How Long Is a D.N.P. Program?

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A nurse in a white coat writes on a clipboard.

By 2060, 94.7 million Americans will be over the age of 65—a projected 25% of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These statistics involving the aging demographic have significant impact for the health care industry. For patients, the data projects an increased risk of chronic diseases, both manageable and terminal. When it comes to the health care workforce, more nurses will be reaching retirement age.

The country’s health care industry will need advanced nursing professionals to help develop health initiatives and programs to provide quality care to an aging population. Moreover, health care systems may require advanced nursing professionals to lead teams and develop the next generation of nurses, presenting exciting challenges and opportunities for aspiring nurse leaders.

For professionals who earn an advanced degree in nursing, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) can position them to become innovative and progressive leaders in the field. But questions remain, such as the  time commitment involved in earning the degree. So, how long is a D.N.P. program?

D.N.P. Program Length

The time it takes to earn a D.N.P. degree depends on where an individual is in their career, and whether they choose to pursue education full or part time.

For a D.N.P., prospective nursing professionals must first obtain an undergraduate degree and gain experience. At the beginning of their education, students must consider the time it takes to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.). Full-time B.S.N. students usually take four years to earn the degree, although part-time students can take as many as seven.

Students can also reduce this time by two years by first earning an associate degree in nursing. Graduates must then pass the NCLEX-RN exam to earn the certification required to practice as registered nurses (RNs). Gaining experience as an RN after obtaining a license is crucial, as most programs require RNs to practice for at least a year before applying for a graduate degree.

After nurses complete this step, the next step is to complete a Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.) degree. Most doctoral programs typically require prospective students to complete the M.S.N. degree prior to enrollment. Full-time traditional and online M.S.N. programs typically take one to two years. However, many nurses choose part-time education that allows them to work while also pursuing their higher education. Part-time B.S.N. to M.S.N. programs usually take two to four years.

M.S.N. to D.N.P.

After graduating with an M.S.N., students can enroll full-time in an M.S.N. to D.N.P. program, which  typically takes one to two years. Those who enroll in a part-time program may take up to four years to complete the degree.

It’s important to weigh the benefits of an M.S.N. vs a D.N.P prior to taking this step. Currently, an M.S.N. can allow individuals to pursue several advanced nursing roles. However, organizations such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) are advocating for the D.N.P. to be required for some advanced nursing roles such as nurse practitioner. In this way, earning a D.N.P. can put an individual ahead of the curve.

So, how long does it take to earn a D.N.P.? The answer can be complicated. The path for full-time students typically includes a four-year B.S.N., at least one year of practice as an RN, a two-year M.S.N. and a one- to two-year D.N.P. program. But because many nurses choose to pursue at least part of their education part-time while practicing as RNs, the path may take longer.

How to Get a D.N.P.

The path to getting a D.N.P. includes a few necessary steps. Typically, prospective students must have an active license that enables them to practice. They typically must meet a specific academic GPA benchmark for consideration, although this number may vary depending on the school.

It’s also common for schools to require candidates to furnish official transcripts of the previous schools attended, a curriculum vitae (CV) or a resume, a statement of professional goals and multiple letters of recommendation.

Additionally, students may also be required to participate in an interview. This can be conducted in-person, by phone, or online. Interviews allow institutions to gain a better sense of the prospective student as an individual and understand their long-term goals.

D.N.P. Curriculum

D.N.P. programs provide students with the opportunity to study a wide breadth of topics in care delivery ethics and improvement, technology integration, multidisciplinary collaboration and proactive health promotion strategies.

Advanced courses explore how nurse leaders can integrate evidence-based practice theories into their research and practice strategies. They also cover core concepts in health care administration such as health informatics, policy and economics. Advanced courses can prepare students to build comprehensive care delivery strategies that can improve care delivery and quality and boost patient satisfaction.

D.N.P. programs can also cover health care leadership, examining concepts such as safety and ethics, clinical scholarship and nurse education. Additionally, programs can focus on public health concepts such as providing care, health education and leadership to rural or vulnerable populations.

Many programs conclude with a final project that focuses on creating better health care outcomes through adapting and innovating current practices or systems, enabling students to develop original solutions to the pressing issues facing health care.

What Are the Benefits of Earning a D.N.P. Degree?

Among the many benefits of a D.N.P. is the opportunity to dive deeply into the discipline, studying topics at the highest level. D.N.P. graduates hold the top educational accreditation in the field and are considered thought leaders. This can lead to a career at the forefront of innovation in care delivery, driving the emerging technological and medical trends that will shape the future of the nursing profession.

A D.N.P. opens the door to a broad variety of career options, preparing graduates for both clinical and managerial leadership positions. D.N.P. graduates’ expertise also enables them to act as mentors, passing on their knowledge to the next generation of nursing professionals.

Earning a D.N.P. degree can affect salaries as well. The median annual D.N.P. salary was about $107,000 as of July 2022, according to the compensation website Payscale.

D.N.P. Careers

While earning a substantial salary is a bonus, a D.N.P.’s career paths can lead to roles that make a visceral difference in care delivery.

One option among D.N.P. careers is the role of director of nursing. This crucial position oversees the various nursing operations of a health care facility. This oversight includes staff supervision, setting department budgets, managing patient data and implementing new policies. Payscale lists the median annual salary for this role around $93,900 as of July 2022.

Another career path is that of hospital chief executive officer, or hospital CEO. Those in this role set the vision of a health care facility’s future through strategic operational planning. They work with other executives in the hospital’s C-suite to create cohesive goals that allow a facility to be a health care leader. These far-reaching objectives may embrace such goals as care innovation, operational efficiency and creating an ideal company culture. Payscale lists the median annual salary for a hospital CEO at approximately $154,000 as of August 2022.

A third potential career is chief nursing officer, or CNO. This career path focuses on building strategies and goals for a health care facility’s nursing staff. Their duties include advising a facility’s senior management about nursing operations, managing a nursing department’s budget, developing nurse retention strategies and implementing services that impact the nurse/patient dynamic. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for a CNO is around $134,000 as of August 2022.

Earn a D.N.P. Degree and Prepare to Become a Leader in Health Care

The University of North Dakota’s online Post-Master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice degree can provide prospective students with the opportunity to develop their nursing skills, as well as educate them on a wide breadth of crucial nursing topics. Students can take a variety of courses including Advanced Univariate Statistics; Evidence-Based Research; Health Informatics; and Health Care Economics, Finance and Leadership.

Learn how the University of North Dakota’s online Post-Master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice can provide you with the opportunity to pursue various rewarding health care roles.  

Recommended Reading:

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

How to Become a Director of Nursing

What Can You Do With a DNP?


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

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Shortage

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Promoting Health for Older Adults

The Conversation, “Amid a Raging Pandemic, the US Faces a Nursing Shortage. Can We Close the Gap?”

Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection, “Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree in the United States: Reflecting, Readjusting, and Getting Back on Track”

Incredible Health, “What Is a Chief Nursing Officer?”

Indeed, “Director of Nursing Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications”

Indeed, “How to Become a Hospital CEO”

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX & Other Exams

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

Payscale, Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Salary

Payscale, Average Director, Nursing Salary

Payscale, Average Hospital Chief Executive Officer Salary

Payscale, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Degree

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

Wiley Public Health Emergency Collection, “Leveraging Nurse Practitioner Capacities to Achieve Global Health for All: COVID-19 and Beyond”