DNP vs PhD: What’s the Difference?

A medical professional sits at a desk and looks at a computer.
A medical professional sits at a desk and looks at a computer.

Many nursing students have questions about advanced degrees, such as a DNP or PhD, and may wonder how they compare. Today, nurse leaders are needed more than ever — fortunately, there’s a bright outlook for those pursuing leadership roles in the field.

As a nurse, you may be exploring options such as a doctoral degree, perhaps a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). However, as you explore these options, it’s important to fully understand the differences between a DNP vs. a PhD so you can make a more informed decision.

What Is a DNP Degree?

A DNP degree is a terminal degree designed to provide nurse leaders with the highest level of nursing practice knowledge and skill possible. The primary goal of the degree is to equip nurses with an optimal capacity to translate research into practice in a manner that can potentially improve patient outcomes. Unlike other terminal degrees, which are research focused, a DNP is designed for nurses who wish to focus on applying the complex processes of healthcare innovations to a facility’s care delivery strategies and patients’ clinical presentations.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) requires that DNP programs include at least 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice hours to help students gain proficiencies relevant to the DNP essentials and specialty competencies. As part of these experiences, students should have a deep and meaningful engagement that provides opportunities for reflection and to receive feedback.

Beyond the practice element of a DNP program, students receive exposure to nursing practice expertise. The rigorous coursework is based on three components. The Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Practice Nursing breaks down the first two components into distinctive categories. The AACN defines the first component as domains for nursing, which are:

  • Knowledge for nursing practice
  • Person-centered care
  • Population health
  • Scholarship for nursing practice
  • Quality and safety
  • Interprofessional partnerships
  • Systems-based practice
  • Informatics and healthcare technologies
  • Professionalism
  • Personal, professional and leadership development

The second component as defined by AACN is concepts for nursing practice, which are:

  • Clinical judgment
  • Ethics
  • Communication
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Compassionate care
  • Health policy
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Social determinants of health

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

While nurses aren’t required to obtain a DNP to pursue nurse clinical leadership roles, this may change in the future. The AACN, along with the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF), is advocating for the DNP to be the required educational benchmark for all nurse practitioners by 2025. The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia programs has also mandated that students who begin their education in 2023 or later must be enrolled in a DNP program by 2025.

A medical professional looking at a tablet

Benefits of a DNP

A nurse leader or advanced practice nurse can enjoy several benefits of a DNP. While some of these advantages are personal, others can go hand-in-hand with the benefits that come with being a nurse leader.

Earning a DNP can open a nurse to a broader range of career opportunities. This is due to the degree’s design, which focuses on preparing nurses for executive-level nurse leadership roles and advanced practice nursing roles associated with scientific inquiry and practice.

A DNP also positions nurses to take optimal advantage of a robust job market that’s growing at a much faster rate than other career paths. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a job growth rate of 46% for nurse practitioners between 2021 and 2031. The BLS also projects a job growth rate of 28% for health services managers and 22% for nurse instructors. All these are substantially higher than the 5% that the BLS projects for the average profession.

Additionally, a DNP can put nurse leaders and clinicians on par with other high-level health professionals that must obtain a terminal degree to practice. These include doctors, pharmacists and physical therapists.

What Is a PhD in Nursing?

Unlike the practice and clinical leadership focus of a DNP, a PhD nursing program focuses on research and furthering the body of knowledge in nursing and healthcare.

The National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) sets out priority-driven principles of nursing research. These principles are as follows:

  • Research that addresses current health challenges and spurs discoveries to prepare for future challenges
  • Research that finds holistic solutions that cover clinical, community and policy settings to provide optimal health for populations, communities and their residents
  • Research that moves equity forward via the removal of structural barriers in the research process, the cultivation of diverse perspectives and the encouragement of inclusion and accessibility
  • Research that innovates, cultivates optimally rigorous methods and can potentially maximize an impact on health.

