in the highest salary ranges, ranging from $76,000 to more than $100,000.
Factors Affecting the Job Market
There are tremendous needs for more nurses in many health care settings today, and meeting these needs will require expanded educational systems.
One CNN report describes “hospital deserts” in some parts of the United States. With large numbers of retiring nurses and physicians, there are big gaps in health care systems. Though many highly competent students are seeking nursing education, current educational systems cannot meet the demand.
Nurse leaders can have a powerful impact in shaping the future of nursing education programs that educate clinical nurses.
What Does a PhD-Prepared Nurse Do?
The PhD role focuses on nursing research that provides content for large-scale practical application. PhD-level opportunities are primarily in the areas of direct research and nursing education. If DNP vs PhD is the question, a nurse who is passionate about scientific inquiry may be more inclined toward a PhD.
PhD-educated nurse researchers advance health care through the discovery of new scientific knowledge. Research findings may be applied in clinical settings, at the organizational level, or in public health contexts affecting entire populations.
The Institute of Medicine has defined nursing research to prioritize these goals:
- Emphasize wellness for all age groups
- Foster quality of life through prevention
- Give attention to vulnerable populations
- Advance economic efficiencies in health care
For the DNP vs PhD question, generally, PhD nurses conduct research to be implemented by DNP nurses in achieving these goals.
Nursing research may focus on the functions and accountabilities of nursing, generating improvements in education and practice. Nurse researchers also study clinical issues related to cures and treatments for health conditions. Such research may be applied in treating chronic illness, managing side effects, and helping patients live more productively.
These are some examples of study topics published by the National Institute of Nursing Research:
- Traumatic brain injury
- Palliative care
- Sleep apnea
- Micronutrient deficiencies
Job and Salary Outlook for Nursing Research Roles
The number of nursing research jobs is expected to increase by 19% from 2012 to 2022. The reported average annual salary for nurse researchers is $95,000. Nurse researchers also have the opportunity to expand their influence through speaking engagements, consulting, and publishing.
Here again is the question of DNP vs PhD. With increasing needs for medical research, PhD nurses are in high demand in health care related organizations such as:
- Pharmaceutical providers
- Government agencies
- Scientific institutions
- Clinical facilities
Factors Affecting the Job Market
The current Strategic Plan of the National Institute of Nursing Research identifies cultural contexts driving the need for more research.
- An aging population and longer life spans
- Increasing diversity
- Scientific advances in medical treatments
- Changing research methods
Major organizations such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing are calling for significantly increased focus on nursing research. New initiatives in funding and education will continue to increase the demand for PhD-educated nurses.
In the question of DNP vs PhD, both options are viable routes to a nursing education career. Since PhD studies will emphasize research, aspiring nurse educators interested in promoting the science of nursing may find this option appealing. A PhD-prepared nurse has a significant opportunity to influence academic research in the field of nursing.
Job and Salary Outlook for PhD Nursing Education Roles
The projected 20% increase in jobs for nursing instructors mentioned earlier may apply to either DNP-focused education or PhD-focused education.
Payscale.com estimates the average salary for a nurse educator at approximately $76,000. This number, however, would include many instructors without a doctoral credential, since only about 50% of nursing faculty have earned doctorates. Earning a terminal degree improves career opportunities for nurse educators, and salaries for professors range from approximately $80,000 to $115,000 or more.
Factors Affecting the Job Market
The field of nursing as a whole faces a significant national shortage of nursing educators. Current numbers indicate a faculty vacancy rate of almost eight percent, plus needs to increase above the vacancies. In more than 90% of these positions, a doctoral degree is required or preferred.
As funding and emphasis for nursing research continue to increase, this directly impacts the need for research-focused nursing education.
With leading organizations such as the AACN calling for increasing levels of nursing research, education will need to expand to meet the demand. Deficits in the number of doctorally prepared faculty, however, limit the advancement of education to drive research initiatives. Considering a DNP vs PhD, the PhD is particularly relevant here.
DNP vs PhD: Differences in the Educational Pathway
Just as the career outlooks for DNP vs PhD have similarities and differences, so do the educational pathways to those careers. DNP programs emphasize the clinical side of nursing, while PhD programs focus more on research. In recent years, growth in DNP programs has steadily increased, while enrollment in PhD programs has stayed relatively level.
