What Is the Difference Between a DNP and a PhD in Nursing?

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A DNP-prepared nurse in a white coat discusses an X-ray with two nurses in blue scrubs.Nurses dedicate their lives to helping people, investing in their continued well-being, health and happiness. To address the rapidly evolving discipline of nursing, doctoral degree programs equip nurses not only to keep up with changes in health care needs and delivery, but also to pioneer those changes. Deciding how to move forward with advanced education includes understanding what the difference is between a DNP and a PhD in Nursing in terms of career goals.

What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree?

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is an advanced degree rooted in clinical practice. It arms nurse practitioners with the practical knowledge to take on leadership roles and improve both nursing practice and patient outcomes. A DNP provides students with the hands-on skills and advanced knowledge to innovate care policy and procedures.

DNPs in Clinical Care

In a clinical setting, a DNP’s responsibilities range from managing a patient’s overall care, including prescription and diagnosis, to counseling and educating patients and collaborating with other health care professionals. When DNPs 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 sciences. Whether they’re making important decisions during an emergency or changing a patient’s day-to-day care, a DNP can streamline processes in medical care facilities.

DNPs in Academia

Outside of the clinical setting, DNPs are also involved in academia and research. Many DNPs choose to split their time between their clinical practice and researching the nursing sciences that dictate the methods behind that care. In these settings, DNPs may oversee a facility’s care delivery strategies and alter them to evolve with medical innovation. This ability places DNPs at the forefront of nursing and allows them to contribute to much-needed change.

What Is a PhD in Nursing?

A PhD in Nursing degree is focused on research, allowing candidates to delve into medical research in the interest of advancing nursing science and practices.

The opportunity to focus on research and education means that those with a PhD in Nursing are often at the forefront of fundamental advances in nursing practice and science. Through the publication of journal articles, implementation of policy changes, lecturing, public speaking and education, those with a PhD in Nursing help shape the next generation of nurse practitioners.

Differences Between a DNP and a PhD in Nursing

For nurses looking to take the next step in their education, it is important to understand what the difference is between a DNP and a PhD in Nursing and how their choice of doctorate will affect their careers. While both degrees open the door to leadership positions, salary increases and long-term career advancement, a DNP and a PhD in Nursing equip candidates with different sets of skills.

Program Length

While the admissions requirements for DNP and PhD in Nursing programs vary, both are terminal degrees and share many of the same qualifications. For students pursuing a PhD in Nursing, they 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 DNP programs can vary broadly between full- and part-time study, it is possible to earn a DNP 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 PhD 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 PhD go on to work in institutions of higher education as educators or researchers.

On the contrary, while DNP graduates often commit some time to research, the DNP program is rooted in clinical practice, and students normally take a more hands-on approach to nursing. As a result, DNP graduates are prepared for a broad range of careers, including policy management or administrative roles at clinical care facilities, leadership roles in a nursing faculty and academic roles in institutions of higher education.


Among the many benefits of earning an advanced degree, a DNP provides graduates 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 policy and procedure, professionals with a DNP earned an average salary of around $103,700 annually according to PayScale.com. For graduates of a PhD in Nursing, the majority pursue careers in institutions of higher education and earn an average of around $88,400 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, choosing between a DNP and a PhD in Nursing comes down to whether they are passionate about the research and education provided by a PhD or inspired by the innovation and hands-on delivery of patient care that earning a DNP 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 Doctor of Nursing Practice program. Discover how you can impact the future of nursing.


Recommended Readings

What Can You Do With a DNP?

How to Become a Director of Nursing

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


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

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

National Library of Medicine, Systems Leadership Doctor of Nursing Practice: Global Relevance

Nursing Times, The Challenges and Benefits of Undertaking a Nurse 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 2020 – Nurse Practitioners