How to Become a DNP-Prepared Nurse Leader

DNP preparing to see a patient
DNP preparing to see a patient

Nurses are widely known for their passionate commitment to quality of care and patient outcomes. For many nurses, the pursuit of advanced education is driven by a desire to positively impact healthcare at a higher level. Increasingly, nurses are finding that earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is an optimal pathway to nursing leadership roles.

Understanding more about how to become a DNP-prepared nurse leader will help you discover if pursuing a DNP is the right fit for you.

What Is a DNP?

The term “DNP” refers to the name of the degree, Doctor of Nursing Practice. The DNP is a terminal degree—the highest level of education in the field—comparable to a PhD in nursing. However, there are some differences. A DNP is a practice-focused educational pathway, while a PhD is a research-focused approach. DNP-prepared nurses and PhD-prepared nurses serve complementary roles in healthcare, merging scientific study and clinical implementation.

DNP curricula build on traditional master’s programs by extending content in nursing leadership and management, including:

  • Evidence-based practice
  • Quality improvement
  • Organizational change
  • Systems leadership

Major organizations including the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the National Academies of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have been advocating strongly in recent years for an expanded workforce of doctorally prepared nurses to accomplish critical objectives in healthcare. 

Career Paths for Nursing Leadership Roles

If you are considering how to become a DNP-prepared nurse leader, you are likely evaluating the potential for influencing healthcare systems, individuals or populations of patients, and organizations in meaningful ways.

Regardless of which area of nursing you choose to specialize, you are part of the nation’s most trusted profession. For 20 consecutive years, nursing has been number one in the annual Gallup poll that rates public perception of a wide range of professions for honesty and ethics. This high level of trust is one reason nurses are ideally positioned to lead change in an increasingly complex healthcare environment.

Not only are nurses highly respected for principled and honorable practice, but nurse leaders are also increasingly valued for proven expertise in healthcare leadership. Advanced education equips nurses for these leading roles. Key findings in AACN’s report, The State of Doctor of Nursing Practice Education in 2022 affirmed the distinctive contributions DNP graduates make in organizational quality improvements and evidence-based practice.

The value of nurse leaders is also affirmed by compensation levels. According to the most recent report from the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), a majority of nurse directors earn salaries from $100,000 to $170,000. In comparison, most salaries for nurse managers range from $80,000 to $130,000. Nurse leaders at the highest executive levels typically earn at least $150,000 annually.

DNP-prepared nurses serve in nursing leadership roles in advanced practice, education, and administration. Today’s healthcare systems face critical needs in all three of these areas, and nurse leaders with high-level knowledge, experience and credentials are vital to shaping the future.

Advanced Practice Nursing

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), such as nurse practitioners, provide primary and specialized care that emphasizes prevention and holistic health. Qualified to deliver most of the same services as physicians, APRNs are an increasingly important link in filling critical gaps in healthcare.

While the current educational requirement for entry-level APRN practice is a master’s degree, there is growing momentum toward DNP-level preparation as the baseline standard. The AACN has identified leading considerations that support a movement toward DNP education for advanced practice nursing. Factors include:

  • Rapid expansion of knowledge underlying practice;
  • Increased complexity of patient care;
  • National concerns about the quality of care and patient safety;
  • Shortages of nursing personnel which demands a higher level of preparation for leaders who can design and assess care;
  • Shortages of doctorally-prepared nursing faculty;
  • Increasing educational expectations for the preparation of other members of the healthcare team.

Nurse practitioners have many opportunities to utilize DNP education to impact healthcare positively. DNP-prepared nurses serve in advanced practice nursing leadership roles such as:

  • Expanding primary care access in underserved areas
  • Introducing innovative solutions in organizations
  • Optimizing inter-professional collaboration
  • Improving patient outcomes through the highest level of nursing care

Nursing Education

Equipping future generations of nurses requires an intentional focus on the quality of nursing education. Nurse educators are in high demand across a range of settings including clinical healthcare facilities, colleges and universities.

While some practice, clinical or healthcare facility related teaching positions in nursing are open to candidates with master’s degrees, there is a requirement for doctorally prepared faculty and educational administrators in the higher education settings.