For prospective students comparing a DNP vs PhD, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has developed a chart that gives an overview. Differences include:
- Career focus
- Faculty emphasis
Assessing DNP vs PhD programs includes a review of how the educational structures are designed. PhD students are primarily concerned with developing skills and understanding for conducting research. For a DNP student, the goal is applying research to practice.
Accordingly, there are differences in the particular expertise and background of faculty. DNP instructors and mentors more often have practice-based experience, while PhD instructors and mentors emphasize backgrounds in research.
Outside the classroom, PhD students will gain experience in settings for scientific exploration. DNP students will apply academic study in clinical practice settings. Technology use will be focused on patient care for DNP students, while PhD students will use technology for research.
DNP vs PhD standards for admission are similar in many ways. DNP programs and PhD programs both typically require:
- Completion of an undergraduate or master’s degree in nursing
- Explanation of career goals
- Minimum GPA documented by official transcripts
- Active, unencumbered RN license
A PhD program is more likely to call for a writing sample. A DNP program will typically require a minimum level of clinical nursing experience.
Since DNP programs are geared to clinical practice and PhD programs are focused on research, the academic requirements of DNP vs PhD reflect this distinction.
A distinctive feature of DNP vs PhD programs is the DNP’s emphasis on clinical practice. DNP students will devote significant time to hands-on experience under the leadership of faculty mentors.
Charting the future course of DNP programs, the Association of Colleges of Nursing has issued a position statement on best practices. A subsequent publication, The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Practice Nursing outlines critical curriculum elements and gives standardized criteria. Meeting program essentials is required for accreditation by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.
AACN member schools are required to follow standardized guidelines for required program length and clinical hours. Guidelines also include requirements for content related to:
- Interprofessional collaboration
A DNP final project also distinguishes the DNP degree. Following the AACN “DNP Essentials” for the final project, the DNP candidate will:
- Choose a topic related to patient outcomes
- Emphasize health care systems or populations
- Show application
- Develop ideas for sustainability
- Evaluate clinical significance
- Establish groundwork for ongoing practical research
Foundational nursing PhD courses give an overview of historical and philosophical frameworks. Coursework also includes research methods, statistical techniques, and technology for scientific inquiry. Faculty mentors guide PhD candidates in writing for publication.
Comparing a DNP vs PhD, a PhD program requires intensive research rather than clinical practice hours. Independent research projects are followed by a dissertation on a topic of professional interest. PhD student research covers a broad range of topics, such as:
- Advancement of nursing practices
- Caring for patients with chronic illnesses
- Solutions for side effects of medical treatments
- Treatments for mental disorders
The hallmark of a PhD program is successful completion of the dissertation. The student will work with a faculty mentor and dissertation committee to demonstrate theoretical expertise and research implications for the topic studied.
DNP vs PhD: Which Pathway Is Right for You?
Whichever direction you pursue in your DNP vs PhD decision, you will be part of advancing the nursing profession and improving health outcomes for patients. If you are passionate about doing research that promotes knowledge, a PhD is likely the path for you. If you are eager for firsthand clinical practice and administration, a DNP program will be a better fit.
Either way in DNP vs PhD, you are part of filling a tremendous need for doctorally prepared nurses.
What Are the Benefits of Walsh University’s DNP Program?
If a DNP pathway is right for you, it will be important to choose a program that also fits your personal and professional values.
Walsh University’s DNP-FNP program prepares you as an empowered nurse leader committed to these outcomes:
- Leadership and advocacy
- Organizational expertise
- Data-driven quality improvement
In Walsh’s compassionate community, you will find ongoing support as you:
- Work with a placement coordinator who supports you with a preceptor and workplace sites for your clinicals
- Connect with engaged faculty of experienced nurses and benefit from small class sizes
- Receive proactive, dedicated support and one-on-one coaching to help you succeed
- Enjoy a flexible online format that allows you to continue working while earning your degree
Taking the next step in your education puts you closer to your professional goals. Walsh University’s dedicated admissions representatives are ready to guide you through each step of the process.
Find out how you can get started in Walsh University’s online DNP program.
Read more of Walsh University Online's top DNP blogs below:
1. MSN to DNP: 5 Benefits of Advancing Your Nursing Career
2. 10 Tips for Nurses to Maintain Worklife Balance
3. Doctor of Nursing Practice: Is a DNP the Right Degree for You?
4. Best Places for Nurses to Live and Work