D.N.P. vs. Ph.D. in Nursing: What’s the Difference?

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Health care professionals in a hospital examine a medical image.

Nurses dedicate their lives to helping people, investing in their continued well-being, health and happiness. While every nurse’s goal for their patients is good health care outcomes, technological innovations and changes to laws and policies make achieving this goal an ever-evolving process.

Nursing professionals must be well-equipped to address these changes. Earning a terminal degree from a graduate nursing program not only can equip nurses with the acumen needed to keep up with health care’s evolution, but also can help them to become the pioneers who facilitate these changes.

Those who decide to pursue a terminal nursing degree have a key decision to make. They can choose between a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) and a Ph.D. in Nursing.

What Is a D.N.P.?

A D.N.P. is a terminal nursing degree rooted in clinical practice. It arms nurse practitioners with the practical knowledge they need to take on leadership roles and improve both nursing practice and patient outcomes via progressive care concepts such as evidence-based practice. A D.N.P. program provides students with the hands-on skills and advanced knowledge required not only to provide quality care but also to work to improve care policies and procedures.

D.N.P.s in Clinical Care

In a clinical setting, a D.N.P.’s responsibilities range from managing patients’ overall care, including diagnoses and drug prescriptions, to counseling and educating patients and collaborating with other health care professionals. When D.N.P.s serve as hospital administrators, with the ability to make changes to nursing policies and practices, hospitals can adapt much more efficiently to advancements in nursing science. This improved process efficiency can lead to care strategies that potentially improve patient outcomes. Whether they’re making important decisions during an emergency or changing a patient’s day-to-day care, a D.N.P. can streamline processes in medical care facilities.

D.N.P.s in Academia

While D.N.P. degree-holders commonly focus on the clinical side of nursing, they can also be involved in academia and research. D.N.P.s who devote some of their time to research typically focus on the operational methods behind nursing care, seeking ways to make them better through application and implementation. For example, D.N.P.s may oversee a facility’s care delivery strategies and alter them to evolve with care innovations they have learned about through their research. This ability places D.N.P.s at the forefront of nursing and allows them to contribute to much-needed change.

What Is a Ph.D. in Nursing?

A Ph.D. in Nursing is focused on research, allowing candidates to delve into medical research in the interest of advancing nursing science and practices. The research conducted by Ph.D.s can aim to develop new methodologies or advancements that improve patient health in a wide number of ways. It can also focus on developing theoretical concepts that, when applied, could potentially improve care delivery strategies and patient outcomes.

Because a Ph.D. in Nursing is centered on the theories and concepts that drive health care, the degree prepares individuals for an academic role at the collegiate level. In this position, they can help aspiring nurse professionals develop their own foundational knowledge, which can serve them well no matter what nursing career path they choose to take.

The opportunity to focus on research and education means that those with a Ph.D. in Nursing are often at the forefront of fundamental advances in nursing practice and science. Through the publication of journal articles, the implementation of policy changes, lecturing, public speaking and teaching, Ph.D.s can take a visible role in moving key care delivery concepts forward. In addition, their work can position them to take a uniquely active role in helping to shape the next generation of nurse practitioners.

What Is the Difference Between a D.N.P. and a Ph.D. in Nursing?

For nurses looking to take the next step in their education, it is important to understand what the difference is between a D.N.P. and a Ph.D. in Nursing and how their choice of doctorate will affect their careers.

These differences may not be easy to notice at first glance. After all, both degrees open the door to leadership positions, salary increases and long-term career advancement. They also offer individuals the unique potential to leave a personal stamp on health care in a way that improves the field in some way, making both potentially fulfilling degrees to pursue. Dig a little deeper, however, and the differences become clearer.

Skills Developed

A D.N.P. and a Ph.D. in Nursing can emphasize skill set development differently. While there is a noticeable amount of crossover between the competencies the degrees hone, such as leadership, analytical, technical and communication skills, they approach the further development of these skills differently.

A D.N.P. program may focus on coursework designed to help individuals prepare to apply these skills in an administrative capacity, whereas a Ph.D. program may prepare individuals to apply these skills in a research environment.

Program Length

While the admissions requirements for D.N.P. and Ph.D. in Nursing programs vary, both are terminal degrees and share many of the same qualifications. Students pursuing a Ph.D. in Nursing can expect to dedicate an average of three to five years to their studies to complete their research and argue their dissertation. In contrast, while the duration of D.N.P. programs can vary broadly between full- and part-time study, it is possible to earn a D.N.P. in as little as five semesters, and the program may end with a leadership- or clinical practice-focused project.

Career Opportunities

The research-based approach of a Ph.D. in Nursing prepares practitioners for a career focused on the development of new knowledge and products, and the advancement of nursing science. Many nurses with a Ph.D. go on to work in institutions of higher education as educators or researchers.

By contrast, while D.N.P. graduates can commit some time to research, D.N.P. programs are rooted in clinical practice, and graduates normally take a more hands-on approach to nursing. As a result, D.N.P. graduates are prepared for a broad range of careers, including policy management or administrative roles at clinical care facilities, executive roles such as chief nursing officer or hospital CEO, leadership roles in nursing faculties, and academic roles in institutions of higher education.

Earning a D.N.P. may also put individuals one step ahead of the health care industry when it comes to specific clinical roles. Organizations such as the American Association of Colleges of Nurses (AACN) and the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) are pushing to make the D.N.P. the benchmark education level to be considered for nurse practitioner (NP) roles, as opposed to the master’s level degree currently accepted as the minimum.

D.N.P. vs. Ph.D. Salary

Among the many benefits of earning an advanced degree is that it provides graduates with the versatility to pursue a variety of careers and leadership trajectories within nursing. With the ability to provide health care as well as shape care policies and procedures, professionals with a D.N.P. have a median salary of around $107,000 annually, according to Payscale. The majority of graduates with a Ph.D. in Nursing pursue careers in institutions of higher education and have a median salary of around $93,000 annually.

Discover the Right Nursing Program for You

As medicine and patient care continue to evolve, it is increasingly important that nurses play a part in shaping the future of health care. For many prospective doctoral students considering a D.N.P. vs. a Ph.D. in Nursing, the choice comes down to whether they are passionate about the research and academic roles available to graduates with a Ph.D. or inspired by the innovation and hands-on delivery of patient care that earning a D.N.P. can allow.

For more than a century, UND has been committed to high-quality nursing education, and its distance learning program is no exception. With a low student-to-faculty ratio, UND is on a mission to help you become a leader in health care, prepared to influence policy change and improve patient outcomes. Take the next step toward nursing innovation and leadership today by learning about the University of North Dakota’s online Post-Master’s DNP program. Discover how you can impact the future of nursing.

Recommended Reading:

Chief Nursing Officer: The Steps to Becoming a Key Health Care Leader

How to Become a Director of Nursing

D.N.P. Leadership: Skills and Roles


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, AACN Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

Indeed, “Role of Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing (5 Benefits)”

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, The Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree: Entry to Nurse Practitioner Practice by 2025

Nursing Times, “The Challenges and Benefits of Undertaking a Nursing PhD”

Payscale, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

Payscale, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Nursing Degree

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021, 29-1171 Nurse Practitioners