Nurse educators are influencing the advancement of nursing practice through nursing leadership roles in academic and clinical contexts. DNP-prepared educational leaders are:

  • Developing curriculum
  • Implementing programs and program changes
  • Directing departments and schools
  • Advocating for educational policy
  • Teaching at the highest levels of nursing education

nurse educators looking at a laptop

Nursing Leadership and Management

Administrative roles give nurse leaders the opportunity to lead teams of nurses and other healthcare professionals in envisioning and achieving goals. Serving as supervisors, managers, directors and executives, administrative nurse leaders work in hospitals, clinics, healthcare organizations and government agencies.

A DNP is often preferred and required for nurses in higher-level administrative roles. For competitive positions, the DNP credential distinguishes a candidate’s resume and expands in-depth expertise for a stand-out interview. A DNP-prepared nurse leader is uniquely equipped to tackle the most pressing organizational concerns for healthcare of the future.

Nurse leaders are a substantial part of building the future of healthcare. DNP-prepared nurses in nursing leadership and management roles are serving in ways such as:

  • Incorporating scientific research into nursing practice
  • Directing patient care
  • Influencing healthcare policy
  • Developing systems to support and enhance nursing practice
  • Leading departments and organizations at the highest levels

What to Expect in a DNP Program

Designed for aspiring nurse leaders, DNP programs focus on big-picture thinking. DNP students develop leadership skills and acumen for innovation and systems improvement in an increasingly complex healthcare environment.

Spring Arbor University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice in Strategic Leadership prepares graduates as high-level leaders for today’s healthcare landscape. Structured for working professionals, students apply learning in real time. Classroom studies are applied in the field through clinical experiences and a faculty-mentored DNP project geared to a student’s interests.

DNP-Level Academic Content

Curriculum in DNP programs emphasizes the translation of research and the implementation of new technology into practice. Coursework includes in-depth studies in clinical knowledge and strategic leadership.

DNP program requirements are guided by professional standards set forth by the AACN. The culmination of many years of study and research as nurse leaders have taken on increasing levels of responsibility, these educational standards ensure the highest level of competency. The organization’s DNP Essentials report identifies eight fundamental areas of content:

  • Scientific Underpinnings for Practice
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Evidence-Based Practice
  • Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology
  • Healthcare Policy
  • Interprofessional Collaboration
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health
  • Advanced Nursing Practice

These eight essentials are reviewed in greater detail in point number three of the blog post "Why Get a DNP?".

Spring Arbor DNP coursework includes classes such as:

  • Clinical Prevention for Improved Global Health—Identify epidemiological factors related to marginalized communities and explore solutions for improved outcomes.
  • Strategic Leadership for Quality Improvement—Apply theory to planning in the development of quality initiatives.
  • Health Care Policy, Regulation and Financial Management—Consider the interrelatedness of legislation, finances and strategic planning.

Distinct from many other nursing programs, education at Spring Arbor University is rooted in Christian values. Students are challenged to grow spiritually, personally and professionally and to integrate a faith-based worldview in healthcare leadership. While Christian values are foundational to the program, Spring Arbor welcomes all students regardless of personal beliefs or religion.

DNP-Level Clinical Preparation

The practical experience gained during a DNP degree program is an invaluable component of the educational pathway. Spring Arbor’s DNP program requires 1,000 practicum hours, with half of this time built into the program curriculum. APRNs may apply up to 500 hours of previously completed practicum work, and non-APRNs earn 500 hours in three one-hour courses in a variety of settings.

Requirements for Entering a DNP Program

DNP programs are typically open to registered nurses who have completed a BSN or MSN degree and meet the GPA requirements. Spring Arbor’s online DNP program is designed for MSN-prepared APRNs and non-APRNs. Consideration for admission is based on these requirements:

  • MSN completion from a program accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • A 3.0 GPA or higher, calculated from the most recent 60 academic credits
  • An unrestricted, unencumbered, current nursing license from the state of employment
  • Application and supporting documentation, including official transcripts, letters of recommendation, a brief goal statement essay and a video introduction

Becoming a DNP-Prepared Nurse Leader through Spring Arbor University 

Now that you’ve learned how to become a DNP-prepared nurse leader, explore your personalized pathway at Spring Arbor University Online.