DNP vs PhD: What’s the Difference?

dnp vs phd
dnp vs phd

Many nursing students have questions about advanced degrees, including the DNP vs PhD, and may wonder how they both compare. Today, nurse leaders are needed more than ever—and fortunately, there's a bright outlook for those who pursue leadership roles in the field.

As a nurse, you may be exploring options such as a doctoral degree, perhaps a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) or a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). Read our latest blog to learn more about the D.N.P vs PhD and which degree may be best for you.

DNP vs PhD

Both DNP and PhD degree holders play a valuable role in the medical field. However, there are significant differences between what nurses who earn a DNP do versus those who earn a PhD.

DNP graduates go into the field to translate and implement the knowledge they have gained. Their roles range from directly engaging with patients to managing other nurses. Where might a DNP degree holder work? There are a few options including the following.

  • Graduates may work as a healthcare executive at a medical facility.
  • They may be an educator or administrator at a university or nursing organization.
  • DNP degree holders may also focus on quality improvement. In this role, they may be assessing patient care technology, patient safety, and other relevant practices. These graduates may work at a medical facility or for a health care authority.
  • They may also be an APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse). This includes nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, and more.

PhD graduates often focus on research. Their goal is to add to the body of research related to nursing and to improve systems. PhD degree holders typically do not work with patients. Below are some of the more common jobs for a PhD degree holder.

Graduates are often educators at postsecondary nursing programs at universities.

PhD in nursing degree holders can be involved in setting standards and practices related to the field. Such a role is found at governmental organizations related to public health, medical facilities, and community organizations.

The most common role for a nursing PhD graduate is research. The research may be conducted at a university, medical facility, and other healthcare-related organizations.


dnp degree

What is a DNP Degree?

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), “The (DNP) is quickly becoming the standard for preparing APRNs for contemporary nursing practice.” Plus, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties is suggesting that by 2025, those entering the field should be DNP graduates.

The AACN requires that DNP programs include at least 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours.

The goal of these practice hours is to enable students to gain proficiencies relevant to the DNP essentials and specialty competencies. As part of these experiences, students should have a deep and meaningful engagement that leads them to opportunities for reflection and to receive feedback.

Regarding the work in the field, the AACN states, they “… are designed to help students build and assimilate knowledge for advanced specialty practice at a high level of complexity.”

Beyond the practice element of a DNP program, students receive exposure to nursing practice expertise. The rigorous coursework is based on two components. The first, as The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Practice Nursing notes, is the eight primary essentials that each DNP graduate should be versed.

The eight essentials are:

  1. Scientific Underpinnings for Practice
  2. Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvement and Systems Thinking
  3. Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
  4. Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology for the Improvement and Transformation of Health Care
  5. Essential V: Health Care Policy for Advocacy in Health Care
  6. Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  7. Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving the Nation’s Health
  8. Advanced Nursing Practice

The second element of the coursework is related to specialty competencies that give DNP graduates the practice and learning needed for individual specialties.


phd nursing

What is a PhD in Nursing?

As noted above, in the discussion of a DNP v PhD, a graduate of a PhD nursing program focuses on research and furthering the body of knowledge in nursing and health care.

The Institute of Medicine sets out the parameters of nursing research. It includes developing, “knowledge about health and the promotion of health over the full lifespan, care of persons with health problems and disabilities, and nursing actions to enhance the ability of individuals to respond effectively to actual or potential health problems.”

PhD graduates may also go into teaching and program evaluation.

So, the curricula for a PhD nursing program needs to prepare students for a variety of options. According to the AACN, standard curricula include data management and research methodology. Students also work on research projects independently.

The Need for a Doctoral Degree

The number of employed nurses quadrupled between 2009 and 2018 and then doubled between 2018 and 2020. Despite the tremendous growth of nurses entering the field, there is still a great need for more nurses and those who can lead them.

Aside from nurse practitioners, nurse educators and healthcare executives are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the employment change for each job to be at least 18% between 2018 and 2028.

The AACN expects nearly one million nurses to retire by 2030, which is more than a quarter of the current workforce. The need to hire and retain nurse teams will be great, in addition to the need to educate future generations of nurses.

While societal needs are driving the demand for nurses to achieve more advanced degrees, there are also practical reasons: improved patient outcomes. The AACN reported a few studies where the patients had better outcomes when treated by nurses with advanced education.

When there is a need in a challenging field, salary follows. While a DNP degree holder can pursue multiple areas upon graduation, each pays a substantial salary. According to PayScale, the average salary for a DNP degree holder is $102,000.

Partnership Between DNP and PhD Nurses

Graduates with a DNP or a PhD both play a meaningful role in the healthcare system and are partners in the quest to improve patient outcomes.

In the most traditional sense, a nurse with a DNP is in the field implementing the research that a nurse with a PhD may have conducted with a team. Those in the field are either focused on the patients they serve or act as leaders in healthcare administration, managing teams and operational functions.

Nursing leaders in the field may voice ongoing issues and can communicate the need for new solutions. It is in these areas that researchers focus their areas of research.


dnp vs phd terminal degree

Who Enters a Terminal Degree Program in Nursing?

Throughout the United State, the number of DNP programs are growing.

When considering a DNP vs PhD, potential students should consider their qualities. Although there is no one standard type of person who enters a DNP program, degree seekers tend to have certain qualities.

  • Leadership Skills: Many of the avenues graduates pursue are leadership roles and it is important that they feel comfortable making decisions and directing others.
  • Communication Skills: When they are in the field, DNP graduates will likely find themselves facilitating interprofessional collaboration. Those students who are clear and concise in their communication will be more likely to receive buy-in from the team around them allowing them to manage complex situations.
  • Analytical Skills: This skill will aid a DNP graduate once they are in the field. A part of the job may include assessing organizations, systems, and technology as well as applying and evaluating new science. Being able to analyze a situation and apply (or adapt) the best solution is imperative as it impacts patient care.


sau dnp

Why Choose Spring Arbor University DNP Program?

As you weigh the information of a DNP vs PhD and determine a DNP is right for you, the next step is to find the right program that fits your needs.

SAU’s online DNP in Strategic Leadership is geared towards MSN- prepared nurses. APRN certification is not mandatory.

The program which combines academic rigor with a Christ-centered worldview to develop nursing leaders steeped in integrity and faith is specifically designed for working nurses.

At SAU, we are determined to help students maintain a healthy work-life balance and develop relationships. Our online DNP students enjoy:

  • Flexible, online coursework that allows you to continue working full-time.
  • A week off in between classes, following a unique 7-1-7 model (7-week courses, 1-week break).
  • Engaged faculty and small class sizes, which promote a sense of community.
  • Ongoing resources including a dedicated Student Success Coach who offers support throughout your time in the program.

As a DNP graduate, you’ll be prepared to secure leadership positions related to clinical applications, quality improvement, and healthcare policy contributions. Your studies of the contemporary issues in nursing will be through a lens of spirituality, grace, and critical inquiry. Take the next step in your career and be a leader in the field.


Learn More About Spring Arbor's Online DNP.


Read more of Spring Arbor University online's top nursing blogs below:

1. Why Is 2020 The Year Of The Nurse?

2. DNP Benefits: 5 Reasons To Earn A Doctor Of Nursing Practice

3. Telehealth Nursing: Technology's Impact On Healthcare

4. Postgraduate Pathways: Is A Post-Master’s Certificate Best For You?

5. Challenges In Nursing: What Do Nurses Face On A Daily Basis?