PhD graduates may also consider academic teaching and leadership and program evaluation roles

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

Black doctor examining a child

DNP vs. PhD: Outcomes

Both DNP and PhD degree holders play a valuable role in the healthcare field. However, significant differences exist in what nurses who earn a DNP do in comparison with those who earn a PhD.

DNP graduates go into the field to translate and implement the knowledge they’ve gained in their nursing practice and from the scientific contributions of their peers with PhD degrees. Their roles range from directly engaging with patients to managing other nurses. The duties associated with the degree can allow those equipped with a DNP to explore opportunities in several work environments. For example, graduates might:

  • Work as healthcare executives at a medical facility
  • Become educators or administrators at a university or nursing organization
  • Focus on quality improvement by working at a medical facility or for a healthcare authority to assess patient care technology, patient safety and other relevant practices
  • Enhance their skills as advanced practice registered nurses (ARPNs), including nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists

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 don’t work directly with patients. Below are some of the more common jobs for a PhD degree holder.

  • Educators at postsecondary nursing programs at universities
  • Roles that involve setting standards and practices in governmental organizations related to public health, medical facilities and community organizations
  • Researchers at universities, medical facilities or other healthcare-related organizations

The Need for a Doctoral Degree 

Earning a DNP can place nurses in an optimal position to mitigate the effects of the nursing shortage that continues to impact the field.

Part of this shortage stems from the projected retirement of nurses by 2030, a figure that’s estimated to hit 4.7 million worldwide according to the International Center on Nurse Migration (ICNM). 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. This particularly comes into focus when considering the concurrent physician shortage. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects an estimated shortage of 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. Nurse leaders with a DNP can use their skills and knowledge to minimize the impact of this shortage by developing care delivery strategies, which could ultimately benefit patients seeking quality care.

Upon graduation, DNP degree holders can pursue multiple positions with variable salaries. According to the BLS, as of 2021 nurse practitioners earn a median average annual salary of $120,680, nurse anesthetists earn $195,610 and nurse midwives earn $112,830. Salaries can also vary based on specialization, location, facility and more. 

Doctor and nurse looking over a chart

Partnership Between DNP and PhD Nurses

Graduates with a DNP or a PhD both play a meaningful role in the healthcare system and can be 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’s in these areas that researchers focus their areas of research.

Who Enters a Terminal Degree Program in Nursing?

Throughout the United States, the number of DNP programs is growing.

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

  • Leadership Skills: Many of the avenues graduates pursue are leadership roles, and it’s important that they feel comfortable making decisions and directing others.
  • Communication Skills: When they’re 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: Analytical skills will aid DNP graduates once they’re 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.
    A DNP consulting a patient

Why Choose Spring Arbor University DNP Program?

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

Spring Arbor University’s Online DNP in Strategic Leadership program is geared toward Master of Science in Nursing-prepared nurses. APRN certification isn’t 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 Spring Arbor University, we’re determined to help students maintain a healthy work-life balance and develop relationships. Our online DNP students enjoy:

  • Flexible, online coursework that allows them to continue working full time
  • A week off in between classes, following a unique 7-1-7 model (seven weeks of courses, a one-week break and then another seven weeks of courses)
  • Engaged faculty and small class sizes, promoting a sense of community
  • Ongoing resources, including a dedicated student success coach who offers support throughout their 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 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.

Recommended Readings

Why Become a Nurse Practitioner?
Why Get a DNP? 5 Benefits of Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice
Best Gifts for Nurses


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Programs & CCNE Accreditation FAQs
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, PhD Education
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, The Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education Executive Summary
Association of American Medical Colleges, AAMC Report Reinforces Mounting Physician Shortage
International Center on Nurse Migration, Ageing Well? Policies to Support Older Nurses at Work
National Institute of Nursing Research, Scientific Strategy: NINR’s Research Framework
Nurse Anesthesiology, “The Doctorate Degree: Do I Need it?”
Payscale, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree
The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, The Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree: Entry to Nurse Practitioner Practice by 2025
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Teachers