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Should You Pursue a DNP or a Ph.D. in Nursing?

Nursing professionals who wish to pursue the highest level of academic achievement in their chosen field typically choose between two prestigious degrees: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing.
While these doctoral-level nursing degrees share much in common, there are also key differences in both the pursuit and the application. If you’re trying to decide upon the best educational and career path to make your unique contribution to the nursing profession, here are some things to know about the DNP vs. a Ph.D.

What these advanced nursing degrees have in common

Regardless of which degree you decide to obtain, it’s safe to say that the knowledge and skills you gain help you move up the health care career ladder. Both the DNP and Ph.D. prepare nurses to practice at the top of the nursing chain of opportunities, including Chief Nursing Officer or a Dean of Nursing School.
Other commonalities:

  • Both are terminal nursing degrees, meaning they are the highest degree that can be awarded on the professional nursing track.
  • Nurses with either doctoral degree will be in high demand in the coming years, according to Nurse Journal.
  • Demand in academia is particularly high for both DNP and Ph.D. nurses. A nationwide nursing shortage in the United States means more registered nurses with advanced education are needed to serve as faculty members in nursing schools and teaching hospitals.
  • The nursing community continues to push for more educational requirements across the board for nurses, increasing the need for leadership-oriented nurses with doctoral degrees.

How the DNP and Ph.D. in Nursing differ

Simply put, a DNP prepares you for a career in clinical practice, and the Ph.D. prepares you for a career in research:

  • The DNP focuses on the practice of nursing at the highest level as it applies to patient outcomes. DNP graduates use and translate research in their practice to deliver complex care to patients and influence better outcomes.
  • A Ph.D. in nursing elevates and advances the science of the profession through research and creating new nursing theories.

The amount of schooling required is quite different for these two doctoral degrees:

  • You can earn a DNP in one to two years in a full-time program or between three to four years attending part-time.
  • Obtaining a Ph.D. in nursing takes, on average, four to six years to complete.

Requirements for completing each degree can also differ greatly:

  • DNP graduates must complete a clinical project that demonstrates intimate knowledge of evidence-based practices. For example, ACU’s online DNP program offers an Advanced Practice Nurse track that requires the development and implementation of an evidence-based capstone project.
  • Ph.D. programs typically focus on original research and methodology and conclude with a final research project and defense of a dissertation.

Why the need for DNP programs?

Until very recently, the Ph.D. was the traditional terminal degree path for nurses wishing to earn a doctorate. But explains that the DNP was created in an effort to encourage more master’s-prepared nurses to pursue their doctorate.

To help meet the demand for nurses educated at the highest levels of practice, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in 2004 called for the Doctor of Nursing Practice to become the new standard for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to enter practice. The popularity of DNP programs was further bolstered in 2010 when the National Academy of Medicine, formerly the Institute of Medicine, published the “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health” report.
The report called for the number of nurses with a doctoral degree to double by 2020.“By 2016 that recommendation had been met, mainly due to the creation of the DNP or doctor of nursing practice degree,” adds

Possible career choices for DNP graduates

While there are any number of overlapping career paths candidates of either program can take, it’s helpful to keep in mind the ultimate career goal when selecting one or the other. For example, a DNP graduate may want to pursue a career in teaching or providing healthcare-relevant advice to policy-makers:


Doctoral degrees are especially important for college and university professors who intend to train advanced practice nurses who may eventually require doctoral degrees. This is largely due to the 2004 AACN’s position paper calling for all APRN nurse vocations to move toward adopting a professional doctorate “similar to the MD that a physician gets or the PharmD that a pharmacist has to have,” explains Joan Stanley, chief academic officer of education policy at AACN.

Advising Policy

Nurses who hold doctoral degrees inform and influence health care policy decisions, whether through affiliations with politicians, insurance companies, international organizations, or think-tanks.

Doctor of Nursing Practice degree holders fill the highest-level nursing career opportunities, both in the clinical environment and in areas outside of direct patient care. DNP nurses in direct care often hold APRN roles such as:

  • Nurse practitioners (NPs)
  • Certified nurse-midwives (CNMs)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs)
  • Clinical nurse specialists (CNSs)

ACU’s DNP with the Executive Nursing Leadership track prepares nurses to step into the highest executive-level positions in hospital and clinical systems, governmental agencies, and managed care organizations. Roles include:

  • Chief executive officer
  • Chief operating officer
  • Vice president, patient services
  • Chief patient experience executive
  • Director of nursing

Possible career choices for Ph.D. graduates

On the other hand, with its natural focus on research, Ph.D. holders might want to pursue a career conducting research or guiding healthcare systems with the best practices they learn:

Conducting Research
Ph.D.-level nurses design and perform studies. They might try to answer questions such as, “What are the highest risk factors for burnout in nursing staff?” and “How do primary-care outcomes differ between the patients of physicians vs. the patients of advanced registered nurse practitioners?”

Directing Large Health Care Institutions
A Ph.D. in nursing can qualify you to oversee the entire nursing department in a large hospital or serve as the CEO of a visiting nursing agency that employs hundreds of medical providers. You might work for consulting firms, pharmaceutical companies, or health care information technology corporations.

ACU Online and the DNP

Would you like to learn more about earning a faith-based DNP? Abilene Christian University offers a Doctor of Nursing Practice program that lets you earn your degree while being a part of a vibrant, virtual, Christ-centered community with no need to relocate.

The Doctor of Nursing Program at Abilene Christian University has received accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (

Our DNP degree will transform your career and life with a high-quality education, expert professors, and a compassionate, cutting-edge approach to the clinical side of medicine. We invite you to get in touch with us to learn more today by calling 855-219-7300 or contacting us through our website.

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