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DNP vs. PhD in nursing

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DNP vs. PhD in nursing

There is a significant shortage of nurse leaders in healthcare. Clinical fields need nursing leadership. All the while, nurses need more voices at the table, especially as the healthcare industry transitions to become more patient centered.

A doctorate degree is becoming more popular for nurses who want to teach, hold top administrative positions, and/or conduct large-scale research. When considering an advanced graduate degree in nursing, there are two doctorate paths to explore: a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD).

Both doctorates require in-depth knowledge in the field of nursing but differ significantly when it comes to desired career outcomes. Read on to learn more about the differences between a DNP and a PhD in nursing to determine which degree will help you accomplish your professional goals.

What’s the difference between a DNP and a PhD in nursing?

For a terminal degree in the nursing profession, two common types of doctoral programs to choose between are the DNP and the PhD in nursing, with the primary difference relating to professional outcomes and career aspirations.

At the rudimentary level, the DNP educates nurses to provide the highest level of clinical practice through quality patient care and leadership whereas those with PhDs in nursing tend to focus on improving patient care outcomes and the profession of nursing.

Simply put, the DNP is the nursing practice doctorate, and the PhD is the research doctorate.

Another difference between the two nursing doctoral degrees are program length and curriculum. * On average, PhDs take anywhere from three to six years to complete while ATSU's DNP takes around 18 months to three years. PhD curriculum has a theoretical foundation with curriculum typically encompassing data analysis and research methodologies and requires original research and a dissertation. The DNP has a quality improvement focus with curriculum including leadership and management topics, advanced nursing practice, addresses complex healthcare situations, and includes required clinical hours.

Doctor of Nursing Practice
31-33 (based on ATSU's program)
18 months to 3 years
Practicum project and clinical hours
(some DNP programs include a capstone project)
Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing
45-82 (number of credits vary greatly by school)
3-6 years
Required research and dissertation

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD)

Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program

A nursing PhD prepares nurses to conduct research to enhance patient care and advance the nursing profession. This is the highest nursing doctorate offered for those who want to conduct research rather than advance into leadership roles in clinic settings. Nurses who are best suited for this degree see themselves working in a research lab or becoming faculty in higher education.

Nursing PhD curriculum teaches students to conduct new scientific research and disseminate those findings to create positive change in the quality of care and patient outcomes. Typically longer in length than a DNP degree, a PhD in nursing can be completed in four to six years and requires a dissertation. Credit hours vary greatly from school to school, anywhere from 45 to 82 credit hours, with the average for most programs around 64 credits.

Doctor of Nursing Practice program

The Doctor of Nursing Practice is currently one of the fastest growing degrees in nursing. As the terminal degree for the nursing profession, nurses who complete a DNP typically pursue advanced leadership roles in clinical settings.

A.T. Still University’s (ATSU) online DNP program prepares nurses to take an individual, global, and holistic approach to the provision of healthcare, serving diverse and underserved populations. Responsive to workforce needs, this program helps develop nurses with strategic leadership skills who are capable of assessing situations, providing guidance, and developing thoughtful solutions to address complex healthcare situations.

ATSU’s College of Graduate Studies (ATSU-CGHS) offers an interdisciplinary approach to education and patient care, seeing value in and understanding each unique role in the healthcare system. This 31-33 credit online program offers asynchronous courses that can be completed in 18 months (full-time), or on average in two to three years.

Learn from curriculum with "real world" application that will help you improve the outcomes of a chosen population, no matter the setting in which you practice. With a focus on serving the underserved, this program focuses on understanding the healthcare needs of various populations and the need to improve access/equity in care. The DNP curriculum encompasses seven online courses, plus four culminating practicum project courses focused on designing, implementing, and evaluating a quality improvement project, practice innovation, or policy change. There is no on-site residency required for the program, but clinical practice hours are required. The structure enables students to complete the clinical experience in their home city.

The online nature of the DNP enables nurses to complete the doctorate while working. The online curriculum and excellent faculty accommodate the busy life of a student and working healthcare professional. Curriculum is professionally relevant and tailored projects enable students to meet their personal and professional goals and objectives.

DNP or PhD

The time commitment is significant at the doctorate level, so prospective students need to understand the investment being made personally and professionally. Depending on your desired professional outcomes and career goals, one nursing doctorate will be a better fit for you than the other.

If you enjoy working in a clinical setting and desire to advance into clinical leadership, a Doctor of Nursing Practice program is the right degree for you. If you see yourself conducting research, a PhD in nursing is the path for you.

If you desire a doctorate, the DNP program offers schedule flexibility, enabling you to earn your degree while balancing a career. ATSU’s online DNP allows you to conduct your clinical hours where you are located, making this the nursing doctorate of choice for practicing nurses.


*In general. Depending on the university/college of nursing and type of nursing doctorate, curriculum and time to completion varies. For example, a DNP in nurse anesthesia is usually longer than a PhD in nursing.

Not sure if the DNP is right for you?

ATSU-CGHS offers a variety of doctoral programs that meet your professionals needs and career goals.